Ella Cossill has always been quick across the water, but the swimmer is now turning heads as a rower – both here and in the US, Suzanne McFadden discovers.
The unusual invitation from Yale University came completely out of the blue.
Ella Cossill was a talented swimmer, intent on representing New Zealand in the pool, when the American Ivy League school came calling. Coaches in their prestigious rowing programme had seen a photo of the teenage Cossill and were very impressed … with her legs.
“They said I had good rowing quads,” Cossill says with a laugh. “They knew I was a swimmer and they said ‘We know you haven’t rowed, but you’ve got great potential. We’d love to see where you could take that’.”
Cossill had moved with her family from Wellington to Australia as a 10-year-old, and was at that stage swimming competitively on the Gold Coast. “Australia is a really talented swimming nation and that was where I had to stay if I wanted to pursue a future in swimming,” she says.
“I thought about Yale’s offer, but I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. My goal was to come back and swim for New Zealand.”
She returned to race at the New Zealand open championships in 2016 and 2017; the sprinter making a string of finals in the 50m events and setting a national U17 record in the 50m backstroke.
But not long after she graduated from high school, Cossill lost her enjoyment for swimming and decided to take a break.
“Once I’d stopped for a year, I was pretty bored. I need to do something,” she says. “I had Yale’s invitation in the back of my mind. So I googled the top women’s rowing colleges in America, and sent out applications to seven or eight of them. I heard back from some of them the next day which started the ball rolling.”
Cossill then took up an offer to join the University of Washington’s rowing team, known as the Huskies.
Ella Cossill rowing six seat for the University of Washington women’s premier eight crew
“It was a pretty last-minute thing – that was April of 2018 and school started in September. But it turned out to be the best decision I ever made,” she says.
Now she’s in her fifth year at Washington (stretched out by the Covid pandemic), and preparing to head back to the US next month for her final collegiate rowing season. She’s been recognised as one of the best college rowers in the country.
But throughout this summer, she’s been rowing in New Zealand for her first full season – training on Lake Karapiro with the country’s elite rowers, as part of the national development squad.
And in five months, she’s already seen a marked improvement in her rowing. At last week’s national championships on Lake Ruataniwha, Cossill won silver in the women’s pairs alongside Olympic eights silver medallist Phoebe Spoors, and silver in the women’s premier eights.
“It’s made me a better rower already, and I know it’s only going to get better from here,” Cossill says.
Naturally, she has the Olympics on her mind – if not next year’s Games in Paris, then the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.
“I’m excited for both of those, but I’m just so grateful to be in the mix with these girls. Anything I can do to elevate them or elevate the boat I’m in to try to make Paris, I’m all game,” she says.
Most mornings just before 7am, Cossill wakes up in her parents’ home, looks out the window and checks the weather on Lake Karapiro.
Then she hops in her tinny – named the Jolly Roger, with its skull and crossbones and 15hp outboard – and motors across to the other side of the tranquil lake to go to work. It’s a trip that takes her less than a minute. “It’s beautiful,” she says.
“It’s quite leisurely in comparison to swimming when I had a 4.30am wake-up every morning.”
Her parents, Natalie and Bruce, moved back from Australia at the end of 2020, having bought the house on Lake Karapiro virtually sight unseen. Cossill had by then made the New Zealand U23 squad, and her younger brother, Max, was already a talented rower (he’s now in his freshman year at the NorthEastern University in Boston, whose rowing team incidentally are also the Huskies).
Cossill has relished her time training with the best rowers in the country this summer, especially experiencing racing smaller boats for the first time.
“All the rowing I’ve done in the US is in the big boats – fours and eights. I’ve been so lucky to join the elite squad, and learn how to make the pair work with different partners. These girls are so knowledgeable and so talented,” she says.
Her challenge at nationals, she says, was to see how close she and Spoors (also a University of Washington graduate) could get to the top rowing pair – Jackie Gowler and Catherine Layburn – in the final.
“We were in fourth for a big chunk of the way, but we had a really good second half and caught back up to Jackie and Cat to finish less than two seconds behind them,” Cossill says. “That was our goal and we managed to pull it off.”
Training with both the women and the men in the elite programme, she’s been testing the guys in the gym.
“I love my weights and it’s been fun pushing the guys a little bit, keeping them on their toes,” she laughs. “It’s actually been a really healthy environment for everyone to push themselves and push each other.”
Ella Cossill lifts 103kg during training at Rowing NZ’s regional performance centre in Cambridge
Cossill is certain her swimming fitness has helped her transition into the new code.
“Training in swimming is quite comparable to rowing. It’s a power endurance sport and we train for hours on end. It’s about having that engine to keep going and going in training and racing,” she says.
“I’ve gone from a sub 30-second event to a seven-minute event. But rowing feels just as fast – a race is over so quick.”
At the University of Washington, Cossill is part of a 50-strong women’s rowing programme. She’s loved the multinational make-up of the team: “It’s awesome to be a sponge and soak it all up from athletes from so many different nations. There’s nothing like it in the world – the only place you’d get that level of talent from so many different countries training and racing together.
“I feel like it’s quite a selfless programme. Our head coach has instilled in us that we can’t do it without each other. Swimming is such an individual sport, but this has made me really appreciate my team mates, pulling them up beside me. I want them to be as fast as they possibly can so our boat is faster.”
Even as a relative newbie to rowing, Cossill didn’t take long to make an impact with the Huskies. In 2021, her junior year, she was the stroke in the college’s premier eight, leading them through an undefeated season. Because of Covid, she says, “a lot of us only came back in the last quarter, but we built a heap of momentum in our eight”.
That year Cossill was also named the Pac-12 women’s rowing athlete of the year – only the second Washington rower to ever received the accolade. Last year, she was part of the eight crew who finished fifth at the NCAA national championships, and raced in the world-famous Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames.
All the while she’s been studying for a degree in food systems, nutrition and health (but she’d really like to be a rowing coach; ultimately returning to the US one day to coach a men’s collegiate team).
“I’ve been really lucky with how it’s all worked out,” she says. “Covid interrupted my college experience, but it meant I returned home and started my New Zealand rowing career earlier than I anticipated.”
Rowing New Zealand has kept a close eye on Cossill’s rapid rowing progress, building a “strong relationship” while she’s been studying in the US, says international pathway lead, Fiona Bourke.
“We’ve worked closely with her collegiate coach, Yasmin Farooq, to ensure she’s been able to both contribute to the success of the University of Washington women’s team and pursue her individual ambitions,” Bourke says.
“What’s impressed me most about Ella is her willingness to work hard, test her limits and make the most of every session and race she has. I’m excited to see her thrive in her final racing season before graduating this spring and returning to New Zealand to pursue her elite team ambitions.”
Those ambitions? To row for New Zealand, in whichever boat she fits into. Right now, her favoured boat is the four. She’d like to give the single scull a decent crack one day too.
“Paris is obviously the next Olympics, and there’s no reason not to focus on that,” she says. “Coming in and out of the college system makes it difficult, but it’s just another challenge in an already challenging opportunity. So I’ll see how far I can get.
“I’m really excited about the LA Olympics, because it’s raced on a 1500m course, which I feel like appeals to my sprinter side a bit more.”