1981 World Rowing Championships

The 1981 World Rowing Championships took place from 26 August to 6 September at the Oberschleißheim course which had been built for the 1972 Olympic Games. The women’s races were in the first week. 

61 women’s crews from 24 countries (including a first appearance by Finland) competed over 1,000m, which was still the international distance for women’s rowing at this time. This was the largest number of nations to take part in an FISA-run event (European Championships, World Championships or Olympic Games) since it first introduced races for women in 1954.

Setting the scene

In an article in the November 1980 edition of ARA Club News, Don Somner, who had coached the women’s double for three years out of the previous four and been Chair of Selectors for the previous two, gave a positive assessment the state of women’s rowing in the UK. His main points were:

  • More clubs were now accepting women members, so more women were rowing, and this had led to greater competition for places in international crews.
  • Over the previous Olympic cycle, GB women’s crews had reached World Championship or Olympic finals on three occasions.
  • Male coaches no longer regarded coaching women as a second-class option [although a number of GB oarswomen of that era disagree with this assessment – Ed.].
  • Sponsorship from British Home Stores meant that the GB women’s team had good quality boats, and clubs were now buying suitable-sized boats for their female members.


Don and the other members of the Women’s Selection Board stood down after the 1980 Olympics. A new board was appointed comprising former internationals Pauline Churcher (who had competed in the Women’s European Championships from 1960-1965), Christine Davies (Women’s European Championships 1964 and 1970-1972) and Jackie Darling (World Championships 1975-1975). Pauline took on the role of Chairman because someone had to.

Squad management (at the start of the season)

It seems to have been initially unclear whether Dan Topolski would return to coaching the women as he had for the previous two years. He certainly wasn’t available at the start of the season as he was away on a tour of South America with his artist father. Chris George, who had been Dan’s assistant in 1980, was therefore appointed as women’s squad coach.

Chris and the Selectors quickly announced that a Hammersmith sweep squad of 16 would be selected at an assessment weekend in Nottingham at the beginning of November with the aim of producing an eight and a four. According to ARA Club News, this group was “almost certain to be trimmed by Christmas”.

The squad would also encompass small boats or singles training away from the main squad [more on some of these shortly – Ed.], and there would be an “intermediate group of people who have responded to the campaign to attract people newcomers of suitable physique or who may be promising novices recommended by their own club.”

The Hammersmith group would be supported by ARA resources. Any independent  crews would have to supply their own boats, but could get some support for international racing.

It was announced before Christmas that British Home Stores would continue to sponsor the GB women’s squad for another four-year cycle, donating a generous £80,000 in total.

The main sweep group

Half of the rowers who competed in the eight and the four at the 1980 Olympics came back for the 1981 season. However, they weren’t joined by large amounts of new blood and numbers at the first squad assessment weekend on 10-12 October 1980 were slightly disappointing with only about 40 women taking part including juniors and club-level oarswomen whose aim was to get more experience. This was about half the number who had registered the previous year, attracted by the lure of going to the Olympics, and also as a result of Dan Topolski’s various recruitment campaigns.

On the plus side, the senior squad acquired several women who had just moved up from competing from GB at the FISA Junior Championships (now known as the World Rowing Junior Championships), who had experience of racing internationally at senior level too.

Returning Olympian Jo Toch remembers the on-water training during the pre-Christmas period. “Chris George had a lot of what seemed to be quite mad ideas at the time but, thinking about it now, some of them really laid the ground work for success in the future. For example he’d have us paddling for miles at not too heavy a pressure but doing a lot of mileage and that was quite ahead of its time.” Pauline Janson remembers that this quest for mileage included outings down to Tower Bridge in single sculls, with the return trip at square blades. In the gym, Chris introduced a circuit training which included exercises requiring considerable gymnastic skills, such as box vaulting and rope climbing. These were not universally popular.

Calling all coxes

The January and February 1981 issues of ARA Club News carried an unusual advert placed by Chris George:

Wanted urgently

3 experienced coxwains to help with the women’s squad seat racing Feb 1st and April 1st on the Tideway based at Hammersmith. Male or Female. Tideway experience desirable but not essential.

