Sarah Birch (now Sarah Ockendon)

Years1985 World Rowing Junior Championships (4+ cox, 5th)
1990 World Rowing Junior Championships (4-, 5th)
1992 Nations Cup (Lt 2x, 3rd)
1994 Nations Cup (Lt 2x, 9th)
1997 World Rowing Championships (Lt 2x, 10th)
1998 World Rowing Championships (Lt 4x, 6th)
2000 World Rowing Championships (Lt 4x, 5th)
2001 World Rowing Championships (Lt 2-, 1st)
2002 World Rowing Championships (Lt 4x, 5th)
2003 World Rowing Championships (Lt 4x, 7th)
2004 World Rowing Championships (Lt 4x, 8th)
ClubsWeybridge Ladies ARC, Kingston RC, Molesey BC, Walton RC
Height5’7” or 170cm

The photo at the top of this page shows Sarah (left) sculling at trials in Henley with Jo Nitsch and is from her personal collection.

Getting into rowing

As the daughter of parents who skiffed, Sarah was first taken to Thames Valley Skiff Club at a very tender age – often being left to sleep in her carry cot in the changing room while her mum socialised or went out on the water herself. “I grew up rowing in a dinghy that we had,” she explains. “My dad was involved with running Sunbury Children’s Regatta too, so I started doing that with my brother Andrew when I was about seven. Mum used to take us down to Hampton Court bridge where you could hire the double dinghies that the regatta used, so we could practice.”

She first got involved in ‘fine boat’ rowing at Weybridge Ladies ARC when she was 12 through Kim Thomas, a family friend whose father was Sarah’s godfather. Kim was five years older than Sarah, and needed a cox for her junior four. Her first recorded wins were at Cambridge Autumn and then Upper Thames small boats heads in 1984, and by the following summer, Sarah was coxing two of the crew in the four at the Junior World Championships.

5 girls in GB blazers
The 1985 GB junior coxed four. From left: Kate Sanson, Kim Thomas, Sarah Birch, Anna Durrant, Vikki Filsell. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

Sarah soon became too tall to cox and was keen to row herself too. Coach John Sanson taught her to scull and she won J13 sculls at Pangbourne in the autumn of 1985. Her first sculling boat was called Microwave. “I bought it from a girl at Burway RC because her dad worked for Toshiba and the company had sponsored her – I think microwaves were quite new then!,” she explains. She also remembers, “Messing around in fours much younger than you would have kids doing that now because that’s what crew boats were then.” The Almanack records her as having won in a J15 coxed four at Weybridge Ladies Regatta that year too.

Sarah at the National Chamionships in Nottingham in 1986 where she won J14 single sculls by over 10 seconds. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection).

Junior international representation as a rower

When she was 16, Sarah moved to Kingston Rowing Club where Ian South was developing a thriving junior women’s squad. The thinks that her decision was also partly driven by her desire to do extra training in her single scull on her own. “Weybridge Ladies had a sensible policy that juniors shouldn’t go out on their own,” she says, “But my mum was quite happy for me to do that. It was permitted at Kingston, and was perfectly safe because there were always lots of adults going out down there!”

But both Weybridge Ladies and Kingston had a formative influence on her ambition. “Even back then I wanted to go to the Olympics because people around me like Kim Thomas were on that pathway and I was part of that, very fortunately,” she remembers.

She selected for the coxless pair at the Coupe de la Jeunesse in 1989, where she won both her races comfortably. The following year she stepped up to the main Junior World Championships team, finishing fifth in the coxless four.

The 1990 GB junior coxless four. From left: Tegwen Rooks, Tara Byrne, Robyn Morris and Sarah Birch. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

Sculling versus rowing

Sarah says, “Although the officials might deny this, the impression I got as a junior was that scullers were considered lesser and sweep was where you wanted to be if you had ambitions. You also had to decide to be one or the other, so although we all sculled, but you wouldn’t put yourself forward for the sculling team because you’d be more likely to be successful and with the good people in sweep.”

By the time she got into the senior team, though she was at the core of the first cohort of sculling-focused lightweights after the lightweight double was added to the Olympic programme for 1996 and the lightweight four was replaced by the quad in the World Championships programme in 1997.

Senior international career

In 1992, Sarah continued up the development pathway by gaining a place in the under-23 Nations Cup in a double scull with Jane Hall (who was still at school but was slightly too old to compete at the Junior World Championships in her upper sixth). Selection took place around Henley time, she recalls, “It was quite informal but we had to have a race off on the Henley course against another crew. None of us had steered the Henley booms before so we suggested that if anyone hit the booms within a certain distance from the start, we’d restart the race. The other crew said, ‘No,’ so we said, ‘Fine, have it your way,’ and they hit the booms so that was the end of that. But we would have beaten them anyway.’

Sarah and Jane overcame rough conditions to win the bronze medal, finishing six seconds off the silver medallists but a solid four seconds clear of the fourth-placed crew.

