|Years||1981 FISA Junior Championships (8o 5th)
1982 FISA Junior Championships (4+ unplaced)
1983 FISA Junior Championships (2- 4th)
1984 Match des Seniors (2- 1st)
1985 World Championships (8o 6th)
1986 Match des Seniors (2- 2nd)
1987 World Championships (8o 9th)
1988 Olympic Games (4+ 6th)
1989 World Championships (4- 8th)
1991 World Championships (8o 9th)
1992 Olympic Games (8o 7th)
|Clubs||Abingdon RC, Tideway Scullers’ School|
|Height||5’7″ or 170cm|
Sue is on the right in the photo at the top of this page which shows the 1988 GB women’s Olympic coxed four training at Molesey (Photo: Sue Hastings’s personal collection).
Getting into rowing
Sue first got into a rowing boat at the age of about 11 because her elder sister Karen’s crew four needed a cox. Both girls went to John Mason School in Abingdon which had a successful arrangement with Abingdon Rowing Club that enabled pupils to take rowing as their games option (the 1970s international Maggie Phillips had been an earlier product of this scheme). “It was a really bustling club, really good fun,” she remembers.
She enjoyed several wins in the summer of 1977, accompanied by the crew’s mascot ‘Woolly’ the monkey who had to be tucked into the bib of her dungarees for safety (this explaining her otherwise unusual choice of coxing outfit).
The following winter, Sue joined in with the older girls’ land training because she’d decided she wanted to row herself and realised that she needed to get fitter and stronger. “I did all the circuits and the weight training but just with a bar with no weights on,” she explains.
In early 1978 she won her first single sculling race at Radley Sculls. “There was just me and Susie Hall from Reading in the WJ13 category,” she recalls, “But I also beat a whole heap of J13 boys!”
By that summer she was stroking a WJ14 coxed four which was extremely successful for the next few years as it moved up through the age categories.
The group were coached by Arthur Truswell. “He was really inspirational,” Sue says, “And he led me to believe that I could win everything, and that made want to go to the Olympics, so that by the time I was about 13 I had Olympic posters all over my bedroom and I’d decided that’s where I wanted to go.”
Junior international career
In 1981, aged 16, Sue and two of her Abingdon crew-mates were selected to row in the GB junior eight which came fifth at the FISA Championships for Juniors in Bulgaria, finishing just 1.66 seconds off the bronze medalists. This was only the fourth year that events for girls had been included in the championships. Sue’s dad, who was an electrician, made the crew a ‘coxbox’ sound system – an innovation for the time.
The following year, 1982, she won GB selection again, this time in the coxed four along with two other rowers and the cox from the 1981 eight. They raced at Henley Royal Regatta in the second of two years in which four-boat invitation events for women were included in the programme over short courses. This made them the first junior women’s crew to compete at the prestigious regatta, 30 years before the first Junior women’s event was introduced in 2012. Sue’s four lost to Princeton University in the first round by two lengths and then came last at the World Championships against much bigger opposition.
For her final year as a junior, Sue formed a pair with Sam Wensley with whom she’d rowed in the 1981 and 1982 GB crews. Sam was a pupil at Strode’s College in Staines, and they were coached by Jon Tompkins who was a teacher there. Jon persuaded the school to buy a brand new boat of exactly the right weight for them to use. “He was a really, really good coach,” Sue says, “And the boat was absolutely gorgeous.” Sue and Sam finished fourth at the FISA Championships for Juniors in Vichy, GB junior women’s best result until then.
Senior international career
Sue and Sam continued pairing after they’d left school, and took part in early GB senior trials. But 1984 was an Olympic year and with plenty of larger and much more experienced rowers vying for places, they weren’t selected. However, with the squad away in Los Angeles, they did win the senior pairs at the National Championships. As a result, they were selected to race at the under-23 Match des Seniors in Copenhagen where they were disappointed to find that there were only two entries in the women’s pairs, and even more disappointed to finish second. However, in a bizarre twist, it emerged shortly after the race that the Canadian crew which had crossed the line first were too old, and so the GB pair was awarded the win.
In 1985, with many of the established internationals having retired, a ‘development’ eight was formed to bring on the next generation of internationals, and both Sue and Sam were selected to row in this.
After winning at Nottinghamshire International Regatta on Sue’s 20th birthday, her crewmates decided to celebrate by throwing her in at the end of the medal ceremony.
