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

Although frustrated with the GB squad’s management, Tessa’s enthusiasm for the sport was undiminished so she immediately turned to coaching, drawing on her knowledge and expertise gained from 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).

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.

In her school summer holidays Tessa also did some coaching abroad. “I was invited to South Africa just after they’d had the referendum in 1992 which ended apartheid and meany that they were available to compete internationally in sport. I spent another summer coaching in Australia,” she adds.

After coaching a Thames eight to victory in the Club Eights event at Henley Women’s Regatta in the mid 1990s, Tessa moved to Kingston RC, having found that some of the men on the club’s committee seemed intent on blocking her and the women’s squad simply because they were women.

Thames, however, had always been her home club, and over the next 15 years or so, she kept returning there, interspersed with periods coaching at Tideway Scullers, and having a little time away from rowing. Her 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.

Another deterioration in relations with the club’s Committee after this led Tessa to move to Sport Imperial where she coached a men’s eight that beat Thames in the semi-final of the Thames Cup in 2014. “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.'”

She continues to coach the men at Imperial today, which she finds a breath of fresh air. “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 at all. They’re a generation which has grown up with much more equality,” she explains.

However, she recognises that women are not represented on the coaching scene in anything like the same way they are actually rowing. “I’m practically the only woman who is consistently follow semi-finals and finals at Henley Royal in men’s events,” she says, “Partly because women are not still welcomed into coaching roles in my opinion.”

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.)