|Years||2000 World Championships (Lt 2- 1st)|
|Clubs||Sheffield City Polytechnic BC/Sheffield Hallam University BC, Star Club, Wallingford RC, Wyandotte BC (USA)|
|Height||5’7″ or 170cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Miriam (second from left) after winning at the World Masters Championships in Trakai in 2008 and is © Helena Smalman-Smith.
Getting into rowing
Miriam, known as Mim, took up rowing when she went to Sheffield City Polytechnic (which became Sheffield Hallam University while she was there) to study physiotherapy, purely because the boat club were much friendlier than the cycling club.
The background to this was that, having enjoyed athletics at school, although not particularly excelled at it, she’d taken to cycling when her parents had relocated from Eccles to Halifax with her mother’s job part way through her A-levels and rather than switch sixth form college, Mim lodged during the week with family friends. “I quite often used to cycle through on a Monday and back on a Friday which was 40 miles each way but with the Pennines in the middle,” she explains casually, as if this were a perfectly normal means for an 18-year old to get to school.
When she approached the cycling club at her Fresher Fair, she remembers, “They didn’t seem at all interested in having a woman join the club, so I went to the rowing stand instead.”
Rowing in Sheffield is not for the faint-hearted, taking place on a small, rurally-situated reservoir with a boathouse that has no mains electricity and is shared between the city club and the two university clubs, as is its only loo. For students without cars, even getting there involves a substantial and very up and down cycle ride so Mim’s previous hill climbing experience came in handy.
She won her novice pot in a coxed four at Durham Regatta in 1992, and also learned to scull although only in crew boats because, as she points out quite reasonably, you really wouldn’t want to fall in and then have to cycle all that way home.
Club rowing in the UK and US
After graduating, Mim got her first job as a hospital physio in Bedford where she joined Star Club. For practical reasons, she mostly rowed with Anne-Marie King, a friend from her course in Sheffield who was now also a colleague as well as her flatmate. “We are both lightweight with the same work place and hours, which made for easy pre- and post-work training,” she explains. “Because we were largely doing our own thing, we were mainly self-taught although Tony Cowley would give us a few comments when we passed the juniors he was coaching. Otherwise we got where we did by becoming fit as fleas from doing lots of miles, making the same mistakes but together.” They started notching up wins, mostly as a double but also as a pair.
In 1997 the two young physios decided to embark on adventure and headed to the United States to work and row for 15 months. They got jobs in Detroit where they joined Wyandotte BC, and did a lot of racing and winning – at the Head of the Elk Regatta in Indiana, at the Head of the Ohio, at the Grand Regatta (actually quite a modest event but which took place in Grand Valley), and at the Amateur National Championships in Syracuse where they won lightweight doubles, quads and coxed fours. “Racing in the US was very good at teaching us to be happy in all conditions as most events involved rowing on rough water,” they remember.
At one point they had to take a five-week break from work while waiting for their licenses to practice to be renewed so seized the opportunity to head off on an extended road trip to race in Augusta and at the Clemson Sprints in South Carolina. Anne-Marie recalls, “We borrowed a boat which turned out to have pins that were leaning backwards which we fixed on the water with some electrical tape improvisation, and we won. Then the organisers didn’t want to give us the nice silver trophy as we ‘were not from the South’ but the lovely girls from Miami who came second gave it to us anyway.” On their way back they stopped at a diner in Kentucky where the waitress – struck by their accents – asked if they’d driven all the way from England.
Their coach liked working with such a successful crew, “And we loved him too as Coach Terry was one of the few who understood sarcasm,” Anne-Marie explains, “So he searched everywhere to find us a bottle of Pimms to inspire us, and finally found one covered in dust in a local off licence, and this went with us on our travels.”
In the Summer of 1998 they flew home to race at the National Championships where they won the bronze medal in the lightweight pair. To practice for this while they were still back in the States, their coach arranged for them to use a boat one weekend at the college he taught at because the club didn’t have a women’s pair. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell the security team that they’d also be sleeping in the boathouse, and they woke up in the middle of the night to find a guard pointing a gun at them!
“So we got about a bit, had a really good time, and got quite fast,” Mim says. As a result, when they returned to the UK for good, she upped her aspirations and decided to go to GB trials. She wasn’t selected in 1999, so she and Anne-Marie embarked on another packed racing schedule which included winning silver medals in the lightweight doubles and – for Mim –the lightweight singles at the National Championships, a quick transatlantic trip to Royal Canadian Henley where they won ‘flyweight’ (115lb/52kg) coxed fours (yes, that really is a thing there) and Mim won lightweight doubles with fellow GB triallist Anna van Leemputten, and finally a flying visit to the World Masters Championships in Seville where they won Masters A in both their double and their pair. Mim and Anna were also the fastest women’s pair at the Pairs Head that Autumn.
International rowing career
With good evidence that she was fast, Mim went part-time at work so that she could increase her training and joined Wallingford RC where there were other top lightweight women scullers in a group coached by Pete Sudbury. It was a gamble that only partly paid off: as well as the 120 mile round trip each day at the weekend, the change in training regime – particularly the 100 minute erg sessions – left her teetering on the brink of injury as the year progressed.
