The first British woman to win both a rowing Blue and represent GB was Liz Lorrimer, who achieved this feat in 1974, even though Oxford and Cambridge had been contesting the Women’s Boat Race since 1927, and women had first rowed internationally under official FISA* auspices in 1951 with the first official Women’s European Rowing Championships taking place in 1954.
Quite why Oxford and Cambridge women hadn’t got involved in GB rowing during the European Championships era that ran until 1973 isn’t entirely clear, but it seem to have been a combination of Oxbridge rowing not actually being of a particularly high standard not assisted by short terms and racing mostly only inter-collegiate; low numbers of women rowing there (Cambridge Mays were still in fours at this time); the Boat Race taking place in March or April after which the competitors caught up with their studies which didn’t fit easily with continuing to train intensively for European or then World Championships in August or September; transport being an issue especially for students; and there simply not being any liaison between the universities and the volunteer-run GB setup.
This changed in 1973 when Penny Chuter was appointed to be the first National Coach in charge of women’s rowing, although none of those that she consequently joined the GB squad actually finished up being selected (Liz Lorrimer had left university by this time). When the Oxford men’s coach Dan Topolski came in to be the GB Women’s Squad Co-ordinator in the autumn of 1978 he carried out similar recruitment drives to encourage the Blues squads from both universities to move to London after graduation and trial with his group. Pauline Janson, Bridget Buckley, Penny Sweet and Sue Brown all competed at the Olympics in 1980 as a result.
The first 10 women rowing Blues who also rowed or coxed for GB were:
- Liz Lorrimer (Cambridge Blue 1969 | GB 1974)
- Helen McFie (Cambridge Blue 1971-1972 | GB 1975)
- Pauline Janson (Oxford Blue 1978-1979 | GB 1980-1982)
- Bridget Buckley (Oxford Blue 1979 | GB 1980)
- Penny Sweet (Cambridge Blue 1979 | GB 1980)
- Nicola Boyes (Cambridge Blue 1974-1975 | GB 1977, 1979-1980 and 1983)
- Sue Brown (Oxford Blue 1980 (women) and 1981-1982 (men) | GB 1980-1981)
- Sarah Hunter-Jones (Cambridge Blue 1980 | GB 1981 and 1983-1985)
- Kareen Marwick (Cambridge Blue 1982-1983 | GB 1983, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1995)
- Kate Panter (Cambridge Blue 1982-1984 | GB 1983-1984)
Kathy Talbot, the first woman (in 1983) to cox the Oxford men’s reserve crew, Isis, coxed at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Sue Brown was the first woman to win a Blue and represent GB in the same year.
* Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron – the governing body of international rowing.
The photo at the top of this page shows the 1974 Women’s Boat Race in Oxford. Nicola Boyes is at five in the Cambridge crew. (Photo: Nicola Burbidge’s personal collection.)