|Years||2002 World Championships (Lt 2- 1st)|
|Clubs||Southampton University BC, Runcorn RC, Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC, Upper Thames RC|
|Height||5’6.5″ or 169cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Naomi winning the lightweight single sculls at the National Championships in 1995. (Photo: Naomi Ashcroft’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Despite not being allowed to take part in a school sports day at her middle school because she ‘wasn’t good enough,’ Naomi became an athletic teenager. Somewhat unusually amongst rowers, she was good at ball games, and particularly enjoyed hockey (which she continued to play at university and has returned to recently), netball and rounders. The theme here, she says, is that she liked team sports, a point that will become relevant much later.
Having been inspired by watching the Boat Race on Grandstand, she took up rowing when she went to Southampton University in 1986. Although she chose Southampton for its civil engineering course, she admits that she did check it had a boat club before applying.
Her very first contact with the club was a bit inauspicious, though. “I turned up at their stand at the freshers fair, and announced I’d like to join,” she remembers. “It might have been Miriam Batten who was behind the desk, because she was in her third year there at the time, but whoever it was replied, ‘What, to cox?’ I put her right on that straight away!” [Note: Despite later becoming an expert bow steers, and remaining slim, she has never been known to cox – Ed.]
Naomi describes the first 15 years of her rowing career as a rollercoaster, and it certainly started with a series of dips as her four lost all of their races in her first year. Her first win, however, was a significant high: Women’s Novice Restricted at the Head of the River Fours in November 1987. She explains, “We hadn’t had any proper coaching, but most of the senior rowers had left that summer, so my crew automatically became first four that autumn, and that meant we started being coached by Pete Proudley, who was a really good coach.” Impressively, under his guidance, Southampton also won the Novice event at the Women’s Eights Head of the River the following spring in a crew that combined Naomi’s four with four freshers who had only been rowing for a few months.
She went on to enjoy a string of wins at University, in both ‘fine’ racing boats and coastal fours. “Pete was really enthusiastic about getting us to race on the coast, and it was great fun,” she remembers. He bought the university a coastal boat in her final year, in which they won the coastal event at the National Championships in 1990. Although all of her university rowing was done in sweep boats, Pete Proudley wisely advised her that she should learn to scull before she left if she wanted to take her rowing further.
The long, long journey to GB selection
Having secured her first job as an engineer in Cambridge, where she found sculling challenging because of the narrowness and bendiness of the river and the density of student crews on it, Naomi’s rowing received an apparently improbable boost when she was seconded to work near Liverpool. She joined Runcorn Rowing Club where the facilities were extremely basic and the river even bendier than the Cam (although at least free of students) but, crucially, she found the perfect training partner in lightweight international Helen Mangan, and excellent coaching from Mike Jones. “Moving up to Runcorn was the best thing I could have done because I suddenly had Helen to aspire to, which meant I spent the next seven years being washed down by her,” she reflects. Naomi also met Rosie Mayglothling, a former international who was now working in a development role in the area, and had also coached Helen’s crew at the 1990 World Championships. “Rosie brought together a whole group of us from different small cubs in the North. That’s how I met Juliet Machan from Chester for the first time, and Sophie Clift, Mandy Calvert and the other Agecroft women and Janet Vickers and Ali Sanders and others from Sheffield. It was a fantastic training and competitive environment.”
Aware that two Southampton alumna had gone on to row for Great Britain including Miriam Batten, in the summer of 1990, and before that Katie Brownlow, Naomi had already decided that she wanted to take her rowing at least to the level of winning at the National Championships in a ‘fine’ boat, and had aspirations for the GB team.
Naomi’s rollercoaster rowing career followed a lot of ups and downs over the next 12 years as she pursued those goals. Focusing on her single out of necessity, she notched up a string of wins over the next couple of years, of which the most notable was the Senior 1 pennant at the Scullers’ Head in 1992. Although this is one of the achievemets she’s proudest of, in fact, she explains, it was actually the outcome of a big setback. “I’d got dropped from the North West eight for the Women’s Head,” she explains, “So I decided to focus on the Scullers’ Head which was the next big race because it was in the spring back then.” That summer, she finished fourth in lightweight single sculls at the National Championships, which was am excellent result from a field of 22 entries. That autumn she won the Head of the River Fours in a lightweight quad with Helen Mangan, Trisha Corless and Janet Vickers.
