Vikki Filsell

Years 1984 FISA Championships for Juniors (2x 13th)
1985 World Junior Championships (4+ 5th)
1986 Match des Seniors (Lt 2x 4th)
1987 Match des Seniors (Lt 1x)
1988 World Championships (Lt 4- 5th)
Clubs Mark Rutherford School BC, University of London Women’s BC, Thames Tradesmen’s RC
Height 5’2.5″ or 160cm
Born 1967

Vikki is second from the right in the photo at the top of this page of the GB women’s lightweight coxless four at Nottinghamshire International Regatta in 1988 which is from Sue Key’s personal collection.

Getting into rowing

Vikki took up rowing when she was about 14 at Mark Rutherford School, a comprehensive in Bedford. “One of our physics teachers, John Bell, rowed himself and started taking the boys rowing at Bedford RC, but a couple of girls asked if they could come too, and he said ‘Of course you can!’ and that’s when I started,” she remembers, adding, “Most of the boys gave up soon after, but the girls carried on!” An elderly Bedford member who had coached juniors at the club, Les Chibnall, also helped to coach her school group.

She enjoyed her first wins in 1982 when she was a J15, both as a single sculler and also in a coxed four which won WJ16 at the Schools Head.

Although she enjoyed rowing, the nature of the programme meant that she was able to continue with other sports too, including playing hockey at county level, which gave her an excellent base fitness.

Junior International career

In 1984 Vikki’s school double with Anna Durrant, who was a year younger than her, was selected to be the GB double for what then called the FISA Junior Championships. Both of them went on to race lightweight as adults so they were small as juniors, especially as they were only 17 and 16, but she is nevertheless rightly appalled that the rowing correspondent for one of the broadsheet newspapers ridiculed them for this, writing that they looked like ‘pygmies’ against their opposition. “It was quite disheartening,” she remembers.

Undaunted, though, she and Anna continued rowing and were selected for the GB coxed four in 1985, when they did a little better, finishing fifth out of six, with only Eastern bloc countries ahead of them. “We actually beat someone and we were only six seconds behind the bronze,” she remembers. Her four was coached by Doug Parnham, the ARA National Coach for Junior Rowing, who was a former Olympic kayaker turned rowing coach. “We found that quite unusual but we liked him,” she says. Meanwhile her school coach, John Bell, was selected to coach the GB pair that year, a phenomenal success story from a tiny, new club.

Girls in GB blazers

The 1985 GB Women’s Junior Team. From left: Vikki Filsell, Anna Durrant, Katie Sanson, Sarah Birch, Kim Thomas, Lise-Lotte Osborn, Lisa Roche. (Photo: Katie Kapernaros’s personal collection.)

Under-23 and senior international career

After leaving school, Vikki went to University College, London to study pharmacology. As UL women’s boat club was going through a relatively lean patch, she spent much of her first year sculling. Ideally, though, the women’s lightweight category had been officially introduced for international events the previous year, and women’s events were now also included for the first time in the under-23 Match des Seniors; she was successfully selected to be the lightweight double at these in 1986 with Alex Sanson, a crew which they put together themselves because Vikki had got to know Alex while rowing with her sister Katie in the GB junior four. In what became the story of her international career, the event was a straight final, in which they came fourth out of four.

Vikki is the only British woman to race internationally over three different distances in consecutive years; in 1984 the international distance for all women’s rowing was still 1,000m, in 1985 junior women’s racing was increased to 1,500m to match the distance the boys raced, and in 1986 she raced 2,000m (the distance for seniors had been extended to this in 1985).

The next year, 1987, she was the lightweight single sculler at the Match des Seniors, although this fact is not included in either the British Rowing Almanack or the University of London Boat Club’s The History of  the Purple Blades 1950-2000, and enjoyed being coached by former cox Ian Bernstein.

1988, the final year of her undergraduate course, was somewhat of a new era in the GB lightweight women’s sweep group with a lot of new faces amongst both athletes and coaches. Vikki took part in the trials system for the first time, won a lot of seat races, and very much enjoyed being coached by both Rosie Mayglothling and the charismatic Bill Mason.

She stroked the top lightweight crew at the Women’s Eights Head which finished third, only two seconds behind the second openweight crew (more or less the same line up which came close to being sent to the Seoul Olympic Games that summer).

women's eight

GBR3 at the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race 1988. From bow: Jo Toch, Morag Simpson, Sue Key, Sally-Ann Panton, Melanie Holmes, Katie Brownlow, Jo Thellussen, Vikki Filsell. (Photo © John Shore.)

She was selected for the coxless four, which she steered, winning at Ghent, Nottinghamshire International, Duisburg and Lucerne, where they took gold in their straight final “in fine style”, according to Regatta magazine, leading throughout and crossing the line two seconds ahead of West Germany. Lucerne medals are hard to come by, making this one of Vikki’s proudest moments on the water.

Sadly, “It all then fell apart at the Worlds, which it was a real shame,” she explains. “We were tipped to do so well and it was so disappointing.” What happened was that during the warm up for their straight final, marshals directed them and another crew into the same lane in opposite directions, resulting in a rigger-bending collision. Once the boats had been repaired and the race rescheduled for the end of the day, “I think the moment had gone for us for some reason,” she says. “It was like going to a party when the party was already over; it hadn’t but it felt like it had.”

The full story of the GB women’s rowing team in 1988 can be read here.

