Katie Ball

Years 1979 FISA Junior Championships (2x did not race)
1980 FISA Junior Championships (1x unplaced)
1981 FISA Junior Championships (4+ 9th)
1983 World Championships (4+ 8th)

1984 Olympic Games (4+ 7th)
1985 World Championships (4x 11th)
Clubs Broxbourne RC, Lea RC, Thames RC, Tideway Scullers School
Height  5’6.5″ or 170 cm
Racing weight 11 stone or 70 kg
Born 1963

The photo at the top of this page shows Katie, second left) with her crew at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and is from Jean Genchi’s personal collection.

Getting into rowing

Given that Katie’s childhood home was about a minute from Broxbourne RC, it’s hardly surprising that she took to up just as soon as she could. “From about the age of five I used to watch the men – because it was all men then – going up and down past the end of our garden and I was just water mad. I went to the club when I was 11, and was sent away, and then I went back when I was about 12 and a half and by 13 I was properly stuck into it.”

With no other girls or women at the club at the time, Katie’s only option was to single scull, but at least there was quite a lot of expertise in this discipline as the narrow, bendy nature of the Lea there meant that a lot of other members sculled more than was common back then at many other clubs.

“Actually, learning to scull – and I learned to cox too – was a really good start, and I was soon picked up by a coach called Ray Woods, who was a sculler too, and he took me from age 13 all the way up to 17 when I decided to move to Lea RC just because there were women and girls there to row with,” Katie explains.

Once she’d learned the basics of sculling, she used to go out as often she could. “There were no rules then about juniors needing to be supervised, so I used to go and wait on my parents’ cruiser that was moored near the club until someone turned up who had a key to the boat sheds, and then I’d run over an ask them to help me out with the heavy clinker sculling boat that I used. I was obsessed!,” she laughs.

“Later, when I was racing, I got to use a Carl Douglas boat that belonged to the club and that’s now in the roof in the club room there, but eventually my mum and dad bought me a wooden Empacher. My dad always said, ‘You don’t own it, Katie, we own it and we will sell it when you don’t need it any more,’ which I thought was fair enough.”

Junior international career: the unluckiest ever?

Katie was selected for the GB junior team three times from the ages of 16 to 18.

In 1979 she should have been in the double with Caroline Casey of Thames RC, but fell ill on the way out to the Championships in Moscow, and didn’t row at all. Her seat was filled by Alexa Forbes of Nottingham RC who would have been the single sculler, but switched to the double so that Caroline could race. As a result, Katie was the first GB junior woman single sculler who actually competed in a FISA Junior Championships, as the event was known then, which she did in 1980, finishing unplaced from a field of 14 (placings were only determined for first to 12th).

Girl in GB kit in 1x

GB junior single sculler Katie Ball on the river at Broxbourne. (Photo: Katie Ball’s personal collection.)

In 1981, after moving to Lea RC and learning to row sweep, she stroked the junior coxed four in the first round and the repechage at the Championships in Bulgaria but once again picked up a bug and was too unwell to race in the petite final where the team ‘spare’, her clubmate Clare Carpenter, substituted for her.

two women scullers racing

16-year old Katie (furthest from the camera) just beating 1977 international Stephanie Price in the Women’s Singles on the Saturday of Nottinghamshire International Regatta in 1980. (Photo: Katie Ball’s personal collection.)

Senior international career

Rowing at Lea RC during her last year at school proved an inspiring experience. “For a young rower from Broxbourne where there was nobody to row with, I found myself at this club that was only half an hour away where there were women who had rowed at the Olympics and at the Europeans who were great role models. It was a really good for me because you’d have your heroes coaching you and rowing with you. Barbara Kaye was coaching, Gill Webb was still rowing and doing some coaching, and Jean Genchi was there too. They were all key to moving my rowing career on.”

During her final FISA Junior Championships, she says, “I remember Penny Chuter [the British rowing team’s Director of Coaching] saying to me as a junior sculler that she wanted me in the senior squad the following year.” In fact Katie spent the 1982 season getting some excellent experience by racing in an elite Lea club four with Gill, Jean and Clare.

This set her up extremely well to gain a place in the GB four in 1983. She then stroked the four again at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, and sculled in a quad at the 1985 World Championships, the first to have coxless women’s quads (Katie steered), and also the first over 2,000m instead of 1,000m.