Sarah put in reasonable performances at senior trials the following year, but wasn’t selected for any of the small number of women’s lightweight seats available. In 1994 she rowed in the Kingston RC first eight that came third at the Women’s Head (providing the author with a thrilling ride in the cox’s seat), and continued to race in the club eight that summer before being selected again for the under-23 double scull, this time with clubmate Sarah Hay. Unfortunately, they arrived in Paris for the Nations Cup without their boat, which hadn’t been loaded due to a communication mix up. They finished ninth and last in a borrowed one, but Sarah doesn’t hold the boat fiasco entirely responsible for their poor result. Looking back on it all, she says, “I don’t think there were any selection trials. We just happened to be known about and in the right place at the right time. To be honest, we should never have gone.”

For the next two seasons, Sarah was too old for under-23s but her trials performances weren’t yet good enough for her to selected for the senior team. “Jane Hall had been in the coxless four that won gold at the World Championships in 1993, so I was very much hanging off her coat tails at trials,” she reflects. “I also remember being told by the GB Women’s Chief Coach around that time that I was an absolute waste of space and I should go away, which was harsh. I was definitely still on the slightly younger and less experienced side of it all; you needed to be a proper talent with his backing to break in.”

Nevertheless, she persevered and as her speed increased, she “had a lot of fun” collecting wins at the highest domestic level including elite openweight quads and lightweight doubles at Henley Women’s Regatta, and lightweight quads at the National Championships in 1996. She still considers her HWR doubles win with Mary Stevens – after several years competing there and not winning – one of her most enjoyable rowing experiences.

In 1997, with a number of the established lightweight internationals retiring after the 1996 Olympic year, she made her breakthrough to the GB team. At the first World Cup regatta of the year, her crew won the new lightweight quad event, although unfortunately there was only one other entry. Still, better a win than a loss and as this made them the leaders in that World Cup, they were presented with t-shirts. Unfortunately, the organisers took a ‘one size fits all’ approach to ordering these, and the size in question was that of openweight men.

Sarah (in the middle) with her crewmates and coach Maurice Hayes in their over-sized t-shirts after racing at the first World Cup regatta of 1997. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

As the season progressed, Sarah was moved into the double with Tracy Langlands, who was then the emerging ‘talent’ in the squad. The double was the top lightweight crew boat because it was the only Olympic-class event and Jane Hall, who had medalled in sweep boats for the previous four years, wasn’t in it because she’s had decided to do the single that year. Getting into the double was a major achievement for Sarah in her first year on the senior team, although she’s characteristically sanguine about her selection. “I wasn’t the next best sculler, but I think it was decided that I was the best partner for her. So I would say that I got really lucky being put with Tracy because we clicked,” Sarah remembers, adding, “And I also got lucky because she was a lawyer at Clifford Chance, who sponsored out boat.”

Sarah (left) and Tracy in a publicity shot at Kingston in their Clifford Chance-sponsored boat. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

They finished fourth in the B final, placing them 10th overall. “It was a high-standard event and we were inexperienced at that level,” Sarah reflects, “So that result was about right for where we were then. We had moments of going better than that but they were generally moments rather than anything we could do consistently. We weren’t medal material.”

Woman wearing purple waterproof in boat.
Going for a ‘sweat row’ to make weight before racing at Lucerne in 1997. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

In 1998 Jane Hall moved out of the lightweight single into the double with Tracy Langlands and Sarah returned to the lightweight quad, racing in it at the World Championships whenever it was sent until her final appearance for GB in 2002. In 1998, coached by Louise Kingsley, her crew made the A-final at the World Championships in Cologne but finished sixth.

Women in red boat on sunny lake
Tegwen Rooks (left), Sarah and Jo Nitch go out to train in Varese. (Photo © Guin Batten.)
Woman with rowing kit hanging on makeshift line
The reality of life at the World Championships: trying to dry your kit in small hotel rooms. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

In 1999 there weren’t quite enough uninjured lightweight women of the right standard to form a quad. Sarah raced in a lightweight double with Jo Nitsch as GB 2 at the first World Cup regatta, where they finished 11th, but that was the end of her appearances in GB colours that season. Nevertheless, she says, she had a great year, coxing a GB eight at Henley Royal Regatta and then competing at the Commonwealth Regatta.

The first of these was not planned at all. An invitation event for women’s eights had been added to the Henley programme in 1998, when it was won by a US squad crew. Not surprisingly, there was a desire to see a British crew win. In 1999, the top GB women’s openweight boats were the double, pair and quad, while the eight was considered a lesser crew, so Chief Coach Mike Spracklen decided to enter another eight made up of the small boats crews. Sarah remembers, “There was some discussion about the plan in the changing room one day when we were all training at Longridge, and the fact that they’d need to find a cox and I jokingly said, ‘Well, I can cox,’ and I didn’t think anyone paid any attention at the time but the next day I was told that was what I was doing. It was a practical solution because I could cox, I was light enough, and I was there and knew the system.”

The crew won both their heat against the Polish national squad and their final against the main GB eight by over four lengths, which proved demoralising for already-struggling British boat which wasn’t subsequently selected to go to the World Championships that year. “I was aware that it was hugely controversial,” Sarah reflects, “But it would have happened anyway with or without me, and I really enjoyed coxing it.”

