|Years||1983 World Championships (8o 8th)
1985 World Championships (4x 11th)
1986 World Championships (Lt 2x 2nd)
1987 World Championships (Lt 2x 4th)
1988 World Championships (Lt 2x 3rd)
|Clubs||Stuart Ladies RC, Lea RC, Imperial College BC, Civil Service Ladies RC|
|Height||5’6″ or 167.5cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone 7 lb or 73kg (when openweight)|
The photo at the top of this page shows Gill (left) with Carrie Wood after winning her first World Championships medal in 1986. (Photo: Carrie Collerton’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Gill learned to row when she was 15, after being encouraged to give it a go by Gill Webb who was a couple of years above her at their school and was captain of Stuart Ladies BC at the time.
From 1974 onwards she began to notch up a string of wins, mostly in coxed fours but also sculling, and in 1978 was selected to represent England at the Home International in a pair with Julia Corbin of Civil Service Ladies RC.
Gill attended her first GB squad trials in late 1978, again because of Gill Webb, who by then had been rowing for GB for three years, including at the first Olympic Games that included women’s rowing in 1976. “I wouldn’t have done that under my own steam!,” Gill says.
By 1981 she was right at the top of the domestic rowing scene, winning the Women’s Eights Head with Lea RC in a record time [Lea RC had been formed at the beginning of the year by the merger of Stuart Ladies RC with neighbouring men’s clubs], and then in a pair with Janet Unwin racing successfully at Ghent and winning on both days at Nottinghamshire International Regatta, at the National Championships, and at the Pairs’ Head. They were also the England pair at Gill’s second Home International, coached by Bill Mason. Earlier in the year, Bill had been asked to set a training programme for Gill and Janet by Lea coach Bob Michaels when Bill had been travelling over from Putney where he worked at Imperial College to help Bob to coach the Lea men. “That training programme was tough,” Gill remembers, “He had us doing six hill sprints up Spring Hill, the road down to the club, twice a week in the evening before circuit and weight training, which made us really fit! That training programme led to Bill coaching us in the pair.”
In February 1982 she sustained a stress fracture of one of her vertebrae. “That was actually the beginning of the end for my rowing,” she reflects now, although all of her years rowing for GB actually still lay ahead of her. Undeterred, in April she was third fastest woman at the Scullers’ Head, and then spent the summer winning in her single at a great number of regattas. She took the bronze medal at the National Championships which was won by GB sculler Beryl Mitchell, and rounded off the season with another win with Janet at the Pairs Head.
By this time she and Janet had started training out of the Imperial College boathouse so that they could more easily be coached by Bill Mason.
Gill attributes a lot of her success to Bill’s training programme. “He used to have me racing the men from IC and then he’d get me to do pieces with people like Anne Marden the American [who lived in London and sculled out of Thames Tradesmen’s RC]. All that sort of stuff made you very fit,” she explains.
After all that, it seems hardly surprising that Gill was selected to represent GB the next year, stroking the eight at the 1983 World Championships, although her memory is that she sometimes wondered how she’d got in, especially as she was quite short in stature compared with many of the rest of the crew, despite knowing she was very fit and strong.
In 1984 Gill very nearly gained selection for the Olympic Games after competing at several early-season international regattas first in a double and then in a quad.
The following year she raced in the quad at the 1985 World Championships, which was the first year that women’s quads had been coxless. As lightweight events had also just been added to the programme for the first time, a medical team was offering fat tests to those racing openweight, and Bill suggested that Gill take one of these to see if she could be lightweight whilst remaining healthy. “I had built up big thigh muscles,” Gill remembers, “But I also had quite a lot of fat, and they told me that I was overweight for my height. That, combined with the disappointment of coming 11th in our quad and seeing Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell, who were my kind of height, winning the gold at lightweight, made me think perhaps lightweight was the way to go.”
