|Years||1990 World Championships (4- 9th)
1991 World Championships (2- 3rd, 8o 9th)
1992 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
1993 World Championships (4- 8th)
|Clubs||Somerville College BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, Oxford City RC, Abingdon RC, Kingston RC, Westminster School BC, Thames RC|
|Height||5’7.5″ or 172 cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone or 70 kg|
The picture at the top of this page shows Fiona (left) with Miriam Batten approaching the medal raft after winning their historic bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in 1991, and is from Fiona’s personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Fiona learned to row when she went to Somerville College, Oxford in 1978 to read maths, and was ‘talent-spotted’. “Two women who were in the year above me, and still row now, came bouncing up to me at breakfast saying, ‘You’re tall, come down to the river!’ so I did,” she explains. She rowed at college level for the next three years.
Coming up to graduation, “I had no idea what I wanted to do but I did know that I should have presented myself for trials for the Blue Boat but never had, so I applied to do a one-year MSc so that I could row. The supervisor who interviewed me knew perfectly well what I was doing and I remember sitting in the interview with my hands turned down so he couldn’t see my callouses but he asked if he could see the of my hands and he went, ‘Oh, you’re a rower!,’ but he let me in anyway.”
Rowing for Oxford
She rowed for Oxford in 1982 and 1983, stroking on both occasions – once on bowside and once on strokeside – and also losing both races. During the second of these years she did was doing a PGCE teaching diploma, again so that she could row, although, she says, “I did actually want to teach eventually.” She was scheduled to be doing teaching practice in the week running up to the Boat Race at Easter when the crew was training at Henley. “My mother had rung in on the Monday morning to say I wasn’t well, but we had to be careful I didn’t appear in any of the close-up publicity shots taken that week because I wasn’t meant to be there!”
Moving up a level
That summer she was selected to represented England at the Home Countries regatta in a pair with her Blue Boat crewmate Sarah Talbot after they won at the Nottinghamshire International Regatta (which wasn’t very international by then).
Having finally completing her studies, Fiona got a teaching job in Oxford and joined City of Oxford RC, racing on the usual domestic regatta circuit and winning a couple of events in a four and an eight in the summer of 1984. “We had a good time, but I just realised that I didn’t just want to have fun at a club, I wanted to row at the top level and to win.” She had already had a little exposure to the GB system, having been invited to take part in a squad ergo test and then some trials at Thorpe Park in late 1982 after her Oxford crew had done quite well at the Head of the River Fours, and then also attended GB trials in late 1983 and early 1984 with former junior international Sue Clark who was a member of Abingdon RC, a pairing arranged by Nigel Mayglothling who was coaching the Oxford University women then at the same time that his wife Rosie Mayglothling was co-ordinating the GB national squad.
In the early summer of 1985 Fiona finished up racing (and winning at Monmouth and NIR) with Nigel’s Oxford University group which contained future internationals Tish Reid, Ali Bonner and Jo Gough, of who the first two then rowed in the GB coxed four at the World Championships that year. She was certainly hanging around with the right people to move her rowing career on to the next level.
At some point he following year her friend Morag Simpson, who had stroked the Oxford Blue Boat for the two years after Fiona had done it, discovered that the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986 would include rowing, and that as both of them had Scottish parents, they were eligible to compete for Scotland (the England slot being taken by the GB pair). “‘Morag and Fiona’ does sound quite authentically Scottish,doesn’t it?” she laughs. “We trained in Wallingford with Nigel coaching us, and then we went to Amsterdam regatta because the Scotland team managers told us we had to meet some performance criterion there to be selected. It was the first time either of us had been to an international regatta and the main thing I remember about it was that after the race we paddled back up the marshaling lane to warm down and then at 500m or wherever we were told to turn onto the course to go into the rafts. So we were rowing in one of the racing lanes and then I suddenly saw a flash of red and realised and it was the Pimenov brothers [a top Russian pair) winning the next race by a long way, so we pushed it up to firm pressure and had to pile along trying to get across the finish line before they caught us. I think someone had a photo which is like a photo finish of us and the Pimenovs!”
They were duly selected and finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games. A photo of them, with Fiona at stroke, can be seen here. “We just went to go and be there, we didn’t go to win, and actually Morag was a light lightweight and neither of us had got a lot of experience of racing small boats, so we were happy with what we did,” Fiona reflects, adding, “The whole Games was a brilliant occasion, especially being in the home team. I vividly remember the opening ceremony… it started off badly with a lot of hanging around for ages because the home team goes in last. But then we walked in and I suddenly realised that this was a big stadium and these people were cheering for us while we were waving our little scarves, and I thought this is a height that I really wasn’t expecting! It was a very special moment.
Reflecting on her eight year journey from starting rowing to competing at the Commonwealth Games, Fiona Says, “It took me a long time to get into the Oxford Blue Boat, and it took me a long, long time to go from having involvement with the squad to getting anywhere near it but I had a lot of fun along the way, and a great variety of experiences.”
