|Years||1988 Olympic Games (2x 9th)
1989 World Championships (1x unplaced)
1990 World Championships (4- 9th)
1991 World Championships (2x 6th)
1992 Olympic Games (2x 5th)
1995 World Championships (8o 7th)
1996 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
|Clubs||St Hilda’s BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, Tideway Scullers’ School, Thames RC, Upper Thames RC|
|Height||6ft or 183cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Ali (right) at the Olympic Games in 1992 and is © Maggie Phillips.
Getting into rowing
Ali first got in a boat as a result of a bet made at a party towards the end of her second year at Oxford University. She’d already rebuffed various attempts to persuade her to row which started as soon as she went up in 1984. “When you’re six foot tall your freshers week is spent with people going, ‘Please come and row!’ but I didn’t really know anything about rowing apart from having seen the Boat Race on TV and I didn’t particularly want to row. It didn’t strike me as a sport that I’d enjoy that much, so I fought quite long and hard not to row.”
At school she’d played quite a lot of netball and hockey and was also into riding. “I was on the Oxford University Riding Team, and one evening I went to dinner at the president of the riding club’s house, which she shared with Tish Reid, who was the president of the university women’s boat club, and another rower called Helen Middleton. The wine was flowing freely and I somehow ended up betting Helen that she wouldn’t be able to ride a horse over a small set of jumps but that I’d be able to row a scull, so the next morning we duly set about this challenge. Helen fell off but I sculled up the river without falling in. That was my first taste of rowing and it intrigued me enough to give it a go properly. I wasn’t that good a rider and because I didn’t have my own horse I’d already realised that riding was a bit of a hiding to nothing and I was looking for a sport to replace so it I thought I’d give rowing a go!”
The university women’s squad coach at that time was Nigel Mayglothling. “He was very good at targeting people and inviting them to row with the squad, even if they couldn’t row, and he didn’t baulk at teaching people from the beginning. In fact, because there were so few women who came to universiy having rowed at school, teaching people to row was part of the women’s university squad setup. So I did a bit of college rowing but I pretty much went straight into OUWBC and I quickly caught the rowing bug. Nigel was a good coach and he advised me to learn to scull as well as row because he knew that being good at sculling was critical to success in the GB Team. He set ambition for his athletes early and I was inspired by the confidence he showed in me. Very few female athletes learnt to scull at that time and I had to beg a boatman from one of men’s colleges to let me borrow a boat as my college, St Hilda’s (all women at the time) had very little equipment.”
Ali rowed in Osiris (the second crew) in 1986 and the Blue Boat in 1987 when she was OUWBC President. Neither won, which, she says, “Was both devastating but also spurred me on to do more.”
The Yanks at Oxford
1987 is famous as the year when a group of American internationals came to Oxford as postgraduates to row in the boat race, but then mutinied over the way the squad was run and some selection decisions. After they were replaced by members of the reserve crew, Oxford, who were underdogs as a result of the disruption, famously went on to win the boat race in stormy conditions. Oxford’s coach, Dan Topolski, co-wrote a book called True Blue about it all in 1989 which was later made into a film. Both have been criticised for being inaccurate and for spinning the events to justify his decisions.
Ali felt that the other side of the story deserved to be told and published this as The Yanks at Oxford in 1991. “It’s a more objective and accurate account than True Blue,” she says but adds, “I didn’t realise quite the reaction I was going to get. The book was received negatively by many in the the Oxford and national rowing hierarchy. I didn’t make many friends by writing it, although I did receive gratitude from others who felt that True Blue didn’t tell the whole story.”
International rowing career
The 1987 blue boat had been coached by Steve Gunn who then became one of the GB squad coaches in 1988. In addition, Nigel Mayglothling’s then wife, Rosie, a former international rower, was one of the Amateur Rowing Association’s National Coaches and was responsible for developing women’s rowing. As a result, the women’s Blue Boat coaches at the time understood the pathway into GB rowing, and were keen to encourage athletes along it.
So, in the 1988 season Ali opted to go to GB trials with the aim of gaining selection for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. She was chosen to stroke the eight which won at the first Henley Women’s Regatta, but at the last minute it was decided that the crew wasn’t fast enough to justify being sent to the Olympics. She and another member of the eight, Sally Andreae, became the spares for the four and pair. They trained in a double scull and were allowed to race in that event to give them more experience; there was no need to pre-qualify at that time and National Federations could simply decide which crews to enter, almost up to the start of the racing.
“I remember being totally blown away with the whole experience, which somehow made me feel we were going to do really well,” Ali explains, “And then rather naïvely not being quite able to believe how fast everybody else was! I had no frame of reference – I hadn’t been rowing long enough to know.” They were ninth out of ten.
