|Years||1990 World Rowing Championships (4- 9th)|
1991 World Rowing Championships (2- 3rd, 8o 9th)
1992 Olympic Games (2- 5th)
1993 World Rowing Championships (2- 4th)
1994 World Rowing Championships (2- 5th)
1995 World Rowing Championships (8o 7th)
1996 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
1997 World Rowing Championships (2x 2nd)
1998 World Rowing Championships (2x 1st)
1999 World Rowing Championships (2x 8th)
2000 Olympic Games (4x 2nd)
|Clubs||Southampton University BC, Sons of the Thames RC, Thames RC, Upper Thames RC, Henley RC|
|Height||5’8.5″ or 174cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone or 70kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Miriam (left) with her sister Guin, Katherine Grainger and Gillian Lindsay after winning the silver medal in the quads at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and is from Guin Batten’s personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Miriam started rowing in 1984 at Southampton University because she failed to get into the sailing team. She was already an accomplished sailor and, in fact, had largely chosen Southampton because she’d been in her school’s crew for the Tall Ships Race which finished there which had inspired her to apply. She took part in trials for the team early in her first term. “I’m sure I won,” she says, “But the Commodore picked his girlfriend and I was told I could do recreational sailing which sounded like a load of rubbish to me.” Fortunately, in one of those chance encounters which changes the course of history (or at least of rowing history in his case), an older student member of the boat club, Simon Hames (who went on to row for GB and is now a successful coach), noticed her sitting in the dining hall looking glum, and after she’d explained why, asked her if she’d ever thought of rowing. “I knew about the Oxford Cambridge boat race but I didn’t know there was any other kind of rowing,” she explains, “But I turned up, went out in a boat and thought, ‘Ooh, I really like this!'”
She won her novice pot in a coxed four at Evesham Regatta in 1985.
Despite the club’s difficult location on a tidal river, Southampton University produced quite a few other future internationals around that time: Katie Brownlow, Simon Hames, Andy Sinton and Naomi Ashcroft as well as Miriam’s sister Guin. She attributes this cluster of success to Rosie Mayglothling, the National Coach for Women’s Rowing, and their coach Pete Proudley. “Rosie knew Pete quite well so he got her down to talk to us a few times, and that’s how a lot of us grew aspirational and went on after we’d graduated,” Miriam explains. “So that’s how I ended up moving to London in 1987 and rowing at Thames Rowing Club. There wasn’t much going on at Thames in July and August so I did a few fun regattas with Sons of the Thames until Thames started up again in the autumn.”
They were coached briefly by Lee Brown before persuading Thames legend Noel Casey, who had coached the GB women’ eight for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, to come back to the club to take on the growing women’s senior squad.
The following summer, 1988, Miriam remembers, Noel told them that they were going to do an eight with the aim of beating the squad crew. They came close enough to doing this (pressing the GB crew hard in the semi-final at Henley Women’s and finishing only three seconds behind them at the National Championships) that the squad eight wasn’t selected to go to the Seoul Olympics that year, which is what invariably happened when a club crew put up this kind of challenge. “We thought maybe they’d pick some of us. We didn’t realise that they’d just not send anybody!,” Miriam remembers.
A further highlight in her hugely successful summer of racing with Thames was winning the televised Leyland DAF Power Sprints in a coxed four in which she rowed at bow. The video below starts playing at their final but if you wind it back to 14.05 you can see Miriam and Guin in action in the final of the ergo sprint which Guin won with GB international Kareen Marwick second and Miriam third.
By now Miriam was working for Top Shop who kindly agreed in the autumn of 1988 to sponsor her in her “quest to gain selection for the 1992 Olympics” – a far-sighted offer given she hadn’t actually broken into the squad at that point. Their support enabled her to buy her first sculling boat.
International rowing career
Miriam went to her first GB trials early in the 1989 season but wasn’t selected. As generally happened in post-Olympic years in the pre-funding era, the squad suffered from a slump so there wasn’t an eight, and with the 1988 four continuing as a unit, there were few openings for new talent.
Instead she had enjoyed a stunning domestic season, stroking a Thames to the final at Women’s Henley and then going on to won her first National Championships title in the smae crew a few weeks later. She nearly won a second gold in the double sculls but a crab near the end of the race led to her crew being overtaken by the GB lightweight double. The Thames group also dabbled in open international competition, racing at Ghent and Duisburg. It was all very, very good experience.
