|Years||1992 Olympic Games (8o 7th)|
1993 World Championships (4- 8th)
1995 World Championships (8o 7th)
1996 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
1997 World Championships (2- 7th)
1998 World Championships (2- 2nd)
1999 World Championships (2- 5th)
2000 Olympic Games (2- 9th)
|Clubs||Edinburgh University BC, Thames RC, Wallingford RC|
|Height||5’10.5″ or 180cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone 7lb or 73kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Dot (right) and Cath Bishop at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and is © Maggie Phillips.
Getting into rowing
Dot grew up in Wallingford but, despite being generally sporty, she didn’t row as a child, even though her sister did and the rowing coach Bruce Grainger was her year tutor. She eventually decided to give rowing a go in 1988 when she was in her third year at Edinburgh University, partly because she enjoyed team sport but was realising her knees weren’t up to playing any more netball, and partly because she was fed up with being the tallest in any sports team she’d been in and rowing seemed to offer an opportunity to blend in.
“Edinburgh University Boat Club back then was nothing like the high-performance setup that currently exists,” she explains. “It was just a shed with literally half a dozen boats and we rowed on a 1,500m stretch of the Union Canal which was very narrow. Sometimes we went to Strathclyde Park so we could row in an eight because there wasn’t room to turn one of those around on the canal; I remember a hideous early morning outing at there in the snow in a really old clinker-built eight – I don’t know why I carried on, really!”
With very little coaching, and certainly almost no expert input, it took her a while to get to grips with the basics. “I was a bit rubbish, which I liked in some ways but it was also quite a challenge because I was used to being good at sport,” Dot remembers. “There was one famous occasion when we went down to the Women’s Head and borrowed a boat from Emanuel School because of a connection with someone’s brother. He took us out for a practice in it and kept shouting, ‘Three, you’re late at the catch!,’ which was me, and eventually I had to say, ‘What’s the catch?!'”
In her fourth year, 1989-1990, she became the first female captain of EUBC and her impact was clear to Katherine Grainger who was just starting to row there as a first year at the time. “[Dot had] made sure that for the first time the women’s team had a fair run at things,” Katherine explains in her autobiography Dreams do Come True, adding, “The most famous story was about how she finally got so fed up with people being late for training that one day as she drove the minibus from the University to training she didn’t stop to wait to collect anyone. If they weren’t there at the end of their roads as instructed she simply drove on… It only happened once.” Katherine also reminisces about Dot’s “wonderful, childlike sense of fun”, and top-class ability to get more doughnuts in her mouth than her EUBC team mates. Dot herself claims that running the EUBC AGM in less than 20 minutes is one of her greatest achievements, but maybe that’s just that sense of fun coming out.
Back to the actual rowing, once she’d learned what the catch was, Dot made fairly rapid progress that year in a coxed four. “It was a smashing crew, who are still some of my closest friends in rowing, and we just had a great time,” she explains. “We won things that were big at the time for us, local things first and then we won a bronze medal at Nat Champs and then we went to the Home International and won that and it was just fab!”
After graduating, Dot remained in Edinburgh for a year, “Ostensibly looking for a job though not very hard,” but training two or three times a day and rowing in a pair with Astrid Huelin which doubled up in a coxed four with Kate Templeton and another woman. Kate would also go on to row for GB (in 1995) and Astrid was the spare in 1992. Their four won at Henley Women’s Regatta and at Nat Champs in 1991 where their pair took the silver medal. It was an impressive feat for a small club with very limited facilities.
Dot and Astrid moved to London in the autumn of 1991 “just to see” how much further they could take their rowing. “I needed an excuse to be in London,” Dot explains, “So I got a map out and drew rings round the colleges that did teacher training and picked the one nearest Putney which was Froebel College, enrolled there to do a PGCE and joined Thames RC.” At an early season event they bumped into 1988 Olympian Kate Grose (whom they’d met when they finished second to her at Nat Champs) who told them to go along to a start-of-year meeting at the Amateur Rowing Association the following week. “We trundled along feeling a bit self-conscious because we were new girls and didn’t know anything, but from there we went to trials and that was it”.
By the following summer Dot was rowing was in the GB eight at the Barcelona Olympics. She attributes this meteoric rise to success to various factors, not least naivety. “When we first appeared at Thames, I remember someone asking us what our plans were and because I was completely oblivious, I just said, ‘Well. we thought we’d have a go at trials and see how we get on,’ and I got a kind of, ‘Ooh, you’re ambitious!,’ response but it was just that we didn’t know that we were supposed to come down and serve our time first.” As a bowsider who had trained a lot on a very narrow canal, she was also good at steering, which helped in pairs trials.
Dot’s eight finished seventh in Barcelona after an unhappy run-up to the Games after the three sweep crews were reshuffled just weeks beforehand. This saw half of Dot’s crew moved into a coxless four and replaced by three members of the previous four and Fiona Freckleton who had been taken out of the pair because she wasn’t fully recovered from having Glandular Fever.
