The rowing regatta at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada took place from 19-25 July.
There were 57 entries from 16 countries in the women’s events which was 12 fewer crews and four fewer countries than had competed at the World Championships the previous year. At that time there were no qualification events for Olympic rowing, but some European countries decided not to send crews all the way to Canada if their early-season results suggested they were unlikely to make finals.
GB women’s squad training ramped up again in September about a month after the World Championships, which was rather quicker than it had the previous year when there had been a two-month break, doubtless as a result of learning from that experience.
“This year’s National Squad Policy is to have a much smaller squad than previously, based on a nucleus of just eight girls, with a view to producing a coxed four, coxless pair and double sculler, at least one of which ought to reach Olympic standard,” Liz Lorrimer wrote in Rowing magazine. “The earlier policy of running a B squad to attend International regattas has had to be abandoned due to lack of funds but plans are afoot to raise enough money to purchase a Karlisch coxed four [the boat used in 1975 had been borrowed from Carmel College] and a Stampfli pair to help us compete on equal terms… the sale of the lightweight Colley four [which was bought for the 1974 World Championships, but turned out to be insufficiently robust enough for the stronger 1975 crew] will also go into the boat fund.”
Diana ‘Dink’ Bishop, who had been the GB single sculler in 1975, was pessimistic about the effect this strategy would have on her chances, started her training diary for the year, “Plan is to train a little bit for trial purpose to see if it is worth going on. There will only be a small squad so I may be excluded.”
Another reason for running a smaller squad was that because it was an Olympic year ‘selection’ – that is, the decision on whether a crew is good enough to represent GB – for an Olympic Games was not only up to the Amateur Rowing Association, but also to the British Olympic Association, who were understandably not going to permit crew to be sent ‘for experience’. Apart from anything else, as the Games were in Canada, doing so would be expensive, especially compared with sending them to the 1975 Championships which had been in Nottingham when a ‘development’ eight had been included in the team.
Penny Chuter continued to be the women’s squad’s Chief Coach – and also its only full time, paid coach – with Martin Pratt helping her as a volunteer.
Training and assessment
First Nottingham assessment weekend (5-6 October)
This involved various races over 2,000m (which – amusingly for today’s readers – Dink describes as a ‘head course’), and 500m (because of rough conditions) in singles and pairs, the traditional 1,500m run (won by Beryl Mitchell), and a fitness test followed by, “As many deep squats as can be done up to 5 mins,” [which makes your knees hurt just reading about it – Ed.].
“Whole weekend seemed moderately successful and Penny Chuter agrees that a double must be chosen before Christmas,” Dink recorded in her diary, adding, “It all seems to rest on whether Liz Monti [who had been in the pair in 1974 but then moved back to her native Australia] returns to oust Gill from stroke of the four.” Her comments are particularly interesting because they show that the eventual makeup of the team was far from clear at the outset.
At the end of the weekend Penny announced that six out of the 13 women who attended were invited to join the squad, all of them ‘veterans’ of previous GB teams:
Four others were invited to further assessment at the next Nottingham weekend November:
Of these, Rosie and Jean had competed at the 1975 worlds.
Sue Handscomb, another member of the 1975 team remembers, “The squad was cut down very early on. I’m not even sure if I was even allowed to go to a trial. They had a small group and sent the rest of us back to our clubs. My beef about that was that they took people in that they were still having a look at but they didn’t know how good they were. I felt I was better than them but they got thrown out later anyway.” She doesn’t in the slightest hold this against Penny whom she describes as “a great coach”, though, adding, “She did say to me in the year after 1976 that she did regret throwing me out of the squad so early. So, bless her for saying that!”
Christine Davies (a former international from the Women’s European Championships era) was also on the scene but training outside the squad as a sculler, and she, Dink, Pauline, and Beryl all picked up wins at various autumn sculling heads.
