Kim Thomas

Years 1983 FISA Youth Championships (8o 5th)
1984 FISA Youth Championships (4+ 6th)
1985 World Rowing Junior Championships (4+ 5th)
1987 World Championships (2- 7th)
1988 Olympic Games (2- 8th)
1989 World Championships (2- 11th)
1992 Olympic Games (4- 8th)
Clubs Weybridge Ladies ARC, Durham University BC, Weybridge RC, Kingston RC
Height 5’8″ or 173cm
Racing weight 10 stone 10 lb or 68kg
Born 1967

The photo at the top of this page shows Kim (right) with her 1987-1989 pairs partner Ali Bonner and is copyright John Shore.

Getting into rowing

Growing up in a rowing family, it was a question of when rather than if Kim would start rowing herself. That said, she expressed some disapproval of her parents’ involvement at Thames Valley Skiff Club from a very early age. “Mum says I was a bit of a crier as a baby, and that when there was a regatta at the club, she and Dad used to go to race and leave me at the boathouse with someone, and she could hear screaming me from up at the start!”

In due course she learned to row at nearby Weybridge Ladies ARC, winning her first pot in 1981 at the age of 13 in Novice Coxed Fours at Barnes and Mortlake regatta with other juniors. She also had her first experience of multilane racing in Nottingham. “There was an inter-regional regatta and I was stuck in the bows of an eight in a little cotton vest in the right colour, with no idea what was going on, even where we came,” she recalls. “But I do remember walking up through the boating park at Holme Pierrepont, though, and getting to the top of the hill and looking down towards the course and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t even see the end of it!'” The following year, 1982, she won Women’s Junior Eights at the National Championships.

Junior international career

In 1983 her rowing career moved to the next level when she was selected for the GB junior eight despite being only J15. Kim and three other members of the crew, including cox Ali Norrish, then went on to row in the GB junior coxed four in 1984, and in 1985 Kim was in the GB junior four again, this time with a completely new crew.

The 1985 GB junior coxed four. From left: Kate Sanson, Kim Thomas, Sarah Birch, Anna Durrant, Vikki Filsell. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

As Kim’s birthday is in October she was ineligible to row internationally at junior level in her final year at school, although she attended the World Championships in Nottingham in 1986 as a “physio helper” to get a taste of senior-level international competition.

Looking back on her introduction to rowing, Kim reflects, “I was really lucky that Weybridge Ladies were practically on my doorstep because the club had a really strong junior women’s group but there was nothing else on offer for girls round us. It was also lucky that when I arrived there I found I knew another girl who was already rowing, Aggie Barnett. She used to live quite close to us and we first met doing ballet in our little village hall, though I don’t imagine the ballet teacher was too upset when we decided that neither of us were going to be suited to ballet! Aggie was very much part of the rowing scene then and that gave me a bit of momentum to get involved. There were also some very passionate coaches down there: John Sanson, whose daughters rowed, and Bill and Elsie Stagg. It was just a really good setup and I when I started there I got in a little group of us, all quite keen and well coached, and that was pretty much how it started.”

Details of how Kim’s GB junior crews did at what was then called the FISA Youth Championships can be found here:

 1983 | 19841985

Senior international career

After leaving school in the summer of 1986, Kim took a gap year, working for her club and GB team mate Ali Norrish’s father’s engineering firm while also rowing. “My idea was to give myself a chance to establish myself in the GB senior squad before going off to Durham University,” she explains. This plan went better than she’d expected and she was selected to row in the GB pair with Ali Bonner at the World Championships in 1987, although she puts this ‘success’ down to the standards not really being high enough at the time. “I’d expected it to take three years to make the move from junior to senior, and I remember being quite disappointed that it wasn’t that hard.”

Having realised that she had a chance to go to the 1988 Olympics she deferred her university place again, a gamble which paid off as she and Ali were selected again, coming second in the petite final in Seoul.

“The sense of living through and being part of a historic sporting event is something I cherish,” Kim wrote later about her experience of her first Olympic Games, although her first two years in the GB team were far from positive; in 1987 they’d had to find their own coach in order to get the attention they needed, and after “asking a few people but not having much luck”, Derek Thurgood of Upper Thames RC volunteered to take them on although this necessitated them travelling to Henley to train. The 1987 Championships were also marred by appalling conditions in which racing should have been postponed but wasn’t, largely to satisfy TV scheduled. In 1988, Kim feels that they’d established themselves as the fastest pair out of the top six athletes, and was therefore disappointed that they didn’t get ‘first dibs’ on coach Steve Gunn who was widely recognised as excellent. Steve coached the four instead (to a performance beyond what most believed was possible), while Kim and Ali were coached by Ron Needs who did a huge amount of work for the GB women’s squad from the 1970s to the 1990s and even after that, and was adored by many of his crews, but Kim and Ali found he just didn’t quite inspire them.

