|Years||1987 World Junior Championships (2x 7th)
1988 Match des Seniors (1x 11th)
1989 World Championships (4x 6th)
1990 Match des Seniors (2x 1st)
1991 World Championships (8o 9th)
1992 Olympic Games (4- 8th)
|Clubs||Bedford High School RC, Tideway Scullers’ School, Marlow RC|
|Height||5’11” or 181cm|
The photo at the top of this page shows Suzanne at two (second from the right) at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, and is © Maggie Phillips.
Getting into rowing
Suzanne took up rowing when she was 15 at Bedford High School and immediately loved it, both for its own sake and because it gave her a freedom which she otherwise didn’t have. “I’d been a boarder since I was eight and absolutely hated it,” she explains, “So rowing was fabulous because I could get up and go training first thing in the morning and nobody knew exactly where I was, and I could go to the river after school on my own, so I was operating in a way that I never had before, but it was a safe freedom because I was just on the river, ploughing up and down, which was quite important because I’d had such a constrained life that any more freedom than that would have been quite frightening.” She adds, “I’d also just started going out with a boy whom I really liked and I thought I could pretend to be going rowing and see him, but then I discovered that I was good at rowing and the boyfriend fell by the wayside.”
Success came quickly. “I was tall and instinctively moved a boat well, and at that age, those factors immediately put you head and shoulders above people that aren’t the right shape and don’t know how to move a boat,” she explains, although she also put in a lot of mileage. “Our coach would tell us to go and do 12 or 16k, which was very easy to do safely because the river at Bedford is only 2k long, and you can tick off how far you’ve gone. So when I got to the first set of GB junior long distance trials at Chester, which was an 8k row, 8k to me was nothing.”
Junior international career
When she was 16 her school coxed four was selected to compete at the Anglo-French Match, which they won, and when she was 18 she raced in the double at the World Junior Rowing Championships in 1987 with Adrienne Grimsditch from Northwich RC. In the run up to the Worlds they won the Junior Doubles at the National Championships, as expected, but more impressively also took silver in the senior event. It was a combination that went well. “I really liked her, and I really liked our double, Suzanne says.
Senior international career
After she finished school, Suzanne moved to London and in due course joined Tideway Scullers, which was one of the main clubs at the time for international women. “Kate Grose took me under her wing and helped me with the transition from junior to senior rowing,” Suzanne remembers.
At the January and February squad trials in 1988 she doubled with Ali Gill, who had spotted her talent when Suzanne had beaten her in a heat of senior sculls, and then finished close behind her in the final at Nottingham City Regatta the previous summer while still at school.
At the February assessment, “We were doing back to back 1,250m pieces and Ali and I smashed the first one but then I exploded and although we’d been entered in the double for the first early-season international Piediluco, I was then dropped and didn’t go.” The reason for her dramatic decline after their first piece turned out to be a malfunctioning kidney which was pushing up her blood pressure, but this was only diagnosed much later.
Suzanne was selected to be the single sculler at the 1988 Match des Seniors for Under-23s but was badly affected by her health problems, leading her to describe the experience as a “fiasco”. Sadly, this turned out to be somewhat of a recurring theme in her rowing career.
The following year she trialled again, and raced in quads at the early regattas. This was a time when Britain as a whole, including the openweight women’s squad, was trying to improve the standard of crew sculling relative to its more traditional focus on sweep rowing. As a result although her crew showed that it was right at the top of what Britain had to offer by winning the Open Quads at Henley Women’s Regatta easily, they finished last in their straight final at the World Championships, well off the pace. “It was humiliating,” she says. “Part of the problem was that everything seemed to be kept very clandestine then, so if we’d been told that what we were going to do was try and improve sculling, and been told it more than once, then that would have been quite beneficial but it was never translated into a method of training or into a commitment to coaching.”
Having been hospitalised following diagnosis of her kidney problem after the 1989 World Championships, Suzanne remembers “I was out for a long time and I was told that I couldn’t row again.” However, by March 1990 she was back double sculling with Adrienne Grimsditch, who was two years younger than her but had now left school and moved to Kingston RC. “It was lovely, being back in a boat together,” Suzanne says. The duo won the gold medal at the Match des Seniors, the first medal of any colour that British women had won at the event since women were included in its programme in 1986.
A photo of Suzanne (at stroke) and Adrienne racing at Henley Women’s Regatta in June 1990 can be seen here.
The openweight GB senior squad’s nominal policy of trying to develop crew sculling had fizzled out after 1989, and the new Chief Coach Bob Michaels’ focus had returned sweep boats. Following their superb performance at the Match des Seniors, Suzanne and Adrienne were offered a place on the senior team for the World Championships, but Adrienne became ill and couldn’t go. It was proposed that Suzanne team up with Annabel Eyres, who was a fellow Tideway Scullers member and had also been in her 1989 quad, but in the end Suzanne turned this down for a variety of reasons, a decision she now regrets. “Mainly it was that I really liked rowing with Adrienne and I was genuinely hurting from her pulling out. I’d also done a trial of some sort where Annabel’s crew had beaten my crew by about half a length but we’d been chosen and she was furious about that; I foolishly took her anger personally. And then there was the feeling that we’d been half of that awful quad the year before and I got the impression that everyone would expect us to be that bad again, which I didn’t want. On top of that, I had reservations – which turned out to be wrong – about the coach I though was going to be assigned to us so at the time I didn’t want to work with him, although I realise now I could have learned a lot.”
