|Years||1995 World Rowing Championships (8o, 7th)|
1996 Olympic Games (8o, 7th)
1997 World Rowing Championships (2-, 7th)
1998 World Rowing Championships (2-, 2nd)
1999 World Rowing Championships (2-, 5th)
2000 Olympic Games (2-, 9th)
2001 World Rowing Championships (2-, 5th)
2003 World Rowing Championships (2-, 1st)
2004 Olympic Games (2-, 2nd)
|Clubs||Pembroke College BC (Cambridge), Cambridge University Women’s BC, Marlow RC|
|Height||6’0.5” or 184cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Cath (left) training with her 1997-2000 pairs partner Dot Blackie and is from her personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Cath learned to row “very inauspiciously and very unintentionally”, as she describes it, as a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1989. “I wasn’t sporty at school, my reports said I wasn’t sporty and my family wasn’t sporty. I was tallish but I only shot up quite late on and I felt awkward and self-conscious so it definitely wasn’t my thing. There were other things I was good at like music so when I went to university I really wanted to do that and to get into all the debating stuff at the Union and so when I went to the freshers fair where they have all the clubs and someone from the rowing stall came up with a clipboard and said tried to persuade me to give it a go, I said, ‘No, I’m not very good at sport and I don’t like getting up early in the morning, that’s not what my student life is going to be about.'”
She continues, “But lots of people around me were rowing and were all talking about it; there was a big buzz about it. And then about half way through the term the girl in the next room next knocked on my door and said, ‘I need a massive favour from you, someone’s has dropped out of our eight and we can’t carry on unless we have eight people, and we know you say you don’t want to do it, but I’m here to persuade you to have a go because I think you’ll enjoy it, we’ve only got three weeks left to the end of term regatta and we’ll buy you lots of drinks, what’s it going to take?’ So, the next morning I got up at some hideous time and went down to the boathouses and it was a revelation, a very different experience from school sport. Being on the river was as different from standing in a ridiculous skirt on a freezing cold hockey pitch as you can get. I loved the camaraderie. And they were all pretty hopeless because they were all beginners so I fitted in fine and fell in love with the sport very genuinely.”
She went on to row for the Cambridge Blue Boat in 1991 and 1993.
International rowing career
After completing her first degree in German and Russian, Cath spent a year at Aberystwyth University studying for an MPhil in International Relations but rowed at Marlow RC, which sounds improbable but there was a certain sense in it. She explains, “A friend from the 1993 Blue Boat, Claire Glackin, also graduated that summer and we both wanted to carry on. She’d won a silver medal at Under-23 level the previous year, so she was a lot more organised than me about what the next step might be. We were both on bowside, but I swapped to strokeside so we could go to the National Championships and we won a silver medal in a pair.” They also took the gold medal in the eights and had won Club eights at Henley Women’s Regatta a few weeks earlier.
Cath continues, “Clare worked in Reading so that was why we joined Marlow. I commuted in a clapped out old Chrysler Avenger. I’d head over on Thursday evenings and went back on Sunday night and literally never spent a weekend in Aberystwyth. I did lots of ergos whilst I was there and that kind of got us through that year really. At the end of it, both were selected to row in the England eight at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships in Canada where they won a bronze medal.
We were coached at Marlow by Phil Tinsley and then in a GB development group by Ron Needs.” Ron had coached both the Cambridge women and GB crews for many years and he and Rosie Mayglothling had realised that the GB National squad had become so run down and that serious work was needed to nurture the next generation of athletes who would replace the small number who were left (in 1994 the openweight team comprised just three women). “The development weekends he and Rosie ran at Nottingham kept a whole generation going that would have been lost otherwise and were basically most of the people who were in the Commonwealth Games eight that summer,” Cath explains. “Every six to eight weeks we’d go to the National Water Sports Centre and they’d coach us and educate us about how to train. They’d show us what the established team members like Miriam Batten and Jo Turvey did on the ergo, what their ergo scores were, how much they lifted, what to do in the gym. They did everything that the Start performance programme does now.” She concludes, “Ron was amazing. I would not have gone to the Commonwealths and I would not have carried on after that year if it hadn’t been for Ron because we were struggling at trials. We were so inexperienced.”
Full of rowing and academic ambition, Cath moved to Reading in the autumn of 1994 and embarked on PhD research into German reunification whilst also becoming a member of the new GB squad created with the single goal of producing an eight to race at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, coached by Bill Mason.
