|Years||1966 (8o 6th)|
|Clubs||St George’s Ladies RC, Thames RC|
|Height||5’6″ or 167.5cm|
|Racing weight||9 stone 3 lb or 58.5kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Elaine in the middle with the rest of the St George’s crew which won the clinker pennant at the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council Head of the River Race in 1965, coming second overall. From left: Pam Skeggs, Pam Brown, Valerie Thomas, Gillian Rosenthal, Elaine Steckler, Jacqui Woodward, Pauline Meikle, Diana Hall, Terry Osborne. (Photo: St George’s LRC album.)
Getting into rowing
As a sporty girl, Elaine grabbed a chance to try rowing with her school at Barn Elms in 1962 when she was about 15, and instantly loved it. Some months later, she mentioned to a boy at her local youth club who rowed that she rowed too and he suggested that if she wanted to row properly, she should join St George’s Ladies RC as it was the most thriving open women’s club in the area at the time. Which she did.
This got her into racing, and by 1965 she was enjoying a string of victories in eights and fours although this did depend on who the opposition was, as she explains, “When I started rowing and got involved in the racing, I remember thinking, well we aim to come second because United Universities [Women’s BC] always win.”
The architect of St George’s success was their coach, Bill Peer, a member of Cygnet RC, the Civil Service men’s club, from whom St George’s rented rack space at that time. As Elaine understands it, “Men coaching women [back then] were taking quite a great risk,” she says. “I was very young and naïve and to me I didn’t notice any nonsense between the men and the women or that men frowned upon the women rowing. You heard odd bits but nothing to cause me any concern [but I gather] men were ostracised by their clubs if they coached women because it was frowned up on – you know, what were the women doing cluttering up the space. It was alright for them to go out and look pretty, but serious stuff really wasn’t what they were expected to do. Until we managed to row past a few of them and then they realised we were actually about our business as seriously as they were. In fact, I once rowed past Peter [her future husband who was a Quintin BC member] in an eight, which he conveniently forgets!”
Bill Peer’s and the club’s hard work provided the foundation for St George’s best year, 1966, when they finally broke UU’s six-year run as winners of the WARC Head of the River Race, won practically every thing else domestically, and gained selection as the GB eight for the Women’s European Rowing Championships in Amsterdam. Elaine was 19, and was then working as a technician for Professor Andrew Huxley in the physiology department of University College, London.
A full account of Elaine’s and the GB team’s experience at the Championships in 1966 can be found here.
Later rowing career
Elaine’s subsequent rowing career has been long and successful. As well as helping St George’s retain their title Women’s Head title in 1967 and 1968, she learned to scull and won her novices in a restricted (boat-type) event at Weybridge Ladies Regatta in 1967. Sculling presented various challenges, though, which were nothing to do with the technicalities of the sport:
I started sculling on a Wednesday [this was at a time when sven-days a week rowing was unheard of] with permission from the old boatman, Bob Dowson – going out on a Wednesday was quite a priviledge! And I had to ask permission of Cygnet to use their old, clinker-built tub called a rumtum. Of course they weighed a tonne.
And then John Langfield [coach at Stavely Road Boys’ School in Chiswick at the time, and later at Hampton and then Eton] said, ‘Look, I’ve got a sculling boat, go out in that,’ and sent me out in his best boat and I didn’t fall in which was probably quite amazing really, and I loved it and I ended up sculling.
I eventually bought my own boat which had been Shirley Radley’s, which was up at Mortlake – there was nowhere for me to keep it at Barnes Bridge so I used to go up to Mortlake and scull from there. I wasn’t allowed to be a member of Mortlake although I substituted into eights and steered them when women weren’t allowed to. I remember coxing a four in the Fours Head, with a hat on, trying to not giggle. And I’d said to the stroke man, if I need you to do anything I’ll tell you and you relay it so they don’t pick up on my voice, but so many people knew me because I was always sculling, so they’d just look at me and laugh and I’d laugh back.
And Jean Rankine and I rowed in a Hampton School eight for the men’s Head!
By 1969 she was winning Senior Sculls at the WARC Sculls Regatta and in 1970 she sought GB selection again, this time in a double scull with Christine Peer from Stourport – not the most practical of combinations given that Elaine lived in London, but she regularly drove up to the Midlands “in my Morris Minor that got through more oil than fuel nearly” to spend the weekend training in the boat together. The combination did a trial against Christine Davies and Margaret Gladden, which they lost narrowly and in the end, Christine and Christine went to the European Championships in a double with Margaret in a single and Elaine wasn’t selected.
When Penny Chuter was appointed National Coach with responsibility for women’s rowing in 1973 she asked Elaine if she’d like to join the new squad, which was frankly short of experience, especially in sculling, but by that time Elaine was living down in Sussex and had a baby. “I was really quite disappointed because it was the first time the women were allowed to be in the Olympics,” she remembers, “But I had to say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I just couldn’t fit it in, not with the distances and no grandparents nearby!”
Elaine carried on rowing and remained an active member of St George’s LRC until it merged with Twickenham RC in 1979 when she joined Thames RC, which had started a women’s section in 1973 after incorporating United Universities Women’s BC.
Being a proud rowing mum
Although Elaine was disappointed not to be in a position even to try to go to the Olympics in 1976, her younger daughter, Elise, took up where her mum left off, and was a member of the GB team on 11 occasions from 1997 to 2008, winning bronze medals at the World Championships in 1997 and 2007 and at the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2008.
Much earlier, Elaine once put her older daughter, Helen, who became a competent skiffer and sailor, in the cox’s seat for coxed quad outings. “She was only six and because she knew port and starboard from sailing, we put red and green ties on the rudder strings and she was fine until she saw some blackberries on the bank and thought, ‘Oh, there’s blackberries!’ But by then she’d already been out an hour and a half or something, so for a six your old steering a boat, that wasn’t bad!”
Elaine continued to race on the veteran circuit, often with other former GB interbnationals from various eras, winning numerous medals all over the place including at various the FISA Masters regattas.
Along with many other members of the rowing community, Elaine was a volunteer at the World Rowing Championships when they were held at Dorney in 2006. Most of us, however, didn’t finish up as she did stroking an eight with Sir Steve Redgrave in the six sear in the ‘officials versus umpires’ race at the end of the regatta! Annamarie Phelps, the current Chairman of British Rowing is at seven.
Like many rowers who belonged to the clubs between Windsor and Putney at the time, Elaine took to skiff racing which mostly took place in August when there were hardly any rowing regattas in the area. As a strong sculler, she rapidly rose up the ranks, first winning the Mixed Doubles Championships in 1969 and then both the Ladies Doubles and Ladies Singles in 1970.
Being so busy rowing one boat type or another, she didn’t find time to gain much expertise in punting, the other boating activity that takes place at the skiff clubs, until the late 1990s, when she took part in a few races, as much to keep the sport alive as anything.
In 2002 Elaine was part of a 12-man team from Thames Valley Skiff Club who successfully rowed across the Irish Sea as part of the Celtic Challenge race. People were swapped in and out of the 5-man boat every 90 minutes; Elaine spent a lo of her ‘off’ shifts making sandwiches for the rest of the crew.