|Years||1989 World Junior Championships (4- 5th)
1991 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
1992 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
|Clubs||Royal Chester RC, University of London Women’s BC, Thames RC|
|Height||5’7.5″ or 171.5 cm|
Claire is second from the left in the photo at the top of this page of the silver medal GB women’s lightweight coxless four on the presentation raft at the World Championships in Montreal in 1992, and is from Annamarie Phelps’ personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Claire first got in a rowing boat at the tender age of eight because her dad’s veteran four at Royal Chester RC needed a cox. “There was a regatta coming up and they wanted to go training one evening but they didn’t have a cox so he asked my sister. She was 10 and she said, ‘No’,” she explains. “And I can remember him then saying to me, ‘Claire, sit on the floor and pretend you’re in a boat. Now, you’re going to have two strings, one here and one here, and if you pull this one the boat will go this way and if you pull that one it’ll go that way. Now, get in the car.’ And that was it, I was in a boat!”
“I had fear whatsoever, helped by the fact that I loved swimming,” she continues, “But I couldn’t see a thing around the men so I crashed pretty much every outing, I think, and I know we crashed in the first two or three races, but I persevered.” She must have been a quick learner because her dad remembers one outing not much later when she shouted at the bow man, “When I say take one stroke, bow, I mean ONE stroke!” “I was nothing if not a bossy child!,” she laughs.
When she was 14, Claire won Women’s Junior Coxed Fours at the 1986 National Championships, coxing her sister’s crew, but by this time she was also rowing herself. She recorded her first win (stroking a four in Women’s Senior B at Chester Regatta) in 1987. Although her dad initially taught her in a tub pair, she had soon progressed to the club’s main junior programme which was run by Andy Turner, and was very successful for quite a number of years.
Junior international career
Claire went to her first GB junior squad trials in 1988 ‘for experience’ which, she says, “Was a brilliant thing to do because the next year when I had much more chance, I knew what to expect from the trials, which largely meant how to pace myself through the final trials weekend I think.”
She continues, “By 1989, Andy was totally on the ball with how to get into squad, so we did test ergos every week, and he got us access to the RAF Sealand gym which was fantastic and had much better equipment than we had at the rowing club. Helen Mangan joined us then. She was an adult, and that was her first year in GB senior squad so we were both going through similar things but with different aims.”
That summer she was selected, aged 17, to row in the GB junior coxless four which duly won at the National Championships (as well as coming fourth in the senior coxed event), before finishing fifth at the World Junior Championships in Hungary. It was not, however, a “happy ship”, Claire remembers. “Everyone had wanted Adrienne Grimsditch, who had already sculled for GB for the previous two years, to be in the crew. She was great, and she was so strong! She rowed in the four for all of the seat races but after the final race she reminded the coaches that they’d promised her that she would have a chance to prove herself as the single sculler so they let her do a time trial and to her absolute credit, after all she’d done that weekend, she managed to make the qualifying time.”
Claire’s four was coached by CD Riches, and she recalls that, because they were all upset that they knew they weren’t the fastest crew because Adrienne wasn’t in it, “The first conversation he had with each of us, every single one of us was in tears and I remember him telling us, ‘I don’t know how to coach girls that keep crying!’ So it wasn’t easy but in the end we sort of moulded together OK.” They made the final but finished out of the medals.
An unusual and unexpected side story was that Claire met her future husband, who was a member of the GB boys team, on their pre-Championships training camp. Once they got to Hungary, for reasons that are hard to fathom, her crew and his were allocated rooms next to each other with an interconnecting balcony. “They broke into our room regularly, and at one point took a load of photos on my camera. I discovered exactly who it was when I got the film developed, though, because they were all posing in front of the mirror, but we all had a great time,” she laughs.
In terms of the actual rowing, her main memory is, “One of the coaches saying that the funniest thing was watching us dance around the kneecaps of the Russians on the pontoon because they were just enormous.” She adds, “I think I got over the disappointment quite quickly of the result and really enjoyed it.”
Claire didn’t trial for GB squad in her final year at school so that she could focus on her A-levels instead, although she admits – as so many other young rowers have found – that, “This was actually probably to the detriment of my exams because I suddenly lots of time on my hands so I didn’t actually manage it at all well.”
Senior international career
In the autumn of 1990, Claire moved to London to study geography and economics at University College, freely admitting that she hose the university because the GB women’s squad was based in London.