In the summer of 1995, Cath rowed at her first World Championships in terrible conditions in Finland. The eight finished seventh, which was one place outside pre-qualifying for the Olympics. It was an extremely difficult experience, but one they turned round the next summer when they won their berth to Atlanta at the final qualification regatta. That, however, turned out to be the crews’ pinnacle and they underperformed at the Games, eventually finishing seventh again.
Reflecting on it all now as a leadership consultant and former diplomat who specialised in conflict stabilisation, Cath says, “We weren’t that cohesive a unit – I don’t mean technically – and there was very little psychological input. Bill was technically very good, he was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, but he kind of wasn’t really allowed to perform as he wanted to. There was a lot of macho pressure on doing the programme no matter what, which was part of the GB rowing culture. It was quite a survival environment. And because we all came out of our clubs, there was also always this tribal thing going on that really was very strong and we didn’t consciously address that and put that to one side and think what have we all got in common, what are we trying to do? So I think psychologically we were a bit naïve and that meant we couldn’t deliver our best on the day; if anything we probably had a better built up to the qualifying regatta because we were on our own because most of the other crews had pre-qualified so that period was more tailored to us.”
For the four years of the next Olympiad up to Sydney in 2000, the GB women’s squad trained as full time athletes supported by Lottery funding with Mike Spracklen as Chief Coach. Following the squad’s strategic focus on sculling, Cath was in a quad for the first World Cup regatta in 1997, but thereafter did a pair with Dot Blackie who, like her, much preferred one blade to two. They won their first-round heat at the World Championships before Cath went down with a virus and was substituted out of the boat. “I just had this really freak temperature that I’ve never in my life had again, and the team doctor wouldn’t let me race,” she remembers, adding. “Based on our performance in the heat we probably would have come third.”
The following year, 1998, fuelled by this frustration in a positive way, and supported by the team psychologist Chris Shambrook, they were on a mission all through their winter training and went on won the silver medal at the World Championships. “That silver medal was very precious because of how hard we’d had to work for it,” Cath reflects.
In 1999, none of the GB women’s openweight boats medalled at the World Championships. Cath and Dot were fifth. There were a lot of things going on for the squad, but Cath found the culture counterproductive. “It might have worked for some but personally, I never felt that I was in a psychological environment that was helping me to perform,” she says now. “There was a lot of negative psychology and talk about being weak if you didn’t win, whereas I wanted to look at what happened in a race and talk about what I was thinking and how I was feeling rather than being told that because a crew’s gone past you, you were being mentally weak. Living under the regime that was in place at the time was difficult and there’s probably a limited time for which people can withstand it. Some people can stand it slightly longer, and some people can stand it slightly less. It had troubled me from quite early on.” Dot, who had been in the team for longer than Cath, is slightly more sanguine, saying, “I suspect that I was probably world-weary in that by this time seen some quite astonishing things going on! But you could always see this enormous potential in Cath and I could see it being crushed a bit.”
As a result, the pair made a decision to leave the main GB base near Longridge and go it alone, largely based at Leander. “I can remember feeling we felt we had no option but to try that. It was that or basically walk away because we just didn’t feel it was working for us. So we did it and it was horrific. And really difficult,” she says, “Because the idea was that we would get our own coach which we never really managed to do.”
They finished ninth at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “The whole thing wasn’t the preparation that would have meant we were ready to race, were going our fastest, in a good mindset and believing we could do it. I think in many ways it had taken a lot of emotional energy to do the break and to sort of make it work and to hold ourselves together and support each other. You use up your emotional energy on all thet before you get there,” she reflects now.
Dot retired from international rowing after 2000, having competed at three Olympic Games. Cath seriously considered doing the same but, she says, “I wasn’t so sure. There was going to be a new head coach, Paul ‘Thommo’ Thompson, and I’d become friends with Katherine Grainger who’d said that she’d really love to row with me at some point. We both took time off until January 2001 and then came back, very unfit. Cath and Katherine came fifth in the pair at the Worlds that summer, and doubled up in an eight that finished sixth.
“In my own mind I’d said, ‘If you don’t win a medal in 2001, it’s time to move on,’ and I’d really been toying that whole year with whether I should have come back or not but I wanted to see the new environment. Paul was technically a brilliant coach and had technical insight into how to row a pair that we’d never had before but he clearly didn’t have a lot of faith in me. And I understood that because I didn’t have a lot of faith in me either. So I’d been thinking, ‘How is this going to end well?’ I was still really recovering from the whole Sydney experience. And I’d also finally finished my PhD in 1999 so I was also starting to think very seriously about other things I wanted to do with my life.”