Katie’s successful selection for the Olympics involved her taking a gamble which paid off, but which no one else in the squad knew about at the time. In the autumn of 1983 she’d been suffering from recurring bouts of tonsillitis. “I covered it all up, but I was still struggling health-wise, so when we were told that we would have a 10-day break from training together over Christmas, I had my tonsils and four wisdom teeth out in the same surgery, which I was able to arrange because my dad had private health insurance through his job. My face was like a flipping football, but my mum took really good care of me over that period so I didn’t get infected, which I didn’t, but I lost loads of weight because I couldn’t eat and when we started back, we did a long piece out of Hammersmith in an eight for miles and I must have gone green because I remember Noel Casey, the coach, asking if I was alright!”

Full accounts of Katie’s years in the GB squad can be read here:

1983 | 1984 | 1985

Women in opening ceremony outfits messing about

Katie (waving) at the informal opening ceremony some of the GB team put on at the Santa Barbara athlete’s village in 1984 because they couldn’t attend the real one as their first race was the next day. (Photo: Jean Genchi’s personal collection.)

Katie continued with international-level training in the 1986 season until the openweight squad’s Easter training camp in Italy. “I don’t know about many people but I was finding it difficult because the Olympics training had been so full on, but then there was nothing after that; just the sculling where we didn’t do very well,” she explains. “I was also close to finishing my degree, having nearly got chucked out of college at one point, and alongside that the girls coming into the squad were getting bigger and bigger and I was struggling to hold my own, so I was losing my way. I was nearly 23 by then and I hadn’t taken a season off since I was 13 – I’d had enough!”

“While we were in Italy, Mike Genchi, who was coaching, asked me if I wanted to stop and coach instead. I’d done a fair bit of coaching just at the club so I said ‘Yes’ straight away. So I came out of the squad and literally the next day I was coaching, and I was much happier. It was nice for someone to say, ‘You don’t have to do this any more.'”

Having had a break from racing herself that summer, she resumed training in the autumn and went to GB trials in a double with Gill Webb. “I think we did quite well but I didn’t want to go back. I’d started work as a PE teacher by then and it was just all too much and I couldn’t fit it all. So after that I did Ghent regatta with the club and rowed in a four, but then I stopped and I got into my coaching.”

Rowing coaching career (part 1)

Katie really enjoyed assisting Mike Genchi with coaching the GB women’s squad at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships in 1986, and they worked together very effectively. “I already knew him really well because he was from the Lea too, and I’d rowed with his wife Jean [at the club and internationally in 1983 and 1984],” she says. “I learned loads from him, though I remember running around a lot at the Championships rigging boats, checking things [This was particularly true in 1986 because the eight women in the squad doubled up so the coaches often had to rig one boat on their own whilst the rowers were on the water in the other boat.] It was a big job because there wasn’t a boatman. It was hard work but it was good, and I also shadowed other people and watched how they coached.”

She also drew on the coaching she’d had as an international which she found effective. “Noel Casey coached me as a junior and senior; he was a real character, a very tough man who demanded a lot from us. I can remember him getting angry and banging his megaphone on the side of the launch, and sometimes his language was choice, but I liked him he had a gentle and humorous side to him. I always enjoyed Richard Ayling‘s coaching, I really did. I thought he had some good ideas, although as a crew we didn’t always  manage to implement them. And I had some experience of Penny Chuter coaching me, doing the odd session or two. That was fab. And Rosie Mayglothling coached me; that was good as well.”

When Katie decided to focus her considerable energy on coaching at the Lea, she initially coached the women’s squad which won two of the coxed fours events at the second Henley Women’s Regatta in 1989. Straight after that she took on an intermediate men’s eight which reached the semi-finals of the Thames Cup that year and the quarter finals in 1990 after finishing seventh at the Head of the River Race. In her third year with them 1991, the group came sixth at the Head and a coxed four got to the semi-finals of the Brit at Henley. “We also took a lightweight pair to Lucerne,” she remembers. “I was doing a lot of coaching! It was actually more time-consuming coaching because you have to rig boats and write training schedules and in the end I was just exhausted, so I stopped, and then the following year they actually won at Henley – typical really, but never mind!”

Although as a coach Katie was able to choose to end her involvement with rowing, it wasn’t a happy ending. “It was almost as if I’d done too much. I really had burned myself out with coaching and rowing. It was a bit like that famous quote from Steve Redgrave about never wanting to get back in a boat again – THAT was how I felt about rowing and coaching. So I parked that rowing part of my life and didn’t want to look back at it; I wouldn’t even go on the ergo in the gym. That’ why I haven’t got involved in any of the reunions [there was a big gathering of Olympians at Henley Royal Regatta in 2012].”