She quickly found a pairs partner at UL, Cecilie Tindlund, a Norwegian who wasn’t eligible for the GB team but was happy to do trials with her, and in the way of rowers everywhere, was fondly known as ‘Cecil the Trestle’.
Claire raced in the second GB lightweight four for the first few regattas of the 1991 season, but was then promoted to the first crew after a further set of trials, somewhat to her surprise, because she hadn’t been able to work out how she was doing in the pairs matrix.
Claire remembers one set of trials where she believes her knowledge of one of the ‘dodgy’ boats that the lightweights had to resort to using in those pre-funding days gave her the edge. “It was yellow but it wasn’t an Empacher – it was called the banana boat, of course, and it was probably bent as well but it was a really, really lightweight boat and it was great, I loved it because I’d rowed in it all year and I know how to make it go. You couldn’t pull it because it would just twist and bend, but if you were precise and just did tap, tap, tap, it was OK. I can remember everyone got in that boat and said that they hated it but in the matrix it was great for me because when I was in it, I did well but everybody else did really badly in it. So I’m sure a lot of it came down to that boat!”
The new lineup won at Amsterdam and Lucerne, which Claire again found rather extraordinary. “We just kept winning! I didn’t expect to, because I didn’t expect anything. I was struggling with the fact that I was in the boat – it was amazing and brilliant.”
To this day, the crew all talk about how well they got on, and how much fun they had rowing together. It’s obviously impossible to say whether this contributed to their success at the World Championships in Vienna, but they did exceed many of the expectations of them and won the silver medal, a particularly impressive achievement as two other members of the crew – Annamarie Stapleton and Alison Brownless – were also only in their first year of international racing, although stroke Katie Brownlow was more experienced. “There was just a huge amount of excitement,” Claire remembers, “It was absolutely amazing and a brilliant, brilliant experience.”
Being lightweight is rarely easy, though Claire admits it wasn’t as hard for her as it was for some. “I thought at the time I was having to starve myself, but I do also distinctly remember treating myself quite a lot – flapjacks and Creme Eggs were my treat – so I can’t have struggled all that much!”
The following year, Claire spent the winter with UL, and rowed with them at the Women’s Head. “I was very loyal to University of London so I insisted on going back, although I don’t quite know how I got away with it. It was a good setup and I really enjoyed it and I wanted to be a student and be part of it and I also didn’t want to be that person that hung around the boat club when it suited them and didn’t give anything to the club so I was absolutely determined that I was going to row for the university as long as I could.”
She earned her place in the GB lightweight four again that summer, and won another silver medal at the World Championships in Montreal. Compared with their joyous silver the year before, this one was a bitter disappointment as they’d led by a considerable margin for most of the race, but were rowed down right at the end. “I felt we were just batting up and down and not getting into a rhythm where the other three, who were really strong, could use their power,” Claire remembers.
Full accounts of Claire’s years rowing for GB can be read here:
Although Claire trialled again the following year, a back injury which she had incurred when training at the RAF gym when she was 15 and which had niggled ever since, had become a real problem. When she was at the pre-Worlds training camp in Varese in 1991 she’d even managed to tweak it by juggling (a craze sweeping through the team in an attempt to alleviate boredom between outings), and the problem had become worse after ‘cleaver’ blades were introduced in 1992. On top of all that, just as her back was getting better, she developed overtraining syndrome, with the result that she couldn’t race in the four for the first few regattas of the summer season and Jane Hall came in to the crew instead. “It all went wrong at Paris regatta,” she remembers. This was in mid-June. “Ann Redgrave was the team doctor and had been treating me, but she was away with the openweights or something like that, and I was told that Jane would be in the crew on the Saturday and I would be on the Sunday so it was a seat race and this would be was my last opportunity. I hadn’t been training properly for weeks so obviously they went faster with Jane and that’s it I was out, but I can remember Ann Redgrave being furious and saying that had she been in the country there was absolutely no way I would have raced.”
She continues, “I appealed because although it was totally accurate result given the physical shape I was in at that point, I felt that they’d been training with Jane leading up to the event and they were rowing in a slightly different way which I hadn’t had time to adapt to, so it was difficult but they had to make a decision because time was running out.”