Things started looking up in some ways the following year. Suzanne started pairing with another Tideway Scullers clubmate, Sue Smith, who was an extremely experienced international, and had rowed in the coxed four at the 1988 Olympic Games which produced an epic row-through in the repechage to reach the final. “It was great and I loved rowing with Sue,” Suzanne says, “Except that she worked night shifts at Mortlake brewery so we didn’t get out on the water together all that often.” She adds that she struggled to motivate herself to train on her own, and as a result didn’t train enough. “When I look back at the reason why I was good as a junior – which was doing a lot of mileage – it’s ridiculous. If I’d just got in a scull and basically done my junior training it would have been fine. But instead I messed around all year and I think that came back to bite me because I felt that in 1992 Bob Michaels had me down as someone who messed around, even though I was training properly by then. But it was entirely my fault.”
Nevertheless she was selected to row in the GB eight that raced at Lucerne. This was then disbanded when it was decided that the crew for the worlds would be the coxless four and pair doubling up with two others. Suzanne and Sue were the two others, however, and, for once, she enjoyed that World Championships even though they didn’t make the final. “I remember it being quite a good eight and we had a good row in the repechage,” she says. “We nearly qualified, and when Brian Armstrong the Team Manager pulled us in after that, I vividly remember him looking at me and saying, ‘That was good.’ It was very much a recognition that the women’s squad was coming on, and we could do something, and I think that’s why I ended up committing to training properly the next year.”
Suzanne’s run up to the 1992 Olympic Games started really, really well. She and Sue came third in the opening pairs races at the February and March assessments, and she also remembers winning various key seat races. When the crews were formed at Easter time, she was put in the eight. Although this was designated the third boat behind the pair and four, she remembers, “I was really happy in the eight, I really enjoyed it.”
Her season started unravelling at the first regatta, Cologne, where she was ill but was told she had to row and so, not surprisingly, did so rather badly. But once the regatta was over, she and the crew started to gel, assisted by their coach Jon Tompkins whom she thought was very effective. They did better at Essen and then produced an excellent race at the final pre-Olympic regatta in Lucerne where they finished a close fourth. “That Lucerne race was just wonderful,” she says, “Because we were now in touch and competitive.”
However, Chief Coach Bob Michaels decided to rearrange all three of the sweep crews after Lucerne because one of the top boat – the pair – was not getting over the glandular fever from which she’d been suffering, and four of the eight, including Suzanne, were moved into the coxless four which now became the fourth boat. Suzanne was also told that another rower who had been seat raced into the reserve slot at Easter was now in contention for her place; this was resolved relatively quickly, not least because time was rapidly running out before the Olympics, but the new crew were still faced with a massive task of learning how to row a completely different boat type to Olympic standard.
After the shake-up was announced, Suzanne says, “The International Rowing Manager Brian Armstrong told me that he thought I’d been really badly treated and shouldn’t have been moved out of the eight, and the Director of International Rowing Mark Lees said the same, although he did acknowledge that he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.” At the time, Suzanne appreciated their response as it represented a vindication of the injustice she felt, but although their intentions were doubtless helpful, they may not have helped her move on with the urgent and mammoth task ahead of her. “What I should have done is recognised that I was in the four and team-built,” she says now, but adds, “The squad was a very difficult place to be, then,” and it’s worth remembering that she, like most of the squad, was only in her early 20s.
After a disastrous altitude camp, they finally started rowing well together at the final training camp just before the Games.
The four finished second in the B final in the Olympic regatta. “After the repechage when we’d failed to qualify for the main final,” Suzanne recalls, “I upset some of the others by making the comment, ‘I don’t want to be here’. I didn’t mean that I didn’t want to row the small final with them, or that I didn’t want to race; what I meant was that I was devastated we weren’t in the main final and didn’t want to be in the position we were now in. I liked this crew and I thought that we could do it. But it was stupid and clumsy and I shouldn’t have shouldn’t said that.”
A photo of her on the start in Banyoles can be seen here.
Full accounts of each of Suzanne’s years in the under-23 and senior GB squads can be read here:
Suzanne didn’t make a positive decision to stop rowing internationally after the Barcelona Olympics, but the squad ‘strategy’ such as it was, in the following years involved only small numbers of people, there was very little funding, and in the end she just never picked it up again. “I still wasn’t very good at training on my own and there was no nobody left that I could see myself rowing with and forming a really good crew with, as it had all been so awful and fractured,” she reflects.
Fast forward quite a while, she has recently started weight training again. “I’m training at a mixed martial arts gym where there are lots of professional fighters or professional power lifters and in the last six months I’ve learned so much about how to lift weights, which rams home quite how amateur we were in the squad. If we’d lifted weights properly, just that alone, we would have been so much better!” She’s also bowled over about how supportive the other members are, and wishes there had been a similar culture in GB squad that could have brought everyone on through mutual encouragement and sharing, instead of positioning future crewmates as ‘the enemy’.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.