Christine van der Mees (née Dennis then Peer)

Christine is on the left in the picture at the top of this page, taken at the 1970 Women’s European Rowing Championships. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

Years 1960 (4x+ unplaced)
1970 (2x unplaced)
Clubs Weybridge Ladies Amateur RC, Stourport BC, Bewdley RC, Mercia Scullers
Height 5’6″
Racing weight 8 stone 10lb or 55kg
Born 1940

Getting into rowing

Christine started rowing at the age of 15 when she joined Weybridge Ladies ARC after some school friends had encouraged her to make up a coxed four with them. She has all sorts of happy memories of both the rowing and the social  sides of the club.

“Young members at school paid sixpence each week towards regatta fees,” she recalls, adding, “The club found the balance, thus enabling us all to take part.” One of the ways that the club raised money to do this was by running a cafe from the boathouse during the summer months. Various older members made cakes and sandwiches and the juniors like Christine took turns to act as waitresses, cleaners and washers-up.

Another of the club’s fundraising initiatives was the Desborough Players which put on plays and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, although it was more successful as a way of gave members something to do during the winter than it was at raising money. Christine remembers providing the refreshments at various performances and still has a passion for Gilbert and Sullivan as a result.

The club was a lifeline for Christine and her sister Rosalyn. “It got us out of a very unhappy home environment,” she explains, and is eternally grateful to the personal support she got from its legendary Chairman Amy Gentry, “Who encouraged girls from working class families to give rowing a go. When she arranged for crews to go for a friendly regatta in Dunkirk and picked me to go in a four, she fought my parents to get me a passport so that I could go.” There was never a better example of the fact that although Amy Gentry never had children herself, just like Mr Chips, she actually had “thousands of children” (well, maybe hundreds) although in her case, they were all girls not boys.

1960 Joan Filkins and Christine Dennis large

Christine (right) being helped to boat by Joan Filkins – another legend of WLARC and women’s rowing generally in the 1960s. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

The club used a simple rule of thumb to decide whether crews could boat when the Thames was swollen by heavy rain; “If Amy could row her dinghy across the weir from her home on the island, we went out from the landing stage,” Christine remembers. “If she had to drive around by car, the river being too strong at the weir, then we carried the boats downstream and launched them in calmer waters.”

She recalls how this practical approach also led to the development of a rowing machine, largely for strength training. “It comprised an old rowing seat fixed to the floor with a stretcher and a block of concrete with a ring embedded in it that was attached to a rope that went through a pulley over a beam of the boathouse. The rope ended with a piece of oar handle and away you went!”

International career

Christine’s international rowing career is highly unusual two quite separate ways. First, her two representations were ten years apart and second, as her daughter Karen coxed at the first World Championships which included women in 1974, she is one of only two internationals whose daughter has also represented GB – the other being Elaine Laverick née Steckler who rowed in the eight at the 1966 Women’s European Rowing Championships and whose daughter Elise rowed at 11 World Championships and Olympic Games between 1997 and 2008.

Part 1

A full report of Christine’s 1960 coxed quad, which was coached by three-times World Sculling Champion Ted Phelps, can be found here.

After her first European Championships, Christine continued to take the sport seriously although her training set up was quite unconventional:

Sculling had got in my blood and I badgered poor Ted to coach me as a single if I got my own boat. I moved to Putney and fitted training around when Ted was available as he was a Port of London Pilot, and I often went out with him on the pilot launch and the ships. I learnt a lot about life among the lightermen who rowed as Poplar, Blackwall and District RC. Having Ted as my coach raised some eyebrows. As a single girl not working within a club environment, I had to be chaperoned. The Imperial College boatman and his wife provided changing facilities and, when necessary, a lovely Irish barmaid called Norah let me use her room at the Star and Garter at the end of the boathouses where she worked. The many friends I made among the waterside people encouraged and made life so interesting and worthwhile and provided the encouragement which was so essential to a single sculler.

I kept my boat at Thames RC through the kind offices of the then Captain, Geoffrey Page. When the captaincy changed, I received a polite note informing me that the men’s club was not suitable for a woman’s boat. What they feared I have no idea! Westminster School were kind enough to look after me then.

Part 2

Christine moved to the midlands in the mid 1960s after marrying John Peer, the son of Bill Peer who coached the St George’s LRC crew which represented GB at the 1966 Women’s European Rowing Championships. She kept her links with the Thames by coming back to race at Weybridge Silver Sculls, one of the first open events to include women, which she won in 1967 and 1969. “It was a race I really enjoyed,” she remembers, but adds. “Not so the Boston Marathon, which I did twice as I could not believe it could be so bad the second time. It was.”

In 1969 she represented England at the Home Countries match, winning her race against the Welsh sculler.

