|Years||1985 World Championships (4+ 8th)
1986 World Championships (4+ 8th, 8o 6th)
1987 World Championships (8o 9th)
1990 World Championships (1x 9th)
1992 Olympic Games (1x 9th)
|Clubs||Somerville College BC, Oxford University Women’s BC, Rob Roy BC, Lea RC|
|Height||6′ or 183cm|
|Racing weight||12 stone or 76kg|
The photo at the top of this page shows Tish racing at the 1990 World Championships and is from her personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Growing up in London, the Boat Race had given Tish a “vague awareness” that rowing existed, but she had no more interest in the sport than that when she went to Somerville College, Oxford in 1983. “I wanted to get a blue for lacrosse, and I certainly didn’t want to be messing about in boats at unsociable hours,” she remembers. By the end of her second term, with the lacrosse blues match out of the way, she eventually gave in to everyone who had been telling her that she really ought to give rowing a go because was the ideal height.
After rowing in the Somerville second eight in the summer of 1984 where, she says, she made up for being behind technically with brute strength, “I’d really got hooked and was encouraged to go to the OUWBC trials. That’s when I signed my life away to rowing for the next eight years,” she laughs.
She rowed in Osiris, the University second crew in 1985. The Oxford women’s chief coach at the time was Nigel Mayglothling whom, she remembers, “Was instrumental in effectively introducing us into the women’s GB squad.” Nigel’s then wife was Rosie Mayglothling, the Amateur Rowing Association’s National Coach for Women’s Rowing, so he was well aware of the need to channel suitable athletes in the right direction. “Nigel took a bunch of us down to the ARA boathouse at Hammersmith. I think it was me, Ali Bonner, Jo Gough and maybe someone else too. He got us to understand that there was a GB women’s squad, and here they are and this is where they’re based. I remember him saying to us, ‘I think that you guys should really think that this is where you should be, this is something you can do,’ so that was our pathway.”
In the summer of 1985 she rowed in the Somerville first eight, and in her final year was OUWBC President and rowed in the blue boat in 1986. She remembers there had already been initial discussions about moving the women’s race to the Tideway [a change which only eventually happened in 2015 – Ed.]. “There was a group of people who were in charge of the whole varsity sports programme and although they weren’t pushing for the women to go to the Tideway, they weren’t against it either, so I was involved in getting them to start thinking about what needed to be done, what needed to be put into place for it to go that way,” she recalls.
She did, however, manage to get the distance of the downstream course used at Henley for the women’s boat races extended to 2,000m, which was the international distance for women from 1985 onwards. This change was not popular with Cambridge, according to the TV footage below which is rather confused as the narrator talks about Oxford wanting the course lengthened to 2k, but the Cambridge President’s (Judith Slater’s) regrettable comment is about it being extended to the four and a quarter mile Championship course (on the Tideway), and it’s totally unclear what question Tish was answering right at the end.
As was quite common at the time, the start of Tish’s international career overlapped with her time rowing at University. In the summer of 1985 she started training with the GB squad in London too and was selected to row in the coxed four for the World Championships which finished last in the B final, 12 seconds down on the next crew. Tish was stunned. “What I remember is that we were miles ahead of our domestic opponents yet these international crews were that again far ahead of us,” she says. “Until that point it had all been very exciting, winning at the National Championships, getting selected, getting the kit, the press. It was all just such an adventure. Then suddenly I was in the real world and there’s a lot more to it than just being selected. I’m a competitive person and I was used to being pretty good when I entered things, generally, so it was a bit of a shock and I went in to a massive slump.”
She went on to row in the GB coxed four again in 1986, which doubled up with the pair and two others to race in an eight too at both the World Championships and Commonwealth Games where she won a bronze medal in the four, and also rowed in the eight in 1987 when the World Championships were marred by unfair conditions. Tish is on the ergo in this film about Princess Anne opening the British Olympic Medical Centre at Northwick Park that year:
Tish had learned to scull when she moved to the Cambridge in the autumn of 1986 to do a postgraduate degree. As a true dark blue, there was no question of her getting involved with Cambridge University Women’s BC whom, she says, viewed her with some suspicion anyway. Instead she joined Rob Roy BC where she was coached by Helen Middleton and, once it became clear she was starting to go quite fast, another member of the club, Martin Blakemore, lent her his “beautiful wooden Stampfli”.
After the World Championships in 1987, and disillusioned with her experiences of rowing in GB crew boats for three years, she recalls, “I was so hacked off that I wrote [Chief Coach] Ron Needs a letter saying I wasn’t going to be part of the squad that year and wanted to concentrate on my single.” Although she was still studying in Cambridge she moved her training base to Lea RC where she was coached by Eddie Wells. In 1988 she won a large number of domestic events, raced at Ghent where she was second, Ratzeburg and Lucerne, and finished second at the National Championships 10 seconds behind Anne Marden, an American based in London who had won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and was about to win another, in the single sculls, at the 1988 Games.