The following year, Miriam stroked Thames to win the Women’s Head.
She also trialled for GB again and was selected to row in a four at the early season international regattas. Although they won the bronze medal in Lucerne, they clearly weren’t all that quick as they were pressed hard in the final by the GB lightweight crew who had also beaten them in another race.
With the World Championships unusually late that year because they were in Tasmania and other crews not going well either, the sweep squad were told that they’d all be re-trialled in pairs a few weeks later. Miriam started pairing with the experienced international Kareen Marwick in preparation for this. “She taught me SO much!,” Miriam says. “I was very, very raw. I didn’t know how to row a pair at all so we just did loads of long outings and she got me rowing really, really well. She was at bow.”
The trials took place at London Docklands with the first round on a Friday evening. “I had to cycle there after work from the West End where the Top Shop Head Office was,” she remembers. “I was so nervous, it was horrendous.” Nevertheless, Miriam and Kareen won the first piece and then came second in the next one. The following day she was swapped into a pair with Fiona Freckleton and the two clicked straight away. This combination turned out to be the fastest pair at the trials. At least partly because of their lack of experience as internationals, they were put into the four rather than the pair to race at the World Championships where they came last. This was probably a reasonable reflection of the crew’s ability at the time at this level, and certainly of the way that they rowed in the B final, but they weren’t helped either by having a new boat that seemed to be too big for them, or the very rough conditions.
Miriam and Fiona became good friends and, determined to take their rowing on, spent the next winter training very hard together, coached by Miriam’s University coach Pete Proudley, who drove up to London several times a week from his home in Southampton.
Their approach paid off when they proved themselves to be the fastest on their respective sides at the last of the winter trials in April 1991, although they nearly didn’t even make it to the start line after two quite separate ‘you couldn’t make this up’ kind incidents. First of all, Fiona recalls, “We went up to Peterborough the day before the trials to paddle, but when we got there our riggers weren’t in the trailer. So we drove back to Putney, found the riggers in Thames boathouse, and then drove back to Peterborough before paddling. We were absolutely certain we’d put them on the trailer and spent most of the journey speculating as to who might of taken them off and why! It certainly made us hungry for victory.” Once it got to the morning of the race, there wasn’t enough space on the lake for all of the pairs and scullers to warm up safely, so several crews, including Miriam and Fiona, did their warm up outing on the quite narrow and bendy river instead. Unfortunately, they collided with a barge. “We got to a corner, we were going one way, the barge was going the other and I didn’t see it until too late. Our boat broke in half between my feet and my seat, and we went right under the barge. I came up one side, Miriam came up the other side, and the first thing she said was, ‘Have you got the strokecoach?,’” Fiona remembers, laughing (now), and adding. “I was also wearing my ‘lucky socks’ which were put in the bin later that day,” presumably because they clearly weren’t.
That season they won in their pair at Ghent where they also set a new course record, Henley Women’s and Amsterdam but were only seventh in Lucerne. That year the governing body of world rowing, FISA, had scheduled the order of racing at the World Championships to make it practical for small boats to double up into the eight as they wanted more entries in the eights, and the British team decided to go with this option. Miriam and Fiona were therefore in the eight but because their poor result in Lucerne didn’t meet the selection criteria, the Director of International Rowing, Mark Lees, didn’t want their pair to go at all. “I know Pete went to the meeting when they said they weren’t going to select us and was absolutely furious about it, and I think on the back of that they negotiated that if we did a certain time in a trial on training cap we could go,” Miriam says. Having to make a specific time is always a high risk way of being selected in rowing because of the effects of wind and rough water, but fortunately the weather conditions were excellent on the day.
“The time trial itself was a more perfect 2k than we had ever done,” Miriam wrote afterwards. “We started first followed by the faster [boat types] who planned to finish roughly at the same time as us to spur us on in the last part of the course. We floated over the race, perfectly together and fully spent at the end, the rest of the women’s team cheering for us, encouraging our minds to push our bodies harder. An agonising 30 minutes later we learned that we had earned our place, our chance to race the rest of the World in the pair.”
The irony of all this is that Miriam and Fiona did better than any of the other GB openweight crews that year, winning historic bronze medal. They were the first British women’s openweight crew to win a medal at the World Championships since women’s events had first been added to the programme in 1974, and it was only the second openweight medal full stop (Beryl Mitchell having won silver in the single sculls in 1981).
