|Years||1989 World Championships (4x 6th)
1991 World Championships (2x 6th)
1992 Olympic Games (2x 5th)
|Clubs||Pembroke College BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, Tideway Scullers’ School|
|Height||6′ or 183cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone or 70kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Annabel (left) at the Olympic Games in 1992 and is © Maggie Phillips.
Getting into rowing
Despite having several opportunities to try rowing, Annabel worked quite hard to avoid it for some years, although when she finally succumbed she loved it straight away.
As a teenager she was quite sporty, a trait she feels she largely inherited from her grandfather who once played rugby for England in 1927. When she was 11 she was so inspired by attending an international hockey tournament that she decided she’d like to play for England. This ambition foundered rather when she went to City of London School which didn’t even offer it, and although she was in the top team for netball, she was also made to play rounders and tennis which, she remembers, “I was rubbish at, like every rower!”
Her first opportunity to try rowing came when she went to Bryanston School for the sixth form but, she says, “I’ve got no recollection of being remotely interested in getting in a boat. It was the oddest bunch of girls ended up rowing, and if you wanted to be athletic you did all the other sports.” So she chose athletics instead, and was inspired by her coach, Harold Tarraway, who had competed in 1948 Olympics. Although she become Dorset 800m champion for her age group in 1982, she was aware that she wasn’t quite good enough to take her running much further.
Going to Oxford to read fine art in 1984 obviously presented another great opportunity to start rowing but once again she steered well clear of it. Being tall, she says, “I remember being leapt upon at the Freshers’ Fair, but instead I decided to go to every party I could and I just became this crazy socialite who didn’t do any work at all, drank a lot, got really unfit, and I used to come in at 2am and look at the chalkboard in the Porter’s Lodge that had the novice rowing outing times written on it, which were at 6.30am, and think, ‘Oh, thank goodness I don’t row!'”
By the summer of her first year, the effect of her lifestyle were taking their toll. “I’d put on a lot of weight because of the alcohol, lack of exercise and three-course college dinners, and I badly needed some discipline in my life. So I decided to give rowing a go. I was hooked almost immediately! Muscles I had not seen for nearly a year started to reappear and I began to feel that almost addictive sense of cameraderie.” She got into the Pembroke College first boat in the spring of 1986, but caught two boat-stopping crabs during the Torpids races which led to the crew being ‘bumped’. Undeterred, the following term she and the crew (who presumably saw her potential and had helped her improve her extraction technique at the finish) won their blades by bumping on each of the four days of Summer Eights; the President of Oxford University Women’s Boat Club was heard to comment that, “Annabel could be good if only she could row.” Rowing was finally set to dominate her life for the next six years or, looking at it another way, for ever.
Relishing having a challenging goal once again, Annabel set her sights on getting into the Women’s Blue Boat, which she did. That year the Oxford women were coached by Steve Gunn, whose full time job was as a teacher and rowing coach at Hampton School. “I thought he was one of the funniest coaches, and I really enjoyed being coached by him. We used to go to Hampton every Saturday and Sunday and row in eights with the schoolboys,” Annabel explains. The boys in question included the future 1992 Olympic Coxed Pairs Champion Johnny Searle.
However, Steve made two major mistakes in his approach to coaching the women, albeit for good reasons. First, he decided that they needed to learn to single scull. In terms of the long-term development of the rower, this is spot on, but the issue was that the group had two short terms to select and gel an eight and develop the fitness needed for a 2,000m race in March, and while Cambridge were getting on with just that, the Oxford women were falling out of sculling boats trying, as Steve used to say, “to stick to the wet bits.” His second mistake, Annabel says, was that, “He convinced us that no women knew how to row and the way to row was the Abbagnale way, the Italian way, which was all leg massive leg drive at the front end which was how he was coaching the Hampton boys to row. It worked for them but what he didn’t appreciate was that women’s backs and upper body strength was so much less than men’s or even boys’ that if you told women to drive their legs they just bum shoved. We bum shoved beautifully together but everyone was laughing at us; we were an object of ridicule, and people would come up to us and say, ‘You’re just not rowing right,’ and we’d say, ‘Yes we are, Steve Gunn’s the best coach in the world and we absolutely love him and don’t you dare say against him!’ I think by the end he’d realised the error, but it was too late.” The crew lost by three lengths.
She rowed for Oxford again in 1988. Although Steve Gunn had agreed to be their Chief Coach again, she says, he’d also been asked to coach the GB women’s coxed four for the Seoul Olympics and couldn’t make most of their outings. Her memory is that by Christmas 1987, Oxford were on the point of considering writing to Cambridge to say that they would be unable to produce a crew that year when they were rescued by Pete Sudbury who turned them into a crew capable of beating Cambridge by a length. For the final three weeks before the Boat Race they were coached by Dan Topolski, who had coached the Oxford to 10 consecutive victories from 1976-1985, and whom Annabel persuaded to be their finishing coach after meeting him socially as he was also part of the arts scene [his father was an artist, and Dan himself was quite Bohemian].