The squad members swapped in and out of various combinations, as Dink recorded in her diary:
18 October: Weybridge LDS. Double with Gill which went well.
19 October: Sunday afternoon outing in double with Rosie.
25 October: Two outings at Hammersmith in double. AM with Rosie which went quite well. PM much nicer outing with Gill. Hands sore [squad members are also real people, of course – Ed.].
1 November: AM 16 miles in double with Gill, ¾ of which went very well until hands started hurting as usual.
2 November: Four at Hammersmith. Me at stroke, then Lin, Pauline, Beryl. PM changed with Pauline half way through and it went terribly so changed back.
8 November: Doubles outing with Pauline which went very well indeed, considering she’s changed hands [Pauline spent her entire international career changing her leading hand in sculling, and her side in sweep – she’s exceptionally ambidextrous].
9 November: Doubles outing with Rosie which wasn’t nearly as good as yesterday. Rougher and windier conditions didn’t help.
As in the previous two years, the squad supplemented their water work with circuit training, heavy weights and runs, with the gym work being done at the ARA in Hammersmith or at Paddington School where Lin was a PE teacher.
Second Nottingham assessment weekend (15-16 November)
The focus of this weekend was mainly been on finding effective combinations, as well as measuring improvements in fitness with another Howard Step Test and another 1,500m run which was once again won by Beryl with Dink second, seven seconds behind her.
Dink noted the gruelling requirements:
15 November: 3x750m pairs followed by 3x doubles with Rosie, Gill and Pauline. Torrential rain made conditions fair but unpleasantly cold. Did badly in pairs races, better in doubles. PM more pairs racing.
16 November: 3x doubles with same people alternating. Crews still not decided and a rather harassing weekend.
Ergo test (a what?)
Readers may have noticed the absence of any mention of that worst friend of most rowers, the ergo. this is largely because they hadn’t been invented. The Concept2 was still a twinkle in its inventor’s eye, and wouldn’t hit the market for another for or so years, and the Norwegian Gjessing wasn’t established in Britain either.
However, on 12 January Dink recorded the dreadful words “ergo test,” possibly for the first time by a British woman. This was obviously not an ergo as we know it, because the two four-minute pieces were done at rate 38! She notes they were at resistance 22 and 24, which must have been a reading specific to the machine used.
Penny reveals more abut the monster machine:
It was called the Canterbury ergometer and it was designed as a one-off by the father of a boy from King’s School Canterbury, whose son had made the junior team, I think. There were two machines: a sculling one and a rowing one. The rowing one was a little box – as if you’d cut one seat out the middle of an eight – and you could turn the box round for strokeside or bowside. It was all set up with a normal stretcher and sliding seat and then there was a hydraulic contraption with an arm coming out of it like the inboard of an oar. It would measure length of stroke, the time taken for that length, and I think that’s about it.
One of them was left under Marlow bridge by the rowing club when Mike Spracklen stopped using it, and it just became a heap of rust. I don’t know what happened to the other one, although it was certainly still at the ARA when I left in 1994.
Third Nottingham assessment weekend (23-24 January)
The weekend started with racing in singles; Christine Davies came out on top, followed by Dink, Gill, Pauline and Beryl. In the afternoon Dink did races in pairs, in the four and in a double. A wide range of options were clearly still being explored.
Clare didn’t compete because she had a back injury.
Beryl won the customary run yet again, with Christine second and Dink third.
“A good weekend since I now see a definite chance of getting to Montreal,” Dink wrote in her diary, “If the prime unit is Lin and Beryl in the pair, my best plan is the double with Christine. If the prime unit is the four, I may be in it instead of Gill. Then decision to be made whether four has more chance of going than double. I hope therefore that pair is prime unit thus I will double.” At this stage Dink seemed to be keener on sculling than sweep rowing; a view which does not persist.
Over the next few weeks Penny continued to shuffle her squad in the four, and Dink did also did quite a lot of doubling with Christine Davies, sometimes at Staines where Christine had her own boat which she’d raced at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1971 and 1972, and sometimes on the Tideway with – in an unusual piece of integration – Mike Spracklen’s GB men’s sculling group.
