Pauline Janson

Years 1980 Olympic Games (4+ 6th)
1981 World Championships (8o 6th)
1982 World Championships (8o 7th)
Clubs St Hilda’s College BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, (Lancaster) John O’Gaunt RC
Height 5’8″ or 173 cm
Racing weight 11 stone 6 lb or 74 kg
Born 1957

Getting into rowing

Pauline took up rowing when she went to St Hilda’s College, Oxford to study maths. She was aware of the sport from watching the Boat Race on television and, she says, “It just seemed like a good thing to try.”

After an initial introduction in a bank tub, her first outing was in a tub pair, “which went round in circles,” she remembers, because she’d got the hang of it quicker than the other woman. She was soon put at stroke in the college’s first eight, and won her first and only pot at Christchurch Regatta in the autumn.

“I just loved it,” she says. “I loved being out on the river, it was nice to be in a team sport as well, and I didn’t have to do any running back then, which was good because I hated running!”

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She became Captain of Boats at St Hilda’s in her second year, and also did trials for the university crew at the suggestion of one of the boatmen. “I was always ambitious in everything I did,” she says, looking back, “If someone gave me a goal, I’d go for it. So when he said, ‘Why don‘t you try for the Blue Boat?,’ I said ‘Yes!'”

She rowed in the women’s boat race in 1978 and 1979 when she also served as Vice-President of OUWBC.

International rowing career

Dan Topolski was in charge of the GB women’s squad in 1979 and 1980, and was keen to expand the pool of talent from which he could draw, and particularly wanted to find more tall women to take on the tall Eastern bloc crews which dominated the international rowing scene at the time. He visited both Oxford and Cambridge on scouting missions, and this gave Pauline her next rowing goal.

We were down at Henley training for the Boat Race and Dan Topolski turned up to have a look because he was on his mission to find big girls. We rowed and he watched us, and then afterwards and he went along the crew one by one, giving us comments. He got to me and all he managed to say was, “You’ve got really good technique but there’s not much power there,” when one of the others had an attack of a recurring knee problem and started crying out from this pain, so Dan picked her up and carried her into the boathouse and I didn’t get any more feedback. I was so cross!

So I thought, “Right, I’m going to get down to London and I’m going to show you power,” and that really set off my determination to try and impress him.

Although this seems a slightly spur-of-the-moment way to shape the next few years of her life, Pauline had already been seriously considering doing a teaching qualification, which is what she then did when she moved to London, being well aware that her other leading career choice – joining the Police – was incompatible with rowing.


When she went along to the GB squad’s first land training session, she was surprised at home many other people there were there, and mentioned this to someone who replied, “Well, it’s Olympic year!,” a point which hadn’t actually crossed her mind up until then.

Training with the squad had its challenges but on of these was also an opportunity for Pauline who describes herself then as “a very, very poor student”. “I was living down in Balham and I had to cycle everywhere,” she explains. “It was about eight miles from Balham to Hammersmith, and Paddington where we did land training was even further, so before and after each session I had to do about eight to ten miles on my bike. But I thought actually that probably gave me a bit of an edge without realising it, although Lavender Hill and Wandsworth Hill were killers after double sessions at the weekends.”

Unfortunately for her, running was a key part of the land training programme at the time. “Before each session at the gym we had to run round the whole block something like 20 times. The good runners would lap me several times and then at the appropriate moment I just had to go into the gym and I never did the 20 laps, ever, although I did keep going,” she remembers. Once inside the gym, she was more in her element. “I was a lot better at lifting weights, so we all had our niche in the land training that we were good at.” Unlike some of the other new members of the squad, she was familiar with weight training from Oxford where she’d learned a lot from two American postgraduate students who brought a lot of knowledge from their college training programmes.

The squad was given some time off at Christmas but were told that they had to keep training. Having mentioned this to her dad in advance, he constructed a barbell for her from a broom handle and some bricks cemented together which she used in the garage, feeling rather like Rocky. She also persuaded the Derby Baths in her hometown of Blackpool to let her use their tiny gym for free, and she no doubt put considerable strain on their flimsy rowing machine which was “the kind you got from Argos.”

