The 1966 Women’s European Rowing Championships took place on the purpose-built Bosbaan course in Amsterdam from 26-28 August. There were no men’s European Championships that year because they were racing instead at the World Rowing Championships in Bled from 8-11 September.
Amsterdam had hosted the women’s Championships on two previous occasions – in 1954 and just two years earlier in 1964. In her report on the 1966 Championships in the Almanack, Hazel Freestone, the Team Manager, explained that, “Owing to indecision about the venue for the Women’s European Championships in 1966, it was much later than usual when Holland were asked if they would undertake it.” In fact, the Championships had originally been allocated to Romania and when they withdrew, Great Britain was mooted as a possible alternative venue but this idea was abandoned because, as recorded in Rowing, “The cost of staging these championships on the Welsh Harp… proved prohibitive, even with the promise of a government grant,” and the Dutch took on the task with “only a few months’ notice” according to The FISA Centenary Book.
There were 39 entries from 13 countries which was an increase of three crews from the previous year and the largest entry yet.
The 1966 Championships are notable as the first ones at which FISA allowed East and West Germany to compete as separate countries. Hitherto only a single entry from Germany had been permitted in each event, and the two countries had had to race off at home in advance to decide whose crew got each slot. Although East Germany had had a thriving state-sponsored women’s rowing programme for years, and they’d won medals at every Championships since 1956, but it would appear that the new prominence that FISA’s decision gave to their full country name (sporting success was an important form of ideological propaganda for communist countries, of course) had boosted it further as they topped the medal table for the first time, wining three golds and two bronzes, at last knocking the USSR off the top spot, and beating the Russians by twelve seconds in the eight. East Germany also won three gold and two bronze medals out of the seven events at the men’s European Championships that year.
Racing was over 1,000m, the distance set by FISA when it first introduced international women’s rowing in 1951.
The team selected was:
(St George’s Ladies RC)
(University of London Women’s BC)
Janet Dapp (cox)
Julie Johnson had competed at the international women’s regatta 15 years earlier in Macon in 1951 which was the first ‘test’ event which established that there was sufficient quantity and quality in women’s rowing to merit an official FISA Championships, Alicia Arthur had been in a composite four at the 1960 Championships, and Margaret Gladden had been in the ULWBC four at the 1964 Championships, but that was the limit of the team’s international experience.
Hazel Freestone of Alpha Ladies ARC was Team Manager. Hazel had been the Honorary Secretary of the Women’s ARA from 1943-1960 and was then Secretary to the Selectors.
The eight’s coach was Bill Peer of Cygnet RC (the Civil Service rowing club for men) where St George’s LRC was based. Barbara Innes and Bill later married. She was somewhat older than the rowers and had been the cox of a British women’s four which famously toured Australia in 1938. Somewhat radically for the time, Bill invited Alicia Arthur to join the crew as she was really an Alpha Women’s ARC member. Since competing at the Championships in 1960 she had taken up sculling, but wasn’t fast enough to go for international selection. St George’s wasn’t short of members of their own, but as Alicia explains, “He was keen to do well,” and many of them didn’t want to train that hard or couldn’t get the time off work that was needed, and with the rest of the eight being new to international rowing, her previous Championships experience was a reassuring influence if nothing else.
But availability and willingness to train hard weren’t enough, of course. Looking back now, Alicia Arthur suspects the crew was unlikely to be competitive at the required level; “If you had keen people that were enthusiastic and willing to do the training you took those. Whereas I think you can be more selective with weight and size now. And we didn’t have that sort of choice and that’s what you needed. And I think that’s why United Universities [who had made up the majority of the GB team for the past six years] were so good because they were all quite tall in the main… there were only one or two shorter people. They were all tall and rangy and had got the length. Di [Hall, later Ellis, St George’s stroke] was like a tenacious terrier really, but in retrospect you could have done with someone bigger, more powerful throughout the crew really, there were a couple of quite powerful people in there and quite strong people, like myself.”
Elaine Steckler remembers that Bill Peer’s winter training program was innovative for its time; “I think Bill Peer must have picked [things] up from the Germans and studied their training manuals and realised that we needed to do other training, and so during the winter we didn’t go out in the evening but we did land training and sometimes went on the tank in Emanuel School. So we would do weight training and running and tanking, I suppose. I do remember doing the weight training in one of the rooms at the Civil Service boathouse. We probably did power cleans and squats and things like that. Probably wasn’t that technical, but we were [one of] the first [women’s] club to do it.”
In the winter they did land training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and then rowed both days at the weekend. And how did their training change as they approached the Championships? “I think we put in an extra day!,” Elaine laughs. “We went out on Wednesdays as well.”
The St George’s eight had given the established GB representatives, United Universities, a fright in 1965 by beating them at Hammersmith Head. But although UU used this as a wakeup call and reversed the situation for the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council Head some weeks later and went on to represent GB in the coxed four at the European Championships, they had, by then, been rowing internationally for six years and increasingly lacked the time or enthusiasm to continue at that level.
St George’s were in a prime position to take over as the top crew and after their winter of weight training, seized the opportunity to make their mark at the WARC Head on 12 March where they not only beat UU but actually overtook them. Ann Sayer wrote an almost stroke-by-stroke account in her training diary:
Crew stricken with flu! Result of [crew] changes – very lighthearted approach; nothing to lose (except our reputation); and feeling that changes had ruined any chance of victory we may have had as result of determined, good outing of last Sunday.