That autumn the crew was the second women’s crew home (beaten only by an openweight international crew that contained a US Olympic silver medallist) at the Head of the River Fours, with Vikki now stroking.

Women's quad with wooden blades

Head of the River Fours 1988. From left: Vikki Filsell, Sue Key, Katie Brownlow, Jo Toch. (Photo: Sue Key’s personal collection.)

By then Vikki was doing teacher training, and although she didn’t get into the senior GB team again, she was very close to doing so for most of the next four or five years when she continued to race successfully at the highest domestic level and at various international regattas.

In 1989 she lost her seat to Rachel Hirst, who was considerably taller and also raced successfully at openweight both before and after her time in the lightweight squad, although this did mean that she had to diet very hard to make lightweight, unlike Vikki. Bob Michaels, the Chief Coach for Women’s Lightweights, later told her that there had been nothing separating them when the seat racing was done, so although Vikki hadn’t lost her seat races, she hadn’t won them either and and he thought that Rachel, with her greater height, had the potential to make the boat go faster by the World Championships, by which time the new combination would have gelled together. Looking back on this now, after years of coaching and selecting crews herself, Vikki says, “It did make sense; sometimes there’s nothing between people but you’ve got to make a decision and I probably would have done the same.”

She did, however, race in the GB crew that won Lightweight Eights at Henley Women’s regatta that year, the only time the event was held, and in an openweight pair with her school and GB junior crewmate Anna Durrant, who by then was studying at the University of London too, at the Under-23 Match des Seniors in Amsterdam and the World Student Games in Duisburg, coached by Andy Mills, the UL boatman. Vikki was also spare at the World Championships in Bled where she took part in the spares race in her single scull, not winning, but not coming last either.

The following year, she started work as a chemistry teacher and rowing coach at Emanuel School but carried on training seriously too, but once again wasn’t selected and spent most of the summer doing a double with Liz Holmes. They won at Ghent and were 11th at Lucerne. In between, she was drafted back into the GB lightweight four for Henley Women’s Regatta because Rachel Hirst was racing her single there in preparation for the Goodwill Games (which didn’t offer lightweight fours). “I guess I might have felt a bit sore about that because they were just using me,” she laughs, somewhat wryly. She and Liz also took part in some late retrials for the double in August, which involved at least eight other contenders. She recalls it being “somewhat chaotic”, and adds, “I can’t remember the results but it wasn’t a good outcome for me obviously!”

For 1991 she joined Thames Trademen’s RC, whose boathouse is conveniently close to Emanuel’s. She raced in the second GB lightweight coxless four at Ghent and Duisburg regattas but once the final selection was made, formed a TTRC-based GB 2 crew with Sarah Kell, Alison Staite and Tracey Bennett, coached by Richard Tinkler, which won at Henley Women’s Regatta and the National Championships (in the absence of the squad crew), raced at Amsterdam, and came a close fourth at Lucerne. “For a while, I guess we hoped that if we could get close enough surely we could push for more trials, but there comes a point when that isn’t going to happen and we were really just enjoying racing,” she reflects.

That autumn she won the Head of the River Fours in a classy openweight quad of Anne Marden (the London-based US Olympic silver medallist), Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill (the GB double). “I think Bill Mason bumped into me on the towpath one day just before, and they needed someone who knew the Tideway well enough to steer, so it was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” she says. Despite her successes in sculling, right from the start of her rowing career, sweep always remains her preferred discipline.

In 1992, once again her trials results put her in the second GB lightweight which raced at Essen at the start of the season , after which she spent the rest of the summer in a “bizarrely fast” composite four at TTRC, again coached by Richard Tinkler, with fellow triallists Tegwen Rooks (a future international from UL), Tracey Bennett and also Debbie Carling, “Whom we basically taught to row that winter and was completely mad but brilliant too.” she says, laughing. They won at Henley Women’s and the National Championships, but never had the opportunity to try their speed against the squad crew.

Vikki’s 1993 season followed a similar pattern, doing GB trials in the first part of the year before racing in a TTRC crew, this time with Claire McDougall-Smith and Martha Sweeney as well as Tracey Bennett again. She picked up her the final additions to her Henley Women’s and National Championships gold medal collection and also finished sixth out of eight at Lucerne.

After that she stopped rowing herself. “It took a long time but I’d finally realised that I wasn’t going to make it!,” she says. “Being in when I was 21 made me think I’d have a few more years but it didn’t materialise, and I think the fact that I’d started coaching after 1988, as well as working full time as a teacher, took the edge off my own rowing. I think the coaching took the edge off of me because when you coach a session you feel that you’ve done it. I might have done better had I not been a rowing coach, but that was never part of the equation – I loved my job, but I just think it was easier rowing internationally as a student.”

Coaching career

After four years at Emanuel School, Vikki moved to Kingston Grammar School. She’s particularly proud of a girls J15 coxed quad she coached there in 1997, which picked up a string of wins, but was just pipped at National Schools where they won the silver medal. “I remember that being massively disappointing for them and me, but looking back that was a fantastic achievement; they were a great little crew – my best crew ever!”

After a short career break when she had her third child, Vikki is now Head of Chemistry at Putney High School but no longer coaches, although she’s a strong supporter of the boat club there.

Other sports

When she stopped rowing she competed in track cycling for a while, and now does masters athletics. Although she no longer races on her bike, it’s a measure of her athleticism that although she now “does do much cycling any more”, she recently successfully completed the mass participation Étape of the Tour de France.

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.