Initially a member of Stourport BC, she later moved to Bewdley RC where a lack of facilities led to another unconventional solution; “It didn’t have a women’s section but allowed me to change in the beer cellar! The result of this was that wives of the oarsmen saw me there and wanted to row themselves. Bewdley Women Rowers started and I coached them.”

She describes her training regime at the time:

I trained with my own free weights and ran a lot. I read Percy Cerutty, an Australian athletics coach who had Herb Elliot and many others under his guide. He advised sand dunes running, so as we had them near us in Stourport, I used them. Some local racing stables used to harrow part of the sand for the horses, and I would join them for the company in the early mornings. It is lonely being a sculler!

George Justicz [who had sculled for Britain in the double at the Rome Olympics in 1960] would give me some coaching, and I ran with him in the Malverns. We would run up the Malvern Beacon. I had to run up and down three times, whilst he did it five times. The children – his and mine – would sit at the cafe on the top with ice cream and yell encouragement to us. We did it on Sundays through the winter. I had other hills to run up during the week. George also had a chain of health food shops in Birmingham and he sponsored me with food to improve my diet. I learnt a lot from him on diet etc.

In summer I had two outings a day of at least 15 miles each and listened to Ted’s coaching voice on tape. Running and weights were fitted in between. I did endurance weights in racing season and a heavy weight programme in winter. In October I had a one month break before starting again.

Her hard work put her into what was a quite small group of Britain’s best female scullers at the time which also included Christine Davies, Margaret Gladden and Elaine Steckler. Christine Peer, as she then was, and Elaine got together on some weekends to train in a double for the GB trials, but for reasons Christine now can’t remember, she finished up being selected in a double with Christine Davies instead for the 1970 Women’s European Rowing Championships in Tata, Hungary at which Margaret Gladden was the single sculler.

Full details of her experiences at Tata, which included chicken’s feet in the soup and horrendous racing conditions, can be found here.

1973 Nat Champs winner - large

Christine won the Women’s Single Sculls at the 1973 National Championships by over 13 seconds. (Photo: Unidentified newspaper from Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

Churchill Fellowship

In 1974 Christine got a Churchill Fellowship which she used to study rowing German rowing. These were – and, in fact, still are – awarded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and “fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK.”

Christine describes this life-changing experience:

The chance to go to East and West Germany was a marvelous opportunity. The whole gamut of organisation, administration, research and reportage could only be done by oneself. You had a budget, and how long it lasted was up to you. Usually the Fellowships lasted six to eight weeks. I managed to stretch it out to four months by using my camper van as transport and when necessary accommodation. I arranged to visit and study at the Ratzeburg Academy with Karl Adam and Berlin Elite Rowing Centre.  I had my boat on top so that I could continue training and had camera and recorder to take down notes for my reports.

My German was extremely limited, and on one occasion I ended up on a Russian Artillery Range in East Germany through misinterpreting the sign posts. I did understand the word ‘Verboten’ [forbidden], which was displayed on trees and boards. The tanks had red stars and Russian signs on them. I was heading for an Academy in West Berlin but the security men showed me on the map that I was on the completely wrong side of the city! However, the boat cut through all barriers. ‘Would I be visiting the East?’ they enquired. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘But later.’ As my visa was in order, they wished me well and I was escorted to right through to Checkpoint Charlie where I was met with consternation from the officials there: a teacher from the West had been arrested as a spy a week before and I too was a teacher! They didn’t need any more hassle, so I was shown where to go, and met up with my contact for the Berlin Rowing Academy.

The Director at the Academy felt I would learn more if I spoke German, so no one was allowed to speak to me in English. I ate meals with the oarsmen and the boatman and his family and started my German lessons. If you wanted to eat, you quickly learnt to ask what something was. My first words in German were, ‘Was ist das?’ [what is that].  From there we progressed to standing by boats and learning all the parts by pointing and repeating with two-metre tall oarsmen laughing as I tried my pronunciation. But it was the right thing. By the time I left Germany I could understand a lot, and speak enough to be understood.

With the German teams I went to Denmark and Switzerland, as well as to regattas and training sites in East and West Germany. I not only learnt much about their training methods, crew selection, but importantly I was allowed to observe the psychological training of their crews.

coxing german mens pair Berlin 1974 b

Coxing a German men’s pair in Berlin. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

After three weeks in Berlin, I went to Ratzeburg Regatta with the German teams – I was looking forward to meeting up with British crews and giving my head a break from speaking only German. Sadly it was a cold reception. No one was interested in how things were going or what my Fellowship was covering. Understandably the coaches were looking after their own crews, but there were officials present [who might have talked to me]. It was very strange. The only helpful and friendly person was Kenny Dwan, a single sculler [who was a professional lighterman as well as two-times Olympian] who was having his own problems with the establishment. I headed back to Berlin on my own early.