Unfortunately the crew didn’t get as much experience as everyone would have liked at the World Championships as the event attracted just six entries and so their only race was their straight final. The GB crew finished last, quite a long way down, but Sue nevertheless remembers positive aspects to the experience. “It felt good to be part of that group because everyone was very committed, and that was the best part about it, everyone had belief in it and we’d all won our way to that point, and we believed in each other, although it wasn’t fast,” she explains, adding that she also loved being coached by Steve Gunn.
Despite having taken the first step up into the senior squad, Sue wasn’t selected again in 1986 although she did take part in trials. “I remember Penny Chuter taking me aside and telling me that it would be difficult for me to be involved because I still lived in Abingdon but the squad was training in London, and I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to get round this, so I just said, ‘OK, count me out, then,'” she recalls.
Instead, she and Sam went back into their pair and won the bronze medal on the Sunday of Nottinghamshire International Regatta, Sue’s 21st birthday.
They were also selected to represent GB at the Match des Seniors again, this time finishing second behind West Germany. They were coached by Jon Tompkins again, and Sue remembers, “It was such a fun summer. We had a really relaxed time and we just enjoyed what we did. I got sponsorship for us from various local companies, and it was a good end to our time rowing together.”
Sue’s international rowing career took another step up in 1987 when she moved to London, and joined Tideway Scullers which was one of the top clubs for women at the time, and was also conveniently just across the river from the Stag Brewery in Mortlake where she worked in the laboratory. She was selected to row in the GB eight again, in a line-up which was much stronger than the 1985 crew, but suffered from serious bickering amongst several of its members which contributed to it under-performing at the World Championships. It finished last in appalling weather conditions that made much of the racing farcical; although she’d moved into the mainstream of the GB squad, she also found that it was a far cry from a high-performing atmosphere.
All that changed in 1988, though, as the Seoul Olympic Games approached, and both the numbers of those trying to gain selection and level of competitiveness within the squad ramped up again. “Every single outing was a trial even it wasn’t a formal trial,” she remembers, “If you were at the top end and someone lower beat you, you’d hear about it so if you had a position, you HAD to make sure you were ahead of everyone else, even if it was just low rate paddling. It makes you work very hard, but it was very tough mentally.”
Sue was selected to stroke the coxed four which was coached by Steve Gunn, who had also coached her in the 1985 eight, and whom she describes as an “absolute genius”.
Although it all worked out well in the end, she might not have made it to the Olympics because of two serious injuries she sustained during the summer season. The first was during a major training camp in April, when the squad was worked almost into the ground. With her immune system low, Sue picked up a cold, and this led to her having a huge coughing fit during a race-pace piece which resulted in her ‘popping’ a rib. Fortunately, she had time to recover from that, but it was much more touch-and-go when she developed tenosinovitis in the wrist of her inside hand in July. “I think I’d been struggling with it for a while because the balance in the four was a little bit contrary,” she recalls. “I’d been having treatment but after Lucerne, Wendy Green the physio decided that I needed to have it operated on if I was going to be able to keep rowing. So Steve Gunn drove me straight to hospital and I had it done there and then by one of the rowing doctors. I was back home by 8.30pm despite having had a general anaesthetic, and was back to work the following day, icing it like mad, and was able to do Steve’s BIG training week before we went out to South Korea. At the time I was really scared because I wanted to row at the Olympics, but that made me determined to get straight back in and I recovered quite quickly from it.”
After a dreadful row in the first round heat at the Olympic regatta, the crew produced an epic row-through in the repechage to reach the final, the first GB women’s crew to do this at a Games when ‘everyone was there’ (after women’s events were first included in the Olympics in 1976, the 1980 and 1984 Games had been affected by boycotts by Western and then Eastern bloc major rowing nations).
“Seoul was just the most amazing experience ever – the training camp with our own chef, the bodyguards, the whole thing was just out of this world!,” she reflects, adding, quite understandably, that her crew’s row in the repechage is one of her rowing achievements of which she’s proudest.
Sue’s four stayed together for the 1989 season, although they became coxless as FISA, the international governing body of rowing, had decided to replaced women’s coxed fours with coxless fours in the programme of available events. This change didn’t really suit the crew, who had the strength to row the heavier boat type effectively, but struggled to find the quickness that the lighter boat type needed. Nevertheless, they won the bronze medal at Lucerne – Sue’s favourite international regatta because of its beautiful setting – which a serious achievement. In the end, though, they finished a disappointing eighth at the World Championships that year.