Also wanted cox’s [sic] to learn and to row [train? – Ed.] with the squad seriously. Applicants to be 45kg, intelligent, quick witted, able to command.

There is room for one person at this year’s World Championships at Munich.

Note: Coxes had to be the same gender as their crew in international racing until 2017. The fact that the advert says that there was only one coxing position available for the World Championships suggests that even by this stage the plan was just to have an eight but no coxed four or coxed quad, although a club-based four was selected in the end. 

A change of coach

A letter Chris wrote to the squad in early January suggests that he was extremely frustrated with them and the overall atmosphere was far from positive.

In due course, Chris left and Alan Inns, an international cox from the men’s squad, then took over coaching the main sweep group which was later cut down to the eight.

Beryl Mitchell in the single scull

1981 would be Beryl’s third appearance as a single sculler on the world stage. In 1979 she’d come 13th at the World Championships, and in 1980 was fifth at the Olympic Games. She continued to represent Thames Tradesmen’s RC,

Mark Hayter, who had sculled in the quad at the 1976 Olympics, had taken over coaching her during the 1980 season. This time, he’d be working with her for the full year.

“One of the main things I did was to get her to think more about how she actually raced,” he remembers. “I thought it would help her to be aware of her phasing during a race and how she achieved that. So we would do four-minute pieces where each minute she’d have to do it at a different rating and then change so we would either do 30, 29, 28, 30 or the other way round in order for her to understand what she was doing and how to do it.”

He continues, “It also helped her that she had a consistent set of circumstances in terms of coaching and training, and socially she had a settled lifestyle throughout that season too.”

Although she’d decided to do the single scull in 1979 and 1980, for at least some of that time the sweep squad’s coach, Dan Topolski, had been trying to get her to row in the eight which was his main focus. By the second of this years he did this less, but then she had a gargantuan battle on her hands then simply to be selected as the GB women’s single, eventually beating her rival, Pauline Hart, by a small margin. In 1981, Mark says, it was good that she was able to focus on her single with nothing else to distract her or to worry about.

“I don’t pretend that I was the world’s most wonderful coach,” Mark says, “But I was able to bring out in her things which clearly others hadn’t, and we had a successful rowing relationship, I suppose because I am mostly a fairly mild-mannered chap while she was highly volatile. She and I were polar opposites in character and that probably helped.”

Astrid Ayling and Sue McNuff in the double scull

Astrid and Sue were also an established unit, having been in the double scull together the previous year for the Moscow Olympics. In 1981, however, they had a change of coach as Don Somner, with whom they’d been working the previous year, had retired from the international involvement.

They continued to train out of Kingston RC where Astrid was a member. As previously, Sue represented Borough Road BC as she was a student at Borough Road West London Institute of Higher Education which had registered a club to save its several internationals the cost of club membership fees that they didn’t really need because they were using GB equipment.

Their new coach, Ron Needs, already had a lot of international experience from coaching the GB lightweight men, although this was his first venture into coaching women.

Astrid Ayling, Sue McNuff and Ron Needs

Astrid (left) and Sue with coach Ron Needs. (Photo: Sue McNuff’s personal collection.)

Ron was a very senior executive at Beechams at the time. “He was fantastic because he would literally be working in Germany and get a jet home and turn up for our session – he never missed a session with us,” Sue remembers.

Sue recalls that the training programme which Ron wrote for them was, “Incredibly, incredibly hard in terms of what we did in the gym during the winter. I think that, coming to us as 70kg people and having previously coached men who were 70kgs, he expected us to be as strong as 70kg men, which was probably a bit of a shock for him as we weren’t, even though I was one of the strongest women around and so was Astrid! We lifted more weight than the Kingston men did in the session – not in one go – and the Kingston men were selected that year as well. Beryl came to do land training with us part way through that year and she was shocked at how hard we were training, even though she’d long been doing weights with me in the women’s squad system. Maybe the intensity was an accident because Ron thought we were 70kg men but it certainly worked, even though it was pretty tough.” However, she adds that, “Ron was very protective of us too, and even bought us a boat out of his own pocket.” A newspaper report at the time put the price of this at £1,500.