By mid-March, though, Dink decided that the double was unlikely to go fast enough to be sent to the Olympics and as she also preferred rowing, she told Penny that she was opting for selection for the four, although she recognised that she was unlikely to be in this if Lin and Beryl were put in it, and therefore her only remaining chance of going to the Olympics would be back in a double again, probably with Pauline.
Possibly to set themselves up should this eventuality arise, Dink and Pauline did quite a lot of outings in a double over the next week:
20 March: All weekend doubling with Pauline against four. In all pieces, bursts and long pieces, we were faster.
21 March: Again faster than four but they are going slowly at present. 8x1min with starts during which we got slower and four got faster again. A satisfactory weekend.
22 March: Early AM outing sculling. PM double with Pauline. Went well when we struck the right rhythm.
Christine continued to scull with the squad for a bit.
More combination conundrums
While all this was going on there were still ongoing explorations of combinations for the four. For a couple weekends the squad decamped to Wallingford where, during to various illnesses, they rowed with subs; Penny on one occasion, and a schoolboy on another!
One of these – in mid-February – proved critical for Pauline Bird:
Penny had actually told me at the previous trials weekend that I probably wouldn’t be making it into the Olympic squad but I was subbing into the four which was Lin and Beryl and I think it might have been Dink. So I thought, ‘Well, here’s my opportunity to actually show her that she can’t do without me.’ And I remember pulling harder than I’ve ever pulled in my whole life and all of a sudden people were saying, ‘Oh! Right! OK.’
There was a fourth Nottingham assessment weekend in late February or early March, and a final one at the beginning of April which Christine attended in her single. At this point the squad was cut back to the original six who had been invited to join in November. Penny remembers, “I was really trying to get a sculling crew too but in the end it just didn’t happen.”
Gill and Clare had started the year hoping that they could stay in the four with Lin and Beryl to continue their unfinished business from the 1975 Championships. “We didn’t achieve what we could have,” Gill says. Once it was clear that the top boat would be Lin and Beryl in the pair and there wouldn’t be a double, the others were left fighting for places in the four. “We went and did some more seat racing and found that I was a boat-mover despite my size,” Dink recalls, adding, “It was Rosie Clugston who drew the short straw in the end as she had been in the four and was bumped out.” So the final crews were:
|Coxed Four||Coxless Pair|
Order in the four
The four was rigged with a tandem so that Gill and Dink were on strokeside with Pauline and Clare on bowside.
Tandems had first appeared at the 1958 (men’s) European Championships as an antidote to the potential ‘snaking’ effect caused by unbalanced forces, but the reasons why Penny rigged the crew that way were to do with the individuals concerned.
“Pauline could have stroked, but Gill had a sharper catch stroke. Pauline created length and fluidity at three to pass on down the boat, and set Gill up [at stroke] far better than Clare or Dink who didn’t have the length of stroke or the power to row there. Then Clare could only row on bowside, so she could have gone at bow but Dink was so sharp on and I say that in the bow seat if you’re not in time be early. Which I wouldn’t say to anyone further down the boat, but in the bow seat there should be a certain amount of anticipation and so it wasn’t because she was lightest it was just because of her quality of movement.”
The four rowed in a Karlisch called Supernova which Gill remembers was a bit heavy but ran well.
Sponsorship and fundraising
Most of the sponsorship that the women’s team received was in kind. Dewhurst the butchers gave both the men and the women meat vouchers, while Reckitt and Colman supplied the women with its energy drink Staminaid.
In the interests of raising the profile of women’s rowing both to attract sponsors as well as increase participation in the sport at grass roots level, some of the squad appeared on Nationwide, a BBC news and current affairs programme. “We had all this prep, all this aggravation, taking the boat there, getting our kit and we were on air for two minutes,” Gill remembers, adding, “I don’t think I answered any questions – I just kept quiet with my Cockney accent and let the others speak!”