Dot was still pretty oblivious to the politics, which was probably a good thing as they were quite nasty that year. “I can’t tell you how little I knew about anything other than being convinced that they were all barking mad!” she laughs, in hindsight. “There just seemed to be so much stuff going on that wasn’t involved with getting in a boat and pulling as hard as you could.” She had another ‘What’s the catch?’-type moment when they were on a training camp and did some timed pieces and the results were published as percentages of predicted gold medal speeds (an established way of standardising times for different boat types and also showing whether a crew was going well or not). “It was something like 88% which I thought sounded quite good but everyone else was moaning that it was terrible and I was left thinking, ‘What is it 88% OF?’ But I kept my mouth shut this time. In fact, I barely spoke for about my first four years in the squad!”
Despite their disappointing performance, Dot found the whole Olympic Games experience inspiring, but not enough to carry on rowing. She retired, and spent the autumn of 1992 finishing her teacher training (which she’d put on hold to go to the Olympics), and got a job at a primary school in Sheen in West London. She also took up rowing again, pairing with Philippa Cross who was one of the few members of the 1992 team who had carried on.
Dot’s main memory of 1993 is that she was ill for quite a long time with undiagnosed rheumatic fever. This seems insignificant but turned out to be the driver for the whole team starting to use heart rate monitors which would pick up this kind of problem more quickly, and was a step towards professionalising their training.
With no funding, as was often the case in post-Olympic years in that pre-National Lottery era, the 1993 team was small and run by volunteer coaches. They were selected to row in a four at the World Championships and finished eighth.
At the start of 1994 Dot gave up teaching because it wasn’t possible to keep up the volume of training she needed to do whilst also working full time. She was largely supported by her mum, though she did a bit of paid coaching at Westminster School which apparently was notable for having post-outing doughnuts delivered to the boathouse – a big attraction to a hard-up, hard-training rower.
Unfortunately, this coincided with the squad having its leanest year yet with few athletes of the right standard due to a lack of investment in developing the next generation. She raced at a couple of early season regattas in a four in which the GB pair of Miriam Batten and Jo Turvey were doubling up, but this wasn’t an option for the World Championships, which left Dot and the other member of the four, Libby Henshilwood, without a crew that year.
It was a year without much going for it but one highlight for her was winning the Women’s Eights Head with Thames. “It was the first time I’d won anything in ages since I’d left Edinburgh, and we were really cock-a-hoop, we were delighted,” she recalls, although the shine was taken off the achievement for her by a squad coach making snide comments to her about them having a Canadian international in the crew.
GB women’s openweight rowing was rescued from the bring in 1995 when a private sponsor provided enough funding for a full-time paid coach for the women’s eight, and small subsistence grants for the athletes which enabled them all to train full time. “It was an absolute game changer,” Dot says. “I don’t think the results of it came through for several years, but that was the foundation for everything that came later.”
As one of the few women around who was the right size, had reasonable international experience and, crucially, had been training at the required level for several years now, Dot was at the core of the new eight’s squad.
The whole project started well – they won the Women’s Eights Head and the Elite Eights at Henley Women’s Regatta – but the year ended in disappointment when they could only finish seventh at the World Championships which was one place outside qualifying the boat for the following year’s Olympic Games in Atlanta.
At the crew’s pre-Championships training camp in Aiguebelette, Dot put her degree in African History with Arabic to use by teaching the eight to number off in Arabic.
Dot remained at the core of the eight which had another roller-coaster year that matched the crew’s inconsistent performances. They qualifying for the Olympic Games with great style, setting a new British record in the process, but then performed poorly in Atlanta where they finished seventh, the same result they’d got in Barcelona. “Four years on, and not any further forward,” she says wryly.
As she had after her first Olympic Games, Dot then duly retired from rowing.
The launch of the National Lottery Sports fund in 1997, in the wake of Britain only winning one gold medals (and only 15 in total) the t1996 Olympics, transformed a number of Olympic sports, of which rowing was one. It enabled a full-time Chief Coach for Women’s Rowing to be appointed for the first time, who was Mike Spracklen. He set up a new training base at Longridge near Marlow which was just for the women; the facilities were basic, but it was a huge step forward.
Having given up rowing, Dot recalls, “I’d actually started applying for jobs but then I heard a rumour that Mike Spracklen, who had produced medal after medal with the British men and abroad, was coming to coach. I got in my single and started to train back in Wallingford, minding my own business, and went to the first set of trials that he was at in January 1997. He gave a talk about what he was intending to do so I decided to give it a go in Longridge.”
At this point, the Lottery funding was expected, but it certainly hadn’t started arriving in the coffers of the Amateur Rowing Association, which had to put together an extensive application that showed how the money would be used, the results expected, and the structures that were in place to deliver these. With no payments to athletes possible until this was approved. Dot was grateful that International Rowing Manager David Tanner found her a part-time job as a receptionist in the British International Rowing Office. “I was in the really unique position as an athlete of seeing the huge amount of work that went into the Lottery bid,” she remembers. “It was the talk of the sporting world in Britain that if you got your Lottery submission right, you could literally ‘win the lottery’! David Tanner was far-sighted enough to see that if they properly nailed it the first time round then it would go well thereafter, which was what happened.”