Miriam and Fiona returned from their World Championships success determined to gain selection as the British pair at the Barcelona Olympics the next summer and Chief Coach Bob Michaels’ strategy of ‘Building on Vienna’ meant that he was happy to keep them together as a unit.
Unfortunately, thing started going wrong that autumn. First Fiona caught a virus, and then she developed Glandular Fever. As this wasn’t diagnosed she carried on training, which hampered her recovery. They didn’t race at the first early-season regatta in Cologne because Fiona was ill. At the second, in Essen, they only entered on one day so as not to overdo it and finished sixth in the final after Miriam mis-judged where the finishing line. And at the final regatta, in Lucerne, they had to withdraw before the final because Fiona was clearly not up to it. With less than six weeks to the Games, Miriam’s Olympic preparation was in tatters.
She was given a new pairs partner, Jo Turvey, who had been in the four, and the two of them set about building a partnership in the little time they had left, but even then they weren’t able to get out on the water as much as they wanted to because of impossibly rough conditions at their altitude camp in St Moritz. “We could only row first thing in the morning and then for the others sessions we just to walk up mountains as if we were on holiday. It was ridiculous,” she remembers, adding. “I was so frustrated. I knitted a lot.”
Their fifth place in Barcelona is testament to how well they achieved this and their talent as athletes, but it obviously wasn’t what Miriam had hoped for.
The new combination stayed together for the next two seasons in the pair, finishing fourth and then fifth at the World Championships, which was disappointing for all concerned.
With the pair not going so well and a generous sponsorship package that would fund a coach, training and racing expenses and – for the first time – full subsistence grants for the athletes in an eight, Miriam and Jo decided that the big boat was the way ahead.
Again, things started very well and they won at the Women’s Head in 1995 with Miriam in the stroke seat. “I really, really enjoyed the early days of the eight,” she remembers. They also won at Amsterdam. But they didn’t quite make the final at the World Championships in Tampere, Finland which was a disappointment in itself but more importantly meant that they hadn’t qualified for the following year’s Olympics and would have to go through the final qualifying regatta just weeks before the Games began in Atlanta. “That was such a shame because I thought we were going so well,” she says. “It was really disappointing because we just seemed to be outgunned by the other eights. We’d done loads of really good preparation and just didn’t seem to be able to be powerful.”
Just over nine months later, the eight produced what was probably its best row ever at the Qualifying Regatta which they won in an excellent time. They were back on track and heading to Atlanta.
The 1996 Olympics were far from ideal for the athletes in lots of ways. The Olympic Village was a long way from the rowing venue and the transportation was a shambles, it was unpleasantly humid but the weather at their acclimatisation camp had been quite fresh and pleasant so they weren’t ready for the heat in Atlanta. But at least some of these disruptions applied to all crews, and the GB eight’s biggest issue was its inconsistency. Instead of rowing the way they had at the qualification regatta, they had two dreadful races which relegated them to the B final where, the pressure off them, they rowed much better, securing seventh place.
After two massively disappointing Olympics, Miriam was far from convinced she wanted to carry on rowing at this level. She was now 32, and remembers her mother hinting that it might be time to settle back into her ‘proper’ job. “After initially working for Top Shop, I’d moved to Debenhams and they’d been brilliant to me, giving me laptops and letting me work part time and things, but I’d really sidelined my career,” she explains. “So I went back to work full time for them and took until Christmas to decide what I wanted to do. I was going out in my single and doing some ergs and was really enjoying just doodling around and then of course Mike Spracklen arrived.”
The step change in 1997 was that the National Lottery Sports Fund was due to be launched and once the Amateur Rowing Association was clear how much funding they’d receive from this for their World Class programme, they’d decided to create a full time Women’s Chief Coach role. The job went to Mike Spracklen who had an impressive track record of Olympic and World medals. He set up a new, dedicated training base for the women’s squad at Longridge near Marlow.
“I didn’t join his group straight away – I was working full time until probably March or April – but I went down there a couple of times at weekends and I really liked his way of coaching. He pushed you, he asked questions. He was quite a taskmaster and he really believed in side-by-side competitive training which I thought was good because it makes you mentally tough which I think we’d lost a bit. Finally I took a week’s holiday and went down there for a sort of training camp and Mike said, ‘Whenever you want to go out, I’ll be there.’ I’d never had that before where someone was prepared to go out whenever you wanted to go out and it was brilliant!”