“Until that point, rowing was fun but it wasn’t the be all and end all,” she continues, “But after the Olympics, that was it, I wanted to be Olympic champion! It totally motivated me, and even though we were way off the pace in Seoul, if I hadn’t gone, I think I might not have bothered carrying on. It was a real wakeup call and it was one of the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Having got to know several of the GB men’s rowing team while at the Olympics, Ali was influenced by their view that the GB women’s setup wasn’t going to lead to medals and that she needed to do something different if she really wanted to succeed. “All the men kept saying, ‘The women don’t train hard enough. If you want to be any good you need to train full time. It’s the only way to do and if you’re serious that’s what you should do,'” she remembers. She decided to scull separately from the GB women’s squad but admits, “I was quite arrogant about it but , seeing that the women weren’t winning medals I wanted to do something differently, to learn from the success of the men’s team and find a way to be the best I could be.”
“I also went to a talk that Mike Spracklen [who had coached the GB men’s crews which won golds at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics] did at Leander Club about being an Olympic rower, and he invited me to attend the Leander Club meeting for new club athletes at the start of the season where he asked everybody in the room, ‘What’s your goal? Why are you here?’ I basically said, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion.’ Not many people said that,” she continues. “Afterwards I asked him if he’d coach me, and he said that he might be able to find some time to if I brought my boat to Henley at weekends. I was living and working in London at the time, but that’s what I did. It nearly killed me doing the men’s training. I had to be the first on the water, do the session, being over taken by nearly every man on the team and typically I’d be the last off the water. I made it a goal each week to see if I could at first beat just one man, then two, then three. I think it was on about the fourth weekend and AFTER the third session on the Sunday that he finally said, ‘Put your boat back on the water and I’ll coach you.’ I was practically crawling by then, but because I’d proved my conviction, Mike took the time to coach me. My technique was quite poor and Mike essentially made me row one blade at a time, zig-zagging across the river and back, trying to give me the feel of placing each scull at the right depth. He told me to practise this and when I could do it to let him know and he’d coach me again. This was my introduction to the perfection required to be an elite sculler.”
Ali was selected as the GB single sculler for the 1989 World Championships but didn’t even make the B final (the top 12) out of the 14 entries. “I just remember being mortified. I was so embarrassed about how slow I was,” she says. Undaunted, she carried on sculling for the 1990 season but was beaten by Tish Reid in the final trials and so went back into the main squad and rowed in a four at the World Championships that year. The crew came last in its event. Ali admits, “My heart wasn’t really in it because I really loved sculling, and even when Tish was beating me it was quite close which said to me that sculling was my forte.”
Coming out of this, and with two years until the next Olympic Games, Ali broke away from the women’s squad again and formed a double with Annabel Eyres, with whom she’d rowed at Oxford in the 1987 Blue Boat and in the 1988 GB eight that wasn’t selected. By this time she had given up her job so that she could train properly, but was working round this with Annabel at Rock the Boat, the rowing kit company they’d founded in 1988 with fellow international Flo Johnston to help fund their rowing.
The new combination came sixth at the 1991 World Championships and then fifth at the 1992 Olympic Games after various traumas including the Director of International Rowing persistently trying to persuade Ali to double with Tish instead (against both Ali and Tish’s wishes), a disastrous altitude camp just before the Games which was blighted by bad weather and other problems that severely limited their time on the water, and then Ali falling ill before their first race.
Even without all of that, fifth was a significant achievement and Ali remembers coming off the water thinking that they’d rowed as well as they could, although obviously also devastated, after coming third at the final pre-Olympics regatta in Lucerne, not to get a medal”. They were the first British women’s sculling crew to reach an Olympic final (at the fifth Games to include women’s rowing).
Annabel stopped rowing internationally after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and Ali sculled in a new double with Kim Thomas over the winter of 1992/1993. Although faster than any other combination, they abandoned the project after final trials when they realised that they weren’t fast enough. Ali rowed in a four at World Championships instead and once again didn’t make the final. However, she won the Scullers’ Head that year and also raced in the inaugural open women’s single sculls event at Henley Royal Regatta, which she was instrumental in petitioning the Stewards to add to the programme.
Ali returned to single sculling for the 1994 season which started well. She was fastest at most of the winter trials, won the Scullers Head again and at Piediluco international regatta at the beginning of May, as well as racing in the first two rounds of the World Cup. After that, though, a back injury that had been troubling her since 1992 forced her to retire. She explains, “When I was in the double with Annabel it wasn’t so bad because I was rowing consistently with the same person, whereas when you’re in a squad and swapping in and out of crews all the time it’s much harder on your body. When my disc prolapsed again that year I really thought that was the end of my rowing.”