Being a bundle of energy, Beryl somehow found the time, alongside her training and her job as a PE teacher, to write letters to various companies asking for support. This led to her being given so many pallets of Coke that she went off it for a while; packets of Payne’s chocolate Brazil nuts; and so much talc, shampoo and baby lotion from Johnson & Johnson that she gave quite a lot to her sister. Probably her greatest sponsorship coup, though, was attracting the attention of British Home Stores. Initially, the department store chain just sponsored her pair, but from 1978 they became the title sponsor of the whole GB women’s squad and also ran a parallel campaign through their shops that sought to encourage women to take up rowing.
In 1976 BHS contributed towards a new black Empacher for Lin and Beryl, which was named BHS Penny Black – “Their choice!” laughs coach Penny Chuter.
Early season racing
Following the selection of the crews both boats did a four-day training camp in Wallingford in mid-April, based at Dink’s house before embarking on their first international regattas of the season.
Mannheim (1-2 May)
The coxed four were, on balance, pleased with what they did at the two separate one-day events in Mannheim. On the Saturday they recorded a time (in a tailwind) of 3.34 in the heat and 3.32 in the final (where they were fifth); crucially, both times were inside the British standard time which they had to achieve for selection.
On the Sunday they missed out on making the final by 0.5 seconds, but the first four crews – Romania, Netherlands, West Germany and GB were only separated by 2.6 seconds., proving they were clearly on the pace. “Very pleased with this race however,” Dink recorded in her diary, adding, “So is Penny. Feel we can build on this and eventually beat West Germans, Dutch and perhaps Romanians.”
Three days later, though, a new worry emerged; “It seems that Olympic Committee member Chris Davidge may block our chances despite adequate performances – just a possibility,” wrote Dink in her diary.
Ratzeburg (15-16 May)
Ratzeburg was disappointing for the four because low entries meant there was only a straight final on each day. They came second on both days, two seconds behind West Germany. Dink’s verdict was, “Will get ‘em next time!”
Duisburg (29-30 May)
Duisburg’s single event also only provided a straight final in the women’s coxed fours, although at least there a few more entries. Despite various outing, the crew were, “All getting very nervous and tense because only one race, the final, tomorrow,” as Dink put it.
However, they handled the wait well and finished a very promising third (although once again they didn’t ‘get’ the West Germans).
1: Netherlands I (3.36)
2: West Germany (3.38)
3: Great Britain (3.40)
6. Netherlands II
“Thus we got a bronze medal,” Dink wrote in her diary. “Our time converted to 3.33.5. A good row especially after previous tensions in crew. This must ensure our selection. Selectors and coach seem very satisfied. Nomination will not go in till after Lucerne, though.”
The GB crew’s success spelled the end of the Olympic dream for others, though. “We beat the French at Duisburg,” Gill Webb explains, “They were big, tough ladies who would growl at us, and when we beat them they were crying in the changing room and that was very scary because that wasn’t like them. But the reason was, every time we beat a crew, that crew wouldn’t be going to the Olympics. We were the benchmark for a lot of crews.”
Lucerne (12-13 June)
Nerves set in again during the week before Lucerne, which didn’t go as well as the four had hoped. “Very sluggish start and first half,” Dink wrote in her training diary. “Even the French were ahead of us at 500m. Overhauled everyone to finish second [three seconds behind the Dutch but a fraction ahead of the Canadians] – quite pleased but worried about same thing tomorrow.”
Most importantly, they’d finally beaten the West German crew which didn’t appear again, either the next day (when they actually scratched) or at the Olympics. As with the French, they’d seen off another opponent. “I knew the West Germans quite well because I’d been racing them for two years,” Gill remembers, “And we got closer and closer and at Lucerne when we had our outstanding race, we beat them. And they came up and shook our hands afterwards and they said, ‘You know now our boat’s not selected,’ they actually came and admitted it.”