While she was still at Oxford Annabel also started going to GB trials and rowed as GB at Mannheim regatta and then in the Under-23 four at what was then called the Match des Seniors in 1987 where there were only two entries and they came second. She also went to the 1987 World Rowing Championships in Copenhagen as spare woman.
By 1988 she pursued the twin goals of winning the Boat Race and rowing at the Olympics, which she felt were entirely compatible because Steve Gunn was such an excellent coach and had committed to coach the Blue Boat. She earned a place in the GB eight, but the whole crew was eventually not deemed fast enough to be sent to the Olympics. A full account of the crew’s rocky ride through the season and their unsuccessful appeal against the decision can be read here.
“I was so upset about not going and the thought that I’d have to keep rowing for another four years – which was pathetic when you look at it now! – that I decided to go travelling in India and think about what I was going to do,” Annabel remembers. “I chose India so I could get as far away as possible from any mention of the Olympics while they were on. I was in a market in Ladakh, which is quite remote, and one of the market traders had a little transistor radio with the Olympic opening ceremony on it. I just couldn’t believe it! I thought this is telling me something – you can’t actually escape. So I took that as a kind of sign and then when we got back to Delhi in November I came across a newspaper cutting with a picture of the fireworks at the closing ceremony with ‘See you in Barcelona’ underneath it and I tore it out and kept it. I’ve still got it. So I decided to carry on.”
1989 and 1990
Annabel moved back to London and joined Tideway Scullers’ School, and set about learning to scull properly. “Until then my international career had been in fours and eights and although I had very good ergos, I was never really sure if I was moving a boat or not. But when I got into a single I suddenly realised I could move a boat, and I think other people realised that too and that I wasn’t just a tall, blonde bimbo who might be a waste of space.”
She rowed in the GB quad at the World Championships in 1989, which finished last in its straight final, and then was dropped at the final trials in 1990 after racing at the early-season international regattas mostly in a pair because she had been told earlier in the year that no sculling crews would be sent owing to the high standard of international sculling. She was therefore frustrated when she heard that the gold medal winning Under-23 double scull was selected to go to the Worlds, without a trial, or without other scullers being given the opportunity to form doubles and race against them. Ironically, one of the selected GB double then had to drop out with an injury and Annabel was given a trial outing with the remaining sculler, whom she’d raced with in the quad the previous year, but in the end nothing came of it and the boat didn’t compete at the Worlds.
1991 and 1992
In 1991 Annabel’s rowing career made a step change when she started to double scull with Ali Gill and, more importantly, train with the GB men in Henley away from the GB women’s squad. She’d known Ali from rowing with her in the Oxford Blue Boat in 1987, and then in the GB eight in 1988 when she’d also founded the rowing t-shirt business Rock the Boat with her and fellow squad member Flo Johnston to live off while they rowed. Ali had then single sculled at the World Championships in 1989 and rowed in the four in 1990, and was convinced that a small boat was the way ahead, as was training practically full time as the men did but which the women’s squad was not set up to do in that pre-funding era. Because they ran their own business they had the flexibility they needed to do that, and adopted the East German approach to training which were being introduced at Leander by the former East German coach Jurgen Grobler who had just been employed there.
They set themselves the goal of making the final at the 1991 World Championships as a realistic although still very challenging step on the two-year road to winning a medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. Although they did indeed come sixth (out of 12) at the 1991 Worlds in Vienna, by then they’d been dealt a psychologically damaging blow by the squad management who, immediately after they’d come fifth at the final pre-Worlds regatta in Lucerne, tried to persuade Ali that she should double with Tish Reid instead (without first consulting either Ali or Tish, who were both actually dead against the idea for various reasons). As a result, Annabel felt that achieving the goal they’d set themselves was not enough for her to be taken seriously by the squad management, and that they – or she – had ‘failed’ by not medalling which would have been the only way to prove them wrong. The feeling that even when she did do well, either by achieving a good place internationally or winning domestically, it was “never by enough”, and this meant that she found it hard to enjoy her successes. Her and Ali’s sixth place in 1991 is only the most extreme example of this.
It was certainly a tough note on which to start the second and final year of their Olympic campaign, and things became worse when Ali sustained a back injury in January 1992 which kept her out of the boat for over two months. Just as she was recovering, Annabel hurt her back too. However, by winning at Essen Regatta in May and then getting an even more impressive (because the opposition was much stiffer) bronze medal at Lucerne regatta in June, they secured their Olympic selection. “I collected my Olympic kit from the British Olympic Association and only then was I sure my dream was coming true,” Annabel wrote a little later. “I felt much like a participant on the Generation Game as I was presented with a large suitcase containing a vast array of free goodies – a track suit, shorts, a shell suit [all the rage in the early 1990s – Ed.], a handbag, sunglasses, sun cream, tea bags [really? – Ed.], bottles of beer, an electric toothbrush, radio and the inevitable cuddly toy.”
Their troubles were far from over, however. A combination of poor planning, unlucky bad weather and a whole host of other factors meant that their pre-Olympic altitude camp was, as Annabel put it, “a fiasco.”