Drink up!

Sue also remembers a clever ploy Ron had to keep them off the beers. “He was very intent on us not drinking, and when Maureen Thompson, who was our team manager, invited us round to dinner socially for dinner on a couple of occasions, Ron would always send along a couple of bottles of fizzy Corona orange because that was made by his company and he knew I loved it, and then we wouldn’t have a beer or a glass of wine. Actually, every training session we would have some of that there, and on Saturdays Astrid would provide cakes which went down very nicely with fizzy orange.”

All three clearly enjoyed working together. Ron described the duo at the time as, “a real pleasure to coach,” and Astrid looks back fondly on it, saying, “That was a nice, happy year.”

The Thames coxed four

This crew had been put together outside the support of the British Home Stores-sponsored squad by Noel Casey, an experienced coach. It contained his daughters Caroline and Bernadette along with Sarah Hunter-Jones and 1980 Olympian Jane Cross.

Jane had originally been in the main sweep group but had broken her foot in an horrific accident at the beginning of January when she she was lifted off the ramp at the ARA boathouse by a massive gust of wind when carrying a pair out. Once her plaster was off she started training again, but wasn’t being put in crews. Noel then asked her if she’d like to row in his four, and she first went out with them at Thames RC in mid-March.

Not long after this she received a phone call one Saturday evening rather out of the blue, telling her that she had to be at Hammersmith to go out in a squad pair first thing the next morning and that if she didn’t, she would be dropped from the squad. Feeling strongly that it would be wrong to let the Thames crew down as they were expecting her at that time, she to Putney as planned the next day, was duly dropped by the squad, and continued to row in the Thames crew.

Early season racing

Mannheim (16-17 May 1981)

Beryl got her racing year off to an excellent start, coming third on the Saturday in the single sculls and then winning on the Sunday.

The double came fourth on the first day and got the bronze on the second, the Thames coxed four went to the regatta at their own expense and came fifth, and the eight also raced [if anyone has documentary evidence of their results, I’d love to know – Ed.]

Nottinghamshire International Regatta (30-31 May 1981)

Again, Beryl had an excellent regatta, and won the singles on both days by a comfortable margin ahead of the Mexican sculler Maria de la Fuente who, unlike the British sculler, had not made the final of the Olympics the previous year.

Astrid and Sue also won on both days in the double, finishing well ahead of two Swiss boats on the Saturday and just one of them on the Sunday. NIR was still struggling to attract the number of quality of entries it wanted.

On the Saturday, the GB eight split into two and raced in coxed fours, as did the Thames crew. “The stern four of the eight led the bow four at 500m, to finish about a length ahead, with the Thames crew in third place,” Rowing magazine reported. The differentials were about two, and three and a half seconds. On the Sunday, when the GB squad raced as an eight, the Thames crew won comfortably against club-level opposition.

In Sunday’s eights‘ race, the GB seniors beat the GB juniors by two lengths.

Ratzeburg (13-14 June 1981)

Ratzeburg also had a disappointing entry with Czechoslovakia the only Eastern bloc country taking part.

Nevertheless, Beryl scored another double win in the single sculls, bringing her tally of gold medals for the year up to five. The double was second on both days, and the eight, stroked by Lin Clark on this occasion, won its only race.

As per the Selectors’ announcement at the beginning of the season, the double and the single were described as ‘associated crews’ in a report of the event in ARA Club News, while the eight was designated ‘British Home Stores National Squad’.

Henley Royal Regatta (2-5 July 1981)

Henley Royal Regatta introduced two invitation events for women’s crews in 1981; coxed fours and double sculls. These took place over a course of about 1,500m, starting near the Barrier, where a separate start had to be installed for the women’s races and then removed again. In order to fit in with the timetable, which spanned just four days at the time, only four crews were invited to take part in each event.