At this point in the year, everything seemed to be going quite well, and she felt that it was a good sign that she was often put at stroke in crews. In mid-February the squad went to Banyoles for a two-week training camp which she really enjoyed. She remembers doing a pair with Liz Paton that started going “very nicely.” However, at one of the meals there were burgers that weren’t properly cooked, and most of the squad spent the rest of that night being very ill, although Pauline and another of the group, Jane Sturdy weren’t sick.

Not long after she got back to London she went down with a bad fever. After two weeks practically unable to get out of bed, Dan Topolski rang her up and told her to get a taxi to the Hammersmith where the squad trained. She thought this was very unusual, but she did what he asked as her parents happened to be visiting so her dad paid for the cab. “When I got there, some of the other girls were in the car park, and they called over, ‘Don’t come near us!,'” she recalls. “Then Dan came out and said, ‘Lift your t-shirt up and show us your tummy,’ and it was only then that I noticed my stomach was yellow.” He sent me straight to the squad doctor, who was just along from the boathouse in Hammersmith, who diagnosed hepatitis, and ordered complete rest.” Jane Sturdy had already been diagnosed with it, which is what had alerted Dan that Pauline’s fever might not just be flu. “The rest of the crew told me later they had to have very painful injections in their backsides a soon as hepatitis was suspected,” she adds.

Pauline went back to her parents’ home where for six weeks she was only allowed out of bed to go to the bathroom. “I did a lot of knitting,” she says. “My mum and dad were brilliant. They looked up exactly what they had to do to get me better. They fed me a special diet which had no fat in it whatsoever so my liver could get back to normal. I remember Mum got some skimmed milk which wasn’t at all common then. The doctor told me that I had to keep doing a pee test, and that I’d be better when it went from dark brown to a normal colour.”

She continues, “I was just devastated, but I never gave up hope that I was going to get back, and I was really determined that I would. Finally I got a blood test and a urine test that were clear, so I tried doing press-ups on my bedroom floor. My mum came upstairs and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I replied, ‘I’m better, I’m going back!'”

Pauline’s first session back was seat racing at Thorpe Park in early May. “Afterwards, I remember Dan came up to me and said, ‘You’ve still got your technique but you’ve got absolutely no power.’ I’m so grateful he didn’t give up on me, though. He gave me my own heavy weights programme which I did at Hammersmith after the morning water session at Kingston or Thorpe Park, five days a week. Fortunately my PGCE course only involved a few dull lectures by this point. He told me that I had to prove myself in the gym and gave me a specific date by which I had to do that, and if I didn’t manage it by then, I wasn’t going to be back in.”

“Before then, Dan put me in the four at Copenhagen regatta at the beginning of June, just to give me a bit of international experience,” she continues. “Someone took a picture of me there and my legs look so thin in it! I’d lost about two stone while I was ill. And then I remember that when the day the gym circuit trials came, I just bombed round and I was the first few to sit down having finished, and I just thought, ‘I’ve got to be back in after that,’ because I knew that I’d proved to him I’d got my strength and my fitness back.”

Pauline did indeed get back in and rowed in the coxed four at the Moscow Olympics.

1981 and 1982

After going home to Blackpool following the 1980 Olympics, Pauline contacted John O’Gaunt RC in Lancaster because Dan had told the squad that they needed to keep rowing before the squad re-grouped in the autumn. “I rang them up and said, ‘Is there any chance you could put me in a boat at some stage?'” The club got four men together and they went out in a coxed four several times. “I had to get a bus out to Garstang, and then another one up to Lancaster, and then someone picked me up by car from the bus station and took me to the boathouse. I loved it up there, and we had some very memorable summer evenings rowing along the river Lune with the kingfishers diving down into the water.”

Pauline started work that autumn, teaching maths at Burlington Danes school, which she’d applied to because it was conveniently situated about 20 minutes cycle from both Hammersmith for water training and Paddington for gym training. At that time the school was part of the Inner London Education Authority which, she remembers with gratitude, allowed athletes time off to go to World Championships, and also to compete at international regattas.

