Annamarie Phelps

Years 1991 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
1992 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
1993 World Championships (Lt 4- 1st)
1994 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
1995 World Championships (8o 7th)
1996 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
Clubs Lady Margaret BC, Cambridge University Women’s BC, Thames Tradesmen’s RC, Thames RC, Queen’s Tower BC
Height 5’8.5″ or 174cm
Born 1966

The photo at the top of this page shows (from left) Alison Brownless, Jane Hall, Annamarie and Tonia Williams on the medal podium after winning the lightweight coxless fours at the World Rowing Championships in 1993 and is from Alison Purnell’s personal collection.

Listen to Annamarie’s rowing story here >>

Getting into rowing

Highly unusually, Annamarie took up rowing in 1985 at the suggestion of her tutor at St John’s College, Cambridge where she was reading geography. Having brought broad but not deep sporting experience from school, she had become involved in multiple college sports teams as there weren’t many women at St John’s then as it had only started admitting women in 1981. After spending much of her first year playing football, running and putting the shot, as well as in the bar, by her own admission she did quite badly in her end of year exams. “He encouraged me to take up something that would force me to structure my life a bit more so he suggested I go down to the boathouse and try rowing, which I’d only seen for the first time during bumps the previous summer,” she explains, “But it was a high risk strategy!”

After learning the basics in a bank tub, she only got into the second novice eight that term. “We were all the people who couldn’t row terribly prettily but we were actually pretty fast because we turned out to be more determined and we had chips on our shoulders, so we quite often beat our first novice crew, and we won the Clare Plate,” she recalls. She rowed in the college second eight the next term, but by the summer of 1986 had made it into the first four. Both crews got blades, although this was at least partly, “Because our college had only recently had women’s crews, we’d started at the bottom of both the Lents and the Mays so it was quite easy to get four bumps.”

Women's eight in red vests

Annamarie at 6 in the Lady Margaret BC women’s second eight in Lents, 1986. (Photo: Annamarie Phelps’ personal collection.)

Rowing for Cambridge University

In her final year she decided to trial for Cambridge University Women’s BC. She recalls, “There was some expectation that I would trial for the lightweight crew because I wasn’t the heaviest, but I would’ve struggled to make weight at that stage, and at any rate lightweight rowing didn’t have the profile it went on to have and I didn’t know much about it then as I was very new to the sport. That said, when we weighed in for trials a number of us drank loads of water so that we were all ‘too heavy’ to be able to diet down to lightweight.”

She continues, “So I did do trials but I was dropped at a reasonably early stage and went back to just rowing for my college. But then, when the crews for Blue Boat and Blondie [the second boat] were announced, a couple of the people who were in Blondie had already rowed in it the year before so decided that they didn’t want to do it again and dropped out. So the coach, Roger Silk, who was also our college coach and had told me I wouldn’t get in, had no choice but to ask me if I would like the three seat, the donkey seat. And I had no shame at all so I said, ‘Yes please!,’ and that’s how I got into Blondie in in 1987.” Her crew won their race against Oxford by three lengths.

Club rowing at Thames Tradesmen’s

After graduating, Annamarie started work in London without any thought of continuing to row. She recalls, “Rowing in Cambridge and college rowing in particular is like a bubble; you have no awareness of the outside world, so the first open event I did was the Head of the River Fours in 1986 with CUWBC and it was a real eye opener that there were other people that rowed, in other places, all over the country! And then I think we did some open regatta on the Cam and we raced against a crew from a club and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these people are rowing and training AND working, how on earth do they do that?’ We’d use to train in the morning and then go off to a few lectures and eat cake in the afternoon like students do, or at least did then, and here were people out there training both ends of the day and they were good, they were beating us! So really, it just didn’t occur to me that it was something I could even get involved with let alone would want to get involved with once I had a job.”

However, some of her university friends had carried on rowing and started asking her to sub in their crews at Thames Tradesmen’s RC with increasing frequency. In the end, she decided that she might as well join, not least because then she might get to row consistently on the same side and in the same seat from outing to outing.

Fast forward a couple of years to 1990 and she’d not only got to grips with fitting rowing into her life, but was stroking the TTRC first eight which won Senior I at the Women’s Head. That summer she was also eventually convinced of the opportunities that going lightweight provided, and enjoyed a string of other successes at Elite level, including lightweight coxless fours at the National Championships, rowing in a suitably-sized new boat called It’s About Time. After spending a long time being reluctant to go lightweight, in the end, she says, it wasn’t that hard, “Because of the amount we were training, so it was just about being careful about what we ate.”

4 women and man coach in TTRC kit with medals

From left: Coach Richard Tinkler. Sarah Kell, Christine Brown, Annamarie, Susan Gwynne-Timothy. (Photo: Annamarie Phelps’ personal collection.)