Training on the water in Berlin had its own hazards. The border ran right down the middle of the river. Grey gunboats patrolled and when it was misty it was a worry not to get run down or picked up by them. Life was very interesting!

A few weeks later, I went with the German crews when they moved to Ratzeburg to train with Karl Adam. It is a beautiful setting. Training there involved boat crew selection. Combinations were tried and changed until the final teams were settled for the Worlds at Lucerne. The coaches told me which crews would get what medals, what sort, and they turned out to be spot on. Only one crew was an uncertainty – a double scull. Both boys rowed with a different hand leading and no amount of changing to the same hand worked. When they changed they went slower, but left to themselves speed improved. They ended up getting a gold medal. In 1970 Christine and I had been encouraged to lead with the same hand but perhaps that hadn’t been essential. Ted Phelps had insisted I learnt to lead with either hand, so I was the one to change to match.

It was at Ratzeburg that I met the team psychologist who was Polish. His methods were fascinating and introduced me to how important training the mind was in race preparation and success. I also learnt about the effects of long distance steady state on the blood. Nowadays it is a standard part of any sport training. Then it was pooh poohed. At that time blood doping concerns were being expressed in athletics circles.

Going to the German children’s Championships introduced me to the next part of the Fellowship – children in rowing. Children under 16 were not allowed in sweep oared boats. Coaches were prevented from driving the children like adults. Prizes were non-trophy, and teams not only sculled but had to take part in two other sports there as well. Skill, speed and enjoyment were the criteria. Future National teams members came from the junior sections of many of the clubs which took part. It was from contacts here that the children’s exchanges originated [see later].

In the middle of my time in Germany I had to drive back to England with my boat to race at the National Championships in Nottingham in a single and a double [a form of final GB squad trials at the time], arriving the day before racing. You can imagine the effect of driving all that way on my racing ability. I got a bronze in the double [with Christine Davies] and came fifth in the single. I was selected as reserve for the British team at the World Championships in Lucerne – sensible as I couldn’t train with anyone whilst still on my Fellowship. It was from Lucerne that my boat went back to England on the team trailer, and I returned with my van.

The Churchill Fellowship not only was educational, rowing wise, but I learnt I could make decisions for myself – mostly good ones, but bad ones didn’t mean the end of the world.

Coaching career

Christine achieved the Silver level Coaching Award in early 1973 (on the same course as the future GB coach Penny Chuter) and the Gold level in 1975. Her ensuing coaching career was, however, often as unconventional as her rowing training had been – but also just as successful. In 1976 the Amateur Rowing Association decided that there should be a woman on their Youth Committee and Christine was duly elected.

Her focus was generally on coaching children and it should be borne in mind that this was at a time when almost all under-18s who rowed did so at schools – clubs at the time mostly only had adult members. She was a particularly passionate advocate of making rowing fun for them, and had several articles about this and other aspects of coaching published in Rowing magazine. In one of these, from August 1975, she mentioned that she was eyeing up an old clinker eight in the Bewdley boathouse which she wanted to have rigged as an octuple scull – an idea that was well before its time as octs were only widely adopted in the early 1990s when the ARA wisely decided that J14s should only scull.

One of her first coaching roles, which began in 1972, was at King Charles School, Kidderminster who rowed out of Bewdley RC. They had various successes, but tragedy struck shortly before National Schools when a new boat which had just been built for them by Bill Colley was destroyed in a fire at Turks’ boathouse in Kingston shortly before it was delivered. Although it was insured, at that stage the waiting list for new boats at any boatbuilder was a year and VAT had also been introduced in the meantime so their money no longer had the same purchasing power. In the short term, Pangbourne College and Sir Thomas Rich’s School in Gloucester lent the King Charles boys boats so that they could still compete at National Schools.

She also got involved with coaching at Worcester College for the Blind. “The boys were wonderful and taught me the importance of not setting my perceived limits to their endeavours,” she remembers, adding that rowing for the blind and partially sighted had been an aspect of her studies in Germany. “We developed a sound system [this was well before the widespread availability of such technology] using Tupperware boxes, a speaker system and a recording of a metronome,” she explains. “This gave the stroke rate sound and allowed the cox to coach specific problems. It was crude but it was cheap and it worked. The school raced against sighted crews with my daughter Karen coxing one of the boats.”