She rowed in the eight at the 1981 World Championships in Munich and afterwards went on holiday with Lin Clark, Beryl Mitchell and Gill Hodges, driving and camping around Lake Garda for a week before heading back to Munich for the end-of-Championships part after the men’s racing which took place in the week after the women’s events on that occasion. At the party, a persistent oarsman who wanted her to dance with him tried to pull her off a bench she was standing on and she feel and tore her Achilles tendon. After a trip to hospital, she was put in a wheelchair for the flight home the next day. “Before we got to customs, Lin and Beryl put all the duty free on the back of the wheelchair because, they said, ‘No one’s going to check an invalid!,’ and they were right because we got through, but afterwards we were going down a big ramp, and with the weight of all the duty free, the rubber handle of the wheelchair pulled off and I was left freewheeling down the slope towards a big glass window with Lin and Beryl running after me trying to catch me before I went through it!”

After a short time in plaster, Pauline continued rowing in the 1982 season, by which time the impetus in the squad was at a low point after the high there had been for the 1980 Olympics. After being fairly soundly beaten by Russia and East Germany at Amsterdam regatta in mid-July, despite having led the East Germans at half way, she resolved that she would stop rowing internationally at the end of that season. “We hadn’t really got the coaches, the squad wasn’t being well organised or led, we hadn’t got much funding,” she reflects. “The squad had been dismantled in a way, and I just couldn’t see what was going to happen in the future to improve things. I thought I had an awful lot more to give, but I wasn’t going to be able to realise my potential because of the situation.”

Full accounts of Pauline’s three years in the squad can be read here:

1980 | 1981 | 1982

Rowing in the Centenary Pageant

The Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) celebrated its centenary in 1982 with a series of events including a Pageant Row from Putney to Greenwich in mid-September by crews representing all of the affiliated clubs. Pauline was thrilled to be asked by the four helpful men from John O’Gaunt RC if she would join them in the club’s crew, and they rowed the whole way dressed up as rowers of yesteryear in flat caps, waistcoats and braces. Pauline rather sensibly tied her flat cap on with string. It was the last time she sat in a boat [not a reflection on how the guys rowed that day – Ed.]

Coxed four in flat caps on the Tames

John O’Gaunt at the 1982 ARA Centenary Pageant. (Photo: Pauline Janson’s personal collection.)

5 crew members in Putney

The Pageant crew. From left: Neil Wigglesworth (cox), Pauline Janson (with her British Home Stores Women’s Squad t-shirt under the braces), Mike Frith, Colin McDermid and Ken Taylor. (Photo: Pauline Janson’s personal collection.)

The crew met up recently to celebrate Lancaster John O’Gaunt RC’s 175th anniversary and recreated the same shot:

5 rowers at a party

The 1982 Pageant crew in 2017. (Photo: Pauline Janson’s personal collection.)

After rowing

After Pauline stopped rowing with the squad in 1982 she returned to her childhood passion for classical and modern ballet, to which she actually attributes a lot of her success as a rower because of the core strength and sense of rhythm the disciplines had helped her develop. She also feels that doing a lot of fell walking as a teenager, as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, helped her develop useful leg strength.

She also taught at several schools in London (including St Paul’s Girls’ School, but before they rowed), the south east and Cairo, before moving to The Grange School in Northwich, from which she has recently retired. When she started there, the Head asked her if she’d like to coach rowing, but by that time she had a daughter and, knowing how much time it can take up, opted to get involved with their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions instead, which she did for many years.

“So I forgot all about rowing for many years really, getting on with other things,” she says, but in 2012 Lancaster John O’Gaunt RC made her President, and she’s thoroughly enjoyed getting to know people at this friendly club which is bubbling with development initiatives.

Pauline and a young sculler with tankard

Presidents get the best job at regattas: Pauline presenting the prizes at the reinstated Lancaster Regatta in 2017. (Photo: Lancaster John O’Gaunt RC via Pauline Janson.)