There it might have ended. However, after the GB women’s squad got to a low point in terms of numbers at the 1994 World Championships (just three people – a pair and a single sculler), a businessman called Larry Tracey, who had long been involved in rowing (as a rower himself and as a sponsor), stepped in with a game-changing funding package which would not only pay for a full time Chief Coach through to the 1996 Olympic Games but would also provide some funding for athletes to row in an eight because he was convinced that for the British women to be successful they needed to target that event. The problem was that with the squad having being run down, there simply weren’t all that many women around with the training background that the new Chief Coach, Bill Mason, needed to create a world-class crew. Perhaps inevitably, “Billy rang me up and asked me to come back!,’ Ali remembers, adding that her initial reaction was, “No, it’s been too long and I’m not sure my back will hold up.” But she eventually came round to the idea, realising that it was a great opportunity. “I’d been a bit lost. I didn’t really have a proper job, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.” It took no time at all for her to feel part of the team, and to love rowing again.
It was a big ask to create an eight relatively quickly when so little development work had been done in GB women’s rowing for years, and the crew just missed qualifying (which was now necessary) for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at their first opportunity which was at the 1995 World Championships. They turned this round the following summer in style at the European Qualification Regatta which they won in a new British best time. These ups and downs were typical of the crew, she says. “I remember the amazing speed that boat had but I can remember how awful it used to be at times.” They underperformed in their crucial first two races at the Olympics and were relegated to the small final which they won, placing them seventh overall.
While they faced a lot of external difficulties, Ali, who now works in leadership development, is candid that at least some of the reason for their underperformance was that they didn’t work together as a team. “I was quite a bullish, difficult to manage, opinionated individual, but lots of athletes are, and I wasn’t the only one. The squad was full of them,” she recalls. “And when I learned all about leadership and teamwork later I remember thinking, ‘If only I’d known this stuff then I might have at least tried to have the difficult conversations to get the support needed to make a change.’”
“I was broken after that Olympics, mentally broken, as well as physically. My back was bad and I had other injuries too,” she reflects. “I’d also really thought that crew could get a medal because it was a fast eight. We consistently put in medal times in training, and everybody talked about how fast it was. At the Olympics we underperformed. I can think of a lot of reasons why this happened; we had a rocky last couple of months after Lucerne and leading up to the Games with various athletes injured and our coach, Billy, not being on training camp with us but it was hard to accept such underperformance. When we didn’t row as we should have, I stopped believing in myself. It took me years to be able to talk about it.”
Full accounts of Ali’s years representing GB can be read here:
She raced as Ali Hall in 1993 and 1994 and otherwise as Ali Gill.
Looking back on her international rowing career, Ali’s proudest of her fifth place at the Barcelona Olympics and of having played a part in the journey towards the GB women’s first eights’ medal and the first openweight gold at the World Championships in 1997, and their first Olympic medal in 2000. She is grateful for the amount of volunteer support that she and the wider team received which made it possible. “When I was rowing there were so many people that were doing everything for free. Ron Needs used to spend hours and not a penny was passed to him. We got help from Leander and from Jurgen Grobler, and from Mike Spracklen, and actually from the men who were desperate for the women to do well.”
She freely acknowledges that her ‘going it alone’ wasn’t helpful to the advancement of the team at the time. “You need the squad system because when you train together you push each other and build the trust needed to perform as a team. If you run trials when people aren’t training together, then some can taper for that trial and do well at the expense of their long-term performance. But if everybody’s been training together you get a full picture of who’s the fastest because you’re racing all the time. You also go through the pain together and learn about each-other’s strengths and weaknesses and help each other to get better.”
Ali did eventually manage to rekindle her enjoyment of the sport at top club level. She won the women’s eights event, the Remenham Challenge Cup, at Henley Royal Regatta in 2002 with four other internationals, and later raced successfully at masters level with Upper Thames. She also won a silver medal at the World Rowing Coastal Championships in 2011.
In 2010 she had huge amounts of fun in a crew (also containing other former internationals) that Guin Batten organised to try and break the record for crossing the 60km ‘Zero Degree Channel’ on the equator in the Maldives. Unfortunately, bad weather meant that they had to abandon the attempt, as can be seen in this decidedly epic video. However, the row raised a considerable amount for money to help set up rowing clubs in the Maldives which has resulted in two athletes representing their country in the World Asian Games.
Ali gave up rowing entirely after taking up riding again in 2013, although she has stayed involved in the sport by chairing the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club between 2014-2019 during which time the women’s race achieved gender equity in funding and status when it was moved to the Tideway to race the same course on the same day as the men.
Today, she competes regularly in eventing and is thoroughly enjoying a sport which was an early childhood passion.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.