This was easier said than done, however, as she needed to lose two and a half stone. “We had no expert help,” Gill remembers. “I just followed the F-Plan diet because that was in fashion at the time but it was totally unscientific, and not designed for sport. All of the lightweights were going about it the wrong way because we didn’t know any better. You’d see people sleeping in plastic bags at regattas and just guessing what we should eat, choosing certain foods just because they didn’t weigh much; as a treat, I used to have madeira cake with honey on because it was light. I also cycled to training to help me keep my weight down, which was quite tiring. I don’t know how we managed to win medals doing all that!”
It all proved worth it, though, as she competed successfully for the next three years in the lightweight double, with Carrie Wood for the first two and then with Caroline Lucas, winning silver (in a dead heat) in 1986 and bronze in 1988 despite suffering another stress fracture in her back. She and Carrie finished fourth at the 1987 World Championships where the outcome of all events was badly affected by unfair conditions. Gill also won a bronze medal at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in openweight single sculls.
She won the Women’s Pennant at the Scullers’ Head in 1987.
The GB women’s team for the 1988 Olympics was a four and a pair but because the Games were in Seoul, two spares were sent to Korea with the team so that they would be acclimatised if they were needed. As it turned out, they weren’t required to sub, so the team management entered them as a double at the last minute. Gill was very frustrated by this decision as it was outside the selection procedure set out at the beginning of the year, and because she and Caroline had not been given the opportunity to trial against them. She made a formal appealed to the Amateur Rowing Association but this was not upheld.
Full records of Gill’s years in the GB squad can be read here:
After the 1988 World Championships she began the next season with the intention of continuing to race internationally but in February 1989 suffered a stress fracture in her back for a third time. Following a period of bed rest, she started training again in June and was quickly brought back into the GB squad for pre-Championships regattas, racing in doubles at Nottingham City regatta and also taking part in a time trial in a quad with Kareen Marwick, Annabel Eyres and Suzanne Kirk. The crew won at Henley Women’s Regatta, and also raced at Lucerne where it didn’t do well. “The day after, I wrote to [Director of International Rowing] Penny Chuter to say I was going to give up the squad and concentrate on my single,” Gill says. “I was having to travel from East London where I worked to Lensbury to train and I was getting home really late, so I think that and the results we had got in Lucerne decided it for me.”
That October, however, “I was referred by the British Olympic Medical Centre to a neurosurgeon who found that some nerves in my leg were badly damaged and he told me that if I continued rowing I would either lose control of my bladder or my foot could drop, which is a known complication of back trouble and makes you trip up stairs and things. At that point I had no choice really, and I retired following his advice.” Her decision paid off as she has not suffered from either of these serious consequences.
Although she didn’t take part in competitive rowing again, her rowing career was far from over as she embarked on three major long-distance challenges: a ‘quadrathon’, sculling the whole length of the Thames, and rowing the English Channel (and racing the French to boot).
It has to be said that embarking on rowing marathons when you’ve been told to stop rowing on medical grounds was perhaps a surprising choice but “I was careful on all of them and wore a corset on some stages of the Thames challenge and did not scull hard,” Gill explains. “I guess they may not have been the best things to do in the circumstances, but I wanted to do something to make up for the loss of not being able to do the sport that had taken up a major part of my life.”
Gill’s two-day quadrathon in February 1990 involved the four disciplines of sculling, cycling, running and swimming, and was a pioneering feat at a time when endurance challenges were not part of the sporting scene as they are today.
Her initial inspiration to do it was to raise money for Leukaemia Research in memory of her consultant, Michael Wallace, who had died of the illness which he’d actually been suffering from while he was treating her the previous year. She also raised money for her work’s charity.
Gill wrote about the event for Rowing magazine, at the time and her account from its April 1990 edition is reproduced here with her permission.
I aimed to do as many miles as possible in the first three events (sculling, cycling and running) and the equivalent in lengths in the swimming pool.
From then on Bill Mason and I began the preparation. I started by concentrating my training on the four events, organised sponsor forms and details of the event. Bill organised TV and newspaper coverage, posters, and a lightweight racing cycle courtesy of Holdsworth’s at Putney for the three weeks up to the event, and a special lane marked off at the swimming pool at Putney leisure centre. He also went around as many shops and rowing clubs in Putney putting up posters.