Spracklen had made a strategic decision that focusing on crew sculling was the way ahead, but Dot was much more of a sweep rower. After a poor first regatta in a quad, she and Cath Bishop (another member of the 1995/96 eight) decided to play to their strengths and form a pair. This went much better and they had high hopes of a medal at the 1997 World Championships. Sadly, Cath went down with a virus after they’d won their first round heat.
Dot raced the semi-final and small final with Francesca Zino, who was drafted in from the eight and Mrs Seventh Place finished… seventh again. “That was tough to take,” she explains, “Especially as everyone whom we’d spent all year beating in our pair were in the eight and the four which won medals, but that completely informed the way we trained through the following winter.”
Dot and Cath’s determination paid off and they finally got onto the podium at the World Championships the following year where they won the silver medal, and also won the World Cup series for the most consistent performance over the three early-season international regattas.
The following year they won the World Cup series again, but could only finish fifth at the World Championships. Dot believes, though she recognises that she can never be sure, that they picked up some weed on their fin in their semi-final. The lightweight double definitely suffered from this problem. “Although our race profile was always oriented to the end of the race rather than going out in front early, we were miles behind and we were going SO slowly, but then suddenly we weren’t and we flew the last bit,” she says.
She speculates that the monumental effort they had to make to claw back the distance and qualify for the final may have contributed to their not medalling in the final itself. Equally, there may have been something more systemic going on with that year’s training programme as none of the openweight team won a medal that year either.
At the start of the final year in the run up to the Sydney Olympics, Dot and Cath made the momentous decision to move away from Mike Spracklen’s setup in Longridge. Neither of them was happy with some aspects of his approach, although Dot feels that Cath was probably more unhappy than she was. “I was probably just world-weary about it all because I’d been doing it for longer and by this time seen some quite astonishing things! They had the bigger personality clash, and she was one of the best athletes the squad had ever had and I could always see this enormous potential in her but it was being crushed.”
They tagged on to the men’s squad, following their training programme and attending their training camps, but they never managed to find a dedicated coach for their crew as they’d hoped to when they left. Although they were supremely fit (Cath set a new World Record on the ergo that spring), they were not rowing well, and their emotional energy was sapped by having to handle their own logistics and the constant search for coaching input.
Although neither regrets leaving, the net result was that did not arrive in Sydney in the right technical or mental state (despite much appreciated help from the team psychologist Chris Shambrook) and finished ninth.
Aid the crushed dreams, one happy memory she has of these Games, which were widely acclaimed for being more athlete-centred than ever before, was of one of the volunteers. Most nations give their teams a supply of ‘pin badges’ that they can hand out as thank yous to volunteers, and Dot gave one of hers early to a voluneer whom she’d chatted to quite early on when she’d happened to mention that she was Scottish. It turned out that he was a silversmith and near the end of the Games, he sought her out and presented her with a necklace he’d made featuring a boomerang and a thistle.
Full accounts of all of Dot’s years in the GB squad can be read here:
Retirement (third time lucky)
At the age of 33, Dot retired from international rowing for the final time after this her third Olympic Games. “There’s only so long you can go with just the groupthink and having to do what you’re told,” she reflects. “There were some things that we did as a group that I was ashamed of during that time, specifically, the eight were put together from the small boats at Henley Royal Regatta in 1999 with the express intention of beating the actual GB eight. I hated myself for being a part of that and for not having the strength to say, ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ and I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ Where I was willing to go had been pushed a bit too far for my liking.”
With remarkable and searing honesty, she also says, “The other thing you come to realise is that everyone has a reason for not doing well, like illness or this went wrong and that went wrong, but the real champions win anyway because they’re that calibre and I think that I got to the point where I could only ask the big questions so many times and get the same answer before I had to say, ‘I’m just not good enough,’ and move on, otherwise it’s the law of diminishing returns emotionally. If I were lucky, I might just be good enough, but by the time you get to that stage that’s not enough, what you want to be is properly good enough, and so it was just obvious then that I should retire.”
Life after rowing
After a brief return to primary school teaching, Dot moved into sports administration, working at UK Sport, the Institute of Sport in Scotland and now Scottish Swimming. “My job is to make sure that the athletes get what they need to be as good as they can be.”
She has barely got in a boat since the Sydney final in 2000 and she found the transition away from rowing largely trouble-free. “There’s so much else to do, you know?” she laughs. “Travelling, being gloriously rubbish at other sports, falling off your mountain bike, all that! And I’d having done the full-on obsessive thing about rowing, and I thought I’d rather be rubbish at something else than gradually become worse at something I’d once been quite good at.”
She continues, “In terms of retiring, I think I was lucky to have other things to go back to after rowing. I taught, and I had people in my life who had nothing to do with the sport – I’ve never talked about my rowing outside the squad, even to my husband (who had been her Vice-Captain at EUBC). I worry about people who come through the pathway and haven’t really done anything else don’t have that other life to fall back on.”
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.