Kiwi rower Mackintosh swaps seats, gives up corporate life to pursue another Olympic medal in Paris

Sitting behind a desk, noticing his body getting sore, Tom Mackintosh realized he needed to swap seats. Quickly.

After five months in the corporate world, the Olympic champion rower couldn’t take it anymore. He decided it was time to get back in a boat and try to win another medal for New Zealand at the Paris Games.

“I’m not sure if you’d call it an epiphany or not, but one day my body was just very sore from sitting at the desk. I remember thinking that the Paris Olympics are only 16 months away and I’d spent as much time as I possibly could away from the sport,” Mackintosh recalled. “If I wanted to come back, I needed to do it now.”

Mackintosh won an Olympic gold medal with the New Zealand men’s eight in Tokyo, then took time off rowing so he could work at an investment firm in Auckland. It didn’t take long to realize his body wasn’t built for a desk.

He’d been watching the national rowing championships on television at the office when a colleague asked how he’d compare himself with those still competing.

“I told him, ‘I think I’ve been pretty competitive, having raced these guys my entire career,’” Mackintosh said. “And he responded, ‘Well, Tom, to win the race, you’d have to be in the race.’ And I’m thinking, ‘that’s a great point.’ That was quite a moment for me.”

The 27-year-old Mackintosh studied accounting, finance and management. He took the opportunity to intern for the investment firm where he worked together with analysts and research teams, getting a glimpse of corporate life.

At first, he didn’t really want to return to competition. But as time went on he said he started to miss rowing and “realized that it was a unique opportunity.”

“It wasn’t such a long timeframe for the Paris Olympics in the scheme of life, I might as well give it one more opportunity,” he said of his thought process in that moment. “Not everyone in the world finds themselves with a chance to race in the Olympic Games. I looked to the future Tom and I feel like I would be annoyed with myself if I didn’t come back.”

Working gave him the insight to run the numbers over his rowing career as well.

“I was learning the value of time and investments,” he said, “and I realized I’ve invested a lot of my body here.”

Mackintosh said he does miss some of the greater freedom he had away from rowing, like being able to switch off for the weekend, reconnect with old friends and play more golf.

“Rowing is a full-time job,” he said. “You have physio, recovery, stretching, meetings, all of that, so that adds up to the 40 hours a week that you might be essentially working. My body is my asset and I need to be physically fit and strong and capable to perform well in rowing,” he said. “And so every decision that I make in my life has an impact on that. It’s a full-time role essentially, 24-7.”

After leaving the investment firm, Mackintosh went to Japan to row for a company team so he could transition back into competition. When he felt he was in form, he requested a trial for New Zealand’s men’s singles boat and ended up making the team.

He has shown good results since then despite the five months off. Mackintosh won the bronze at the 2023 world championships and qualified the New Zealand boat for the Olympics.

With things going well after his time out of the sport, Mackintosh hasn’t ruled out doing something similar with his work-life-sport balance in the next Olympic cycle.

“It’s an avenue that I would like to explore,” he said. “I know the commitment it requires. I know what it takes to win Olympic medals, and it’s a big commitment. So that’s something that you need to ask, have an honest conversation with yourself at some point in the future, as to whether you want to go down that path again.”

And he’ll also have to ask himself whether he’ll have what it takes to go back behind a desk again, no matter what he ends up doing.


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