At this time clubs all over the country were starting to wrestle with the concept of paying their coaches for work which had hitherto been done purely on a voluntary basis, particularly as the Amateur Rowing Association’s definition of amateur status changed. Katie challenged the Lea RC Committee on the subject. “In my second year of coaching, I asked them to pay me,” she remembers. “I think there was a lot of feeling that this shouldn’t happen but I was putting in hundreds of hours a year with the squad and in the end I negotiated £20 a week!”

Rugby

Meanwhile, Katie had also got involved in rugby. “While I was still rowing in 1987, the girls at the school where I was a PE teacher wanted to play rugby,” she explains. “As I didn’t know anything about rugby, I tried to find a course, but there wasn’t one so I joined Wasps Ladies. My idea was that I’d just go for a few weeks, learn the game, and then go back and teach the girls. But, of course, I loved it, so for a few years I was rowing and playing rugby. It worked out because rugby matches are on a Sunday afternoon but I remember turning up  to land training for rowing on a Monday evening covered in bruises a lot!”

After a few years at Wasps which was based in north west London, Katie and several of her team mates who all lived in east London became founder members of nearby Saracens in 1989. She was Women’s Captain from 1993 to 1995, and then moved on to coaching rugby which she eventually did at national level, working with the England U18s and England students as well as the Saracen’s Women’s first team up to the point that they became professional, and also delivering coach education.

Extraordinarily, during all of this she’d also made the time and energy developed her teaching career, and in 2010 got a Headship. “So I stopped coaching altogether,” she explains. “It was the first time since I’d begun rowing in the 1970s that I’ve done nothing at all in sport, no competing or coaching.”

Coaching rowing (part 2)

Katie’s return to coaching rowing in 2017 was precipitated by the sad event of her mum’s death, with a lot of separate factors all coming together to make it something she’s really pleased to be involved with again.

It all started on the day of her mother’s funeral when she stopped by Broxbourne RC where the wake was due to be held. “The lady who opened the clubhouse for us to set up, asked I’d consider coaching rowing there again, and I said, ‘No!’ My mum’s just died, I’m a head, I’ve got so much on.’ then at the funeral I gave the eulogy, and was talking about how my mum had been a big netball coach and set up a couple of leagues, so I was saying to the congregation, ‘Please keep up mum’s legacy, keep coaching, keep umpiring, keep playing netball, those are the important things that my mum has established at your club’. As I walked out of the church afterwards, one of the coaches of the netball squad came up to me and said, ‘I was going to have year off, Katie, but now you said that, I’m going to have to keep going,’ and I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something again.’ And now that my dad’s on his own, still living on the river there, my care for him has gone up, so coaching at Broxbourne all kind of fits. I visit him and do some coaching, and he’s really excited about that. He never rowed, but he’s been involved with the club for years because he was an accountant, so he did the club accounts and then later became the auditor.”

Katie coaches both the women’s and junior squads. “I can feel that competitive nature in me, desperate to do more but I’m trying to keep a lid on it because obviously I’ve got a job to do and also my dad,” she laughs, adding, “It’s been good for me to start coaching again though because it was something I needed to do for myself, having not done any coaching since 2010. I did miss it and because I’d lost my mum I wanted to do something completely different and new, and it absolutely has worked for me. The club has been so appreciative, so quite selfishly, it’s worked out very well for me though it’s funny because I feel like my whole life has come full circle!”

Reflecting on what’s changed in the 20 years she’s been out of rowing, Katie says, “There are three things, I think; technology, what the boats and blades are made of, and the word ‘core’. We used to do millions of sit ups and dorsal rises and all the rest of it, but you never called it core, you never talked about engaging your core!”

After her first departure from rowing in 1991, coming back to it has allowed her to make peace with the sport in which she achieved so much, and to which she also contributed a huge amount too. But, she emphasises, there’s no chance that she’ll be getting back in a boat again herself. “I’ve had some offers to row in veteran crews and I’ve just said, ‘No.’ I’ve had two back surgeries and knee surgery. In hindsight, power cleaning a lot of weight when I was 14 can’t have been good for me, and then I went on to play front row in rugby which absolutely ruined my back and my knees, so I’m a bit of a wreck now, really!”

By a boat called Katie Ball

Katie and her dad at Broxbourne RC in 2018. (Photo: Katie Ball’s personal collection.)