The purpose of the races, as stated by the Regatta, was to, “Assess the feasibility of including races over a shorter course during the normal daily racing programme, and the desirability of the considerable extension to the hours of racing which full events for women would necessarily involve.”

Astrid and Sue took part in the double sculls, and the eight split into two fours:

B: Lin Clark
2: Belinda Holmes
3: Pauline Janson
S: Gill Hodges
Cox: Pauline Wright
B: Jo Toch
2: Beverley Jones
3: Sally Bloomfield
S: Alexa Forbes
Cox: Sue Brown

The other entries were from overseas crews.

This attracted more press coverage than women’s rowing otherwise usually received at the time, and in the general as well as the sporting pages. The Daily Express sent a reporter and a photographer armed with a bunch of straw boaters and cotton frocks from Laura Ashley and Irvine Sellars to Thorpe Park the weekend before Henley. After the squad had finished training, they duly dressed up (barefoot) for the photo opportunity. The most charitable way of describing the resulting piece is that it had a predictable lack of focus on rowing.

The Daily Mail did a bit better. “Of course we’re delighted to be among the first ladies accepted, but for rowing rather than for women,” Sue is quoted as saying in it, although it couldn’t resist describing her as “married to a rowing international.”

Astrid and Sue were beaten by two and a third lengths by the Canadian crew that went on to win the final. Both of the fours raced US crews in their first rounds. In the first round of the fours, the regatta record states, “Unfortunately the standard was very unequal. Adanac Boat Club, Canada, rowed right away from Tideway Scullers and Weybridge. Thames and Upper Thames hung onto 1980 Rowing Club, USA., for about a minute and a half, but after the three quarter mile the American women had the race well in hand.” Both British crews lost with ‘easily’ verdicts. The 1980 RC crew which won contained two of the eight who took the silver medal at the Worlds later that year. Their club name was a reference to having been forced to boycott the Olympics the previous year by the US Government.

Pauline Janson didn’t enjoy the experience at all. “I just felt we were cat called all the way down the course, and jeered at because we were women. It was quite degrading,” she remembers, adding that although they were allowed to boat from Leander’s raft, they weren’t allowed in the clubhouse, “Because we were women, and we had to change in the back yard which had an outside toilet.”

Lucerne (11-12 July 1981)

Beryl notched up wins seven and eight of her season by winning the single sculls on won on both days at Lucerne after none of her opponents, “Were able to match her blistering finish”, as wrote Geoffrey Page in the Guardian.

The eight came third both days in three-boat straight finals, but the double did not medal.

The Thames coxed four raced at their own expense.

National Championships (17-18 July 1981)

Perhaps the most important win at the National Championships from an international point of view was the Thames coxed four’s gold medal because it was, “In a fast time that earned them selection for Munich this month,” as Rowing magazine put it, that was also 11 seconds quicker than their nearest rivals.

Having been coxed at NIR by C Clarke, a student from Queen Mary College BC, the crew was coxed at Nat Champs and the Worlds by Sue Brown who had also coxed the four at the Olympics in 1980, and as a result of the experience she’d gained training on the Tideway, had famously become the first woman to compete in the men’s Boat Race earlier in the year when she coxed Oxford to victory.

Astrid and Sue McNuff won the doubles by a handy 37 seconds and the GB senior eight beat the junior eight by a few feet.

Sue Brown, Caroline and Bernadette from the four also won the rather lightly-contested coxed quads in a scratch crew with the GB double.

Final selection


Soon after Nat Champs, coach Alan Inns moved 19-year old Jo Toch to the stroke seat of the eight (on bowside), which was how they raced at the Worlds.

The crew selected was:

B: Sally Bloomfield (Thames RC)
2: Alexa Forbes (Thames RC)
3: Belinda Holmes (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
4: Lin Clark (Thames Tradesmen’ RC)
5: Pauline Janson (John O’Gaunt RC)
6: Gill Hodges (Tideway Scullers School)
7: Beverley Jones (Upper Thames RC)
S: Jo Toch (Burway RC)
Cox: Pauline Wright (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School BC)
Coach: Alan Inns

This was Lin’s seventh year representing Great Britain, Pauline Wright’s fifth, and Pauline Janson, Gill, Beverley and Jo’s second. Alexa and Belinda had been junior internationals. It was actually quite an experienced crew.

