Olympic champion rower Grace Prendergast is ready for a new chapter, having put down her oars for the last time in her professional sporting career to pursue a life outside of sport.
Speaking from her home in south-west London, where she moved late last year, Grace says launching herself into this new phase of her life is both “exciting” and “terrifying”.
Grace, 30, won gold in the coxless pair alongside Kerri Gowler at the Tokyo Games in 2021 - her second Olympics - as well as claiming silver in the eights. She won her first of 15 national titles in 2011 and finished her career at the top of her game, coming first in the Women’s Pair in the 2022 World Rowing Championships.
The announcement of her retirement from the sport came in October last year. Around the same time, she finished her studies at Cambridge University with a Master’s in Philosophy and moved to London.
Grace has now begun job hunting, looking at roles in HR with the aim of putting her two degrees - the first a Master’s in Business Studies from Massey University completed extramurally - to good use.
While the weather during a UK winter was “tough”, she had enjoyed settling into London, where there was “always something going on”.
“It’s obviously got its highs and its lows, adjusting to a new way of life has its challenges, but I love it here,” she says.
Grace grew up in the town of Duvauchelle, then Christchurch, in what she described as a “very sporty” family. Netball was her main sporting pursuit through childhood, until she had a taste of rowing in her teenage years at the Avon Rowing Club.
In her last year of school, Grace made the New Zealand junior team and had her first experience of international racing, which marked a change in her goals. “I think that gave me a rush and made me think: ‘Oh, this is possible’,” she says.
In the first few years of her more serious rowing career, Grace says she was lucky to have a number of more experienced teammates to learn from.
“I made each age group team when I was relatively young, so I always had other women to look up to,” she says. “Those people really led the way. I think watching and learning how people do things daily is useful.
“Most people only see the one-off performances when people do well, but when I got into the team I could see how they acted every day and learn that way. There’s no better way to learn than watching someone successful.”
Grace’s first Olympic experience was Rio in 2016, when she competed in the Women’s Eight. It was the first time that a New Zealand Women’s Eight had qualified for the Olympics.
Despite initially thinking a raft of national and international competitions had equipped her to deal with the pressure of the Olympics, Grace got there and “quickly learnt that it was a different ball game”.
The team placed fourth, which at the time, Grace viewed as “disastrous”. Reflecting on it now, she has realised “fourth is pretty good for your first Olympics”.
Grace was determined to do everything in her power to avoid being in the same position for her next Olympics. However, the delay to the Tokyo Olympics due to Covid meant she had a slightly different perspective on them by the time the Games rolled around.
“By the time we actually got to Tokyo, I almost was more just happy we were there getting to race and getting the opportunity to show everyone the hard work we’ve done over the last five years.
“It was actually really nice, it took the pressure off chasing a result and only being focused on that.”
It was after the 2021 Olympic Games that she knew she wanted to do something different, having spent the past 12 years competing in the sport. The decision to retire was “really tough,” Grace said, but she knew she had to be all in, if she were to continue with rowing professionally.
“After Tokyo I felt I had really achieved what I wanted to achieve out of rowing and slowly, other goals and motivations outside of sport started to seem more exciting.”
Grace feels fortunate to have studied in the UK before transitioning into life here, having met a lot of people who now help form her support network. “A lot of Kiwis come over to London too, so I’m definitely not short of New Zealand friends here which is nice,” she adds.
Her career in professional rowing had instilled in her some “very good life lessons”, she says, including the importance of a “proactive mindset” and how bringing up your teammates was crucial to success.
Grace, along with her rowing partner Kerri, has been announced as a finalist for a Halberg Award, a set of awards which will be announced on February 23 recognising New Zealand’s top sporting achievements.
She says the nomination is a “massive honour”. “I’m sad I can’t be there as it’s always a fun night celebrating NZ sport but I’ll have an early morning watching party here in London instead.”