|Years||1964 (4+ 7th)
1970 (2x unplaced)
1971 (2x 13th)
1972 (2x 11th)
|Clubs||University of London WBC, Jessamy Scullers, Staines BC|
|Height||5’8″ or 173cm|
|Racing weight||9 stone 10 lb or 62kg|
Christine is in the hat in the picture at the top of this page taken at the 1970 Women’s European Rowing Championships. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Christine took up rowing when she went up to Queen Mary College, University of London in 1962 because, as a girl from Redcar on the Yorkshire coast, she missed the freshness and open spaces and, “Had this lovely image in my mind of a nice, gentle river somewhere with a wooden boathouse and reeds at the side and I thought an afternoon spent on the river in those sort of circumstances will be a lovely balance to living in central London.”
Obviously she rapidly discovered that the UL boathouse was on the tidal Thames in Chiswick, where the banks are more concrete than reed-lined, and what with this disappointment and the fact that she also wanted to have time do other studenty things, she initially only wanted to row once a week. However, with a cunning that could well have got her a long way in life, their cox Mary Mee asked her to do twice a week for the rest of the term, “Just until you’ve learned to row,” because there was an intercollegiate race in November and they wanted to do well. Christine grudgingly agreed and the crew rapidly improved but disaster struck in the race when the stretcher in their tub four broke 30 or so strokes into the race and they lost.
Somewhat hooked by this time, when Margaret came back to London for her second term in January 1963 she went down to the boathouse on the first Wednesday afternoon, although she was unsure whether anyone else from Queen Mary College Boat Club would be there because Britain was in the grip of a famous ‘big freeze’. No one was, but a University of London Women’s BC crew had arrived for an outing but were one short and asked Christine if she’d join them. Soon after, ULWBC asked her if she’d like to carry on rowing with them. “I was quite stunned,” Christine remembers, “Because when they asked if I’d become a proper member of the crew, I thought this was a great honour but when I told the college that I’d been asked to row for the university they felt I’d betrayed them – there was this wonderful four that we had and there was me saying, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’m going to row for the university instead.'”
Her other memories of that time include their coach, and racing against the graduates from United Universities Women’s BC who were in their prime, making up at least part of the GB team for the European Women’s Rowing Championships every year from 1960-1965. “We had a coach called Dick Franckeiss,” she recalls. “Lovely gentleman. Quite old by that stage, but he’d cycle along the towpath coaching us. And we quite often used to compete against UU because they were competing in all these events and they needed someone to race against and there was no way we were going to beat them but we very nobly used to be put out to race against UU, so we’d think. ‘Oh we only lost to them by a length and a half this time!’ We quite enjoyed it.”
At that time ULWBC had an annual fixture against Leiden University which alternated between Britain and the Netherlands, either taking place at the Bosbaan regatta in Amsterdam or at Willesden Regatta in London. Christine remembers travel arrangements that would astound rowers today when they got the ferry to Hook of Holland one year; “You didn’t take equipment although I have an idea we took our oars there because I have this memory that we walked our oars to the station and went round the [Circle] Line to Liverpool Street with them. Crazy!”
Part 1: ULWBC coxed four
Christine acknowledges that her later GB doubles partner, Margaret Gladden, who was Captain of ULWBC at the time, “Was the main driver in all my involvement. In my second year at University she got a four together and we were selected to row at the European Championships in 1964.”
She recalls that the internationally-experienced UU group gave them a wise tip at some point in their preparations, “When we were going across there, the advice from one of them was something like, ‘If you’re having two or three training sessions a week, make sure you have them on consecutive days otherwise when you go there and you discover you’re training every day you’ll just get tired out!'”
Full reports of the crew’s experiences in 1964 – and of Christine’s other international years – can be found here:
Part 2: Sculling
After the 1964 Championships, Christine carried on rowing for ULWBC, serving as Captain in 1965 and 1966 by which time she was a postgraduate student doing a PhD in the mathematics department. She was also Secretary of the University Women’s Rowing Association.