Having also just finished finals, Claire remembers that it was very hard to adjust to such a sudden change in her life. “I went from having this great friendship group, this very supportive network, I had a structure to my life and I suddenly lost everything in one fell swoop. Annamarie and Wilma were very, very sweet and I remember going for dinner at Annamarie’s house and sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, rowers really do just talk about rowing!’ and totally getting that that had been me but that just made me feel even more out of place.”
Later rowing and other things
Uncertain what to do next, Claire got a job and joined Thames RC, doing trials in early 1994, but still feeling very low about rowing. However, after she won the Women’ Head with Thames, she and her sister Sarah started training out of Imperial College where Bill Mason, Chief Coach of the GB lightweight women, was in charge. “He gave us the programme the squad were doing, which we did on our own, and we raced at Ghent as Queen’s Tower and did OK in a pair. As a result, we decided we should aim to ‘do something’ that season and realised that it was the Commonwealth Regatta that summer, and we had a chance of making the Welsh lightweight four. It transpired you don’t have to be very Welsh but we had to find my grandfather’s birth certificate because you have to have at least one Welsh grandparent, and he was born in Wales. So we phoned up the North Wales Register Office and told them his name was Glyn Jones and he was born in Llangollen and they just laughed and said, ‘You haven’t got a chance!,’ but we found it in the end and hilariously it was Maggie Cook from our crew that the team managers were worried about because she didn’t have a Welsh name although actually she was more Welsh than the rest of us but because me and my sister were both Davies, and the fourth one was Ellie Jones, so they weren’t worried about us.”
They won openweight coxless fours at Henley Women’s Regatta, and had an enjoyable trip over to Canada, finishing fourth (ahead of Scotland and Ireland), and “Giving England, who were third, more of a run for their money than they expected us to,so that was fine,” she recalls. “It was great fun, and the Welsh team had no expectations. I remember saying to the manager, ‘Actually, could you just play us the Welsh National Anthem because we have no idea what it sounds like?,’ and he just said, ‘There’s no chance that you’ll ever need to hear it.'”
In search of another new goal, Claire decided to do the London Marathon in 1995, again with her sister, and finished in an excellent time.
Her time spent focusing on running may have revived her rowing mojo a bit as she raced in some top quality Thames club eights with her sister again in 1996, and also dabbled with single sculling, despite never having been a fan of two oars rather than one. “Elise Laverick was a good friend and I was sort of her training partner except the only way I could keep up was by only doing one in three of her sessions. Because we were on the Tideway I’d sit on the inside being nice and sheltered against the stream and she’d be slightly further out and if she’d just done quite a heavy weights session then I some chance of keeping up with her. But I wasn’t taking it very seriously at all and actually really enjoying it because there was no pressure on me,” she explains. She completed the Scullers’ Head and also raced at Metropolitan Regatta. “I can distinctly actually being on the start line at the Met which was still at the Docks then, and it was really rough. The starter kept looking at me saying, ‘Come forward, Lane 4, come forward,’ and I said, ‘I’m as forward as I’m going to be!’ ”
In 1997 her 1991 four (with Ali Gill instead of Katie Brownlow, who had moved abroad) had a ‘swansong’ summer, just enjoying rowing together and winning at Metropolitan and Henley Women’s where they also won an eight with some other experienced oarswomen. “That 1997 four was great and was all about having a bit of fun but also I remember it was no faff, it was arrive on time, in kit, ready to go.”
After that she went travelling, and when she returned decided to call a halt on rowing. “I think I just felt I’d been there, done that, I’d ridden all sorts of highs and lows, and it was time for something else. And actually I’d got to the point with my back where I’d had 18 months of quite hard physio, just to be able to function without having an operation and I came to the conclusion that I could either row or I could do everything else I wanted to do in life and so that was the end of it really.”
Claire’s absolutely final appearance in a rowing race was at the 1999 World Masters Championships in Seville when she did a four with a friend whom she’d rowed with at Royal Chester as a junior, and their mothers. “My mum never rowed the whole way through my time as a junior, saying, ‘I think it’s ridiculous for old women to start rowing, they ought to know better,’ but then a whole group of mothers of the juniors at the club did start rowing and they didn’t ask her because they she’d said she didn’t want to, but she got quite put out so she did go along and she LOVED it. I think we pretty much proved that I got on better with my mum than my friend did with hers because they argued the whole way down the course, and actually my back was appalling and I was on the phone to a physio getting advice as they were carrying the boat to the water. We were never going to race competitively but it was good fun!”
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.