The following year, 1993, she was the second woman at woman at the Scullers’ Head (although she attributes this at least partly to having a late start number and benefiting from the appalling conditions having calmed down somewhat by then) and won at Nat Champs. This was enough for her to be selected as the England lightweight sculler for the Home Countries match, which she also won. She went to GB trials for the first time, too, and although not in contention for the team, raced at Duisburg in her single (largely thanks, she feels, to the fact that Helen Mangan was racing there in a double, coached by Rosie Mayglothling, so she was ‘allowed’ to enter too), and also at Paris where she came third. While that regatta wasn’t a first class international event, this was nevertheless one of her best results until that point.
Her rowing career moved on again in 1994 when she finished sixth in the lightweight sculls at GB final trials and, after winning lightweight doubles with Mandy Calvert at Ghent (as well as coming second in open doubles) and Henley Women’s Regatta, where they also won open quads with Janet Vickers and Ali Sanders, was selected to race in both boats for England at the Commonwealth Regatta.
Having once again not quite got into squad in 1995 – finishing seventh at final trial – Naomi’s biggest win of 1995 was beating Mandy by 0.37 seconds at the National Championships. Once again, this selected her as the England sculler for Home Countries, where she secured her second win.
The top GB women’s lightweight crew, both then and now, is the double scull, because it’s the only Olympic-class boat. So, while GB trials were initially in singles, the coaches also needed to identify the fastest combinations in doubles. Team-player Naomi (remember that early preference?) says, “My problem was that I could make doubles go fast, but I couldn’t get my single to go fast enough to get into a position where I was invited to seat race for the double or even the quad, or at least to seat race with the good people.” So near, but yet so far. She was invited to take part in some doubles seat racing in late 1995, and recorded in her training diary that these were close, but her results weren’t enough for her to be invited to subsequent trials, and her rowing took somewhat of a back seat for the remainder of that season as she focused on her chartered engineering exams.
Realising that she had got as far in rowing as she was likely to while still based in the North West, she got a new job in London and joined Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC, which was then the most popular club for women’s lightweights on the Tideway. The move didn’t get her any closer to GB selection in 1997, though.
In 1998 she moved to Henley and joined Upper Thames where she had a thoroughly enjoyable season. “There was a really good group there, and I won lightweight doubles at Henley Women’s and Nat Champs with Becs Ingledew, and we also won the lightweight quads at Henley Women’s with Vic Wood and Clare Broome. By this point, aged 30, she reflects, that she still wanted to row for Great Britain although, she admits, her ambition “wasn’t not burning quite so bright”.
The next year, 1999, after not quite making the cut again at GB trials, she more or less repeated these results, but with Helen Casey replacing Claire in the quad, which was then selected as the England crew for Naomi’s second Commonwealth Regatta in Canada. Their last race before leaving the UK was the National Championships where, embarassingly, they were pipped to the gold medal. “Because you’re the selected boat, everybody wants to beat you and you haven’t wound down for it properly, because it’s not your main focus,” she explains, adding, “But our boat was already on the way to Canada by then, so we got away with it.” After invaluable coaching input from Rosie Mayglothling, they were happy to finish only four seconds behind Canada and to win the silver medal.
Now over 30, Naomi continued to trial unsuccessfully for GB for the next two years while enjoying considerable success at top domestic events with Upper Thames. Notable achievements included qualifying for the first open women’s eights event at Henley Royal Regatta in 2000 (where she beat the author’s crew in the first round, in the rain, very early on the Saturday morning); winning the gold medal at the National Championships with the same crew; and winning lightweight quads again at Henley Women’s Regatta in 2001.
International rowing career
In the autumn of 2001, aged 33, she realised that she needed to change something or she was never going to make the GB team. Key to this was Filipe Salbany, who had recently started coaching at Upper Thames. “He agreed to take me on,” Naomi explains. “He changed my training programme a bit, but the main difference was technical. I can remember him telling me that I’d probably go slower to start with before I got faster because we completely broke my stroke down again and started from scratch.”