Although this was a considerable an achievement, in some ways it rebounded on them once they got to the Games. “We always felt that the West Germans and the Poles and the Czechs thought, ‘The British are good and are going to Montreal and we can’t possibly go if we’ve been beaten by them,'” Dink says. “So they didn’t bother to send a crew and there was only a field of eight boats in Montreal which was very disappointing.”
The GB crew recorded times of 3.27 on both days at Lucerne, which was a new British record, Gill says, adding, “In a big, heavy, wooden, stern loader boat that wasn’t a bad time at all!”
Lin and Beryl were third in the pairs on the Sunday, nine seconds down on winners West Germany and eight seconds behind second-placed Canada, having been unable to race on the Saturday as Lin was ill. Compared with the four, “The pair is in much more doubt for Montreal selection,” Chris Dodd wrote in his Rotsee report for Rowing magazine.
Official selection for the Olympics
According to an earlier article in Rowing by Don Somner, British Selectors had to submit their teams to the British Olympic Association by 1 June which would then make an official team announcement on 14 June. The cogs of officialdom ground slower than the crew would have hoped after Lucerne, though, as Dink recorded in her diary.
Tuesday, 15 June: Still waiting to hear about selection. Tension almost too much to bear. Had almost worst ever outing at Burway. No one really concentrating enough – also very hot weather.
Wednesday, 16 June: Still no news.
Thursday, 17 June: Still no news. Me at stroke for a few days to give Gill a rest and the crew a change. Hard work at stroke.
UPDATE: Penny rang at 11.30pm to announce our selection. AT LAST! We’re selected!
Friday, 18 June: Day off in celebration.
In the UK
During the “long hot summer” of 1976, Britain experienced a heatwave and a drought that led forest fires in Scotland and of hosepipe bans all over the country.
Apart from having to cope with the high temperature during training, the lack of land water coming down the Thames meant that flotsam was accumulating at Hammersmith and so the women’s squad moved up river to the University of London boathouse to train. Even that wasn’t ideal, though; Pauline Bird remembers people being able to wade right across the river at Kew at low tide because there was so little water.
The whole British rowing team left the UK for Canada on 29 June, about three weeks before the racing started. Their initial destination was St Catherine’s, about 650km from Montreal, where they would have a two-week training camp, staying at Brock University and keeping their boats in the grounds of a factory.
The weather was just as hot as it had been in the UK, and Penny’s training schedule was pretty gruelling. Dink recorded the details in her diary:
30 June: Light paddle of 8k. Went very well, especially after travelling etc.
1 July: Early morning two mile run and flexibility. This will be pattern from now on. Outing of 12k in extremely strong wind and very rough conditions.
2 July: Run again. 3x2k headcourse at 30. Afternoon – two loops with 1,500m at 33.
3 July: Moved from St Catharine’s lake to canal at Welland for still water timed pieces. 6×30 seconds twice. Afternoon – 4x250m, 4x1min. Not going too well at present.
4 July: 4x500m against wind. Afternoon – 4x500m again.
5 July: 2×1,250m. These went very well. Lot more flow and reaching out for catch. Afternoon – 3x750m.
6 July: 4×30 seconds, 2×45 seconds, 6×60 seconds, all with 30 sec light between. A real killer. Afternoon – 4×1,000m, no coaching. A very satisfactory afternoon. Much more relaxed.
7 July: Pieces between 15 and 45 seconds. Rest of day off.
8 July: 6×30 seconds, twice. First set very good. Afternoon – 3x750m – 2 against wind, 1 with.
9 July: 3x2k.
10 July: 4×1 min pieces. Afternoon – 1x750m from start in 2.33. Strong following wind. Did some starts against men’s coxed pair.
11 July: 2x500m. Same in the afternoon. It was very windy – cross tail. Felt workload about right (half of what originally scheduled).