International and elite rowing career
In the Autumn of 1986 she moved to London to start a new job a at Westminster School with no intention of rowing seriously again. I remember Morag and me being interviewed by the local press after Commonwealths and the journalist asked us, ‘What’s next?,’ and I said, ‘That’s me done, I’ve retired, I’ve got my career to think about.” However, rowing was a major sport at Westminster so Fiona got involved with coaching at the boat club, and started sculling, which she’d never really done before, winning her novices at Putney Town regatta in the summer of 1987. “I really just did my own thing and had a really lovely year. At some point around then Bob Michaels, who was coaching at Westminster and had watched me learn to scull, asked me why I wasn’t working with the GB squad, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve tried that and I’m just not good enough,’ and he replied, ‘Your problem is you’re just not selfish enough. You actually need to get in there and fight your corner and not be nice to everyone,’ but I didn’t like the idea of that.”
However, when the squad got going in the autumn of 1987 she started going to trials and the Hammersmith-based land training sessions, and eventually secured the bow seat (although she felt that Ruth Howe deserved it more) in the GB eight that was ultimately not selected to go to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul after failing to meet the performance criteria set for it at Lucerne regatta.
Fiona and Lucerne
Fiona and Lucerne were never friends. “My problem was that I was a teacher and towards the end of the summer term, which is obviously when you’re heading for Lucerne and selection, I was always absolutely knackered,” she explains. “Year after year I’d do quite well early on, especially in anything that was a strength test.” This was the result, she believes, of living in a road when she was young where all the other children were boys which resulted in her playing muscular games, and then doing physical farm work in the summer holidays when she when she was a teenager. I the run up to Lucerne each July, “I would have moments when I went very fast in a boat but training, teaching, coaching and all the other things that I was trying to do because I was a young person in London, was just a little bit too much, so I tended to nose-dive from time to time and I would always nosedive at Lucerne and feel absolutely shattered.”
Following this disappointment she joined Kingston RC where some of the other women from the 1988 GB eight were based, all of whom decided not to get involved with GB rowing that year. “Maurice Hayes was coaching and he was a real live wire. We trained really hard, which I think took us forward and I just had a really brilliant year,” she says, adding, “Looking back on it now, I can see that I liked doing my own thing in my own way because the years that I’ve really enjoyed are the ones where I wasn’t part of the regime.”
Her most impressive and hard-fought win of the year was in the DAF Power Sprints; you can see Kingston in action in the final of these from about 1.334.35 in this video:
Early that autumn she won mixed doubles at the Pairs Head with Chris Andrews, coming fourth overall. “I think that was mainly because there weren’t many decent men’s doubles but I just sat in the bows and it was fantastic!,” she remembers.
She started the 1990 season at Kingston again but when Bob Michaels, her coach colleague at Westminster, was appointed Chief Coach of the GB women’s squad as well, she remembers Maurice Hayes saying, “We’ll play,” and enrolled in eh squad once again. However, that spring she developed a breathing problem brought on, she realised later, by pollen from the trees in central London where she lived as well as worked. “Several other people including a boy at school had it, and it only affected me when I was in central London, I was fine elsewhere. But it meant that I was out of rowing until April or May so I wasn’t put in squad crews for the main early season regattas.”
In the meantime Fiona had got back up to full fitness and won both the open single sculls and open pairs (with Jackie Prout a former international who had also been in the 1988 GB eight) at Henley Women’s Regatta, and taken the silver medal at the National Championships in the single behind GB sculler Tish Reid. “At that point I decided my best way forward was to become a lightweight, so I started dieting and I got down to about 65kg before I gave up on that idea,” she laughs. She was selected to scull at the Home International on 28 July in Nottingham, and remembers, “There was me, Peter Haining and Rorie Henderson who were the three Scottish singles – women’s, lightweight men’s and open men’s – and the Scottish team won overall, mainly because it had got all of these Anglo-Scots who were doing things for GB. It was a brilliant party!”
Fortunately for her, the World Championships weren’t until November that year because they were in Tasmania and, after weak early-season results, Bob decided to have re-selection trials in mid-August. Although she was aware that she was really only there thanks to a ‘wild card’ from Bob, because it was the school summer holidays, she was well rested and ironically was feeling “on top form” despite being well under her natural weight thanks to the ill-conceived dalliance with being lightweight. Looking back on the trials now, Fiona describes them as “My moment of glory.” At some point in the swapping round of people between pairs she was put in a boat for the first time with Miriam Batten, and the combination just clicked.
Both were duly selected for the GB team for the first time and raced in the coxless four in 1990. Continuing the theme of taking quite a long time to achieve each milestone in her rowing career, Fiona points out, “It was my 30th birthday as we flew back from my first World Championships in 1990. They let me into the cockpit, which was one of those moment in time, flying over that red centre of Australia on the flight deck of a 747 with a glass of champagne in my hand!”
In 1991 they were (eventually) selected as the GB pair, winning the bronze medal, the first GB women’s openweight crew medal at a World Championships.