Coxed four

B: Caroline Casey (Thames RC)
2: Sarah Hunter-Jones (Thames RC)
3: Jane Cross (Thames RC)
S: Bernadette Carroll (Thames RC)
Cox: Sue Brown (Oxford University BC)
Coach: Noel Casey

Bernadette had been in the coxed four in 1979, and Jane and Sue had been in it for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Double scull

B: Sue McNuff (Borough Road BC)
S: Astrid Ayling (Kingston RC)
Coach: Ron Needs

Single scull

Beryl Mitchell
Coach: Mark Hayter

Pre-Championships training camp in Varese (13-22 August 1981)

Just before they set off for Italy, quite a few of the women’s squad enjoyed afternoon tea at Harrods’ ‘The Georgian’ restaurant. In an article in The Standard [which hopefully footed the bill – Ed.] on 13 August featuring a photo of Beryl Mitchell, Sue Brown and Jo Toch and using puns such as ‘Cream of Britain’s oarswomen,’ and ‘Training is a piece of cake,’ reported that the rowers, ‘Stopped counting after the first dozen [cakes],” although as they were apparently just petits fours, this seems pretty reasonable.

Still not supported by the BHS squad funding, the coxed four were asked to pay £100 each towards the training camp. Jane Cross was relieved and grateful to be sponsored for this cost by the benevolent MD of a local building firm after he’d read about the financial challenge she was facing in the Surrey Herald, a local newspaper which has always been extremely supportive of rowers in the area.

GB W4+ on very flat lake

If Carlsberg made training camp venues… The four in Varese. (Photo: Jane Cross’s personal collection.)

Although the Varese camp was useful in that it enabled the team to focus just on rowing, the lovely, warm weather there didn’t help acclimatise for the cold, wet conditions they found in Munich.

At the Championships

Single scull (2nd out of 13)

“With all the World’s most feared scullers in Munich except Martina Schroeter [of East Germany] out with an injured knee, this was a very high class field,” Rowing magazine explained. But Beryl was also in the form of her life, so the single sculls were all set to be a great contest.

The event began with heats from which the first three would progress to semi-finals. “Showing real maturity, [Beryl] was happy to let the Romanian build on a flying start and finish, equally unextended, a length and a half behind but well clear of France, Sweden and Poland,” wrote Desmond Hill in the Daily Telegraph.

Beryl progressed through the semis to the final, before which, Rowing said, there was, “Much speculation about Beryl’s chances with full acknowledgement being given to her power and drive but doubt being cast on whether she could overcome the conditioning of having lost all the key races since her international debut in 1975.”

Beryl Mitchell ahead of a Swedish sculler in 1981

Beryl establishes a clear lead over the Swedish sculler (the rest of the field are even further behind) in the first round. (Photo © John Shore.)

The favourite to win the event was Sanda Toma of Romania, the Olympic champion.

“In the final, Toma led from the start sculling strongly and economically,” the Almanack recorded, with Rowing adding that, “At 250m [gone] Toma, had almost two lengths clear water. Then Beryl held her nerve, kept the rate at 33 and began one of the longest sprints for home I can remember. At 500m she had almost caught the Russian and Toma was having to hold her rate unusually high to keep the lead…. the only issue for the last half of the race was whether Beryl’s spirit could overcome the daunting strength and shove of the Romanian as well as the two lengths deficit.”

She caught the Russian sculler soon after the half way point. “With 300m left Toma was still sculling confidently,” according to the Almanack, “But, at the 250m, Mitchell, looking round for the only time, closed to under one length and suddenly the Olympic champion was struggling.”

Toma just managed to hold on to her lead. The official verdict was 1.12 seconds.

Beryl had won Britain’s first women’s medal at the World Championships, and the first international women’s medal in 20 years since Penny Chuter had won a silver at the Women’s European Championships 1962.