12 July: 1×1,250m in strong headwind. Afternoon – fartlek
On 10 July, their eleventh consecutive day of training, Dink wrote, “Suggested to Penny that work load excessive. Major row ensued.”
Memories and opinions about this “sort of mutiny” vary.
Gill and Pauline agree that the training was hard, although both also enjoyed being able to focus completely on it. “It was really good just to knuckle down and train, but boy did Penny train us hard,” Gill remembers. “There was one session where she said, ‘You will come out of the boat on your knees and we did. And that was just a step too far because we didn’t actually recover enough. And at one point we were doing more training than the men’s eight that got the silver medal – we knew what they were doing because Lin Clark’s husband was in that eight.”
Pauline adds, “From having to try and fit in training and work, it was amazing – it just made life so much simpler. Penny didn’t mess about with the training loads and I think, looking back, that it was probably a bit much.”
Clare feels that they started training too soon after arriving in Canada. “The whole rowing team had decided that we would not do very much for three or four days and then really hit the training but after three or four days because we didn’t know anything about jet lag and, of course, it actually really hits you about three or four days after you get there so we were feeling really tired but Penny said that we should get on with our training. The men’s eight had said the same thing to Bob Janousek and they then had another couple of days of not doing very much. Penny had this thing about super compensation where you had to push yourself as hard as you can and then you bounce back up from it and, to be honest, we never rebounded from that.”
Penny’s view is that the team didn’t adapt to the whole training camp regime particularly successfully and that this was at least partly because it wasn’t something they were used to or had come across before, and they weren’t particularly good at relaxing between outings.
She also recognises that she wasn’t aware then that although smaller athletes can handle the same training load as larger people, they need a greater recovery period, so the cumulative effect of the training programme was almost certainly more draining for Dink who was the smallest member of the squad by far. That said, Penny says that Dink’s enthusiasm for knitting (socks) was “very therapeutic” and helped her relax more effectively than many of the others.
The two women’s crews were using a new design of composite blades that combined both carbon fibre and wood. As well as making them more efficient, the carbon was lighter than the wood it replaced. “They were nice as they were so light!” Dink remembers. “We thought we were very lucky.”
As the back of the blade shaft had been replaced by carbon, the whole loom of the blade was painted black for smartness. This was no more than an aesthetic detail when the blades were stored in a boathouse back home, but it became a major problem during the training camp when they were racked outside as the black absorbed the heat and several of the blades warped in the hot sun.
Both the pair and the four only had a spare pair of blades, but more than just these four were needed. “Jerry Sutton did a fantastic job in getting replacements out in time,” Penny remembers, but in the meantime, according to Beryl Mitchell, “Penny wanted us to give our blades to the four while we went back to the heavier old wood blades until the replacements were flown out. We were not happy!”
At the Olympics
Women competing in all sports at the Olympics had to take DNA gender tests or undergo ‘femininity control’, as it was officially described, as they had for several previous Games. Whilst the process itself was discrete and dignified, involving just a cheek swab, a negative result would have been humiliating, and Pauline Bird remembers being quite worried about it as there was just enough medical awareness of intersex conditions at the time for people to know that visually appearing to be a woman didn’t mean you’d ‘pass’ the test. Princess Anne, incidentally, wasn’t sex tested as it was felt this would be inappropriate for a member of the Royal Family although it wasn’t necessary anyway as equestrianism is the one Olympic sport where gender is irrelevant.
When Penny met the team with the results, Lin remembers her joking, “Oh dear, there’s not one for you, Lin!” which promptly put her mind into a spin. “Beryl and I were always saying if the training made us look like men we’d stop, because we didn’t want to lose our femininity,” she explains. “So I was really traumatised by Penny convincing me that I hadn’t passed my sex test. Because I was skinny and I had that boyish-type frame I was absolutely certain I must have failed my test and I was a man. I remember thinking, ‘Will I still be a PE teacher? Will I be sued for being in the changing rooms with the girls? Will I still be married to Jim?’ And then Clare, bless her, realised that Penny was taking the micky and told Penny off because it did upset me. Even now I remember that terrible fear of wondering if I’d still be married.”
