|Years||1979 FISA Junior Championships (4+ 8th)
1980 Olympic Games (4+ 6th)
1981 World Championships (4+ 7th)
1982 World Championships (8o 7th)
|Clubs||Wraysbury Skiff and Punting Club, Weybridge Ladies ARC, Burway RC, Thames RC|
|Height||5’6.5″ or 170 cm|
|Racing weight||9 stone 11 lb or 62 kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Jane on the right, racing a pair with Jo Toch. (Photo © John Shore.)
Getting into rowing
Jane grew up amongst rowing boats from an early age as her parents were highly involved at Wraysbury Skiff and Punting Club where they met. Jane’s father had also won the Thames Cup at Henley in 1953 with the RAF. “When I was old enough I started coxing, and I was really luck to be allocated to cox two lovely, older gentlemen who encouraged me to swap in and have a go at skiffing on the way back at the end of the outing,” she explains.
Skiffing regattas often include children’s and other fun events, and Jane soon progressed to these, taking part in dinghy races, mop fighting in Canadian canoes [much, MUCH harder than it looks – Ed.] and dongola racing [a lot of people in a wide punt with canoe paddles, generally getting very wet – Ed.]. “I remember my dad running along the river bank following a dinghy race and shouting to me as a 10-year old, ‘Shoulders back, tits out!,'” she laughs. When she was old enough she raced skiffs and did a bit of punting too.
“My dad said that if I wanted to try sweep oar rowing, I could do so when I’d finished my O-levels,” she continues, “So in October 1977 I went down to Weybridge Ladies and that’s where I started rowing.”
By chance, Jo Toch also turned up for the first time at Weybridge Ladies ARC on Jane’s first day, but no one could have guessed then that they would go on to be in the GB team together.
The new girls were initially put in a novice coxed four, and were coached by Bill Stagg. “Bill and his wife Elsie played a huge part in the club,” Jane says, “And without them we wouldn’t have achieved what we did. They were good at teaching technique and so although we didn’t do any weights down there, or fitness training, we actually rowed quite well.”
Jane recorded a couple of wins in the summer of 1978 in eights and also won novice sculls at Lea Junior regatta.
In the autumn, she and Jo were then put into a four with Kate Panter and Belinda Holmes who were actually a year younger than them but had started rowing earlier. This was a really key decision, as the group worked really well together and quickly developed a well-deserved reputation.
This brought them to the attention of Dan Topolski, who was the new GB women’s senior Squad Co-ordinator. With the aim of developing them further by giving them a level of challenge that they weren’t getting on the junior circuit, he invited them to join the squad at some of their training and assessment weekends, and they also went to Salzgitter international regatta with the GB women.
Unfortunately this led to a rift with Bill Stagg, as the girls brought back new ideas about the kinds of race plans the seniors were doing, and after some difficult incidents John Biddle came in to coach them instead.
The crew made a bold plan to treble up at the National Championships in the summer of 1979. “I remember being on the start for the first race which was the junior fours,” Jane says, “And because the rest of them had made me eat breakfast, I felt really sick. So when the starter said, ‘Are you ready?.’ I said ‘No!,’ and I threw up and then I was ready!” They went on to win by a comfortable nine seconds which secured their selection for the junior world Championships (then called the FISA Junior Championships).
They then raced in the senior coxed fours, losing to the GB crew by less than three seconds. “With 250 to go we were winning – we were beating the four that was selected to go to Bled. Our cox Andrea was crying, ‘We’re winning, we’re winning, it’s only 250 to go,’ but we lost by half a length in the end,” Jane recalls.
Finally, they teamed up with four clubmates to win women’s junior eights by 15 seconds, although it was touch and go whether they’d make it to the start in time. “We literally came into the landing stage where the eight was in the water with four of them already in it. We got out of the four, got into the eight, and rowed down the middle of the course so they couldn’t start the race without us!