When the school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972, the Headmistress of Wolverley School, near Kidderminster decided that she wanted to offer hew new cohort of older pupils some extra sports activities. “Teaching sculling to boys and girls who had never been in the proximity of a rowing club opened a new door,” Christine says. “Again using knowledge from my Fellowship, and with the aid of a swimming pool and later the Wolverhampton canal, and the loan of a couple of clinker sculls, the youngsters developed their own style of sculling. The objective was to discover all that could be done using a sculling boat. The students experimented and I filmed the results: standing up, standing on your head, rolling out of the boat and getting back in in whilst on the water, slalom and swapping boats mid-stream, and volley ball with ropes across the pool or canal, all of which brought a lot of fun and also taught a great deal about watermanship. I showed some of it at an ARA Youth Training Weekend at Holme Pierrepont to other coaches.”

Using her German contacts she set up an exchange programme, spending alternate summers doing what Germans call ‘wanderudern’ or touring rowing in England and Germany, camping along the Severn and Avon and the Rhine.

“My Fellowship also led to being asked to be Ulster Advisor on Rowing in 1975,” Christine recalls. “I flew over on many weekends to talk to clubs for both men and women rowers, and to help train crews and coaches. The racing season at that time was very short. Being so few in number, the clubs lack the opportunities that mainland crews have in the ability to choose regattas that extend throughout the summer. Running was not popular, but the Secretary of the Ulster Rowing Association Secretary and I got thinking and an oarsmen’s cross country was developed by him and one of the coxes who was a runner himself. Training for it got everyone out running!

In 1980 Christine moved permanently to Northern Ireland and met her second husband who was also a rower. Together they set up a six-week long summer scheme for children in Belfast. “I brought some old clinker boats over and a couple of the prototype children boats. We strung ropes across the river with buckets in the middle and played water netball. We taught the children to scull with the knowledge I had gained from the Wolverley School children. Relay races were held in sculls with the children changing places in mid river to the one boat that was allowed to complete the course. We invented all sorts of games, and the children from both sides of the divide were able to mix and learn not only rowing but about each other. I used a big teddy bear for children who were frightened and they told their fears to the bear, and we worked through them. The Troubles made life difficult for rowers in Northern Ireland. Catholic children thought that only Protestant children were allowed to row – hence the need to round up the kids on the bridges who were throwing bricks at boats as they went under, and getting them into the summer schemes.”

As well as coaching children, Christine was a member of the coaching team for several of the Women’s General Training Weekends organised by the Women’s Amateur Rowing Committee of the ARA in the 1970s. But the highlight of her high-performance coaching career was the work she did as finishing coach with a Queen’s University, Belfast crew which – against expectations – got to the final of the Ladies Plate at Henley in 1976.

Her contribution was principally in the area of psychology – drawing on what she’d learned in Germany, which hadn’t been well received elsewhere back in England. “I tried at a coaching seminar to discuss psychology with one of the National coaches,” she says, “But the response was ‘Oh, mind control – not interested in that’.”She goes on, “The Northern Irish coaches at that time traditionally expected failure, so when I found at the start of the regatta that they were countering positive expectations that the crew now had, with negative expectations, I banned the coaches and crew from meeting. This wasn’t popular. I got the crew out on the water before other crews were about, so that they had finished their training and were de-boating as other crews arrived. Our training distances were also unconventional. I spent evenings with the coaches updating them on how the crew was progressing and had very little sleep myself but it was worth it as they only lost by just over a length to Trinity College, Hartford, USA. For the crew, just getting to the final meant that they gained their equivalent of a blue and no Irish crew had got that far before.”

Karen Peer

Christine’s older children Justin and and Karen were both introduced to rowing at an early age and helped to test scull the junior/children’s sculling boats that Reredos of Redditch designed using measurements that she brought back from Germany.

Karen rapidly became a very proficient cox. “She’d coxed my ladies and boys crews,” Christine explains, adding, “We tested her on Holme Pierrepoint for voice penetration. You could hear her from the start to the finish clearly. She was a super cox. That was why I was asked if she could cox the quad for GB at the World Championships in Lucerne in 1974.” She was just 11 at the time and although the crew didn’t do well on the international stage, they did win gold at the British National Championships, which is no mean feat for an 11-year old. Pauline Bird, who was one of her quad and only 17 herself at the time of the championships remembers her being a “smart kid” and “a quite self-possessed little girl,” whose young age didn’t strike her as an issue although, she adds, “I was pretty young myself so 11 didn’t seem terribly young at the time.”

Christine adds, “The German coaches had taken pocket money and letters from me to her when she was at European Regattas, when I couldn’t get away from my studies in Berlin and the training academies for my Churchill Fellowship, so it was fantastic to catch up with her in Lucerne at the end of my trip. She went on to study at Loughborough in Psychology and Ergonomics with a 2:1 degree. Tragically she died in 2000 and is desperately missed.”

1974-Karen and Christine Peer

Karen and Christine Peer at the World Championships in 1974.