Sue Brown

Years 1980 Olympic Games (4+ 6th)
1981 World Championships (4+ 7th)
Clubs Wadham College BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, Oxford University BC
Height  5’3″ or 160 cm
Racing weight 6 stone 13 lb or 44 kg
Born 1958

The photo at the top of this page of Sue in Moscow is © Don Somner.

Sue Brown is one of Britain’s most famous coxes, although this is largely because she happened to be the first woman to cox the Boat Race, rather than for her considerable skills, knowledge and ability. What’s much less well known, however, is that she had already coxed the GB women at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow before she was involved with the Oxford men and, in fact, might not have won her seat with the dark blues without the experience she’d gained training with the women on the Tideway, the tricky-to-steer part of the Thames where the Boat Race takes place.

Getting into rowing

Sue took up coxing when she went up to Wadham College, Oxford to study biochemistry, although it was a couple of terms before she got involved. Having grown up in Honiton, Devon, “I had no idea about the sport when I went there,” she says, “But I remember noticing many of my fellow students heading out to the river every afternoon, and eventually I ventured down to the river and got involved, some time in the summer of 1978.”

International career

A year or so later in the autumn of 1979, Dan Topolski, the renowned architect of the revival in Oxford’s Boat Race fortunes, was on the river bank, possibly scouting new talent amongst the college crews. By chance, Sue was with a group of oarsmen to whom he got talking. “Dan suggested to me that if I came to London he would teach me to cox properly and send me to the Olympics. I took him up on the offer. I remember leaving Oxford in the dark very early every Saturday and Sunday to drive down to the ARA Headquarters in Hammersmith to train with the women’s squad.”

“Her aptitude and keen racing sense made up for her lack of experience,” Dan Topolski later wrote in his book Boat Race: The Oxford Revival,

Once she realised that she had a good chance of being selected for the Olympics, and had coxed the Oxford women to victory in their Boat Race at the end of March, she took a term out from her studies so that she could spend more time in London as the squad trained on the water more often once the clocks had changed.

In 1981, Henley Royal Regatta included races for women for the first time, but as these were only for coxed fours and doubles, the GB women’s eight split into two crews in order to take part. The eight’s cox took one of these, and Sue the other.

The actual GB women’s coxed four that year was only selected to go to the World Championships after it recorded a fast time at the National Championships in mid-July with Sue coxing. The crew was a Thames RC-based club unit containing two former internationals, but had been put together outside the squad. Sue joined them after she’d finished her exams in Oxford.

Full accounts the two years Sue spent coxing the GB women can be read here:

1980 | 1981

Chris George, Sue Brown and Don Somner in a stand full of people

Coaches and cox: Chris George (left), Sue and Don Somner, spectating at the Moscow Olympics. (Photo: © Don Somner.)

Boat Race years

“My first year in the GB women’s squad opened the next door for me,” Sue explains. The Oxford President that year was Chris Mahoney, who knew Sue as he’d rowed in the men’s eight in Moscow. “This led to my inclusion in the 1981 OUBC squad,” she says.

Dan Topolski had taken a year out from being Oxford’s chief coach that year, and spent the winter travelling in South America, but planned to return in time to be their ‘finishing coach’ and oversee the final two weeks of their preparations. In Boat Race he recounts getting a letter from Mahoney around Christmas time asking what he thought about a woman – specifically Sue – coxing the Boat Race. “I wrote back saying, ‘No objections!'”

While competition was not exactly numerous for the coxing seats in the GB women’s squad at the time, the same was not the case when it came to coxing Oxford, with at least 13 and possibly as many as 30 other coxes (all men) vying for the position.

Sue was eventually chosen to cox the Blue Boat. The blaze of resulting publicity about her (which she hated for singling her out) for the pre-Christmas trials race, the announcement of the crews and Boat Race day itself (Oxford won, incidentally) did a lot to revive what had been flagging public interest in the event.

She coxed the Oxford Blue Boat to victory again the next year. Writing in Boat Race, Dan Topolski, who was back coaching Oxford, said that she seemed “less thorough” that season, despite being more confident started that season. But, he continued, “She responded magnificently to the pressures of the moment and played a major and positive role in the outcome… she read the race excellently and steered and aggressive course which positioned her crew perfectly for the all important coup de grâce. 

That, however, was the end of Sue’s short but stellar coxing career. “I retired my wellies on Boat Race day in 1982,” she says.

Looking back

“I loved the two years that I was part of the GB women’s squad,” Sue says now. “It was incredible being named as part of the Olympic team. And I love to travel, so competing in Europe was wonderful.”

She moved to Tokyo in 1982 and from there to the US in 1995.

The fact that she Sue was involved in two major firsts for women in rowing – the first women’s crews to race at Henley Royal Regatta, and being the first woman to cox in the Boat Race – was, of course, chance. But although she didn’t enjoy the consequent media attention she handled it staunchly, and did her best to emphasise that it was the other members of her crews who were actually pulling the boat along. Competing at this level is hard enough, and being pioneers certainly made it more so, but Sue was one of a particular wave who broke new ground so that those who followed didn’t have to.