She wasn’t selected for the GB lightweight sculling crews that raced at the first two early season regattas but after winning the lightweight single sculls at the inter-regional championships and, more impressively, the lightweight double sculls at Henley Women’s Regatta with Carolyn Jones, another of the Wallingford scullers, she was given another chance at one-off trials for the lightweight pair in early July 2000.
As the only sweep event for lightweight women left in the World Championships programme and with no lightweight women’s sweep category at all in the Olympics, the pair was seen by most nations as a poor relation with few countries entering it and those that did treating it as the lowest crew. Nevertheless, Britain had sent one every year since it had been added to the programme in 1995, and the boat had always medalled.
Mim was therefore delighted, if as surprised as some of the coaches, to win her seat races in Nottingham and with just a month left till the World Championships, found herself in the GB team. Her crewmate was Malindi Myers who had won a silver in the lightweight coxless four in 1996 and the a bronze and a silver in the pair in 1997 and 1999. But while Malindi had plenty of experience at international level, Mim had not and they’d also never raced as a crew, so both were keen to try out their speed at Lucerne regatta the following weekend.
Despite having been officially selected, they then found that there was no funding available, but they eventually persuaded the team management to enter them and paid for their travel and accommodation themselves. Unfortunately, there was only one other entry, whom they beat extremely comfortably in both the race for lanes on the first day and the final on the Sunday, so although it didn’t tell them much about their speed relative to their likely opposition but it was still well worth to practice the whole process of competing at a large international event.
When they got to Zagreb for the World Championships themselves, Mim remembers, they largely kept themselves to themselves during the week’s training in the run up to their races. “We were already at weight, but the rest of the women’s lightweight squad were trying to lose weight so avoided them because our meals were quite a lot bigger than theirs and we had things like pudding!,” she laughs, adding, “We also didn’t have another crew to train with because there wasn’t one that was the same speed as a women’s pair, so we really kept ourselves to ourselves.”
During the training week she had a bit of a scare when her lower back became extremely painful, but the team physio and some painkillers sorted her out, and they romped home in their first round heat, winning by over nine seconds which put them straight into the final.
Sitting on the start line of the biggest race of her life, Mim says, “I remember being really quite apprehensive but also quite excited and we were in the race right from the beginning.” With 250m to go, the Brits were vying with the American crew for gold but were still in second place. “Then we spotted that they messed up their steering so we absolutely hammered 20 strokes and pulled away from them. I think we won by a length and a half.”
It was a superb achievement, but Mim had few people to celebrate with at the time. “Malindi had her parents there, but none of my family were, and because we’d been selected so late and largely kept away from most of the others, I didn’t know anybody else apart from her and Louise Kingsley our coach, so that was it.”
Mim fully intended to keep on rowing internationally the following season, and the squad management were equally keen she did so after doing so well at the Worlds. Unfortunately, the physical cost of it all was starting to catch up with her. “I hurt my back falling down the stairs the morning after the Fours Head – I think I fainted because I was dehydrated,” she says. She also developed fatigue problems and then had to have several months off with rib stress fractures which, she remembers, “Completely bamboozled the doctor at work who’d never seen that kind of injury because it’s peculiar to rowing.”
“It wasn’t a good time,” Mim says with typical understatement. Once she was able to train again, she started being coached by Rosie Mayglothling whom she’d known from Sheffield and now also lived in Bedford. “We did early mornings and we went to Ely a few times at weekend for some longer distance stuff with other scullers which was quite fun,” she remembers. Although she made it to trials in April 2001, sculling in doubles with Helen Mangan and Naomi Ashcroft, she wasn’t up with the top of the group, and with continuing overtraining-type health problems, called time on her international crowing career.
After five years out of rowing completely, “I got myself better again and went back to club rowing. If you still enjoy your sport, you’ll enjoy it in any form,” she reflects.
As well as training and doing a little local racing with Star Club, Rosie Mayglothling introduced Mim to a group of slightly older largely ex-international masters women – known as UK Gold – who now rowed at small clubs and whom she’d brought together so they could do big boats with others of their age and standard.
Mim stroked the eight to an epic win at the World Masters Rowing Championships in 2007. Rather fittingly, this was back in Zagreb, the scene of her World Championships triumph seven years earlier and in a Star Club boat called after Anna-Marie.
She also stroked a UK Gold four that won there and at subsequent World Masters events in 2008 and 2009. The group largely only race domestically now but still love to get together and rekindle their ‘X factor’. She also regularly steers a Star Club/Bedford RC women’s masters quad who primarily just like to get out on the water and greatly appreciate her guidance both literally and technically.
More recently, she’s also taken up road cycling quite seriously, joining Bedfordshire Road Cycling Club. In 2019 she complete the challenging ‘Chase the Sun’ event across England from Minster in the Thames Estuary to Burnham-on-Sea in the Bristol Channel, some 205 miles, all of which have to be covered between sunrise and sunset.
Since the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, she’s been leading UK Gold and friends in weekly ‘turberg’ sessions on Zoom, with participants cycling on turbo trainers or rowing on ergs according to preference or what equipment they have access to.
Although Mim’s international rowing career was short, her love of sport is clearly life-long, and in contrast to her isolated experience at the World Championships in 2000, her enthusiasm for helping all sorts of other people enjoy rowing and cycling has surrounded her with enduring friendships too.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.