|Years||1979 FISA Youth Championships (4+ 8th)
1980 Olympic Games (8o 5th)
1981 World Championships (8o 6th)
1982 World Championships (8o 7th)
1983 World Championships (4+ 8th)
1984 Olympic Games (4+ 7th)
1988 World Championships (Lt 4- 5th)
1989 World Championships (Lt 4- 2nd)
1990 World Championships (Lt 4- 4th)
|Clubs||Weybridge Ladies ARC, Burway RC, Tideway Scullers School, Ardingly RC, Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC|
|Height||5’8″ or 173cm|
|Racing weight (at openweight)||9 stone 13 lb or 63kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows (from left), Katie Brownlow, Jo Toch, coach Bob Michaels, Rachel Hist and Sue Key after winning the silver medal in lightweight coxless fours at the World Championships in 1989. (Photo: Sue Key’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Jo took up rowing as a teenager. “When I was six my family moved to Shepperton where my parents had a hotel which was actually on the river. So from when I was about eight I used to spend a lot of my time just out in a dinghy boat with my friends, spending the whole day in a boat,” she explains. “I always did a lot of sport and I remember one day when I was 16 coming home from playing squash and my mother said, ‘Look at all those rowing boats on the river, why not go along and do that?,’ so I went down to Weybridge Ladies ARC and that was how I started.”
“I was very lucky because the first day that I went down Jane Cross also turned up for the first time. We’d competed against each other in swimming so it was nice to see someone I knew, but she was from a rowing family so she knew what she was doing whereas I didn’t,” she continues. “What I hadn’t realised when I joined was that it’s a women-only rowing club and it was about six weeks before I noticed that! One of my motivations for joining a club was that there would be lots of boys there but there weren’t, which actually was a good thing because it made me concentrate on the rowing. It was a very organised club, though it was mostly juniors and then women who were in their 40s and 50s. There didn’t seem to be many in between.”
She continues, “When I started and it was a fun thing but when I reflect on it now, the club really did know what they were doing and they were ambitious for us. So the first year I rowed we did some regattas and then we all went to the National Championships.” Jo and Jane were in the second boat; the first boat contained more experienced juniors including Kate Panter and Belinda Holmes about whom, Jo says , “Everyone thought they were fantastic and they were!” The two crews both made the final, finishing fifth and sixth. “It was a bit of a shock that my crew with not very good people, was quite close to their crew,” she remembers.
When the rowing season got under way again in the Autumn, Jo and Jane were put together with Kate and Belinda in a crew. This was a turning point. Initially coached by WLARC stalwart Bill Stagg, whom Jo remembers was very strong on technique, and later by John Biddle, the crew had an extremely successful season, rounded off with convincing wins in junior coxed fours and eights at the National Championships and, more impressively, a silver medal in the senior event where they finished less than three seconds behind the GB crew. Not surprisingly, Jo remembers the race very clearly. “At 250 metres to go I looked across and was totally in shock that we were ahead of the seniors who were our icons. I had hard contact lenses, which you used to take out by opening your eyes wide and blinking, and I must have been so surprise that I opened my eyes wide and one of them fell out! After we went over the line and I accidentally knocked it off my t-shirt where it had landed and it floated down to Kate at three who picked it up out of the water and gave it back.” Getting back to the result, Jo adds, “I talked to the seniors years later and they said that it was as significant a moment for them as it was for us. We couldn’t believe we were up there with our icons and they realised that they had to beat us.”
This secured their selection for the FISA (World) Junior Championships in Moscow where they finished eighth. This was only the second time the FISA Junior Championships had included women’s events.
Senior international career
During that season the GB senior squad was being run by Dan Topolski, a former international oarsman who was perhaps most famous as the architect of Oxford’s boat race success at that time. As well as coaching the women in the squad at the time, one of Dan’s great contributions as a squad co-ordinator was seeking out potential international rowers of the future, and he put a lot of effort into encouraging the young Weybridge crew, who consequently did land training and water training sessions throughout that year with the GB women.
This was ideal preparation for Jo when she joined the senior squad that autumn. She was subsequently selected to row in the eight at the Olympic Games in Moscow, where she was the youngest member of the GB rowing team. Her WLARC crew-mate Jane got into the coxed four. “It was a very exciting time,” Jo remembers. “We were just full of ambition. It wasn’t actually expected that I would make it; I think people thought the 1984 games was a more realistic goal. But I got in because selection was done on seat racing and I did quite well in that, largely based on the good technique Bill Stagg had drilled into us, and on being very competitive.”
Jo continued to row for Great Britain for the next four years, stroking the eight in 1981, rowing in the eight again in 1982 and then in the same coxed four for the 1983 World Championships and the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She also raced in the invitation women’s coxed fours at Henley Royal Regatta in 1981, which was the first year it included events for women (women’s events were included again in 1982 but then dropped until the women’s sculls were permanently added in 1993).