Princess Anne talking to rowers
Princess Anne, who presented the prizes at Henley that year, chatted to the crew before their final. Sarah is on the left of this photo. (Photo: Sarah Ockendon’s personal collection.)

At the Commonwealth Regatta in Canada, Sarah won the silver medal in the openweight quad with rising stars Rebecca Romero, Debbie Flood and Frances Houghton in a three-boat race, and finished fourth out of five in the lightweight single.

By 2000, Sarah recalls, Jane Hall and Tracy Langlands continued to be the top two lightweights, were in selected into the double that tried to qualify for the Olympic Games. “Jo Nitsch was next, and was sometimes tried in the double, and I was fourth and just outside the dividing line of ever being allowed to go in it,” she says. Once Jane and Tracy had missed qualifying for the Olympics, Jane and newcomer Helen Casey joined Sarah and Jo Nitsch in a late-formed quad, while Tracy singled. After a certain amount of experimentation, Sarah stroked and the crew finished fifth out of a competitive field of 12 crews.

The following year, 2001, this group of five continued to vie to be in the double – the top boat. Sarah remembers, “By now, Helen was now emerging as a massive talent, and as it started to shake down, and she was in the double with Jane, the remaining three of us – that’s Jo, Tracy and me – had a look at who the next athletes were and we decided they were too far behind us in singles performance so we decided that we didn’t really want to do another quad.”

Eventually, Sarah and Jo decided to move into the lightweight pair, while Tracy singled. Their first race was in a three-boat event at the final World Cup regatta of the season in Munich, which they won comfortably.

At the Worlds, they had another straight final, this time of six crews. The Americans took a fairly early lead, but Sarah and Jo were never more than a third of a length down. At half way, the GB crew pushed on, but the Americans responded, and the Brits went through the 1,500m mark a few feet down with two other crews in hot pursuit, too. After that, though, they attacked again, taking the lead, and stretching it out to win by 2.37 seconds.

Sarah, who was at bow and therefore doing the calls, remembers, “It was one of those races where you think, ‘I can feel that they can’t do this and I know that we can,’ especially as they’d already raced at openweight [see below], so I shouted suitable things and we just turned it on. It was good fun!”

Notably, this was the first time a British women’s crew had retained a World title (Miriam Taylor and Malindi Myers having won the previous year).

Peter Spurrier’s really lovely photo of the crew after the medal ceremony can be seen here.

Putting the win into context, Sarah says, “It was great fun and I’m glad we did it, but it wasn’t a performance because it’s a completely different event from the sculling crews. It was an opportunity that we took rather than a long-term goal, and I’m grateful for that opportunity, but had I ever succeeded in getting a worlds medal in one of those quads then that would have completely eclipsed that pairs win.”

Sarah’s desire to get a sculling medal saw her back at trials for the 2002 season. “We were still only in middle of another Olympic cycle, so who knows what we can do, even if you are ageing,” she explains. In 2002 she finished fifth in the quad, in 2003 seventh, and in 2004 eighth. “I can see why I carried on in 2002,” she adds, “Because I’m on the back of a win and although we didn’t have any illusions about how good we were just because we won that, it still gives you a bit of confidence which helped me do quite well in my single at trials. But why I carried on after that I have no idea because I had no chance of getting into the double, and by 2004 I was diagnosed with over-training syndrome.”

Reflecting on her time in the GB lightweight squad, including the era when they trained alongside the openweight squad at Longridge, Sarah says, “It was all quite dog eat dog. If we were slower than them, we’d get washed down by their coach’s launch and were just told, ‘If you don’t like it go faster’, but we were only lightweights so we were meant to be slower than them! And sometimes we kept up and they didn’t much like that because we got in the way. But it did definitely toughen us up, so I don’t resent it but it wasn’t very nice at the time, especially when we were hungry, and we were all pretty horrid – to each other, and to our coaches in particular. It was just the culture.” She adds, though, “The number of tears there were in those days would simply wouldn’t do these days.”

Full accounts of each of Sarah’s eight years in the GB senior team can be read here:

1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004

Later rowing and working for British Rowing

Towards the end of her international rowing career, Sarah started working for the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing), initially as a Coaching Development Officer, then as a Participation Officer, and now as an Education and Training Manager.

She continues to scull regularly – partly motivated by a desire to eat cake without consequences – and to race in skiffs with friends. Her successes in this over the years are too numerous to mention, but most importantly for her are enjoyable.

Ladies double skiff
Sarah (right) winning the Ladies Doubles at the Skiff Championships in 2015 with Sandra Knowles, coxed by the author. (Photo © Judy Graham.)

In general, Sarah’s preference is mostly for longer-distance events including marathons and ultra-running events, and in 2016 she and five other women (including the author and 2002 Lightweight Pairs World Champion Naomi Ashcroft) broke the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance rowed in 24 hours by a women’s team. Sarah’s legendary ‘golden right boot’, as her coach Ian South used to describe her steering ability, was much appreciated by the others. In recent weeks, she took part in a 24-hour relay charity open water swim with a team of four.

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.