Fiona remembers, “There was a boy at school called Graham Smith who was only a J16 but he was in the coxless for at the Junior World Championships which won the gold medal, so when we both arrived back at school in September, Westminster had the first [openweight] woman to win a [crew] medal and the youngest boy to win gold, so the headmaster granted everybody a half day off school! I know it sounds ridiculous, but that almost meant more to me than all the other things that happened as a result of the medal. I always say to people if the credits could have rolled on my rowing career at that point, it would have been just a perfect.”
Later that year Fiona and Miriam won the Team of the Year at the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards. “We went on a lot of corporate events and we thought this was just another reception which we were told to go to. We had no idea that we were up for an award or anything. When they started giving out the awards Miriam and I were just thinking, ‘We’ve had a nice lunch,’ and then for the team event they announced a volleyball team, or something like that, and then they said, ‘And the winners are, Miriam and Fiona!,’ and I just squeaked out, ‘Us?!’ the award was presented by Mary Peter, the pentathlete, which I thought was very special because she’d been one of my childhood heroes when I was doing running at school and first dreamed of top-level participation.”
By 1991 Fiona and Miriam were very good friends but also found each other to be ideal training partners. “We used to push each other on, we used to drive each other into the ground, and we were desperately competitive with each other,” Fiona remembers.
They continued in the pair in 1992, but Fiona struggled throughout the year with glandular fever, continuing to train because this wasn’t diagnosed until she was actually recovering from it. Eventually, after her body had let her down at Lucerne regatta, Bob put Jo Turvey, who had been in the four, into the pair with Miriam instead and moved Fiona to the eight. At the same time, he decided that the eight should be the next priority boat ahead of the four, and totally changed the lineups between the four and the eight, meaning that all three sweep crews at the Olympics had never raced together before the Games. Although the pair was fifth, neither the four or the eight made the final, which was below what had been expected. None of the other athletes blame Fiona at all for this outcome; it wasn’t her fault that she was ill, but most did blame Bob for protecting his ‘favourites’ and failing to make tough decisions early enough.
Fiona on Bob
“Bob wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Fiona says. “I personally got on with him very well because I knew him as a colleague as well as as a coach [a conflict of interest that wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays, but was far from unique in the days of amateur athletes and volunteer or part-time coaches – Ed.]. He was very private in that he wouldn’t tell you what his own troubles were, and but he would always being very encouraging. He used to speak a lot in riddles and I used to like that because it made you sit and reflect for a long time about what it was he was really saying.
“He’d look at people and think about their potential and he wouldn’t necessarily make decisions by seat racing. He had instincts which were sometimes right and often wrong, but that was who he was and therefore some people loved him and some people hated him because it depended which side of the divide you were. He was the same with the schoolboys, and he used to get amazing performances out of some very ordinary kids. He was really good at coming up with race plans.”
After the trauma of the Barcelona Olympics, and aged 32, Fiona gave up serious rowing yet again, and settled back into sculling whilst continuing to teach and coach at Westminster. Finding training on her own a bit boring, though, she joined in with some of the squad land training sessions and then joined the very small number of athletes involved that year for their Easter training camp at Hazewinkel. Although really only intending to scull in company on the decent water there, she finished up taking part in some trials there, and to cut a long story short eventually raced in the coxless four at the 1993 World Championships. “How this four ever got the backing of anybody I don’t know because as far as I could see it just was created on a weekend some time in May,” she says, “But we raced at Lucerne and got a bronze medal; it’s the only time Lucerne has gone well for me and I’ve no idea why. It was a good crew and a great relief to have come back and get through it all without any of the problems I’d had the previous year.”
Full accounts of Fiona’s years in the GB squad can be read here:
A photo of her at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona can be seen here.
After 1993 that she made a conscious decision to stop rowing for GB, although she continued competing for some years at the next level below that, enjoying doing so ‘on her terms’ once again. In 1994 she raced at Lucerne in a double with Tish Reid and then represented Scotland at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships in the single sculls, winning the bronze medal.
In 1994 and 1995 she competed in the women’s sculls at Henley Royal Regatta, losing to Guin Batten the first time and Maria Brandin the second. No shame on either occasion.
In 1995 Fiona also raced in the single sculls at the European Union Rowing Championships, a World Cup event, and at Henley Women’s Regatta (a photo of her in action can be seen here) where she lost to the Irish sculler Mary Hussey in the final, who also beat her at the Home International. She also helped the squad by sculling in a development quad around this time, but after that she finally did stop racing.
Reflecting on her career, she focuses much more on the may occasions when she feels was lucky – in particular the Worlds being late in Tasmania giving her the chance to break into the team after term had ended, the tailwind conditions at the 1991 Championships suiting them – than she does on the bad luck of being ill in 1992.
Recently, she has been proud to watch her niece, Alice Baatz, following a very different, and much, much faster path to elite rowing through the GB Start programme, but is happy to have rowed in the way she did in the amateur era.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.