One of the major internal challenges that the squad faced during that Olympiad was the lack of coaching continuity, and was one of the very few people who was in the team throughout the 1980-1984 period bounded by the second and third Olympic Games to include women’s rowing, Jo’s insight on this is particularly interesting. “On reflection, I think GB women’s rowing lost its way a bit in 1982. [Coach] Chris George left and then we had we had Alan Inns, who’d coxed the men, for a while,” she explains. “No one particularly wanted to coach the women which was a bit of a shame because we were all quite keen and we’d been on a bit of a high up to 1981. And then when the next Olympics are approaching it’s easier to get a coach because they want to an Olympics and they don’t mind who they coach to do that, but I don’t think anyone was much wanted to coach the women in 1982 or 1983. But that said, although the men that did coach us seemed to come along with misgivings, once they started they would begin to really love us because we would train so hard and I think we were probably in some ways easier to coach than the men, and we were so eager to have coaching.”
Full reports of Jo’s years in the openweight GB team can be read here:
Having taken the calendar year 1984 off from her law degree at King’s College, London, After the LA Olympics, Jo stayed in America, coaching at UCLA for a few months and travelling around. “I just milked all the invitations I got because I was an Olympian,” she remembers. “I hung out with the Beach Boys in Malibu because they’d done a concert in the Olympic village and then they invited me. I being back stage at the Hollywood Bowl and just had an amazing time.” Once she got back she focused her attention on her studies, and graduated in the summer of 1985, the first season she hadn’t rowed in eight years.
She did, however, go to watch the 1985 World Championships, which were particularly important for women’s rowing because they were the first at which the distance had been extended to 2,000m, and also the first to include lightweight events for women. For Jo, who had always been one of the physically smallest members of the GB squad, this changed everything. “Introducing lightweight rowing meant that we compete on a more equal playing field and I also felt so much more comfortable at 2,000m because you can have a strategy, you can have pushes, you can do different things which you can’t do in a flat-out 1,000m sprint.”
Encouraged by Lin Clark, who had successfully made the transition from openweight to lightweight herself, winning a historic gold in the lightweight double in 1985, Jo dieted down, and trialled for the 1986 lightweight coxless four. Although she was initially selected for it, the crew was later changed and Jo finished up as the reserve for the lightweight team at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland which included women’s rowing for the first time.
Confronting Margaret Thatcher
Commonwealth Games Although she didn’t got the opportunity to row, Jo literally hit the headlines for another reason. The 1986 Commonwealth Games were boycotted by a large number of the Commonwealth’s African, Asian and Caribbean nations in protest at the British Government’s policy at the time of maintaining sporting as well as economic links with apartheid South Africa. Although the boycott didn’t affect the rowing events as most of those countries didn’t row, it had almost led to the cancellation of the Games for financial reasons as it deterred sponsors. Jo, who had experienced the very considerable pressure Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had put on British competitors to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (the British rowing team decided to go, but many sports didn’t), was particularly incensed that Thatcher was now arguing that sport should not be used for political ends when she had so explicitly done so six years earlier.
Thatcher paid a visit to the Games which included a tour of the athlete village. “I was in the village and heard she was coming,” Jo remembers, “So I said to some of the journalists that I’d really like to ask her some questions because we were pressurised in 1980 not to go to Moscow and yet now she was being very critical of all the countries that were boycotting. The journalists obviously got quite excited about this thinking that there might be a bit of a story going on. I was wearing my Commonwealth Games track suit so when she came along, one of her aides saw me, pulled me over and introduced me, thinking it would be a great photo opportunity which it did in a way and a bunch of photographers were taking pictures. I then asked her these slightly awkward questions and she gave me a look, but she was very quick in her answers which shows what an accomplished politician she was. She said that the difference was that we were given the choice in a free country, but the countries boycotting the Commonwealth Games were not free countries, and then she very deftly bustled away.”
“The next day every single newspaper had me on their front page!,” Jo continues. The Games Village View news sheet quotes her as saying, “I’m glad she told me that it’s the athletes’ decision to compete. I’ll remember that for the next time there’s an Olympics and there’s boycotting, because I shall personally write to her and remind her of what she said.”
After taking another year out of rowing during the 1987 season when she spent a year in New Zealand, Jo was selected to race in the GB lightweight coxless four from 1988 to 1990. In 1989, her seventh international appearance for GB, Jo finally won the medal that she had so long sought. “When I got that silver medal my first thought was just relief, that I had just done it, I’d proved I was good enough after all of these years, after all of these placings, and that completely changed everything. I was really happy.”
She won at Lucerne in the lightweight four for all three of those years which, she says, “Finally put paid to all the memories of not doing so well in the early eighties as an openweight.”
Full accounts of Jo’s time in the GB lightweight four can be read here:
After 1990, Jo did do some further GB trials alongside whilst also developing her career as a barrister, and for a time was keen to try and get to the 1992 Olympics as an openweight again (as there weren’t any events for lightweight women in the Games at that time). Her Thames Tradesmen’s coxed four represented England at the Home International in 1991.
She won the Women’s Head with Tideway Scullers in 1992, rowing in a crew of former and current internationals. However, having won the medal she’d wanted for so long, she’d achieved her major goal, and in early 1993 she finally stopped.
“I didn’t even think about rowing again for about 15 years until my son was about 12,” Jo says, but in recent years she has come back to it, enjoying rowing and winning again at Ardingly RC and Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC.
Jo is a barrister specialising in family law, and is founder and CEO of Family Law Cafe.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.