As a result, Cath retired from international rowing and joined the Foreign Office, which she felt was the perfect channel for her interests in languages and politics. “I’d been thinking about it for a while, and I remember having a long chat to Kate Hoey the Sports Minister at various times who’d come up to Sydney, and she’d been telling us a lot about the Civil Service and government and had said, ‘You should definitely do this.’ So I’d put in an application because I’m always someone to plan a backup plan, and then we didn’t win a medal and I got in, so I felt that was a rather clear message!” she laughs.
Cath loved her new life. “It was a breath of fresh air. I could do things, I wasn’t being shouted at by a coach. It was a different world. I remember we messed up on something that went to Parliament when the Head of Department hadn’t been on there and we’d made an error that seemed to me to be terribly important, but in the grand scheme of things was probably quite small. We all got called into his office and I expected that I was going to get the sack but he was hugely apologetic for not having been there to give us the right feedback before it was sent over and just showed us how to do the correction, and that was it. I just remember being astounded at that after six years of being bawled at and told you’re no good. It was brilliant, I really enjoyed it.”
She continued to train every day, running, or doing gym sessions at Bisham Abbey because she still lived in Marlow. “I did a half marathon which Thommo was doing and he overtook me at the beginning and then I overtook him back before the end so there was something in me,” she recalls. “I felt very released by this being in the working world but just finding a joy in training again. But that led to me looking back on things and thinking, ‘I still haven’t given my best,’ and then reasonably quickly realising that I might want to go back again. I was still in touch with Katherine who was now in the quad but I don’t think things were going well at that point. We been out in the pair a few sneaky times in the evenings that nobody knew about sort of started to hatch a bit of a plan for me to return. I clearly remember watching the World Championships in Seville that year and thinking that if Katherine crew wins a medal I can’t come back because they would never put me in with her again. And frankly they’ll have moved on and I’m not part of it, and that’s it. But they didn’t win a medal!”
She went back, but because she no longer had any funding, continued working at the Foreign Office part time (she’s quick to point out that they were hugely supportive), and did some of her land training on her own around that. Thommo was good in giving me programmes and listening but he was also totally understandably non-committal. “I had to go through the open trials in singles, which squad members didn’t have to do, and I was fine with that,” she remembers.
Importantly, she was still had control over what she was doing. “I did the training I needed to do. I had a freedom, she said. “By that point I knew what my body needed. I’d slimmed down, I was much quicker, I was doing less heavy weights, I was much more dynamic, I’d done some more sprinting work on the track with some guys I knew from athletics world. I was feeling much better and was getting good results in my single. I was in great shape and I did well in all the trials.”
However, she adds, “Interestingly, when I first came back, Katherine and I were told quite firmly that we were not going to be doing a pair again. The message was, ‘You’ve tried the pair and it hasn’t worked. You came fifth, so don’t have that in your head.’ But we did still have that in our heads. We had shown great glimpses of speed, but we just hadn’t been fit enough to deliver on it and nor had I been in a great place really. But actually we felt it absolutely had what it needed.”
In they end, the did finish up back in their pair in 2003, but only because Katherine lost her seat race for the quad and had no other option. The circuitous route to this was that Cath was dropped after final trials, which too place in Hazewinkel, Belgium. I wasn’t good in rough water in my single to cope with the conditions there, and I didn’t make the cut. I’d also just driven off to get the ferry after I’d derigged and loaded my boat but was called back by Thommo for leaving without speaking to him, and got a huge dressing down from him in front of everyone in the boathouse. I thought that really sealed it all and I was just grateful that I had a good job to go back to.” In fact, all was far from lost. A few weeks later, after Katherine had been unsuccessful in final seat racing for the quad that included some athletes who had been ill or injured at final trials, their pair was back on. In a way, Cath admits, being the bottom boat allowed them to retain a sense of freedom. “There was nothing to lose at that point we’d got our opportunity. We’re the only people who think this can work, but we think it can and we’re in good physical shape and Thommo’s technical coaching of a pair is great.”
They went on to win the World Championships that summer, beating the Romanians who had won the title for the previous two years. Crucially for Cath, though, when it came to the final, she was totally focused on the process of rowing and the intrinsic joy in doing so rather than the medal that could be the outcome. “It’s a subtle but significant distinction, which brings a hugely positive impact on performance under pressure,” she explains in her book The Long Win (which will tell you far more about her rowing story than this brief summary does). The main reason for this was that they’d hardly expected even to make it to the start line because Katherine had injured her back very seriously during the semi-final, and they’d spent the intervening two days anxiously waiting for the medical all-clear while she underwent treatment and did endless stretching exercises. Cath described how they, “Pushed off for the final excited about going to race in our beloved pair,” adding, “Of all the races I’ve raced, this was the one where we stayed ‘in our bubble’ most, mentally in the present moment throughout.”
