On a mild, balmy day at Eton Dorney, amid the patriotic chaos and turbulence of the London 2012 Olympics, two British athletes were storming their way to Great Britain’s first gold medals of the games. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning successfully became the first two British rowers to record gold in London.
Rowing went on to become the second largest contributor to the team GB medals table as they took haul of four gold, two silver and three bronze medals.
The success of London 2012 prompted me to find out how grassroots sport has been impacted by the table topping brilliance of British rowing. So, the first thing I asked Ed was to clarify exactly what competitions and squads York’s rowing club will be entering this year.
“We’re made up of two senior squads,” Ed tells me, “so one senior men’s squad and then one senior women’s squad, and then we also have two novice squads.” Ed explains that “anyone who has any rowing experience rows in the senior squads,” which means that anyone without any rowing experience prior to university rows in the novice squads, so that those who are inexperienced “train together and learn how to row.”
The club enter two BUCS competitions over the year, one is BUCS Head which is in two weeks time and the other is a regatta in April. BUCS Head is a time trial whereas the regatta is where the boats race side by side. Ed unequivocally tells me, “Henley Royal Regatta is our biggest race.”
Last year York were competing against Harvard University; Ed says, “We unfortunately lost to them, but we expected that with Harvard coming all the way over from America… they meant business.” But last year was the first time they qualified for Henley and Ed reflects on this, stating that it was “a very strong year.”
With this in mind, I ask him how the club plan to move on from last year’s success. Ed tells me about the Head of the River race at the end of this term and the women’s equivalent which takes place a few weeks before. “About 500 boats race in the Thames on the boat race course, last year we came 78th, and it was our best result for a long time,” Ed informs me. But York are being more ambitious this year, “We hope to enter three crews this year, but definitely two, we’d like the first crew to finish in the top 40 and we’d like the second crew to finish in the top 80.”
It’s clear that the club are definitely aiming big this year; Ed is bullish on their Henley prospects as well. “The senior women could have a chance of winning their event at Henley, which would be incredible and it would be the first time we’ve ever done that.” He’s hopeful for the men’s chances as well, even though they’re competing in the senior category this year, which is a huge step up from the intermediate 1 category they raced in last year. “We’d like to get as far through the competition as possible,” Ed acknowledges.
Considering the vast numbers of people who signed up to the boat club at Freshers Fair, 568, which Ed reliably informs me is the “largest number of any boat club in Yorkshire,” I ask about the future long term aims of the club. It’s a tricky question for a club so heavily reliant on funding, “We are in the process of increasing in size and facilities but it’s difficult because a good new boat is upwards of £30,000,” and Ed explains, “as a club, we can’t generate the income at the moment.”
I ask him whether, with a good year behind them and hopefully a good one to come, they would be looking for more funding from the University. “As with all clubs, we’re always looking for more funding.” Ed agrees, “But we do the best with what we’ve got.”
He absolutely does not see funding as a reason not to succeed though, “It’s not an excuse not to strive to achieve just as much as the universities who have more funding” he says resolutely. Certainly, the success of the club already is a testament to that fact.
Speaking of success, I turn the conversation towards Roses 2013. Rowing has always kicked off Roses, it’s usually one of the most exciting events of the whole tournament and it takes place the weekend before the rest of the teams compete.
“If we don’t win I’ll be very embarrassed, I’d like all the boats we enter to win, I’m confident both senior squads can win every category.” It’s not a task to be taken lightly, rowing is the founding Roses sport, there’s a lot at stake for the York squads. “It should be a really good day, and a good one to come and watch,” Ed adds.
I chat to him a bit about British rowing now, for the past four Olympic Games, Great Britain has dominated rowing, and the men’s coxless fours have won four Olympic titles in a row with various different squads. Ed tells me “I think British rowing is going to improve, we performed better than anyone thought we would this year.”
He pinpoints a few boats he feels could have more success, “the lightweight pair could easily win gold [at Rio], and the men’s eights could have won [in London].” He doesn’t think British rowing is at its peak though: “British rowing is an amazing organisation and its run so well that there’s definitely more to come.”
Rowing however, is one of those sports that is, quite bluntly, brutal. Who can forget one of the defining images of the 2012 games; Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase collapsing into the arms of Steve Redgrave after having quite literally put their bodies, hearts and souls on the line for Team GB. The torture they had put themselves through in their effort to win gold and ultimately come away with silver was one of the most heart breaking moments of the London Olympics. So, with the knowledge that rowing is one of the most physically demanding sports out there, one that requires an incredible amount of focus, endurance and drive I have to ask Ed whether the time constraints put people off joining.
Ed doesn’t think so: “Lots of people join rowing because they know that’s one of the factors of it, you wouldn’t join if you didn’t get a buzz off it.” As sadistic as it may sound, Ed is right. He tells me, “It’s hard work and it is tiring and it does take up a lot of time, but it’s enjoyable.”
“It all pays off”, Ed decides, “people who don’t enjoy it stop, and we’re left with the people who are really devoted, which means the crews get better and stronger.”
He agrees that it’s “a sport that requires a lot of commitment”. Rowing is one of those university sports that is seriously competitive and very popular – many rowers in Team GB started out rowing at university. With this in mind, I ask him whether the future of rowing lies within universities. “Rowing is unique in that not many schools offer rowing, you come to university and it’s often your first opportunity to row.” Ed says, “This sport facilitates beginners, whereas other sports, people have had experience before coming to university, so there is often an advantage there.”
It’s an interchangeable sport, cyclists have become rowers, rowers have become cyclists, and even swimmers have made the swap. This suggests that rowers often tend to benefit from having come from a sporting background. After considering this, Ed says, “It’s a sport where being a natural athlete gives you an advantage but it’s the same with any sport.” He goes on to say, “Lots of people haven’t done sport previously but they’re the right size or shape for rowing, it’s an accessible sport because it’s mentality over physicality.”
As we come to the end of our interview I ask him for any final thoughts, after a moment he simply says “come and watch us at Roses.” Considering just how determined York’s Boat Club is this year, I have a feeling it will probably be something to behold – don’t miss out.