The 19th Women’s European Rowing Championships took place on a permanent course on the Beetzsee lake that sits within a 20-mile chain of lakes near Brandenburg in East Germany on 11-13 August. There were no European Championships for men that year because they were racing at the Munich Olympics instead.
52 crews entered from 19 countries including Australia, New Zealand and Norway for the first time as well as the USA from outside Europe.
Racing was over 1,000m, the distance set by FISA when it first introduced international women’s rowing in 1951.
Margaret Gladden and Christine Davies were selected in the double as they had been the previous year, with newcomer Diana Preston of Durham ARC as the single sculler (which she was told was “for experience”).
The selectors were Frances Bigg, Hazel Freestone, Eleanor Lester, Barbara Philipson and Irene Saunders. This was the same group as the previous year, without Marrian Yates.
Diana’s fiancé Tom Bishop, who was later in the GB men’s team, went as her coach and wrote a report on the Championships for Rowing magazine which suggests that the path to selection for the double was somewhat bumpy; “First they were not going to be sent, then they were, and finally they were if they could do a standard time set by the selectors, which was subsequently ignored [he may have meant that they didn’t make the time because of poor conditions]; a trifle distracting when there is no other event in the year to which they were able to go [top men’s crews had Henley Royal Regatta to aim for too].”
The double were living apart as they had the previous year, but now even further as Margaret had moved to Glasgow. On the plus side, they’d asked GB men’s coach Bob Janousek to write them training plan, which he did. “It was a lovely training plan,” Christine remembers, “He was so realistic. So, for example, he would say things like, ‘When you‘re competing internationally, it’s very important to have a break from formal stuff. And the thing that matters in the end is being in the right mental state. So after the European Championships until January you do a different sort of thing,’ and he said, ‘Scull,’ which meant doing distances, but he’d have running [too]. So I used to go running up in Windsor Great Park and the kind of running he was wanting us to do was like ten minutes at 90% effort and then a five minute break. And it all worked out very well. I’d park at the corner of the park and run along to the top of the waterfall, and clamber round the waterfall coming back and whatever else, but it was taking the pressure, the stress of training off you. And then you started again in January for the build-up. And the same with the kind of weight training. It was just stuff that you could enjoy, really.”
Diana Preston didn’t have anything this formal. “I don’t think I did any land training,” she laughs. “I probably must have done some running. I certainly didn’t do any weights. Through the winter I just did top to bottom in Durham which is only about a mile and ¾ and then back up through wiggles, you know – hopeless!”
The first National Champions
1972 was a significant year for British rowing as it saw the first National Championships take place in July. Margaret and Christine beat Diana and Jean Rankine of United Universities by 11 seconds in the doubles (they were the only two entries, this being a boat class that had still not really gained any adoption in the UK, or certainly not in women’s rowing).
Margaret won the singles by 2.5 seconds, from Christine with Diana a further 0.2 seconds behind that. Jean Rankine was considerably further behind and future-international Liz Lorrimer brought up the rear. For the record, the coxed fours was won by St George’s with Di Ellis coxing and Beryl Martin (later Crockford) at stroke. Historic stuff.
The ‘team’ drove to the Championships with the double and Margaret’s husband in one car, towing the boat trailer, and Diana and Tom in another.
“Margaret’s husband said his car was unsuitable for towing,” Christine recalls. “So he asked if we could use mine. This was a Vauxhall Victor estate with only three forward gears. The car proved unequal to the task and the cylinder head gasket blew as we drove out through London. Our departure was delayed as emergency repairs were carried out but the car overheated regularly throughout the journey there and back.”
The Amateur Rowing Association’s International Fund accounts show that £412 was expended on the women’s team for the championships, which probably didn’t include the replacement cylinder head gasket.
At the Championships
The timetable for the races was somewhat unusual, but it also made sense, as Tom explained in Rowing; “The racing took place in the afternoon starting at about 4pm; this enabled the local populace to come and watch, and the heat was gone out of the strong sunshine.”
Double scull (11th out of 12)
The double were fifth in their heat of six, so went to the repechage from which only two crews would qualify for the final. In contrast with the previous year’s closely-fought rep, this one was unusually spread out with several seconds separating each of the five crews. The GB double were fourth and so progressed to the petite finale, in which they were fifth, 3.1 seconds off fourth place and nearly ten seconds behind the winners.
The double’s relationship had become strained even before they got to Brandenburg although they repaired it in later years. Both were preoccupied with non-rowing issues and this doubtless contributed to them not performing at their best.
