GB women's 8 boating

In memoriam: Ann Sayer

I was sad to hear of the death of Ann Sayer yesterday, at the age of 83.

Ann was part of quite a small group of women who – almost entirely at their own expense, which included buying boats and blades – were responsible for there being GB women’s international eights and fours in the first half of the 1960s. In the face of dominant eastern bloc crews, their and her ‘finest hour’ was at the 1962 European Women’s Rowing Championships in Grunau, East Germany, when they came second in the repechage to qualify for the final, eventually finishing fifth.

After learning to row at the University of London Women’s BC, Ann joined United Universities Women’s BC when she graduated (serving as club secretary for several years) and rowed in the ‘UU’ eight which was selected to represent Great Britain at the 1960, 1962 and 1964 European Women’s Rowing Championships. She won the Women’s Head six times, in 1959 with ULWBC and from 1961-1965 with UUWBC, and later qualified as an umpire. The UU group remain close to this day, meeting every year for a lunch, where they continue to have the same sense of fun that they first enjoyed together over 50 years ago. She will be sorely missed by those who remain.

Ann was an extremely modest person. When I interviewed her about her rowing story in late 2016, I mentioned that her name had appeared in a press release issued by the Women’s Head after the 2015 race which was won by a crew containing 2012 Olympic gold medallist Katherine Grainger. This stated that as this was Grainger’s eighth Headship, she’d finally surpassed Ann’s record seven (which were actually six as she had missed ULWBC’s 1958 win due to being on a field trip). It turned out that Ann hadn’t been aware of this piece of publicity, but on hearing that her name had been used in conjunction with Grainger’s (Britain’s most decorated female Olympian), her usual thoughtful expression broke into a massive grin and she raised her arms triumphantly in the air, exclaiming, “I can’t believe it!”.

Women drinking beer by Barnes Bridge

Fun by the river with UU friends. From left: Margaret ‘Mac’ McKendrick, Veronica Gillett, Ann, and Kathleen Henderson. (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

Meticulous as well as modest, reliable and uncomplaining, Ann’s contribution to was immense; without her archive of training diaries (covering every single outing she ever did, and listing who was in her crew, who coached, what the work was, and how she felt about her rowing that day) and huge collection of photos, all annotated with the date, location, and occasion, the accounts on this site of the GB women’s team in the 1960s would be very, very much poorer, and I hugely appreciate her generosity in sharing them.

While Ann was at the vanguard of British women’s international rowing – 1960 was only the third year there was a British team – she was even more of a pioneer in the sport of long-distance race walking which she took up after she’d finished rowing. She was the first British female ‘Centurion’ by walking 100 miles in under 24 hours, although the title was unofficial because of male chauvinism in the rules. In 1980 she set a new record for walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats of 13 days, 17 hours and 42 minutes, pounding out at least 60 miles each day after working with a walking coach to improve her speed. Further details of Ann’s achievements in long-distance race walking can be found on the Centurions Worldwide website. She was awarded an MBE for services to sport in 2005.

Ann is on the left at the photo at the top of this page (which is from her personal collection) of the GB eight at the 1962 Women’s European Rowing Championships.

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.


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