The opening ceremony on 17 July was a superb occasion although the team weren’t keen on their outfits.
“Just walking into that opening ceremony with the drums going and everything was the most amazing experience, it really was incredible,” Clare Grove remembers. “I just loved it, and it sticks with you for ever.”
Dink agrees entirely. “I’d never been in any kind of stadium let alone an Olympic-sized stadium and the roar as the British team came through the tunnel and out into the open was incredible – it bowled us over. It was fantastic. It was the moment of my life being part of that.”
Princess Anne was competing in the equestrian team that year, and because she was quite tall, the TV cameras zoomed in on the equally tall rowers because they were trying to spot her. “So all sorts of my relatives on other side of the world saw me in the opening ceremony,” Dink recalls.
All of the British women wore red dresses, wide-brimmed white hats and white scarves with little Union Jacks embroidered on them. The outfit was chosen by the female readership of the Daily Express who voted for various options, as Dink remembers it. “It was made of crimplene or something similar,” she says, “It was certainly not wearable again afterwards.”
Pauline Bird wonders whether the wide-brimmed hats were a security measure to make it harder for snipers to identify Princess Anne. But whatever the reason for the design (which was in vogue at the time), Clare Grove was not a fan. “I remember my hat blowing off and Princess Anne nearly treading on it because she was in the row behind us. They were awful – I couldn’t give mine away when I got back! And we never got blazers like they do these days, we just got these horrible A-line dresses.”
Coxless Pair (10th out of 11)
Lin and Beryl were last in their first round heat of six, finishing just 1.5 seconds behind Poland but eleven seconds behind the West German winners who went on to take the bronze medal. “Britain… had the toughest heat,” Rowing magazine reported, “And although outclassed by everyone except the Poles, who they nearly caught, would have placed third in the next heat on time.”
At the 500m mark in their repechage, from which two crews would qualify for the final, the British crew were in third place, but slipped back in the second half and finished fourth, just over a second behind Czechoslovakia but beating the Hungarians by over four seconds. ”
They had another good first half in the small final, again reaching 500m in third place, but the USA launched a phenomenal row-through which took them from fourth to first, leaving the Brits to finish fourth (and tenth overall) just behind Poland and Czechoslovakia but ahead of Hungary. “As in the coxed four, however, when under pressure the rate went up and the blades seemed to spend more time out of the water than in,” wrote the unidentified author of the report in the Games in Rowing magazine with unnecessary unkindness and hyperbole.
Penny is under no illusions that the pair was a tough event. “The standard in the pair was higher than in the coxed four because it was a smaller boat, so although the four came eighth and the pair came tenth, relatively the pair was the stronger boat,” she says.
For the crew, the fact that they were in the mix in such a challenging event was important. “Beryl and I started to believe that we could do something. We both enjoyed the Olympics hugely but did not enjoy losing. Did not enjoy coming tenth,” Lin explains. “I also started to see the enormity in front of me of competing against the Eastern bloc who were full time athletes. But then I thought, ‘I cannot go through life finding all these reasons why it’s impossible to do something so we’ll tick them off,’ and Beryl and I made a mental strategy then that whatever it took we’d do it except taking drugs. Because then you haven’t won at all, you’ve just joined them. And I wanted to make them suffer.”
Coxed four (eighth out of eight)
The GB four’s heat was the first ever women’s rowing race in the Olympics. Unfortunately they were last in it, finishing fourth out of four, only shortly behind the USA but over eleven seconds down on East Germany who qualified directly for the final with Romania just behind them. Dink’s verdict was that the British crew, “Didn’t row very well and did slow time considering tailwind. All rather disappointed.” According to Rowing magazine, they were at, “a seemingly too high and uneconomical rate,” and looked, “Light at the finish by comparison to the powerful and graceful East German four.”
