|Years||1999 World Championships (Lt 1x 10th)|
2002 World Championships (Lt 1x 11th)
|Clubs||Nithsdale ARC, Civil Service Ladies RC/Barnes Bridge Ladies RC, Lea RC, Kingston RC, Rebecca RC, Aberdeen Schools Rowing Association|
|Height||5’6″ or 168cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Kirsten at XXX and is © XXX.
Getting into rowing
Kirsten first got into rowing aged about 13 when a school friend’s dad needed a cox for his four at Nithsdale ARC in Dumfries. She explains, “My friend wasn’t interested in rowing at all and refused to go near the club, but I liked sport. He taught me to cox and later to row and to ski as well, in fact.” She was the only junior at the club for several years, and one of only a few female members too, although she was unfazed by this.
She was taught to scull by Gordon Kerr, a very successful sculler himself. “He took me under his wing and let me race in his Carl Douglas,” she recalls, recognising how generous this was. By the time she finished school, she’d raced a couple of times at the Scottish Championships, winning all of the categories she entered in 1988. Even at this stage, when her rowing was just a hobby, she had a desire to take it more seriously.
After a few years out of the sport while she worked abroad and then trained as a nurse in Edinburgh, Kirsten joined Civil Service Ladies Rowing Club (which was renamed Barnes Bridge Ladies Rowing Club while she was there) when she started work in London, and she picked up a number of wins in singles and occasionally doubles from 1996 to 1998. After briefly becoming a member of Lea RC because it was closer to her job at Barts Hospital, she moved to Kingston Rowing Club, where there was a good women’s lightweight squad at the time.
Racing as Kingston, Kirsten reached the quarter finals of the Princess Royal Challenge Cup (the open women’s single sculls event) at Henley Royal Regatta after beating her clubmate Mary Stevens in her first round. She then won the silver medal in lightweight singles at the National Championships in 1998.
International sculling career
By now, Kirsten was clearly in the mix at the top of the domestic lightweight sculling scene; it was time to take the next step and trial for GB. At the second open assessment in February 1999 she was the third lightweight single in the first run and in the third lightweight double in the second run, although several of the leading athletes were missing from this due to illness and injury. More impressively, she was fourth at final trials in April, although the winner of the time trial, Tracy Langlands, had to withdraw injured and another top sculler, Jane Hall, was also absent.
Following the trials, Tracy and Jane were selected as the GB double for the early-season international regattas, with Jo Nitsch and Sarah Birch, who had both finished ahead of Kirsten at final trials, being allowed to race as a second GB crew at the first World Cup regatta in Hazewinkel. No quad or single scull was selected, but the squad management agreed that Kirsten could race at Hazewinkel as a private entry after an appeal by her coach, Damian Hammond. Impressively, she finished fourth out of 12 there, just 2.16 seconds off third place.
On a roll, Kirsten’s next major race was Henley Royal Regatta. She won her heat with an ‘easily’ verdict over the openweight sculler Alison Watt of Clydesdale RC after rowing her down in the second half of the race, and then recorded another ‘easily’ against the Hungarian Gitta Barz. This put her into the semi-final, and as she hadn’t expected to get this far, required a hurried phone call to the hospital where she worked to swap her shift the next day. Her opponent in the semi was the 1996 Olympic quad sculls gold medallist and 1998 World single sculls silver medallist Katrin Rutschow of Germany, so there was no shame in the easily verdict Kirsten lost by.
By now, some of the other lightweight scullers who had been at final trials were also contesting the squad’s decision not to select anyone for the singles slot, and Kirsten remembers doing another race off in Nottingham against several of them. As a result, Kirsten and Sarah Birch were both permitted to race at the final World Cup regatta in Lucerne; but not only did Kirsten have to beat Sarah, she also needed to do well enough overall if she were to be selected for the World Championships. Kirsten achieved both, finishing fifth in the A final. After the race, she remembers the International Manager saying to Damian, “Oh alright then, she can go to the Worlds.”
Being an official part of the team at last turned out to have minuses as well as plusses for Kirsten. The biggest benefit, of course, was that her expenses were paid, both for the final training camps and the Championships themselves in Canada. However, she soon discovered that she had to fit in with the rest of the GB team rather than follow the routine that she had established with Damian and her husband. “Because I hadn’t been away with the team before I found it very difficult because I had to slot into what THEY wanted me to do – their training, and I was so used to the whole experience of going away being with my husband and Damian and we had a routine and I wasn’t allowed to follow that routine and I really struggled, which was particularly frustrating when I was a single sculler” she recalls, adding, “I also had real problems with compartment syndrome in my left hand that I had to have surgery on later, and that flared up at the Worlds; I had really bad cramp in my arm as soon as I started one of the races .“
On such a steep learning and adjustment curve, her fourth place in the B final in a 16-boat entry was perfectly creditable. “I can’t complain – that was the top 10 in the world,” she reflects.