She also bought a Staempfli new single scull and sought psychological input from Kirsten Barnes, a former Canadian Olympic champion who lived in London. “I used to get myself into such state when I was competing,” she says, “So Kirsten taught me how to focus on the process and the first time that really worked was at the British Indoor Championships in November, which were a breakthrough for me because I beat both Jo Nitsch and Tracy Langlands who were two of the top squad lightweights. To be fair, they were only there because they had to be, whereas I was the underdog gunning for it and had nothing to lose. But Filipe’s coaching and Kirsten’s mental approach gave me the confidence to do a PB [personal best] and beat them in the process; I was actually just focused on my PB and my time, and beating them was almost incidental.” Naomi’s time was 7.11.
She made the most of her new mastery of the rowing machine by travelling to Boston, USA to compete at the ‘CRASH-B’ World Indoor Rowing Championships the next February where her time of 7.15 placed her second in the masters category and won her one of the event’s famous hammer trophies as fastest masters lightweight. Only a very few will appreciate why it’s worth travelling over 3,000 miles to spend less than eight minutes on a rowing machine to win a shiny household tool.
Despite this considerable transformation, Naomi’s rollercoaster plunged downhill again when she wasn’t selected for any of the seven sculling places on offer, “But I think I’d done enough to be told to start pairing with Ali Eastman, with the expectation that we might be the lightweight pair,” she remembers. [Note: the pair was considered the least prestigious of the four international women’s lightweight events behind the quad, double and single sculls because there were no sweep events for lightweight women in the Olympic programme – Ed].
Alongside this, Naomi was determined to race her single at Henley Women’s Regatta to show the squad coaches how fast she was. She duly won the event, which attracted a massive entry of 26. “If my season had finished at that point, I would have been ecstatic really, especially as I’d beaten Helen Mangan in the third round, so the tables had finally turned there,” she laughs now.
But the rollercoaster was about to hurtle headlong into yet another trough. After Henley Women’s, Ali and Naomi focused on their pair for four weeks before racing at the National Championships as the GB crew-elect. Being beaten by 0.69 seconds was not part of the plan, though. As their boat wasn’t already en route to the event, and fresh seat racing was arranged at Dorney with Jo Ganley and Leonie Barron, the Thames RC crew who had got the better of them. As they were trialling for a sweep boat, and each woman only rowed on one side, this pitched Ali against Leonie and Naomi against Jo. “I remember getting a stern talking-to from Juliet Machan the day before, who convinced me I was good enough in a pair to do what I had to do,” Naomi recalls. Juliet was right. “I won on bowside by nine seconds, and Leonie beat Ali,” she adds.
The new combination then raced at Munich regatta a week later, where they won comfortably in a straight final against three other crews from Hungary, Spain and China. “It was hilarious because we weren’t at all good when we were paddling, but so long as we were going firm and rating about 34, we were fine,” she remembers. “I knew we were fast as soon as I got into that boat with Leonie and we did some race pace pieces. It flew.”
After that, as the World Championships weren’t until the second half of September (to avoid the worst of the summer heat in Seville), they had a little more time to blend as a unit, training at Dorney and then at the pre-Worlds training camp in Varese with coach Pete Sudbury, about whom she says, “Managing two stressed lightweight women going their first World Championships was quite a feat, particularly in a lightweight pair which is a technically demanding boat to row.” So far so good, but was it going to be a straight run up to the top of the ride from here?
There were only four entries in the women’s lightweight pairs that year, which meant their race would be a straight final, and without even a race for lanes, it was decided, quite reasonably, that they should do a full dress-rehearsal on the course (in kit) during a practice session between blocks of racing. During these, a ‘circulation pattern’ is set out which is designed to group boat of similar speeds into different lanes to avoid overtaking. This means that eights can only use one lane, fours and quads another, pairs and doubles another, and singles another.
