Tessa Millar

Years 1983 World Championships (4+ 8th)
1984 Olympic Games (4+ 7th)
1985 World Championships (8o 6th)
Clubs St Aidan’s College BC, Durham University WBC, Thames RC, Kingston RC, Tideway Scullers’ School, Sport Imperial
Height  5’7″ or 170 cm
Racing weight 10 stone 3 lb or 65 kg
Born 1956

The photo at the top of this page shows Tessa on the left in the GB coxed four at Nottinghamshire International Regatta in 1984. (Photo: Tessa Millar’s personal collection.)

Getting into rowing

Tessa learned to row at Durham University where she was also heavily involved in athletics, serving as Women’s Captain of Durham University Athletics Union which covered all sports. She won her novices at York Regatta.

After graduating in 1979, she moved to London and joined Thames RC where she learned to scull, and won a bronze medal at the National Championships in 1982 in an eight.

International rowing career

With several members of the GB squad also at Thames at the time, Tessa had a clear benchmark of the standard involved. “I realised that as an athlete I was good as anybody – I could lift as much weight, run as fast as they could, and I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it’,” she says.

She started training with the national squad at Hammersmith in the autumn of 1982, and went on to represent Great Britain for three years, including at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

Full accounts of Tessa’s time in the GB squad can be read here:

1983 | 1984 | 1985

woman with oar on windy day

Tessa at a windy Nottinghamshire International Regatta in 1984. (Photo: Tessa Millar’s personal collection.)

After the World Championships in 1985, where most of the openweight women’s team were new to international rowing and Tessa was the only member of the eight with any international experience, she started training with Pauline Bird in a pair. Pauline was a former international with one of the best track records in GB women’s rowing, but had had a few years out of serious competition while doing a degree.

Both remember winning their races on the first day of the selection trials early in 1986, but after this the combination was split up. “It was quite obvious that they wanted Pauline but they thought that I was too small or something so they took her and they didn’t take me,” Tessa recalls. After this, she decided to stop rowing internationally. “I felt that if I could win the trials and I still not get selected there wasn’t anything much I could do. And even if I had got in, the GB openweight women’ crews weren’t doing that well. In the end I thought, ‘Does this pay the mortgage? No, it doesn’t pay the mortgage.'”

Some years after this she did a few seasons – successfully – at veteran level, and also won the Mixed Doubles Skiff Championship in 1987.

Coaching career

Thames RC

Although frustrated with the GB squad’s management, Tessa’s enthusiasm for the sport was undiminished so she immediately turned to coaching, drawing both on her experience as an international athlete and the knowledge and expertise she’d developed through training and working as a PE teacher. One of her first crews was a women’s four at Thames which won the Home Countries match in 1987, but she also coached a larger group at the club with Noel Casey which went from novice to winning the Women’ Eights Head in 1990, Thames’s first women’s headship (the club had admitted its first female members in 1973 when United Universities Women’s BC merged with it).

Over the next fifteen or so years, Tessa’s high-performance coaching successes at Thames included excellent results at all of the key domestic events: top five places at the Women’s Head, wins at Women’s Henley, and reaching the semi-final of the Remenham Challenge Cup at Henley Royal in 2013.

Guest coaching

Tessa also did short periods elsewhere as a result of invitations from former Thames members who had moved to other clubs including at London RC, Tideway Scullers and Kingston RC, although Thames, of which she is a Vice-President, was always her ‘home’.

One of these stints was with the London RC lightweights in 1997; after they finished third at the Head, four of them were selected to be the GB lightweight coxless four and Men’s Chief Coach Jurgen Grobler asked her to work with Sean Bowden to coach them for the World Championships.

In 1991 she was invited to coach the Oxford University women’s Blue Boat. “They’d lost for four consecutive years to Cambridge under who were coached by Roger Silk who was a very good coach and had a sort of machine going with them. So Oxford asked if I would coach them and see if we can beat Cambridge, and I thought that was a good challenge!” Oxford won by three lengths, their only victory in an otherwise unbroken string of light blue wins from 1987 to 1999.

She also took advantage of her school summer holidays to do some coaching in Australia and South Africa. “I was invited to South Africa just after they’d had the referendum in 1992 which ended apartheid which meant that they were available to compete internationally again in sport,” she remembers. “They realised they needed to catch up after so many lost years, so I took over all the information I had from the UK on technique.”

Sport Imperial

After putting in many hundreds of hours of work as a volunteer coach over the years at Thames, Tessa resigned with regret in 2014 and moved next door to Sport Imperial. Her first coaching assignment there was a men’s eight which came up against Thames in the semi-final of the Thames Cup that summer. Thames led to Fawley, but Tessa’s crew rowed them down to win by over a length. “People still smile about that now,” she laughs. “The atmosphere on the launch following the race was electric! Afterwards my phone was going mad with texts from people basically saying, ‘You proved your point on the water.'”

Managing volunteer coaches

Tessa has always coached as a volunteer and prefers it that way, but has experienced changing attitudes to the volunteer coaches as the prevalence of paid coaching has increased. “There are several elements that can combine to create a ‘perfect storm’ that drives out volunteers to unless the situation is extremely carefully managed,” she reflects. “First of all, paid coaches usually get performance bonuses, which means they take the top crews, even if there’s a volunteer who has a better track record. Another phenomenon is that professionals can also feel that their job’s at risk if there are good volunteers around, so they don’t necessarily want you to be there at all. Full-time coaches also often don’t work well with volunteers: they’re not flexible about when to have discussions about planning or selection, for example.” These are serious challenges, and club committees often don’t realise they exist or invest enough time or effort in putting in place suitable goals and incentives when they decide to employ a coach, in facilitating a paid/volunteer coaching team, or in considering how to support both types of coach.

“Done right, a mixed team can be really effective,”  Tessa says. “In 2013 myself and another volunteer, worked alongside a paid coach, and the three of us worked together as a team and got fantastic results with the Thames women.”

Women in coaching

While the numbers of men and women rowing in Britain today are more or less on a par, and there are healthy proportions of women amongst new recruits to umpiring, the same cannot be said of rowing coaches, particularly at the top level. “I’m practically the only woman who is consistently in the launch following semi-finals and finals at Henley Royal in men’s events, partly because women are not still welcomed into coaching roles in my opinion,” Tessa says, adding, “Too often, a female coach still has to be twice as good as a man to be taken seriously. It’s been great to see Gill Parker coaching the top men at Lea RC in recent years, but there’s something wrong that there aren’t more of us.”

Her experiences at IC give her hope for the future, though, at least in terms of athlete attitudes. “Partly because of their age, and partly because they’re all really intelligent, the students there don’t bat an eyelid at the fact that they’ve got a woman coach. They’re a generation which has grown up with much more equality,” she explains.

Tessa won the Thames region Volunteer of the Year Award in 2020 for her coaching work.

Women with butcher in Putney

The winning WO4+at the Head of the River Fours in 1984. From left: Kathy Talbot, Astrid Ayling, John Bernard (a butcher of Smithfield whom Tessa arranged to sponsor them in kind by providing the rowers with weekly steaks for six weeks beforehand), Tessa Millar, Sarah Hunter-Jones, Pauline Bird. (Photo © John Bernard.)