Following the Seoul Olympic Games she finally took up her place at Durham where she concentrated on single sculling, coached by Drew Robertson who was a member of Durham ARC. After going through the trials process, she and Ali were put into a double for the early season international regattas in 1989; she can’t remember why, although it was probably because there was a general push towards sculling and crew sculling in particular at the time. After doing quite badly in their double at Lucerne, Kim and Ali switched back to the pair for the World Championships where a recurring back problem that Ali had been suffering from flared up during their repechage and Kim finished up rowing in the petite final with spare woman Kate Miller, which was pretty unsatisfactory for all concerned. “It WAS disappointing but I think by that stage I was a little bit cynical about the whole thing really, after the whole coaching thing from the year before. There wasn’t the high performance environment you see in the squad today. It was more, ‘Who is prepared to give up so many weeks of their life to coach the GB women?’ Nobody would coach, we couldn’t get anyone to be interested.”

Slightly bizarrely, as 1989 was her lowest international result, Kim won The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Award.

Kim didn’t try to row for GB in 1990 or 1991 though this was because she found it hard to combine the volume of training with the demands of her course, rather being put off by her experiences over the previous three years. In 1991 she stroked a Durham University crew, of which she was the most experienced member “by a long way”, to win club eights at Henley Women’s Regatta and take the bronze medal at the National Championships, the achievements she now says she is proudest of in her rowing career. “That was really good fun,” she remembers. “It was thrashing about a bit to start off with but as the season went on, the whole crew just gelled and grew and blossomed and once after we’d finished our exams it all came together. We were complete outsiders at Henley Women’s but we got better throughout the regatta – I REALLY enjoyed that!”

Back home in Weybridge after completing her degree, Kim joined Weybridge RC, where her dad had long been a member. The club bought a suitably-sized pair for her to row in for trials and she was coached by Ian Shore. She was initially selected to row in the eight, which was the third boat after the pair and coxless four. “The eight was kind of the leftovers, but we gelled and went better and better through the season. I enjoyed racing in the eight compared with the pair because there are fewer strokes between each 250m!” When the eight finished a promising fourth at Lucerne regatta, the final event before the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, while neither the four nor the pair didn’t make the final, Chief Coach Bob Michaels decide to reshuffle his crews, making the eight the second boat which was ‘strengthened’ by three members of the four. Kim was moved into the four.

On paper, this reads like yet another disappointing experience for Kim, following on from her three previous international years in which she’d had to deal with terrible conditions (1987), a coach she struggled to bond with (1988) and an injured partner (1989). However, “It sounds rubbish, doesn’t it? But it didn’t feel like that at the time,” she says, adding that she enjoyed being coached in the four by CD Riches of Westminster School.

Full accounts of Kim’s years in the GB team can be read here:

1987 | 1988 | 1989 | 1992

Later serious rowing

The following season Kim set her sights on being the GB single sculler at the World Student Games. She enrolled on a PGCE teaching course at Reading University and trained there and at Upper Thames RC, still coached by Ian Shore at weekends. As a result of being in Henley she tried doubling with Ali Gill for a while. “I think we even raced but then someone decided that we weren’t fast enough, and I remember being really annoyed because I’d taken my eye off the ball in terms of single sculling, and when went to the trials, I didn’t go fast enough at the trials to get selected.”

The training she’d done in her single was enough, though, for her to win Henley Women’s Regatta, where she beat the up and coming Guin Batten in the semi-final by one foot. “Guin always had quite a fast finish,” Kim remembers, “And at Henley she got a bit close towards the end, but I’d got enough distance on her to get away with it. After that she asked me if I wanted to do a double for the National Championships but because of what had happened with the double with Ali I said, ‘No, I’m going to focus on my single,’ so she went off and did a double with somebody else, but she did the single as well had got that little bit faster so when we got to the last 250m I had nothing left to respond to her and she just went past me and won.”

Irrelevant but amusing story

“When we arrived in Strathclyde where the National Championships were that year, I went off for a practice paddle in my single, and right up at the top of the course, hit one of the big buoys and my spoon broke clean off,” Kim remembers. “So I was balancing in the middle of the lake [which is a natural-shaped lake and not just a 2k x six lane rectangle] on the other blade, and wondering how I would get out of this. Fortunately a lightweight men’s eight came up and I said, ‘Oh, I wonder if you could help me?’ and they managed to get close enough that I could hold on to them and they then manoeuvered us all towards the bank where my coach [still Ian Shore] was waiting and he brought up a spare set of sculls. So I managed to have this collision and still not fall in!”

Kim also qualified for the first open women’s single sculls at Henley Royal Regatta that year. Unfortunately for her she drew World Champion Maria Brandin of Sweden in the first round. Brandin won the race with an ‘easily’ verdict and went on to win the event. Although she admits, “It wasn’t really a race,” Kim nevertheless has happy memories of the occasion. “Mum and Dad came in the launch which was great, and it was like being at a party being at HRR, I hadn’t really realised that. Coming through the competitors’ enclosure the noise was absolutely amazing.”

Coaching career

Kim is currently a rowing coach and maths teacher at Albyn School in Aberdeen, having previously worked at Kingston Grammar School and Pangbourne College. “The Head is really supportive of rowing as a games option which works really well for for a small, mixed school like ours, because we concentrate on doubles and quads so a 17-year old boy can scull with a 13-year old girl, say, and that wouldn’t be possible with other sports. But it’s very different from rowing on the Thames,” she explains. “In Pangbourne you’ve got a massive long stretch and virtually no danger, apart from drowning, but here it’s tidal and if kids fall in they’re in the North Sea, they could drift out to Norway! Or into the harbour where all there are loads of these massive ships.”

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.