Although they then got in some good training during their final preparation camp in Varese, they had a “disastrous” first race after which Ali was diagnosed with a a gastric infection and was put on antibiotics. After snatching a place in the final by finish third in the repechage by a mere 0.13 seconds (and an agonising wait as the photo finish was examined), they finished fifth in the final, one place better than the previous year, again from a field of 12.
“Although I left Barcelona without a medal,” Annabel wrote, “Reaching the Olympic final had been my prize.”
Full accounts of Annabel’s years in the GB senior squad can be read here:
Emotionally drained after the Olympics, and also desperate to stop having to do the huge training load international rowing required, Annabel retired after 1992. “But the sad thing is that I spent the rest of the next four or five years wondering whether I’d made the right decision and whether I should try to make a comeback. I kept doing a bit of training so I had enough fitness left if I changed my mind.” In 1995 she finally did commit to making a comeback in a double with Tish Reid for the Atlanta Olympics. They raced at Cologne and Duisburg regattas in 1996, doing quite well at the first but by the second realised that they were so far off being fast enough, they decided to abandon the project. “I’d lost so much physically, and I also got super-stressed trying to do all of the training and run Rock the Boat which by then I was doing on my own, and even then we were doing less than I’d done in 1992,” Annabel reflects.
Recently, she’s started to dabble in masters racing, winning at Henley Masters Regatta in an international quad of 1992 rivals in 2017, and with other former GB internationals in 2018.
Since hanging up her oars after a couple more years racing at the big domestic events – Henley Women’s Regatta, the National Championships, and Tideway heads – Annabel has poured her expertise back into the sport, coaching for many years at Radley College and now Magdalen College School.
In 2017 she and her husband Angus McChesney launched the Oxford Junior Rowing Course which provide fun, phone-free introduction and improvers courses for 9-16 year olds in Oxford and elsewhere with a unique focus on developing broader life skills through rowing.
The next generation
Annabel and Angus (who sculled in the GB quad at the Junior World Championships in 1984) are understandably proud that their son Archie was selected to represent GB in the coxed four at the Junior Worlds in 2017.
Annabel continues to work as an artist, exhibiting her current series of paper cuts and prints of the human form in motion in various galleries, and taking a range of commissions. Her artwork is available direct and through Rock the Boat which she sold after the birth of her children.
Her latest exhibition is currently on at the Riverside Gallery in Barnes.
Women’s boat race funding
Annabel has been involved in campaigning against a wide range of injustices that have touched her life ever since she was first in the Oxford women’s Blue Boat in 1987. Back then, press coverage of the women’s boat race was still very much of the “Who knew? There’s a women’s boat race too!” type and invariable referred to the crew members as ‘girls’ (one that still lurks today in the reporting of women’s sport), but the squad managed to raise the profile of the very different funding mechanisms the women’s and men’s squads received (the papers quote her and Ali Gill, who was OUWBC President, as stating that the women received £1,000 a year from the university whilst Beefeater Gin had just committed to sponsorship of £55,000 a year for the men), although this involved her being described by the Evening Standard as “an Amazonian oarsperson” in an article whilst in another paper, it’s depressing that even a female journalist felt she had to refer to members of the crew “giggling” while being interviewed, and to describe Annabel as “pre-Raphaelite” [because of her long, wavy hair because she certainly didn’t have a tendency to lie around on draped in velvet and wildflowers – Ed.].
While none of this achieved anything immediate at the time, it was without doubt an essential step on the road that led to today’s boat race being run on the Tideway, fully funded by Newton investment Management, and supported by a website which covers both the men’s and women’s Oxford-Cambridge boat races equally.
Henley Royal Regatta
At the National Championships in 1990 Annabel and Ali presented Peter Coni, the then Chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, with a silver salver engraved with the inscription “The Gentlemen’s Plate” a dig at the name of one of the Henley Royal trophies, the Ladies Plate, which is for a men’s eights event, in the long campaign to have women’s events added to the regatta programme. Peter Coni himself was actually supported the idea but was playing a careful political game as such changes had to be approve by the entire committee of management, many of whom did not share his views.
Again, this clever piece of publicity ensured that the matter was kept on the agenda. The women’s sculls were added in 1993, and women’s eights first raced in 1989. Today there are six open events for women and one for junior women.
Since then Annabel has continued to speak out or act for a range of examples of discrimination or eco-issues, including different opportunities and support for the men’s and women’s squads in the GB rowing team, inconsistent selection policies, the route of the Newbury bypass, a plan to use a local lake for the disposal of ash waste from Didcot Power Station (stopped!), and the treatment of whistleblowers on workplace bullying and the misuse of NDA, which led her to taking part in the recent parliamentary inquiry to reform the Public Interest Disclosure Act. After Annabel and Angus left Radley College, where they had been houseparents for many years, they set up an LGBT alumni organisation with a former pupil; shortly after this they were very pleased to see a similar group come into being within the school to provide support for gay boys there.
As with her effectiveness as an athlete, anyone assuming that her good looks and profession as an artist mean that she is a ‘dumb blonde’ will quickly realise they are wrong when they find themselves on the sharp end of one of her highly articulate and intelligent responses.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.