After the race, “Beryl confessed that, perhaps, if she had really believed gold was possible it would have come but that instead, the memory of other less happy days just held her back enough to miss it,” Rowing wrote. Her coach, Mark Hayter, doesn’t remember her saying that. “We had targeted a medal that year because that would have been the next step up from getting to the final at the Olympics the previous year, and we had a conversation where we agreed that, we had where we said, ‘You came where you came in Moscow, you’re that much different, they’re that much different, you should be looking for a medal.’ Beryl being Beryl, she probably thought she could do better than that, but what is important always in terms of coaching is being realistic as well as offering hope rather than being bullish without any chance of that being fulfilled because if you say, ‘Of course you’re going to win,’ and your athlete or crew comes third, that dents the coach’s reputation and also the confidence of the oarsmen or women in themselves. So I remember targeting a third place as being a likely outcome and with a fair wind we might get a bit better.”

Mark admits to being, “distinctly shocked,” that Beryl had actually come very close to winning. “10 more strokes and who knows,” he says. “Toma was running out of steam rapidly and couldn’t have held off if Beryl had had less to catch up.”

Summing up, Rowing wrote, “There are critics of her training, psychological preparation, rigging and every other aspect of her approach, and on any orthodox principle her critics are often right, but none of them can get in her mind and discover where she finds the extraordinary ‘get in front and give it stick’ determination which makes her so special and which must never be dented.”

After the medal ceremony, Beryl, “Served notice of her 1982 intentions,” by pushing Sanda Toma off the medal podium into the water with the help of the third-placed Russian, Irina Fetissova.

The photographer John Shore took a wonderful series of photos of the occasion which are reproduced here below with his kind permission. Note, the photo at the top of this page is part of this set.

Beryl Mitchel celebrates

Beryl celebrates her achievement as the three medallists gather on the podium. (Photo © John Shore.)

Beryl Mitchell being presented with her medal by Thomi Kepper

Beryl is presented with her medal by Thomi Keller, the President of FISA. (Photo © John Shore.)

W1x medallists 1981

The three women’s single sculls medallists at the 1981 World Rowing Championships. (Photo © John Shore.)

Sanda Toma

Sanda Toma shows an admirable sense of humour after being thrown in by the other two. (Photo © John Shore.)

The Almanack rightly acknowledged that, “Afterwards, Miss Mitchell was as bubbly as the champagne with which she toasted her new silver medal, which had added significance in that it represented the first tangible reward for all British Home Stores’ generous support of women’s rowing in this country over the years.” Desmond Hill achievement as having, “Exploded the myth of communist women’s invincibility in the sport.”

Double scull (6th out of 15)

With 15 entries, this was the largest women’s event at the 1981 World Championships, with heats, a repechage and semi-finals before the final.

In their heat, with what the Almanack later described as a “gritty” row, Astrid and Sue, “Were quickly dropped by the Soviet double, but battled past Norway for an excellent place,” wrote Desmond Hill in the Daily Telegraph, thus avoiding the repechage.

They produced the row of their lives in the semi-final to qualify for the final. “They looked exactly what one wishes them to be – strong and composed,” Rowing reported. “They were one length behind a qualifying position with 350m to go, when they produced a lovely sprint at 36 to come through and take a place in the final.” The Almanack was equally complimentary about their push for the line, describing them as “sculling beautifully.”

Over thirty years later, Sue says she still recalls the race very clearly. “I can remember coming down the last 500m and we were lying in fourth place behind the West Germans in their home country. The grandstand there seemed to extend further along the course than anywhere else, and the roar coming from the crowd was absolutely phenomenal. For some reason I just had this utmost belief that they were cheering for me! And I remember our last 250m just calling to Astrid, ‘Up two, up two.’ and I did it three times, which we’d practiced it because we’d talked about seeing people lose races by not having the surge of the catch at the right time and we were determined that wasn’t going to happen to us. And we rowed down West Germany and kept them out of the final on their home ground. And to me that was my best ever, ever race – with knobs on.”