The crew finished eighth at the FISA Junior Championships in Moscow.
Senior international career
In the autumn of 1979 Jane and Jo joined the GB women’s senior squad, while Kate and Belinda, who were younger, remained as juniors for another year. Jane also started working for Midland Bank, who turned out to be very sympathetic employers for an aspiring international rower. “When I went for my interview, I did say, ‘Just so you know, I do row quite a lot, I’m in the squad and I’m hoping that it will lead somewhere but who knows?’ And because another squad rower, Jane Sturdy, also worked for them, and they’d given quite a lot of time off and flexibility to a 400m runner called Donna Hartley, they couldn’t say that we couldn’t have it. So they were very good and they knew that I had to go at five and that I was training in the mornings so hopefully I’d be in by nine but if I didn’t quite make it, they understood why,” Jane remembers. By April 1980, they allowed her to reduce her hours right down so she could train almost full time without losing her job. “I was really lucky that they let me do that!,” Jane says.
Aged just 18, and physically slight, Jane kept expecting to be dropped each time the squad was cut down. “One of my biggest memories that year was the final trials weekend in Nottingham at Easter. There was a meeting at the end of it where Dan did a little chat, and then he said, ‘Right, I’ll see you all at the airport tomorrow morning to fly to training camp in Italy.’ Everyone else left the room but I sat there till they’d gone and then said, ‘Does that mean I’m still in, then?’
Jane rowed in the coxed four at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This was one of the last crews to be finalised because there had been two scullers vying for the singles slot all season, and only once that had been decided could the remaining sculler, Pauline Hart, be seat raced for the four. As one of the smaller members of the squad, Jane was well aware that there was a limited number of seats she was ever likely to get – stroke of the four or eight, or perhaps two in the eight, “Because my asset was my rhythm,” she reflects.
After the seat racing session was over, Jane remembers going to watch club friends racing at Walton regatta, wondering whether she was in or not. She then bumped into Dan Topolski on the towpath, who greeted her with the words, “You’re like a limpet, you never let go!” She asked him what he meant, and much to her relief he told her that she’d still got her seat in the four.
The final crew then raced in Lucerne, where Jane recalls a confusing experience. “I remember walking into the changing rooms and thinking that I must have gone into the men’s by mistake because the voices I could hear were so deep so I turned round and walked out and stared at the door thinking, that IS a female sign, and went back in. It was full of Russian women who had very deep voices.”
The 1980 Olympics were boycotted by a large number of western countries in protest at the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan the previous year. The British government didn’t want the GB team to attend, but in the end each sport made its own decision and rowing was one of the majority that did go. However, they weren’t allowed to take part in the opening ceremony and were flown home after their races so weren’t there for the closing ceremony either. Although the memory of rowing at the Olympics is one she treasures, Jane says, “To this day, I’m sad that my one experience of the Olympics was a reduced experience because of something that was nothing to do with sport, and whenever I watch an opening ceremony or a closing ceremony on television, I get really emotional because we weren’t allowed to take part in it.”
In the 1981 season, Jane went to the World Championships in a Thames RC coxed four which proved itself fast enough to be selected. She’d started the year with the main GB squad but had badly broken her foot in an accident during training, and been dropped thereafter in circumstances that should have been handled better, and which she finds hard to forget as her foot never healed properly as a result of it being manipulated by someone at the boathouse when it happened which spread out the pieces of broken bone, and continues to be painful if she walks for more than about six miles. She got herself back into rowing by (fixed seat) skiffing while she was still in plaster and then going out in a pair, initially just at quarter slide, with Jo Toch whom, she says was brilliant about helping her.
She returned to the squad in the 1982 season and stroked the eight for the World championships.
Full accounts of Jane’s years representing GB can be found here:
1983 and 1984
Jane trialled for the GB squad again in 1983. She got the year off to a good start by winning at the Head of the River Fours in the autumn of 1982 with Jo Toch, Kate Holroyd and Sally Bloomfield who had all been in the eight with her that summer, and coxed by their coach Alan Inns. In the end she was in the non-travelling reserve pair for 1983.