St George’s started close behind us – 8 seconds – in fact we actually heard them start! They very quickly ploughed up behind us, taking approximately a length off us by Barnes Bridge [which is going some as the start was at the White Hart just above Barnes Bridge in those days!] – this did not bode well for us, but we kept going unruffled.
From Bridge to Chiswick Products St George’s sat with their nose on our rudder. We then met rough water off Chiswick Products/Chiswick Steps. And in these conditions, for the first time ever another women’s crew had the measure of us. They came up about a canvas on us. Then when we reached calmer water (aboutChiswick Steps) they took advantage of conditions more effectively than we did. They got past us at Bemax and got about two lengths ahead.
Main feeling = relief at actually being defeated (fit or not fit) we are now not obliged to enter regattas as we would have been had we won.
The next day, “Just to emphasise their fitness,” as Pauline Baillie Reynolds of UU wrote in Rowing, St George’s won the women’s division of Hammersmith Head. They had previously won the new women’s division of Bedford Head too.
As the summer progressed, as well as racing each other in fours at Hackney Inter-borough in mid May, St George’s won at the WARC Eights Regatta on 30 April, Alpha Women’s ARC Eights Regatta on 21 May, Walton on 3/4 June and Bedford Ladies Regatta on 8 July, all of them by substantial verdicts which wouldn’t have taught them a great deal about close racing.
They did, however, lose an invitation eights race at Weybridge Ladies Regatta on 25 Jun, but it was against an East German crew from Leipzig containing three of the East German eight that won at the European Championships a few weeks later, so it was a rare opportunity to find out in advance how they compared to a truly top-class crew (which had dispatched United Universities in the first round). An East German coxed four that was entirely made up of their gold medal eight also raced UU at the regatta – the two women’s crews had come over with their men’s crews who were competing at Henley. Not surprisingly, the Germans won both events convincingly.
Margaret Gladden won Senior Sculls at Weybridge Ladies and also at the WARC Sculls regatta on 5 July, which wasn’t really enough race practice.
In 1964, the GB eight from United Universities had bought a new set of blades but had shied away from fully embracing the latest tulip’, ‘macon’ or spade shapes, and their 1965 coxed four had reverted to their older, narrower, ‘needle’ blades. St George’s, however, were open to using the new design which, “Moved us up a few notches,” as Elaine Steckler remembers. When they got to the Championships, though, they discovered that their new blades were still smaller-spooned and shorter than those used by other countries.
The crew’s stroke, Di Hall (later Di Ellis, Chairman of British Rowing from 1989-2013), famously had a cut-down blade because she was so small, although Jerry Sutton, who made them, says it was only about 1/8″ shorter.
The competitors flew to the Championships, while Bill Peer and Bob Dowson (who was the boatman at Civil Service) trailed the eight there. Jerry Sutton the blades maker recalls that their eight was originally a one-piece boat and Bob Dowson had to saw it in half and insert a section for the journey.
Writing later in in the Almanack, Team Manager Hazel Freestone said, “Of the British team’s performance perhaps it would be best to say that it did not exceed expectations, and leave it at that,” which was entirely reasonable summary, unfortunately. Rowing magazine was a fraction more forthcoming although the highly compact size of its report suggested it wasn’t actually written by someone who was there, saying, “The British eight was brave but outclassed and Margaret Gladden failed to reach the final.”
Eight (sixth out of six)
With only six entries, the eight’s event was a straight final with no second-chance repechage. They were last by four seconds at 500m, and 13 seconds off the next crew at the finish.
“We probably did our best,” says Elaine Steckler. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh we’re still there!’ probably a minute in, but then realising that wasn’t for long! Or maybe it was 30 strokes or something – not a lot – but actually still being up there and being really pleased about that and then the rest was a blur. We came in and felt embarrassed, or I did.”
Alicia recalls some late changes were made to the crew order in the hope that this might make a dramatic difference (which it so rarely does), and she also thinks they weren’t at their peak for the Championships:
They kept moving me, sort of last minute to try and improve things. We didn’t have that expertise that they have today where they can get you at the right peak at the right time. You’ve got to be physically, mentally and healthy at the right time and you gauge it and you look at what to race in and what not to race in and we just went to everything and we didn’t have the finesse to bring it together in that way and I think that we weren’t really ready.
I think that at one point it was going extremely well but I think again we tipped just before we raced. You know you get that staleness and you need to get through that or pick it up or make changes. We didn’t have that expertise to do that.
My own personal opinion was that we weren’t really ready or good enough in comparison with everybody else [competing there]… but I think that’s also to do with what we had at the time. It was the best that there was at the time, put it that way and I think that was what you used. The fact that it was quite behind the rest of Europe was the case.
Margaret Gladden (unplaced out of ten)
Margaret was last in her heat out of five. She was less than three seconds behind the fourth-placed French sculler, but with only one to qualify direct to the final and the Russian reigning champion Galina Konstantinova (who went on to win the gold medal) out in front, the rest of the field was probably playing a tactical game.
She was also last in the four-boat repechage, finishing 15.08 seconds down on the third-placed Italian, after being only 1.9 seconds down on her at half way, and was eliminated.
Around the Championships
Elaine doesn’t remember much about the rowing, but she does recall that being a bit over-awed, “Being in the same hotel as the East Germans and the Russians, seeing the pills the Russians were popping because they were next to our table!” Adding, “Vitamins – I’m sure they were vitamins…”
The photos on this page from the St George’s LRC album, currently in the possession of British Rowing, are reproduced with the permission of British Rowing, Di Ellis and Christine Maddox who are both former members of the no-longer-extant club.