Kirsten’s World Championship result qualified her for Lottery funding, so she gave up work and became a full-time athlete. Having moved to Wales with her husband’s job, she trained out of Cardiff Bay from the Sport Wales National Centre.
After such a promising start on the international scene, her 2000 season didn’t go so well. She was initially selected for the lightweight quad in which she raced at the first World Cup regatta. The crew won, giving her her first major international medal, but they knew this was a qualified achievement as there were only three entries in the event. After the GB lightweight double failed to qualify for the Olympics, one of that crew took Kirsten’s seat in the quad, and the other became the lightweight sculler. Kirsten went to the World Championships as the lightweight spare, which she found a miserable experience. “It was a long training camp in Hazewinkel and a long World Championships when I was training with no real purpose,” she recalls, adding, “The culture then was that men were more important than women and openweights were more important than lightweights, so as the spare for the lightweight women, I felt like a second-class citizen.”
Although she competed in some of the early trials for 2001, she decided to take a year out from the GB squad. Not only was top sculler Tracy Langlands the likely choice for the GB singles slot, but “I think I was quite disillusioned by it all,” Kirsten says. “I just wanted to enjoy my sculling so raced my single at Ghent and Cologne and just had a great time going round Europe sculling. I think some of the others people couldn’t understand why I was prepared to drop out of the system rather than go for a crew boat like the quad. But I was quite happy – I liked my single. It was my mentality. I did go out in some crews, but I loved single sculling. I always felt that if I did well it was down to me and if I didn’t it was down to me. There was no one to blame but yourself.”
Her decision lost her her GB funding, but she received some Welsh funding, and was also sponsored by her husband’s employer who bought her a racing boat.
Her sculling mojo restored, Kirsten returned to GB trials for the 2002 season. She finished second at the first World Cup regatta in Hazewinkel, wearing the colours of Rebecca RC, Welsh Rowing’s racing name. At that year’s second World Cup regatta in Lucerne, she once again faced the double pressures of needing to beat the other GB entry, Helen Mangan, as well as delivering a good enough result overall to be selected for the World Championships.
She did both consummately, by winning all three of her races – heat, semi-final and final, the last by just 0.15 seconds. This was the first time a British woman had won the lightweight singles at Lucerne, and looking back at her achievement now, which she considers the pinnacle of her rowing career, Kirsten says, “It was the most amazing experience and I felt so positive about my sculling. Even Jurgen Grobler, the openweight men’s coach, came over to congratulate me, which made the end of my day because he was a man of few words with the lightweights.”
Unfortunately, things started to unravel for her after this. She contracted gastroenteritis, for which she was hospitalised, and only later discovered that she also had low potassiun. Forced to miss the third World Cup regatta, Kirsten decided to compete for Wales at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships, where she won the gold medal in the lightweight single sculls (incidentally beating Helen Mangan again, who was representing Northern Ireland). She also doubled up in a lightweight quad, which came second. This didn’t got down well with the GB team management, but Kirsten wanted the race practice to show herself that she was up to racing speed again.
She finished what she considered a disappointing 11th at the World Championships. “After Lucerne, I’d thought a medal was a possibility,” she explains, “But it all went downhill from there. It wasn’t just my illness, though; my biggest problem was going away with the British team. I always felt like an outsider and that I didn’t fit in, and because I was slightly sensitive and lacking in confidence and that didn’t do me any good. I just wasn’t on form when it mattered and I didn’t scull well.”
Full reports on her two years as the GB lightweight single sculler can be read here:
1999 | 2002
Later rowing and coaching
Kirsten took part in the GB trials again at the start of the next season, but decided to retire from rowing soon after that. “Within two weeks, I’d sold everything – my boat, my blades, my ergo,” she remembers. Nevertheless, she found it hard to adapt to having free time outside her job, so she took up track cycling and raced for Wales for several years.
After 10 years completely out of rowing, she started coaching at Aberdeen Schools Rowing Association when she and her family moved there. Kirsten hugely enjoyed this and having recently moved to Glasgow, she’s finally hoping to get back in a boat again herself.
© Helena Smalman-Smith 2022.