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30 May 2018 | in Rowing, NUSF News

Zimbabwean university rower humbled by prestigious Filippi Spirit Award

  • Charitable rower Micheen Thornycroft was recently announced as the winner of the award, a distinction she received for enabling success in other people's lives

  • The Zimbabwean is heavily involved in community work and inspiring younger rowers, often from less-privileged backgrounds, to help them reach for their dreams


The 30-year-old, who is completing her Masters degree in Human Kinetics and Ergonomics at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, was earlier this year selected by an elite panel as one of five nominees for the award, before later being named the eventual recipient of the cherished prize.


The Filippi Spirit Award – the only international award that recognises university rowers – is now in its fifth year, and is an accolade open to university rowers worldwide which “honours those who have demonstrated the core values of rowing in his/her social, academic and sporting life. It shows that the student, through these values, has enabled or inspired success in other people’s lives.”


Thornycroft, who has represented Zimbabwe at both the London and Rio Olympic Games, is now heavily involved in community work and inspiring younger rowers, often from less-privileged backgrounds, to reach for their dreams.


Still rowing for her university when time allows, Thornycroft now doubles up as a coach and mentor, is involved in various community engagement projects in helping develop sport in underprivileged areas while she also runs a junior programme at local Grahamstown school, St Andrew’s College.


Her outstanding work saw her named as the latest Filippi Spirit Award winner, won last year by Norway’s Nils Jakob Hoff, with the prize being a racing eight boat provided by the award’s sponsor, boat manufacturer Filippi, which will be delivered to Thornycroft’s rowing club at Rhodes University.

 World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland (right) at an introductory news conference at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro © FISA - Igor Meijer

The World Rowing Federation (FISA) president Jean-Christophe Rolland praised Thornycroft for charitable work upon announcing the Zimbabwean as this year’s winner.


“In the fifth year of this Award, I never cease to be amazed by the calibre of the nominations,” he said. “There are so many inspiring university student rowers who deserve to be recognised. This year’s winner, Micheen, is no exception. She has balanced Olympic-level training with university studies and still found time to give back to the rowing community.”


FISU caught up with the selfless rower, who shares her background, thoughts and future aims with us.

Thornycroft winning the 4s at the SA champs national regetta


FISU: Hi Micheen, congratulations on your award! So just how did you get into rowing?


Micheen Thornycroft: I grew up on a farm in Wedza, Zimbabwe, and have an older sister who learnt to row at school. She loved it, and then brought a boat home one holiday and taught me how to row. Initially rowing was a great excuse to be out of boarding school and spend the afternoons cycling down the dirt road to the dam for practises. I loved rowing at school just for the fun of the sport. The first time I represented my country was in 2005 at the African Rowing Championships in Tunisia – that was when I got hit by the competitive bug and the drive to be better and race for my country at a World Rowing Championship. This is why I choose to go to Rhodes University in South Africa, as it was the only place I knew there were other Zimbabwean rowers who I could train with to represent my country again.

 After winning the 8s at the SA Senior Championships this year

FISU: When did you realise that you could take your rowing to the next level and compete internationally?

Thornycroft: I raced at the Under-23 championships twice in a pair with my sister and then a third time with Elana Hill [Zimbabwe Olympian], but we were always near the back and I got frustrated – I felt like I had trained as hard as I could and was still at the back. At this point I made the decision to try and leave rowing behind and move on as I was just not progressing, so I took a job in Zambia working in a bush camp, as far away from rowing as possible. It was at this point that it became very apparent to me that my rowing career was not over, and that I still had the desire to be the best I could be and race in the Olympics for my country.

The pontoon at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where Thornycroft competed © FISA - Igor Meijer

FISU: Amongst all of this, you have also endured quite a journey in your studies, too.


Thornycroft: I did an undergraduate Bachelor of Science Degree in Human Kinetics and Ergonomics and Ichthyology and Fisheries Science between 2005 and 2008 at Rhodes University, after which I then continued with my Honours Degree in Ichthyology and Fisheries Science. Then in 2011 I did my Postgraduate Certificate in Education at the University of Johannesburg. I am now in my second year of my Masters Degree at Rhodes University in Human Kinetics and Ergonomics, where I am researching Rowing in Africa.

Thornycroft competing in Rio © Image supplied by Thornycroft

FISU: And I understand you fill your time with a lot of other activities beyond studying and rowing.


MT: I am currently working full time for St Andrews College, coaching the Under-14s and doing the club administration – we have such a great team of coaches so I really love my job. Thanks to the support of a local bank, we were able to set up a mentorship programme at the Nemato Rowing Club in the nearby seaside town of Port Alfred. I fit my Masters studies in where I have the time, usually in the winter terms when rowing takes a back seat. I have also been lucky to work with the up-and-coming Zimbabwe juniors on a few occasions on FISA development camps. I am taking part in the RowZambezi challenge in July this year, where a team of decorated athletes and passionate people who will row the length of the Kafue River in Zambia to raise finds and awareness for the Kafue River and Rowing Center and Village water. Water is such an invaluable resource that needs to be conserved and protected and so it is awesome to be able to go on such an epic adventure to highlight such issues. We would love any support – feel free to visit our website:

 The Rowing venue at the Olympic Games in Rio © FISA - Igor Meijer

FISU: The World Rowing’s Filippi Spirit Award is quite an achievement, and the prize allows you to give back even more to your community, which you must be thrilled about …


MT: Winning the Filippi award is something I am proud of as it recognises what people do for the community around them, and how they give back. The prize is a Filippi eight boat for Rhodes University – this will make such a difference to the club as they are financially in a very difficult place. To be able to be part of giving back to Rhodes University Rowing Club, a club that gave me so much over the years, is the best feeling in the world! Thank you so much to Filippi and World Rowing for making this opportunity possible!


FISU: Are you still rowing for your university, or just coaching? And what is the next step for you?


MT: I race when I can for Rhodes, but due to time constraints I am unable to commit fully to the club training and so I fill in at races when there is a space, but I mostly help with tracking the athletes’ progress and supporting where needed.  I have stopped racing internationally in the singles event; my new goals are more involving finding a career and job that I love and can progress in, and then looking for athletic challenges on the side.

Thornycroft coaching with the Nemato athletes in the St. Andrews ergo 

FISU: Having competed at such a high level – overseas and at two Olympic Games - is there anything you can still learn now at university level? And are you still as driven and as committed as before?


Thornycroft: I never stop learning – I even learn from coaching my Under-14s! Competing at a high level is one thing, but to be able to simplify it all to teach someone how to row, who has no idea what the sport is, has challenged me a lot and I have had to learn so much.


FISU: Do you have a role model? And from where do you gain your inspiration?


Thornycroft: My mum has always been my role model – she is so dynamic, able to overcome everything and see the world and everyone in such a positive light. She always works so hard at everything, but also knows when to stop and move on. She taught me to make the most of every opportunity and love my life! I take inspiration from so many places – people around me, an early morning run in the fresh air and beautiful sunrise, awesome sayings and the incredible things people are able to do.

 The iconic backdrop of Rio, just behind the Olympic Games rowing venue © FISA - Igor Meijer

FISU: After completing your Masters, is the plan to continue a career path in that field, or stay in rowing and do something along those lines?


Thornycroft: The development of rowing in Africa is something that will always be close to my heart and so I will plan to be involved in that going forward.


FISU: Thank you so much for your time Micheen, all the best!