International rowing career

The lightweight years

Annamarie first went to GB trials in the 1990 season, rowing in a pair with Sarah Kell, but largely just for experience. “It was at Thorpe Park,” she explains, “And we did the morning session and did quite well, but I was feeling a bit ill so Richard Tinkler, who was coaching us, pulled us out of the second session. I think his strategy was that we’d put a marker in the sand, but there was no point in doing more as he didn’t think we were ready yet to break into the GB four.”

The following year, though, they went back and Annamarie was eventually selected to row in the GB lightweight four which won the silver medal at her first World Championships in 1991. They were all thrilled with that, but it was a measure of how much the crew was progressing that they were bitterly disappointed when they took silver again 1992 after being rowed down in the last few strokes of the race as a result of a set of multiple factors.

In 1993, which she describes as their “golden year” – both literally and figuratively – they got everything right, and they won the first GB women’s sweep gold medal. Understandably it’s the achievement that Annamarie is proudest of on the water. As she says, “It had been lovely winning silver in 1991 but there is NOTHING like standing in the middle of the presentation raft and with someone announcing you’re a World Champion!”

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The lightweight coxless four project came to a natural end after the crew won its third silver medal in 1994, which they were relieved to get after a season beset with difficulties which included her being unable to row for about six weeks because of a shoulder injury caused by her being knocked off her bike the previous year. By then, though, Annamarie and her crewmate Alison ‘Wilma’ Brownless had both won four medals in consecutive years, making them the most successful British female rowers at that time.

As well as her successes on the water, Annamarie won the lightweight category of the indoor rowing World Championships from 1992-1994. When Bill Mason started coaching her in the lightweight four in 1992, she’d just won the British Indoor Rowing Championships and she remembers him telling her that she could take 10 seconds off her time if she learned how to pace herself better. “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t go any faster than that!,'” she explains, “But I started going down to Imperial College and working with him and then I went over to the CRASH-Bs (the indoor rowing championships) in the US which I won by a country mile [14 seconds] and broke the world record.” She lowered her record again in 1994.

Full accounts of Annamarie’s years as a GB lightweight can be read here:

1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994

Going openweight

Rowing is a power endurance sport which is why it has a lightweight category; all other things being equal, taller, heavier and therefore stronger rowers have an advantage. But all other things are usually not necessarily equal, and better smaller rowers will regularly beat larger crews whose technique is not as good. Annamarie was a supreme technician. “She was, I thought, by far the best person in the boat technically,” her 1995/1996 crewmate Dot Blackie says.

Annamarie remembers, “Back in 1992, our lightweight four had beaten the openweight four that was going to the Olympic Games but we weren’t even allowed to put our names in the hat to be trialled for that, so on the back of that I’d decided that at some point I really wanted to go to an Olympic Games. At the start of the 1995 season Bill became Chief Coach for the women’s openweight eight that was going to try and qualify for the Olympics, and he told me he wanted me in his group for that.” So she became an openweight, but the relatively large group of rowers who came from quite a diverse range of backgrounds (some experienced Olympians, some who had never rowed internationally) struggled to gel, and the group dynamics were often in stark contrast to her happy years with the lightweight four who remain great friends to this day. That said, she started that season mostly pairing with Miriam Batten, which both of them loved, and the two were roommates for the 1995 World Championships. “Both of us didn’t get on with various other people in the squad,” she remembers, “And the weather was awful so it was just a big damp grey wet horrible time. The only rays of sunshine were M&S Devon toffees. We used to have bowls of them wherever we were, in blue wrappers – so delicious!”

The eight missed out on qualifying for the Olympics by a whisker at the first opportunity, the World Championships in 1995, but they made it at the final qualification regatta in June 1996 where they set a new British best time of 6.00.16. From low to high to low again, the crew underperformed badly in at the Games in Atlanta, finishing seventh. And while many aspects of the whole experience were so traumatic that Annamarie says that she has largely wiped them from her memory now, there were several positive bits too. “What was nice about Atlanta was getting to the rowing course and feeling at home because even though we’d been prepared for it, the Olympic village was full of distractions and different people, so getting in the boat at the regatta venue had a real feeling of belonging for the first time,” she reflects, adding, “I wouldn’t swap having gone to an Olympics for anything. I would recommend it to anybody because it’s an amazing experience even though at a very personal level it was a big disappointment.”

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Full accounts of Annamarie’s years in the openweight eight can be read here:

1995 | 1996

Annamarie represented GB under the names Annamarie Stapleton and Annamarie Dryden.

