|Year||1988 Olympic Games (2x 9th)|
|Club||Thames RC, Dittons Skiff and Punting Club|
|Height||5’11.75″ or 182cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Sally (right) with Annabel Eyres in the GB eight at Henley Women’s Regatta in 1988, and is from her personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Sally discovered rowing quite by chance when she moved to London in her early 20s and one of her housemates took one look at her nearly six foot tall figure and said, “You must be a rower.” Although her immediate reply was, “What’s rowing?,” she was keen to make new friends, so she looked up T for Thames in the Yellow Pages, figuring that there must be a club with ‘Thames’ in its name not too far from where she was living in Earlsfield, and sure enough found a number for Thames RC.
Pauline Rayner answered her phone call, and told her that her timing was perfect as it was September and the new intake of novices was about to get going, so she should turn up at the club at 9am the following Saturday. Sally admits that her first reaction was, “9am? That’s a bit early!,” but decided to give it a go, purely motivated by wanting to meet new people.
As it turned out her timing really was perfect because the GB men’s gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics a month or so before had inspired a lot of interest in rowing and an unprecedented 36 women turned up that day. “We were coached by Clive Killick who was quite new to coaching then but was completely instrumental in the whole thing. Over the winter he whittled us down to an eight and a four, and then in the summer of 1985 we start racing and win everything,” Sally remembers.
Her first race was in the snow at Henley Fours Head in February that year, and in November she won Women’s Senior C at the Head of the River Fours.
In 1986 Sally’s group had an even more stunning season, finishing fifth at the Women’s Head and winning the silver medal at the National Championships. She also got her first experience of semi-international competition racing at Nottinghamshire International Regatta.
At some point around late 1986, Clive suggested that she trial for the GB squad, pointing out that the next Olympics were less than two years away. “I was a bit flummoxed actually,” she remembers, “But then I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ But that’s where the idea came from because it would never have occurred to me at all.”
Six of the Thames contingent went to trials in February 1987; having only raced in eights and fours up to that point, she and Sally Brown got to grips with pairs rowing in preparation not least so that Sally could learn to steer. After finishing in the middle of the pairs ranking after a number of pieces, she didn’t make the next cut, but was encouraged to try again the next year. She jotted, “Not very surprised,” in the margin of her copy of the results.
She carried on racing with Thames that season, adding to her experience of higher-level racing by competing at Ghent regatta where she won in a coxed four. She also learned to scull, and won women’s elite doubles at Serpentine regatta with Sarah Bolton.
The next year she did indeed go back, recovered from a back injury sustained lifting heavy weights in early spring, and was selected to row in the eight which raced at all of the pre-Olympic regattas in the eight. When this was not selected to go to the 1988 Games in Seoul, Sally and Ali Gill, another member of the eight, were chosen to go as spares for the selected four and pair. In the end, they weren’t needed as subs and because crews did not have to pre-qualify for the Olympic regatta at that time, raced as a double. This is, of course, a very bald summary of a period that was a massive emotional roller coaster for both women.
Sally and Ali were officially coached by Ron Needs at the pre-Games training camp in South Korea but as he was also coaching the pair, she remembers, “We had some visiting sessions from [Director of International Rowing] Penny Chuter who was the most brilliant coach I’ve ever come across. She was an amazing coach! What she said absolutely made sense and she had us – I can remember some really inspiring training sessions with her and it’s a great shame we didn’t have her more.”
Ali describes Sally as, “Lovely, and the calmest person in the world,” although Sally credits Ali, who at age 22 was the younger of the two by six years, with helping her to understand how best to race. “I’d go out and be as furious as possible and try to work as hard as possible at everything, and she’d say, ‘Sally, you don’t need to do that,’ so she coached me quite a lot as well,” and adds that rowing with Ali was a joy which she hadn’t experienced during the rest of the year which, like many internationals, was, “A bit of a blur because it was so full on and it was so competitive. You were fighting all the time.” Looking back now, she says, “I can see the reasons why it was like that, but it is soul-destroying and it also stops social bonds forming because everybody’s the enemy and you can be polite to people but really, when you’re at that level, you’re fighting. Not consciously, and you become self-contained so that you can cope with it.”
Looking back on her rowing career now, she’s quick to emphasise that her entire path to the 1988 Olympics was “a series of pieces of good luck,” from being encouraged by Pauline Rayner when she made that first phone call to Thames RC, happening to join the club at the same time as a group of similiarly-capable people which enabled her to race early on in good crews, and having Clive Killick’s coaching input, to being a travelling spare for Seoul simply because the Games happened to be so far away that year which led to being given the opportunity to race.
When the GB squad reconvened after the Seoul Olympics in January 1989, Sally initially trialled again and rowed in the top crew which won the Women’s Head by a whopping 19 seconds despite having to make crew changes the night before because of illness.
Not long after that, though, she withdrew. “I’d realised quite how awesome the standard of the top crews was at the Olympic regatta, and that getting there was not the pinnacle as I’d originally thought but just the beginning and therefore how much more needed to be done,” she says. Again echoing the views of a lot of other internationals about that era, she was unconvinced that another four years of hard graft would actually achieve the step change and lead to a medal at the next Olympic Games. “In addition, Steve Gunn was in charge and my memory is that he said the coxed four from 1988 would stay together, so I couldn’t see any clear options for me.” Back at work full time, it seemed that the possibility of rowing at the 1992 Olympics, when she would be 32 (in her eyes a bit old) was not enough compensation to compromise her other plans. “It was with regret though,” she says, “As I’d subbed into the four on a couple of occasions and it had gone well and I’d seen that it could maybe to go to the next level, but ultimately it was not enough to tip the balance. I did feel a bit guilty, though, because obviously I’d been given such a great opportunity in 1988.”
Sally went back to Thames, where she rowed with many of the next generation of internationals and Olympians including Miriam Batten, Katie Brownlow and Philippa Cross, passing on her experience that way. She then won the Women’s Head for the second time with Thames in 1990 which, she says, “Was my compensation for not carrying on as an international.” Not long after that, though, she decided to stop rowing completely.
Aside from doing a little pairing between having her two children, Sally didn’t get in a boat again for some years, but after her son was born she joined the Stragglers running club in Kingston where she met some skiffers who encouraged her to give that form of the sport a go.
“I skiffed with Sarah Bolton with whom I’d rowed at Thames back at the beginnning,” Sally says, “And then in a mixed crew with Paul ‘Boysie’ Reynolds [another former international rower]. We skiffed really well together and we had another season like I had rowing in 1985 and 1986 when we won everything and. I think I skiffed with him for about ten years so I’ve skiffed for much longer than I rowed because it fitted round the kids but meant I could still go on the river and be competitive in my own way. Dittons has a lovely Sunday morning group which I’ve enjoyed over the years.”
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2018.