Spracklen introduced a new strategic focus on crew sculling rather than rowing. This suited Miriam who had had a rib injury the previous year which didn’t bother her when she sculled but flared up when she was twisted her body to row sweep.
She was selected to scull in the double with returning 1992 Olympian Gillian Lindsay and the duo won the silver medal at the World Championships in 1997 and then gold in 1998.
Everything seemed to be going perfectly midway through the four year cycle up to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and she was in a completely different situation compared with the same point before the previous last two Games.
That said, she had a lot else going on in her life emotionally. Her mother had died in the summer of 1998 after a period of illness, and she’d got married (to former GB oarsman David Luke) that autumn. And everything began to unravel for her and Gillian in 1999. First, one and then the other was out for several weeks either ill or with back problems. They didn’t do particularly well at the World Cup regattas that season and finished eighth at the World Championships. This was a bitter blow but it was just enough to qualify the boat for the Sydney Olympics.
Miriam and Gillian’s result hadn’t been the only disappointment at the 1999 Worlds as all of the openweight crews had done badly. While this might t least partially have been explained by other countries ‘catching up’, Guin, who was an exercise physiologist. analysed the training they’d done the previous year and came to the conclusion that they had done far less actual rowing mileage (on the water or the erg). Mike Spracklen’s training programme for the 2000 season restored this workload, but with Miriam and Gillian’s doubles partnership having somewhat run its course and new athletes coming up in the squad from the under-23 development pathway, all options were on the table.
The double had been identified as the best chance for a medal, so all of the top scullers in the squad were vying for places in it. Although Spracklen mixed the combinations around throughout the winter, Miriam and Guin were keen to be selected in it together. Unfortunately, both of them were unable to train in the boat together – or even at all – for considerable and unfortunately consecutive periods: Guin was out in December and January with an upper spine problem that stemmed back to a car accident she’d been in as a teenager and caused wasting in one of her arms, and then Miriam herself was ill from late January with and overtraining syndrome-related health problems.
The final trials, which were in doubles, were run in two stages to allow the Battens some time back in the boat again, although their preparations were hampered by a crash during training which meant they had to switch boat a few days before their final trial. When they finally got to the all-important race, they led to 750m gone, but the stage one winners Gillian Lindsay and Frances Houghton then overtook them and went on to beat them convincingly. Mike Spracklen wrote later in a post-Olympics report, “Miriam and Guin were two of our fastest scullers but were clearly not at their best at the time of the trial.”
The Battens then formed a quad with Katherine Grainger and Sarah Winckless. Miriam stroked. After finishing fifth at the first World Cup regatta of the season and then winning the second (against depleted opposition), disaster struck when Sarah fractured a rib in training and they missed the final World Cup race before the Olympic Games.
To cut a long story short, Sarah was replaced by Gillian Lindsay a month and four days before the start of the Olympic regatta. The crew then embarked on an exceptionally intense training programme, placing their faith in Mike Spracklen that 300km a week was the right thing to do at this stage. Gradually, the time on the water paid off and they started to bond both technically and as a team, and were going really well by the time the Games started.
Miriam’s quad qualified the final via the repechage after coming second in their heat. Their times on paper put them fourth, but they hadn’t had to ramp it up for the line in the rep, so they knew that a medal was a very real possibility but it was also Miriam’s very last chance to win one as, aged 35, she’d be retiring after this.
In the end, they won Britain’s first women’s Olympic rowing medal in great style and with edge-of-the-seat drama, holding third place throughout the race and crossing the line in a photo finish for silver and bronze with the Russians. They were able to celebrate immediately because they knew they’d got that long, long-awaited medal but the final analysis gave them the silver by just one hundredth of a second.
In 2020 the crew met up for a paddle in Henley, exactly 20 years to the day since that Sydney final. Their catches were as immaculate as ever, and their kit still fitted perfectly.
Full accounts of all of Miriam’s 11 years in the GB women’s rowing team including three Olympic Games can be read here:
Later rowing coaching and event management
Since retiring from international competition, Miriam has been playing as leading a role off the water as she ever did on it.
She has been Chairman of Henley Women’s Regatta since 2012 and a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta since 2016. She’s a Vice President of Thames RC, and President of Henley RC where her daughters learned to row and she also coaches.
© Helena Salman-Smith, 2020.