Cath and Katherine stayed together in the pair the following year and won the silver medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, finishing 2.11 seconds behind the Romanians. “On paper, we were capable of winning and so undoubtedly we wanted that,” Cath reflects, but adds, “We’d also been through a hell of a journey, because there were months in the autumn and winter when Katharine was injured and might not have been able to row that year at all. And I was certainly very aware that I’d been seventh and ninth at the previous two Olympics and I think I very quickly came round to a sense that I can live with it and move on but it would be wrong to acknowledge that it wasn’t what we wanted.”
After Athens Katherine wrote in her autobiography Dreams Do Come True that their silver medal, “Is still one of the medals I am proudest of, because of the challenges we had to overcome to achieve it, and I am so pleased an athlete of Cath’s calibre won a much-deserved Olympic medal and a world title.”
Within weeks, Cath, who had spent the previous year learning Serbo-Croat in her spare time, had been posted to Sarajevo by the Foreign Office. This time, she had retired from international rowing for good. “I really been hanging on for 2004 in many ways. I was 32 and even though I understood that centralisation brings benefits, I’d had enough of been driven around in minibuses and not having a voice, even when I was winning medals. The real world was out there and I was ready for it.”
Full accounts of Cath’s nine years in the GB rowing team (including lots more detail and photos) can be read here:
Cath was also World Indoor Rowing Champion in 1999 and British Indoor Rowing Champion in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 1999.
Life after the GB team
Since retiring from international rowing, Cath developed her career as a diplomat and more recently as a leadership consultant, speaker and writer. She has applied these skills to the sport of rowing as Chair of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club from 2014 until 2020 when it merged with the men’s club to form a single Cambridge University Boat Club, and as a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta since 2017.
SInce 2015 she has competed regularly at the Head of the Charles with former GB team mates Katherine Grainger, Gillian Lindsay and Kate Mackenzie. “We’ve created our own way of continuing to row with more enjoyment than I’ve have ever had before in rowing (apart from perhaps in the early years at university),” she explains. “We generally don’t do much in the winter but we train from March onwards and go to Boston, which is a delight and massively sociable; we get to meet up with a bunch of friends there from around the global rowing community, and we get to do a race that is fun, has great crowds and a great vibe, and is usually in the sunshine. I can’t tell you how much I missed not training for it and going when Covid hit… it’s been a massive highlight in the year since we started doing it.”
In 2020, she published her first book, The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed, which “explores our cultural obsession with winning and how it affects the way we approach work, sport, education and beyond.” It was, she says, a long time in gestation, and draws on her experiences from her first year in the GB team onwards. In particuar, her result in Sydney led her to take a deep dose of reflection though which she realised that, “I’d tied up her value as a person with an Olympic medal and therefore if I hadn’t won an Olympic medal I was worth nothing and that was a bad place to be and a stupid place to be. But it’s a really common error and is part of a lot of difficulties athletes get into mentally. I’d gone down that route that somehow this is proving who I am and there are things within the squad setup that would back that up, for example, you’re being funding to get medals, and you’re treated differently according to whether you’re winning medals or not. For example, when we were coming home from international regattas and got to the airport, the medallists would be given their tickets first with a big shake of the hand from the manager who’d say, ‘Well done, great job,’ which is all very well for them but what does that say about the rest of us? The world I work in now is full of leaders who have good intentions but have the opposite impact and I think there’s still a lot to be done about identifying what is actually the best environment for people to perform in.”
Cath talks about her book to Martin Cross, Olympic gold medallist, educator and commentator. It’s all interesting, but forward to around eight minutes in where she explains very eloquently how the whole GB team played an essential part in the high-profile successes. “I want us to think about the stories of all of the other people there who were very necessary to push us to win the medals,” she says. Many of those stories can be read here on RowingStory, of course.
Cath’s experience of rowing and her legacy to it is perhaps best summed up in a phrase of her own from The Long Win in the ‘About the author’ section which inevitably – as this rowing story has tried and largely failed to avoid doing – defines her career in terms of the medal she won. “But as this book attests, it was about so much more than the medals,” she says. Remember that, and apply it always.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.