She started sculling in 1965, largely to avoid having to start from scratch with each year’s crop of new novices, and had an amusing experience that summer when a photographer from The Times turned up at the UL boathouse. “I was getting my boat out of the river,” she remembers, “And he said, ‘Do you mind me taking a picture?’ But he was so long taking it, when he started I was standing on a wooden [landing stage] with my feet well above the water but by the time he’d finished, the water was up to my ankles!”
Having started off by using men’s sculling boats, she later persuaded UL to buy a smaller boat for her to use which was cheap because it had been constructed using an experimental technique that hadn’t worked and as a result the skin had become rippled.
In October 1967 she was second at Weybridge Ladies Sculling Head and she won her novices (restricted boat category) at Barnes and Mortlake Events in 1968.
Around this time Margaret Gladden, who was already an accomplished sculler, decided that double sculling was the way ahead and asked Christine if she’d like to join her, which she was enthusiastic about apart from the logistical challenges created by Margaret, who was a doctor, moving to Liverpool while Christine, who had finished her PhD, got a job as a lecturer at Royal Holloway near Staines in Surrey.
However, the duo trained separately in their singles and met up occasionally to double at Runcorn RC where Margaret racked her boat. Christine bought a scull of her own from Dan Topolski. “Years later,” she explains, shaking her head incredulously, “I needed to… alter the riggers and Edwin Phelps did [the work] but when I went to collect it there was a message there which said, ‘Tell Christine that one rigger was 3/8” wider than the other.’ There’s no wonder sculling I had developed this habit of having one hand right on the end and the other one a little bit in because your body adapts! But isn’t that amazing that Dan Topolski was using a boat that was [set up so wrong]?”
After Christine had competed at the European Championships in Hungary in 1970, she bought a new single scull from Edwin Phelps, which she named ‘Hoyo’, which is Hungarian for ‘boat’. Margaret Gladden also had a Phelps single, which she called ‘Sain Dwr’ which is Welsh for ‘sound of water’ because she said it was such a beautiful boat to row in, “When I’m sculling, all I can hear is the sound of the water.”
Christine and Margaret sought advice from the GB men’s squad’s National Coach, Bob Janousek. “He was a lovely man,” Christine remembers. “I can remember talking to him about training – he was such a sensible person. What he’d say is, ‘How much time have you got? What facilities have you got?’ Common sense! When other people would say was, ‘You’ve got to do this.'”
On paper, Christine’s international rowing career concluded with her three appearances in the double scull from 1970 to 1972, but this conceals her ongoing attempts over the next four years to get selected as the landscape of top competition changed totally for women in 1974 when the old European Championships were replaced with a new cycle of World Championship and Olympic paticipation, and Penny Chuter was appointed National Coach with responsibility for women’s rowing and started a new squad to train for the 1974 World Championships.
She remembers attending the numerous assessment weekends and found the whole concept of having to perform on fixed dates throughout the year quite a shock after the more personally-tailored programme she’d followed in previous years. One of the perennial elements of these assessments was a 1500m timed run with people set off at 10 second intervals – thought by the athletes to done because the West Germans did it. The first time she had to do one – in the dark after a day’s rowing at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham – she wasn’t expecting much, not least as she had strained something in her calf, but also because she’d never done any competitive running although she had done many a mile round Windsor Great Park. To her astonishment, as she remembers it, she was second behind Lin Clark who had been a county runner before taking up rowing.
In search of coaching, Christine remembers, “I did a certain amount with Mike Spracklen… who was coaching the [GB] men at that stage and he was coaching their quad and at some stage I talked to him. You’ve got to discover what suits you because people like him all they believe in is hours and hours of training which isn’t necessarily the best thing, especially with sculling where technique is so important. But he’d have me out there doing things, and the craziest one was he put me in the men’s quad one day! What the men must have thought? Whether he thought he was really testing their loyalty I have no idea. It was so fast! I was at two. The speed of the blades at the water and everything!”
