Today is National Sporting Heritage Day, an annual campaign that aims to raise awareness of, obviously, the UK’s sporting heritage. The dictionary definition of ‘heritage’ is ‘property which is inherited’.
Hold that thought.
When I’m interviewing GB women internationals for this project, they sometimes enquire why I’m doing this. My only semi-lighthearted response is that it’s my gift to rowing whether rowing wants it or not. And while it’s true that this telling of the story of GB women’s international rowing is mine to give, the story itself actually already belongs to all those who have represented their country and, in fact, to the wider rowing community as a whole because IS what happened, and so we have inherited it. There is no other past that we can inherit instead, so we might a well know what it is; I mean, if you inherited a trunk from your great-grandma, you wouldn’t just leave it unopened, you’d at least be curious to know what was in it.
RowingStory.com is more than just a trunk, though. Currently covering more than 40 years of GB women’s international rowing history (from the first test event in 1951 to 1994), and rowing biographies for over 60 internationals, it’s probably more like a warehouse. So here’s a quick whizz through a timeline of key years along the journey that women’s international rowing has taken and that will see gender parity in events offered (if not in the number of crews competing) at an Olympic Games for the first time next year.
1954: First Women’s European Rowing Championships
The USSR won every event, rather to the surprise of the western countries, but the British Coxed Four from Stuart Ladies BC (which later amalgamated with the men’s clubs based next door to it to form Lea RC) got a bronze medal, a great achievement which is often overlooked; it would be 27 years before the GB’s next women’s openweight crew medal at a major championships.
Little known fact: The racing driver Damon Hill’s mum was one of the GB bronze medal four.
1960: Women’s European Rowing Championships take place in UK
This was a first for the Britain because we didn’t have a multi-lane rowing course on which to hold a Championships until 1972 when Holme Pierrepont opened in Nottingham, but as women only raced over 1,000m at this time, it was just possible to squeeze in a course on Willesden Reservoir in North London.
Little known fact: This was the first time that GB women’s crews competed in all of the events on offer, something that didn’t happen again (except at World Championships for non-Olympic events in Olympic years) until 2000.
1974: First World Rowing Championships to include women’s events
Once it was decided in August 1972 that women’s events would be included in the rowing programme for the 1976 Olympic Games, FISA, the governing body of World Rowing announced that from 1974 there would be annual world Championships instead of European Rowing Championships, an these would include women’s events too, giving women two years of racing at full World level before their first Olympics.
Penny Chuter was appointed the first National Coach with responsibility for women’s rowing and set up the National Squad for the first time.
Little known facts: Women’s pairs and men’s quads were raced internationally for the first time in 1974. A separate FISA Championships for Lightweights (men) also took place for the first time.
1976: First Olympic Games to include women’s events
Eastern bloc countries won all but two of the medals in the six events (the other two went to the USA). The GB pair finished 10th and the four was eighth. The entries overall were tiny – no qualification was needed – just 57 in total across six events.
Little known fact: Princess Anne was competing in the equestrian team and because she was quite tall, at the opening ceremony the TV cameras zoomed in on the equally tall rowers because they were trying to spot her, so relatives watching back in the UK were thrilled to see them.
1985: First women’s lightweight events at the World Championships
Lin Clark and Beryl Crockford (who had won GB women’s first World Championships medal in the openweight single sculls in 1981) won GB women’s first gold medal at a major championships in the lightweight double sculls at the first Worlds where women raced over 2,000m.
Little known fact: This was the year when women’s quads finally became coxless; they’d been coxed at the first three Olympic Games that included women’s rowing.
1988: GB women reach their first Olympic final ‘when everyone was there’
Boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games reduced the entries in the rowing events, so it was an important moment when the coxed four produced an epic row-through in the repechage to reach the final of the 1988 Games, the first time that a GB crew had got to a final against a full field.
Little known fact: This was the first year that the GB women’s team had lycra leggings.
1991: First GB women’s openweight crew medal at a World Championships
Miriam Batten and Fiona Freckleton won the bronze medal in the pairs, the first women’s openweight crew medal at a World Championships.
Little known fact: The pair weren’t initially selected for the team (although Miriam and Fiona were selected in the eight), and were only entered after making a standard time at the pre-Championships training camp.
2000: First GB women’s medal at an Olympic Games
Miriam Batten, Katherine Grainger, Gillian Lindsay and Guin Batten won the silver medal in Sydney after a photo finish. There’s no account of this historic achievement yet on RowingStory.com, but there will be – sign up for blog notifications so you can read all about it when it’s published!
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.