After this she decided to try again one more time because 1984 was an Olympic year, even though the coaches of the sweep group were making it clear that they wanted bigger, taller women, which Jane was not. She remembers taking part in seat racing at the Docks in April. “I’d got home at 9pm, eaten and was actually asleep when I got a phone call saying, ‘Just to let you know you’re dropped,’ and that was it. That was how it ended.”
The difficulty of stopping being an international athlete
Partly because of how it was handled at the end, with not even a face-to-face conversation, Jane found it very hard to stop being an international rower. “Your life carries on the same but without something that was a huge part of your life. I really struggled with that,” she says.
Although she is quick to emphasise that circumstances make the experience difficult for everyone, her advice for others in the situation is:
- Recognise that stopping international rowing is like bereavement, and that you will go through the well-documented stages of grief.
- Having a new, big, non-rowing goal or challenge to take on is generally helpful.
- Try to reduce your training gradually to avoid suddenly losing all those exercise-generated endorphins and feeling low as a result.
- Recognise that you are likely to put on weight, even if you eat less and continue to exercise moderately, and try to compensate for this by finding other ways to help you feel good about your appearance.
- Seek mutual support from other athletes in a similar situation who should understand what you’re going through as the rest of your friends and family probably won’t.
After being dropped from the squad in April 1984, she tried to lose enough weight to be in contention for the FISA Lightweight Championships which were including women’s events for the first time that year, on a trial basis. “But it was no use,” she later told her local paper, the Surrey Herald. “I needed to lose a stone and a half but I could only lose 10lbs, and then my doctor told me I was making myself ill.”
At this low point, she got a timely phone call from a clubmate at Burway RC, Anna Page, who had also been involved in GB squad trials that year, who asked her if she fancied doing a pair at the National Championships in three weeks’ time. She did, and the duo took the silver medal and Club Champions’ plaque at the National Championships. The winners were a composite who had been the 1983 GB junior pair and were going on to race at the Under 23 Nations Cup in 1984, and as a result Jane and Anna were selected to represent England at the Home International, which they won. This wasn’t much of a consolation for Jane for not going to the Olympics, but for her it was better than nothing.
As well as training five or six times a week herself, “Because I found it hard not to,” Jane became Burway RC’s first female captain, and also took on coaching the novice women, rapidly building a group, “From three girls up to having enough for two eights,” she remembers, adding, “It was great fun!” One of her crews won the Novice pennant at the Women’s Head in 1985. It included future lightweight world medallist Trisha Corless. The Surrey Herald summed up her achievements very well in a headline that read, “Jane inspires a rowing revolution.”
When her doctor explained that the reason she was feeling totally exhausted all the time was because she was overdoing it a bit, she eventually cut down her own training. That said, she still did enough to win the bronze in the pairs with Anna Page at the National Championships (Anna went on to row in the GB eight at Hazewinkel that year and again in 1987) and to race at the first Henley Women’s Regatta in 1988, reaching the semi-finals of the open double sculls.
Jane’s other regret from her time as a senior international is that her original WLARC four was never allowed to row together once they were all in the main GB squad, a sentiment with which Jo wholeheartedly agrees. She admits that, “Maybe we wouldn’t have developed like we did if we’d stayed in our little unit, but we were a very close-knit four, and it would have been nice to have at least tried it.”
In 2013 the crew met up for a reunion at Weybridge Ladies, went for a row, and enjoyed a celebration cake, baked by another member of the club. Jane also modelled her red 1979 rowing ‘shorts’ [which many would describe more like knickers, but they were an inexplicably popular option at the time – Ed.], over her leggings. Photos of the occasion can be found on the club’s Facebook page here (Facebook login needed, and you may need to have ‘Liked’ the WLARC page for the link to work).