She also recalls racing at the two-day Nottingham International Regatta in June 1974 where she won on first day, beating Ann Cork, who had been named back in April as the GB sculler for international regattas, as well as members of the GB coxed quad and coxed four (although all of these were doubling up). Ann Cork then won on the second day, with Christine fourth, again beating doubling-up squad members. Writing about the 1974 season in the Almanack, Penny Chuter, the women’s squad’s Chief Coach, freely admitted that as Christine and Ann were about the same speed, Ann was chosen because, “She offered greater potential for the future.” Ann’s involvement with the squad continued for one more year – she raced in the eight in 1975.
After a race at Mannheim, probably in 1975, as she remembers it, “I came back in and said, ‘I’m through to the next round,’ and Penny looked at me in absolute astonishment. In those days that if you were more than 23 it’s really a bit of a lost cause. Well I hadn’t started sculling till after I was 24,” she explains. In her opinion, “Basically, although they couldn’t stop me applying I didn’t tick any of the boxes [such as height and other measurements]… I was out of synch, but with the experience I’d got and obviously the expertise, I felt I could have been [useful] in a quad.”
Having not been selected for the World Championships in 1975, she was offered what she considered to be the very inadequate consolation prize of a place in the England team for the Home Counties regatta, at which she won.
In the run up to the 1976 Olympics, Christine was part of the squad in the early part of the year, doubling with Diana Bishop. But from mid-March, Diana was in the coxed four, and although Christine continued doing a lot of training with the squad in her single, she finished 32 seconds behind Diana at the Scullers’ Head on 10 April. She won on both days at NIR on 25-26 June, apparently only against domestic opposition. She remembers, “I think I got as far as being measured for my Olympic uniform, which was done quite early, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be going.”
During these years she amassed a considerable collection of medals at the National Championships which had started in 1972:
Gold – Double sculls with Margaret Gladden
Silver – Single sculls (behind Margaret Gladden)
Gold – Single sculls (beating Ann Cork who had been selected as the GB sculler for the World Championships at the open Final Trials the previous weekend)
Bronze – Double sculls with Christine Peer behind the two doubles which made up the GB coxed quad
Bronze – Single sculls behind Diana Bishop, who was the GB sculler at the World Championships that year, and Ann Cork
Silver (I think) – Double sculls with someone from Civil Service
Bronze (I think) – Quad sculls with Bedford, Civil Service and Derby
Gold – Double sculls with Jackie Darling
Silver – Single sculls behind Catti Moss who had been in the squad until at least November 1975
Once she had finally finished competing, she took on being a Selector from 1981-1984, travelling to key events to watch squad crews in action. In 1984, the last year when there was a non-coaching Selection Panel, although she was the women’s selector, all of the selectors (men’s, women’s, junior men’s, junior women’s, men’s lightweight, women’s lightweight) made joint decisions. This arrangement was subsequently abandoned because its obvious flaw was that each selector was involved with decisions concerning groups they knew little about, a point with which Christine wholeheartedly agrees saying, “I did wonder as to how valuable or relevant a role we were fulfilling.” But she does remember with a certain amount of pride that one of the crews she had to ‘select’ for the LA Olympics that year contained a certain Steve Redgrave.
Today, Christine lives by the river in Reading, and keeps meaning to buy a ‘pootling’ dinghy. She still works part time in “the only job I’ve ever had” as a lecturer at Royal Holloway. Her single, Hoyo, lives in her garden under a tarpaulin as she can’t find a home for it, but the beautiful double is no more, having been crashed during a head race a couple of years after she’d given it to Staines (she hastens to add that Staines were very good to her, and as a result she gave her 1974 NIR winner’s plaque to them as a ‘thank you’).