Diana Preston (tenth out of 15)
Diana was third in her heat of five, beating Bulgaria and New Zealand, which qualified her directly for the semi-final in a new personal best time by some eight seconds in conditions that were similar to those when she set her previous best.
Her semi-final draw was tough, and as a lightweight rowing into a headwind, she came fourth, which placed her in the petite final. “The winning of the little final was conceivable,” Tom wrote, “And so we decided on all or nothing and to risk everything on an early spurt followed by others as required around the 500m mark. At 500m it was gratifying to see that GB was second [behind Austria]; however, being in the outside lane she took the worst of a speedboat wash from a spectator’s launch and lost two places, which at this level she was unable to make up by the finish.” Finishing fourth, Diana claimed tenth place overall.
“I wasn’t outclassed and I wasn’t outclassed in terms of height and size,” she recalls (she was 156cm or 5’5″ and 56kg or 8 stone 11.5 lb). “There were some very good small scullers and there was a range of nations too. It wasn’t all Eastern European. 10th overall was a bit disappointing but I did as well as I could, I think, but I was quite inexperienced: I simply went off like a rocket and couldn’t maintain it. I had no race plan. The business of race plans and the detailed ‘where you’re going to do this where you’re going to do that’ up the course, that didn’t exist.”
Diana has always wondered whether her diminutive stature led to her being drugs tested at the Championships; “Although I said there were a number of smallish girls in the singles racing, it could have been just random, it possibly was [and it certainly is today – Ed], but I got out of my semifinal – I think – race and was presented with a number and [was told], ‘You’ve got to have a drug test,’ so I had my photo taken and was marched off to the tent to do a urine test. Because I don’t think they could quite believe I had gone so fast for my size. Because the Eastern European crews that were there, the Russians notably, were SO much taller than I was that there was clearly a big disparity.”
Writing later in the Almanack, the Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council, Joan Filkins, said, “This young sculler has clearly not yet reached her full potential and we hope that she will take heart from her performance this year and go on to greater things in the future.” In fact, this is exactly what she did as she competed at the World Championships in 1975 and at the Olympics in 1976 – the only woman to compete for Great Britain at all three (this is counting the 1954-73 European Championships as a separate ‘event’ from the European Rowing Championships which were introduced in 2007 as a complement to the World and Olympic regattas).
The Almanack said that, “It was interesting to see that the Eastern European countries no longer dominated the Championships,” although the word “totally” should probably have been inserted in front of “dominated”. Of the 15 medals on offer, Russia won three golds (one of Diana’s abiding memories of the Championships is that, “The Russian women’s VIII were truly enormous!”) and a silver, Romania got one gold, and East Germany two silvers and a bronze. But Ingrid Dusseldorp of the Netherlands did make history by being the first Western winner of the single sculls.
Although GB women had had male coaches with them at the Championships on occasions before, Tom Bishop was probably the first currently competing male rower to be part of the team, and he was impressed by the general standard, which says more about the state of domestic women’s rowing’s in Britain than anything else. “The highest pinnacle of women’s rowing… the Women’s European Rowing Championships is an event which would make many men’s clubs in GB either give up altogether or decide they ‘only race for fun and not to win anyway’,” he wrote in Rowing. “The technique of the majority of the crews appears to be better than that of the equivalent men’s crews.”
Around the Championships
Diana Preston remembers that, “We were housed in some sort of student building, a block of dormitories, rather spartan, and we had to go to the local railway station for breakfast. Lunches were had in the same student ‘area’ and the East German coach or whoever it was that was looking after us used to take any fruit left over to give to his family – we saw the local population queueing up outside the one shop in the area to get fresh stuff. Going ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ made a lasting impression on me; the pock-marked buildings, the tramlines everywhere, the amazement and interest from the locals in our ‘western’ Austin 1100 car (my mother’s) – it was just like being in an old war movie, and I remember the sense of relief as we drove back over the border to the ‘free’ west.”
This was the last time that British women competed the European Rowing Championships of this period. We didn’t send a team in 1973 and by 1974 both the women’s and men’s Europeans were replaced with integrated, annual World Championships for both sexes, and it had been agreed that women’s events would be included in the Olympics from 1976.
What with this change, plus the new multilane course in Nottingham and the establishment of a men’s squad system run by the Bob Janousek who was an employee of the ARA, it was the end of an era. By 1974, GB women’s rowing would be in a very different format – although still desperately short of money.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2017.