Two days later they lined up – on “popply” water in a cross headwind – against their various nemeses in the repechage: the Netherlands, Canada, the USA and Romania as well as Russia, whom they hadn’t raced yet that season. With four crews to go through to the final, there was a small chance they might make it. At 500m they were fifth, just a tenth of a second ahead of Russia, but the Soviet crew pushed on to finish third and despite clocking the fourth-fastest second 500m, the GB crew had left themselves too much to do and finished sixth, 1.1 seconds behind Canada, just over two seconds off qualifying. Rowing reported that, “The British girls seemed to enjoy the conditions better in this race, and although their bladework was still messy, they kept trying.”
Thinking back to their ‘supercompensation’ training in St Catherine’s, Gill says that realistically, “We needed to peak for the repechage,” and although she thinks they did finally recover for the two-boat small final (also in a headwind), the crew still didn’t perform at their best finishing just behind Canada once again after an “almighty tussle,” as Rowing described it, in a time which would actually have got them the silver medal in the grand final which was the next race, although conditions were deteriorating.
“We were able to beat the Canadians if we performed at our best,” Clare says, “But we didn’t. It was a disappointment but you get over it and you live and learn. Penny was learning too, she was new to it, she didn’t know, she’d only been coaching for the two years so these things happen.”
Clare adds, “On top of Penny’s supercompensation, being on your feet for five hours [at the opening ceremony which the GB men’s rowing team didn’t attend because their heats were the next day] just two days before you race is not the best idea so I think that also contributed to the fact that we didn’t perform very well, but an experience all the same!”
Compared with the crushing defeats that both Clare (in the coxed four) and Pauline (in the coxed quad) had suffered at the World Championships just two years earlier, the four’s performance at Montreal was on a totally different level. And as Gill quite rightly puts it, “When people say, ‘Where did you come at the Olympics?’ I always say eighth out of the world because we beat everyone else to get there, we just came last of the ones who were there on the day.”
Around the Games
The team’s tracksuits were no more popular than their opening ceremony dresses. “They were horrible nylon and we promptly sold at the gate as soon as the games were over!” Dink recalls.
However Pauline Bird rather liked the blouses that formed part of their travelling uniform. “They were pale blue with scenes of Montreal on them,” she says, adding, “I wore mine to work for years afterwards!”
The Olympic village
Life in the Olympic Village was a great hit with the whole team.
The atmosphere of being in an Olympic village was wonderful,” Dink says. “I felt very privileged to be there and to an extent that I’d got there by the skin of my teeth and didn’t really deserve it. Being in the lift with Precious McKenzie [then a British weight lifter] and Olga Korbut, and having breakfast with Geoff Capes… I didn’t consider myself to be an athlete but there I was with athletes. It was great!”
Clare agrees. “I can remember sitting in the 24-hour canteen talking to the Russian girl who was in their basketball team. She was so big that my whole hand fitted into her palm. And Nadia Comaneci used to walk around the village with this doll that she’d bought there which was the biggest doll I’d ever seen! It must have been at least a metre in size.”
Lin was struck by the gold-medal winning East German women’s eight’s deep voices when she sat near them in the canteen, but she admired their “beautiful blue track suits”. But the best part of it all for her was, of course, watching her husband Jim win the silver medal in the men’s eights – Britain’s first rowing medal since the 1948 Olympics. “That made it, and I loved the experience,” she recalls.
Pauline Bird was astonished to find that doughnuts came with anything other than jam in them (lemon cream was therefore understandably a revelation), sat in a jacuzzi with Duncan Goodhew, and enjoyed a concert starring the Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Petersen and the Beach Boys.
The Montreal Olympics were the next games after the terrible hostage-taking and murder of eleven Israeli by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, so there was an unprecedented level of security. All of the GB team have lasting memories of there being guards armed with machine guns on the shuttle coaches between the Olympic Village and the rowing course.