Tish trialled for the GB singles slot in 1989 but lost out to Ali Gill. In 1990 the two took each other on again and this time Tish prevailed, and was selected to compete at the World Championships in Tasmania.
Tish’s ninth place at the World Championships in Tasmania had qualified her to take part in the inaugural World Cup series of races for single scullers in 1991, in which she finished eighth overall after six events. She did not, however, represent GB at the World Championships in Vienna. No one else was in the running but, “They refused to select me,” she says. “I was put under a lot of pressure to go into a crew boat, and I remember being sent a letter telling me that I was being selfish and should do things for my country and so on. My reply was that I was funding myself, rowing in my boat, working with my own volunteer coach, using the facilities of my club which was Lea RC by then. I appealed on the grounds that it would add to my experience before the Olympics the following year, but they still refused.”
Looking back on this period now, she reflects, “This was in a transition period when there wasn’t any funding and we were actually complete amateurs, but we were essentially being asked to be professionals by ticking boxes and appearing at various places and not really having much input. That was the problem.”
In December 1991 she won the women’s event British Indoor Rowing Championships. She is pictured here with Steve Regdrave who won the men’s competition.
Her final six months of preparation for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 featured yet more struggles with the team management about her determination not to get into a crew boat. In the end, after she finished ninth equal in the World Cup, she was selected to compete at the Games, although her coach, Eddie Wells, was not selected. Although she greatly appreciated Team Manager David Tanner eventually managing to get him ‘back door’ accreditation as a trailer driver, she resented that he was never an official part of the Olympic team, and felt this was a deliberate ‘kick in the teeth’.
Full accounts of Tish’s years in the GB squad can be read here:
Tish didn’t make a positive decision to stop competing internationally after the 1992 Olympic Games, but a few months later she sustained a serious back injury, which effectively made the decision for her. “I was hardly walking for five months,” she remembers. After not racing at all in he summer of 1993, she was invited to go to a women’s squad training camp in Banyoles in the spring of 1994. “I was slowly getting back into it, but I’d put on a lot of weight through not training for 18 months, and I wasn’t moving a boat particularly fast. The other women in the squad definitely thought I was a dead weight because the boats I went into got slower, so that was the end of that, which was fair enough,” she says.
Instead she formed a pair with Kate Grose, who had stopped rowing for the GB team after the 1992 Olympics. “Our target was the Commonwealth regatta in Canada that summer, but we also wanted to take on the established squad pair,” Tish remembers. Although they never raced the well-established GB crew, they did go to the Commonwealth regatta., which was not an official part of the Commonwealth Games but took place alongside it. “We did long weekends in Norfolk where Kate lived, and trained at the Lea during the week when she was working in London. We got going quite well and raced at Paris regatta and got selected though we had to raise the money ourselves to go to Canada.” They won the silver medal. “Kate and I were pretty pleased with how we performed in the pair,” Tish remembers. “We were competitive even though we were in a borrowed boat.” She also raced her single. “It was about three races after the pair and the pair was a hard race so my legs were like complete jelly. I think I came fifth,” she says, adding, “But both of thought the regatta was one of the most enjoyable competitions that we’d ever done internationally, because all the other ones were just always so frenetic and so anxious and stressful, and nobody expected us to do well, whereas the Commonwealth rowing thing was satisfying.”
Tempted by the prospect of the 1996 Olympic Games, Tish went back to single sculling for the 1995 season. “I was targeting the single slot again but lost out to Guin Batten after Lucerne and I wasn’t interested in going in any other boat that year,” she explains. During her campaign she raced at Henley Royal Regatta, beating Ruth Rudkin and then Sarah Springman in the early rounds but then losing to the 1992 Olympic bronze medallist from Canada, Silken Laumann in the semi-final. She did, however, win the National Championships.
In 1996 GB’s International Rowing Manager Brian Armstrong pulled together a group of scullers to find the fastest combination for a double that could try to qualify for the Olympics at the final qualification regatta. Although not necessarily the strongest, Tish and Annabel Eyres were chosen as the two who were the most likely to be able to gel a new crew together in the quite short time they had left. “We raced at Cologne and Duisburg but we weren’t fast enough so that’s when we hung up our oars,” she remembers.
Since then Tish, who now lives in Cornwall, has hardly rowed, though she did buy an ergo about 15 years ago just to keep fit. In 2018 she decided to take part in the Cancer Research UK Great Row initiative. “The plan was to do a half marathon all in one go on the ergo, which was good because it actually made me get on it four times a week for three months to train for it. I did complete the half marathon though I nearly died! But actually it rekindled my enthusiasm for I try to do an hour or so a few times times a week because it’s such a good type of training.”
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.