Mrs Wallace [Mr Wallace’s widow with whom Gill is still in touch today] was energetically getting as much support as she could in her area.
With a week to go before the event and the country experiencing gale force winds, I began to worry that we would have to cancel the event until a later date. I think I had sleepless nights from then on and was relieved to arrive at Putney on [day 1] at 5.30 am to find the Thames was calm. Mrs Wallace and her friend’s young son, Tom, aged 9, joined Bill in the launch for the trip to Richmond and back. This first event felt quite good although there was a strong headwind from Kew upwards, and it was quite an effort to keep the sculling lively. I was relieved to reach Richmond and turn round with the help of the wind on the way back. As I got to Barnes I began to ache and had an attack of cramp in my left foot at the bandstand. However, I made the round trip in two hours.
After putting the boat away, a quick digestible breakfast and cup of tea, we headed for Richmond Park with the cycles in the minibus. I was joined on the cycling by Stuart Colston, Bill’s assistant at Imperial. The circuit was seven miles round [the Park] and from 9.30am to 4.30pm we completed nine laps, with breaks of half an hour or less. The reason we had short breaks was because it was very windy and despite wearing several tops the wind still cut through and by the time we finished we were shattered. We returned to Imperial where I had a hot shower and something to eat and drink, after which I felt revived and decided to go ahead with the second sculling trip.
I sculled from Putney to Syon Park and back. The conditions were rougher than in the morning, but Bill was in the launch so I had peace of mind in case I did get into trouble. I was not helped though by a police launch who seemed to be going on a joy ride up and down by the bandstand at Barnes.
It had been a long and tiring day but satisfying that at least the wind had not prevented the sculling. At 8.30 pm it was off to the local Italian restaurant for the essential pasta and then to bed. However, the adrenalin woke me up at 4.30am only to hear it pouring with rain outside.
Two slices of toast and honey and a mug of tea later and I was raring to go again. I went back to Imperial donned my running bottoms and waterproofs and began running around a one mile circuit at Putney passing the local shops and boathouses. Mrs Wallace was out collecting by the shops supported by Bill and Tom. I did 10 miles straight off which took over 1 hour 40 minutes. I was freezing cold and began to stiffen up. I then took an hour break, had poached eggs on toast and coffee and started out to run another seven laps, stopping at 12.30pm, with blistered toes and aching knees. In this time Mrs Wallace had collected £60.
I had a rest of an hour before going off to Putney leisure centre for the swimming. I was joined in the swimming by Clare (Mr Wallace’s daughter) and Tom, who both wanted to do their bit to help. We did 80 lengths straight off in just over an hour and a half and had a ten minute break as our legs felt wobbly. We then got back in to complete a further 31 lengths. Because I had someone with me, it made me forget the aching muscles, but by the time I got out I felt dizzy, lightheaded and in need of food. A further £30 had been collected in that time.
I was really pleased to have completed all events with 111 miles overall and 111 lengths of the pool. We hope to collect around £1,000, so hopefully it will buy a much needed item of equipment for the hospital.
Gill’s next challenge, which she completed over six days in September 1990, saw her become the first person to row the entire 175 miles of the navigable Thames from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to Gravesend in a sculling boat. The route included 45 locks. Once again, raising money for Leukaemia Research was a major motivation. She chose Gravesend as her finishing point because she worked for what was then known as HM Customs and Excise which had a Customs House there.
Her own account of this massive achievement was published in the 1991 British Rowing Almanack. It is reproduced here with her and British Rowing’s permission.
All the arrangements began in March with a date of 18 September being set for my trip into the unknown. I say unknown because I had never done anything like it before, not even the Boston [Rowing] Marathon. Overall, it was very, very tough both physically and mentally. The first three days involve six hours on the water with a break of 20 minutes. There were very few opportunities to stand up and relieve the pressure off the seat. this was because we had a tight schedule to keep and also the lock keepers, who on the whole were helpful, had the locks open as I approached to enable me to go in and straight out.