Later rowing

Annamarie decided to stop rowing internationally after the 1996 Olympic Games for various reasons. The sponsorship which had paid for Bill Mason to be Women’s Chief Coach in 1995 and 1996 had ended, so he was going back to his previous job coaching at Imperial College, and “The Amateur Rowing Association were very clear that there was no money for women’s rowing because we hadn’t even made the final, so they weren’t even going to employ a chief coach no matter how hard we tried,” she says, and having been an Athlete Representative from 1992 to 1996 she had actually had quite a lot of conversations with the team management. “So there didn’t seem to be much point in putting myself through another four years with no immediate prospect of things getting better even though we knew there was a possibility that the National Lottery might come on stream, but the fact that the whole of Team GB, not just rowing, had done so badly, in Atlanta made me cynical that anyone would want to invest money in sport.”

At the same time, she’d been working part time for an art company in Bond Street (having given up full-time work in early 1994 to concentrate on her rowing), “And they offered me a full time job and a directorship, and I wasn’t going to risk all that for the possibility that the GB women’s rowing programme was going to get Lottery funding.”

But while she was done with racing internationally, she certainly didn’t want to hang up her oars, and had a thoroughly enjoyable season with Thames RC which included winning the Women’s Head, as well as both Open Coxless Fours and Open Eights at Henley Women’s Regatta with former international crewmates Alison Brownless, Claire Davies and Ali Gill, as well as Helen Ingram, Mandy Kettle, Siobhan O’Sullivan and Grainne McElroy from Queen’s Tower. Her season ended at that point as by then she was expecting her first child. “I was sick as a dog, so we couldn’t do early morning outings, but the rest of them didn’t know and there was only so long I could keep making excuses about needing to get into work early!” she laughs.

Since then, she has made very occasional guest appearances in Thames crews, helping out friends and having fun, although she’s more often on the bank at rowing events either in an official capacity (of which more below) or supporting her children.

Women's eight in yellow boat

Annamarie at 5 in a Masters crew containing other former GB internationals Jackie Darling (bow), Pauline Rayner (2) and Pauline Peel (6). The author is coxing.

Rowing management and governance

Annamarie’s contributions to rowing off the water are arguably even more significant than her achievements on it, to such an extent that not all will be mentioned here.

As well as being International Athletes’ Representative for the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) from 1992-1996, Annamarie had been the rowing representative on the British Olympic Association Athletes’ Commission from 1994-1998, so when she retired from competing internationally in 1996, Di Ellis, the then Chairman of the ARA, said to her, “Right, you’ve been quite vocal about what you do and don’t like about how we treat women in rowing so here’s a job for you, become Chair of the Women’s Rowing Commission.” Reflecting on her move into rowing governance, she says, “I came from a family where my parents were very involved in local sport and my dad was always and is still prone to ‘articulate’ things that he feels strongly about, so we quite often had strenuous arguments at the dinner table and then you got up and got on with life and nobody took offence. So I was quite used to those sorts of those, ‘Here’s the way I see it’ discussions and also, because my parents were great ones for not complaining about things they didn’t like locally but getting involved with fixing them, and because I grew up in a family that did that, when I was at CUWBC and we all realised we need somebody to write press releases or whatever, I said, ‘I’ll do that job’.”

In 2002 Di invited her to stand as Deputy Chair of the ARA, although this put a certain strain on her childcare arrangements as she was just about to have her third child at that point. “Di said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it work,’ and we did – the other two quite often sat under the table at meetings.” She took responsibility for Governance, and was heavily involved with developing the ARA’s safeguarding and other policies. In 2013 she took over from Di as Chairman, a post she held until 2018 when she had to step down in order to meet the government’s new Code for Sports Governance which limits the time any one individual could be Chair of a national sporting governing body. She’s a huge supporter of British Rowing (as the ARA became) and the sport in all its forms, both outdoor and indoor, in all types of boats and over all distances.

She was appointed as the second female Steward of Henley Royal Regatta (after Di Ellis) in 1997, where she currently runs the start. “I love the start because you get to see every single race,” she explains. “You don’t get to know what the outcome of any race is really, but you see the closest bit of every race and it’s nice and quiet down there so you can actually get focus on the rowing.” Understandably, her favourite Henley moment, though, was watching her eldest son stroke ‘Thames versus Thames in the Thames’ in 2017 when the A crew beat the B crew in the final of the Thames Cup.

She is Vice-Chair of the British Olympic Association, a Director of the Head of the Charles Regatta, is the on European Rowing Board, and was previously Vice-Chair of the British Paralympic Association. Having served as Chairman of CUWBC, she is currently Chair-elect of the new combined CUBC. It was therefore extremely fitting that Annamarie was awarded a CBE in 2016 for services to rowing.

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.