So that was the situation, and here’s what happened. “I was steering and I was worried about going in the lane for pairs and doubles, in case a men’s double came up behind us,” Naomi explains. “When we got to the start, there weren’t any scullers in the singles’ lane, so I decided I’d use that because we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and there was less chance of us having to stop if we were being overtaken. So I went for it, but after about 750m, safety marshal came up in his launch said, ‘Great Britain move lanes, Great Britain move lanes,’ and I thought they might award us a false start if I didn’t, So I crossed through the buoy line but Leonie’s blade caught one and then we found ourselves in the middle of the lake, upside down with various pairs and doubles bearing down on us, and having to be rescued. We had to go back and do our 2k piece in the evening.”
Off the water, the rollercoaster had some twists and turns too. “The team hotel was right on the main road and there was so much noise at night I couldn’t sleep,” Naomi says. “I can remember going to David Tanner, and saying, ‘If you want the gold medal from us you need to meet your medal target, you need to put me in a quieter room because I need more sleep! Which did work, because we were moved.”
Their race was scheduled for the final day of the World Championships, which left Naomi plenty of time to get nervous. “I’d always envisaged that if I were to get selected, I’d be in a crew with some experienced GB athletes and, of course, neither of us were – we were like complete novices at this level,” she recalls. “It was getting to that stage where you’re so terrified that your whole body shuts down. You want to be feeling raring to go but I was just getting more and more anxious about it.” However, she drew on what she’d learned from Kirsten, focused on the process, they duly delivered the gold medal the GB team so needed, winning by 11.2 seconds. “We did 7.25 in our practice row, and 7.29 in the final,” Naomi notes, “Because that’s all we needed to do to win. I wrote ‘Very VERY relieved’ in my training diary.”
A full account of the GB women’s rowing team’s 2002 season can be read here.
Naomi and Leonie trialled again in 2003 with the aim of being selected in the pair again, but were beaten at final trials by another crew put together by the GB coaches. “Then we raced at Henley Women’s in openweight pairs but Leonie had been ill and we lost, so that was the end of that,” she says. Neither rowed for GB again, each retiring with an unbeaten World Cup and World Championships record, the only British women to achieve this distinction.
Naomi’s rowing career is symmetrical in that the length of her run up to brief but glorious international representation has been matched by a long, ongoing and very successful time rowing since then.
She reached the semi-finals of the Princess Royal Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta in 2003. “That performance stems from the sculling that I’d started with Filipe the year before. And that was a massive achievement for me because I was beating openweights,” she reflects. “I remember being down off the start in the quarter final, which is what I expected as a lightweight, and I dropped the rate to 33 and rating lower than the opposition and I sculled through her, so I was quite pleased with that!” A photo of her in action can be seen here.
She also won lightweight doubles at the National Championships with Becs Ingledew again two week later. They went on to win the lightweight pairs at Henley Women’s in 2006 (which she admits to being quite proud of because they’d previously lost to the crew whom they beat in the final) and the lightweight doubles in 2007, bringing her total haul of Henley Women’s medals to 11, all of them from Championship events. This puts her equal with Sue Appelboom (who won the women’s lightweight single sculls for ten consecutive years) as the most decorated Henley Women’s medallists. Impressively, though, Naomi has continued racing there, most recently in the lightweight doubles with Becs (now Saddler) in 2019. Her final appearance at Henley Royal Regatta was in 2008 when her lightweight quad reached the final of the Prince Grace Challenge Cup in torrential rain; although they didn’t win, they had become the first Upper Thames crew to reach a Henley final.
In 2016 she and five other largely lightweight women (including the author), broke the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance rowed in 24 hours by a women’s team. That same year she won the bronze medal in Women’s Grand Master’s Eights at the Head of the Charles regatta against stiff opposition, and in 2017 her Upper Thames group won the Victrix Ludorum trophy at the World Masters Regatta.
Off the water, she was the committee member in charge of trophies at Henley Women’s Regatta for 15 years till 2022, as well as serving as Secretary till 2011, and has also been Secretary to the Upper Thames RC committee. She has cycled from Lands End to John O’Groats, done L’Étape du Tour de France, taken part in the Henley Swim, and been top goal-scorer for her hockey team for several seasons. Many of her rowing friends consider her as exhausting as she is impressive.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.