While the four didn’t go particularly well, 1989 saw Sue’s other ‘proudest moment in rowing’, which was her performance at the Scullers’ Head. She was the fastest British woman, finishing just 2.9 seconds behind the US Olympic Medallist Anne Marden, and winning the Senior II division, but what mattered most to her was how well she felt she sculled during the race. “I just remember getting to the end and thinking, ‘That was fantastic, that was really good!,'” she says.
For someone who’s entire international rowing career was in sweep boats, Sue was perhaps surprisingly keen on sculling, and rather regrets that GB women’s crew sculling wasn’t a ‘thing’ at the time when she was racing.
By 1990, Sue decided to take a year out of international rowing. “I’d got to the point where I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this, and I don’t care about my results,’ and that’s not a way to go about doing it, so I made a decision not to race.”
During her break she started an Open University course, which gave her a fresh mindset when she eventually returned to the squad in 1991. “I was a bit of a late starter in 1991 because I wanted to complete my course and so initially I didn’t even think I was going to get into the squad, so I just wanted to enjoy rowing as much as I could, and to row as well as I could but not be stressed out about it,” she recalls. She raced at Ghent and Duisburg in a pair with Suzanne Kirk and remembers that, “We just had the best time in that boat.” Both of them then raced at Lucerne in an eight which wasn’t particularly fast. When this was disbanded, they were the sole survivors who were kept on to row in a new eight along with the four and the pair who doubled up. This line-up not only hadn’t raced internationally before the Worlds, but also didn’t get much training in together as the other six women spent most of their time in their small boats which were the priority crews, and the eight finished ninth at the World Championships.
Rowing became Sue’s main focus again in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympics. She was selected to row in the eight which was coached by her under-23 coach Jon Tompkins. “I found his way of coaching was good for me,” she explains, adding, “He’s very into the psychological side of rowing.” Although the eight was initially the third boat, it got better and better throughout the season and produced an excellent row at Lucerne regatta. But the squad was reshuffled after this and although Sue remained in the eight, half of the rowers were changed, and it became the second crew. Again, this meant that the new combination had no opportunity to race internationally before the Games, but more seriously, there was a ‘them and us’ antagonism between the existing and the incoming oarswomen which was never resolved. “It was a crew that didn’t want to be together, we were anti them and they were anti us,” Sue reflects. They eventually won the petite final, through brute strength and determination rather than rowing as a unit. “I think everyone pulled hard separately in that race,” she says, adding, “It didn’t ever gel as a crew, and it never felt like we all believed in it.”
A fantastic photo, taken by Peter Spurrier, of Sue at the start of one of the races in Barcelona can be seen here.
At the age of 27, and after such a bruising experience at her second Olympic Games, Sue retired from international rowing. “I think I knew that I was getting to the point where I wasn’t going to be in the top groups and I didn’t really want to be in the lower group,” she adds. “And having been in the top groups, I didn’t want to finish my career down at the bottom somewhere, so I decided to stop. I’d seen so many other women hanging on and hanging on and I’d thought, ‘Why? Just stop!'”
Full accounts of Sue’s years in the GB squad can be read here:
After many years without getting in a boat at all after 1992, Sue enjoyed racing the Women’s Head in 2005 in a crew which Kate Grose organised with other former GB team-mates.
More recently, she has taken part in sponsored rows from Radley to Molesey in extremely inexperienced (and therefore unbalanced) parents’ crews for Kingston Grammar School and The Lady Eleanor Holles School where she now works. The most recent of these was in 2018 when it poured with rain for both days of the challenge, and the word ‘horrendous’ comes up frequently in her descriptions of the weekend.
When the Stag Brewery closed, Sue went to work in the science department at LEH where the Director of Rowing at the time was her 1992 Olympic team-mate Gillian Lindsay. When Gillian was a coach short, she asked Sue if she’d be able to help, and as a result, Sue is now far too busy coaching J13s and J14s – which she thoroughly enjoys – to get in a boat more than occasionally herself, though she admits she loves it when she does. Recently she was delighted to get a coaching medal at Reading Amateur Regatta where one of her crews won.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.