There were very few places where you could actually pull in and get out as the banks or landing stages were too high. This resulted in fewer breaks than were needed. The first two nights were pretty bad. I could not sleep, I felt as though I was going to die and despite drinking all day I had a constant thirst and so drank all night. On these early days, despite having stocked up with carbohydrates, I got to the stage where I hit the ‘wall’ like a marathon runner. I gradually got slower, became aggressive, and also tearful. We then knew that we must stop to rest and eat. My back ached, I had pins and needles in my legs and synovitis in my right Achilles [tendon].
On the early reaches my support team were excellent providing encouragement, collecting money and arranging anything else that was needed. These were Mrs Wallace and her daughter Clare, Stuart Colston (Bill’s assistant and IC, who had cycled with me on the Quadrathon), and an IC student Steve Puttock (who later sculled with me on the stretch to Poplar too). Time on the water on the last three days was shorter but because my bones were so painful, despite three layers of padding on the seat, I was in agony as soon as I sat down. The only good point was that I had relatively few blister.
Mentally it was a mind-blowing experience. In spite of having Bill and one other accompanying me in the launch the whole time, they would tend to speak to each other rather than to me! I had to keep prompting them to give me updates on how far it was to the next lock so that I had something to aim for, and also to tell me jokes. So, despite the lovely scenery and meeting various mayors, MPs and well-wishers, it was difficult to keep my concentration.
Collecting money en route was quite difficult as you cannot ask for money unless you have a street license. However, it is lawful if people offer it. Some people threw money from their boats, the support team had boxes and in the evenings we had various groups of volunteers collecting. During this time I was in the local pizza restaurant replenishing my supply of carbohydrates.
When I got to the tidal water it became much easier to cover the miles. Shaun Collins, the 1990 Doggett’s Coat and Badge winner, joined Bill in the launch on the last two days as he is a Thames waterman and drives a river bus. His guidance was invaluable. On the final day I was quite anxious to get going as I dearly wanted to complete the distance having come so far. I knew my work colleagues from HM Customs and Excise would be sending out some of their boats to escort me in, along with Shaun and his river bus and bill in his launch. In view of this escort I felt I could not stop as often as I needed to and I must admit I was really struggling and was feeling quite desperate.
I think the euphoria kept me going. We finally arrived at Gravesend much earlier than expected and caught our welcoming party on the hop. So when I clambered out of the boat onto the jetty, I thought I should feel really overjoyed at what I had just done but I only had one thought and I’m not sure why. This was, “What shall I do next?”
In retrospect, I really do not know how I completed my journey.
Echoing Bill’s sentiments Bill Mason wrote later in Rowing magazine, “I’m not sure how she managed to complete the distance and I’m not sure she s either [although] she said that after she had suffered for the first few days there was no way she would give up. However, she said that rowing had given her a lot of rewards and pleasures, so she wanted to be able to use her experience to help those less fortunate.”
The row raised £5,200 for Leukaemia Research.
Rowing the channel
In July 1992 Gill rowed the channel as a result of HM Customs and Excise, where she still worked, receiving a challenge from their counterparts in the French customs service to celebrate the creation of the European Single Market. The hardest part seems to have been finding suitable capable people for the crew amongst her colleagues. “First I found Tony Abbott, who was a very experienced member of Walton RC, and then I heard about some coastal rowers who were based at an office down in Cornwall so we did a trial on the ergo to see who was fittest, and selected it that way,” she explains.
The French provided the boats, and the two crews rowed from Dover to just below Calais, keeping together for most of the crossing for safety reasons. Everyone took turns coxing, changing over each time they stopped for drinks. Once again she was lucky with the weather and the sea was relatively flat. “We got to about a mile out and then the support boat told us to race the last bit. So we did and we won!” The crossing took four hours, 30 minutes.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2018.