Unfortunately they were unable to repeat the performance in the final, where they finished last, although Rowing adds that they were closing fast as they raced into the finish. Their time put them nine seconds off the medals but less than three seconds from fourth place.

W2x race in Munich

The double come up to the finish line in the final. (Photo © Jane Cross.)

After the Championships, Rowing  magazine, which had an inside line on the double scull as it was edited by Astrid’s husband Richard, summed up the double rather well; “Astrid Ayling and Sue McNuff formed their double scull partnership two years ago and critics commented immediately that their technique was insufficiently alike and their souls were too alike for finalist calibre success. Their results in a field of formidable strength have proved these opinions – as often – to be half right. Under Ron Needs their sculling has looked better, probably as a result of rigging changes, and their training always conscientious, but in racing there was little sign of the manic excitement that marks out the best.”

Eight (6th out of 7)

As the Almanack put it, the eight, “Had had a troubled season and crew morale was low when they came to Munich. In the eliminator the girls took a flyer off the start and, to everyone’s surprise, were in the lead from Romania and East Germany after 200m. This unusual experience did not last long and the crew finished last, [although] only two seconds behind the Bulgarians. Valuable confidence had been gained for the repechage.”

The result, “Showed that the British girls were in the same class as Bulgaria and Canada but were unlikely to be competing for medals,” Rowing magazine said, and added that, “If they could beat one crew in the repechage, then honour would be satisfied. If they failed then it would mean the ignominy of placing last overall with none to race in the petite final.”

The crew rose to the challenge and qualified for the final by beating the Bulgarians.

“But,” wrote Rowing, “Our girls are not yet tough enough as a unit to produce their best on consecutive days,” and after a poor start in the final were a length down at half way and finished 10 seconds behind on the Canadians and Romanians who crossed the line very close together in fourth and fifth positions, two seconds off the medals.

8 women leaning out

The 1981 GB women’s eight. From left: Pauline Wright, Alexa Forbes, Sally Bloomfield, Bev Jones, Lin Clark, Jo Toch, Gill Hodges, Pauline Janson, Belinda Holmes. (Photo: Pauline Janson’s personal collection, copyright owner unknown.)

Coxed four (7th out of 8)

The four drew Russia, East Germany and the US in their heat. They finished last, which put them into the repechage from which only two crews would qualify for the final. Jane Cross summed up the race in her diary as, “Ugh… say no more,” and Desmond Hill wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the crew, “Fought hard but their next race must surely be their last.”

Sadly he was right and the crew went on to finish behind the Netherlands in the two-boat petite final. They were eventually placed seventh overall because the Bulgarians were later disqualified after one of them failed a drugs test following the semi-final.

According to the Almanack, the crew, “Rowed aggressively and as well technically as the other crews but suffered through lack of height and weight.” Rowing magazine agreed. “They did their best, and came last,” adding that, “Women’s coxed fours is dominated by a kind of raw power which no British crew has ever matched… unless we can find crews that average 13 stone… it is pointless making an entry.”

This video shows the grande final starting at 1’57” with the eventual winners, Russia, in a mid-coxed four.

The GB Junior Women’s Team

A coxed four and an eight raced at the FISA Junior Championships in Bulgaria. The coxed four was ninth out of nine, but the eight reached the final from a field of seven entries, and finished fifth, just 1.66 seconds off the bronze medal winners.


B: Alison Liney (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
2: Susan Allen (Abingdon RC)*
3: Samantha Wensley (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
4: Sue Clark (Abingdon RC)
5: Suzanne Barker (Abingdon RC)
6: Hazel Sims (Newark RC)
7: Kate Holroyd (Bradford ARC)*
S: Melanie Holmes (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
Cox: Hilary Jones (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
Coach: John Biddle

Eight on raft at Leander

The 1981 GB Women’s Junior Eight (Hazel Sims at stroke and Melanie Holmes at six, otherwise in the same order as given above). (Photo: British Rowing archive.)

Coxed four

B: Jackie Harling (Lea RC)
2: Lorraine Kaye (Lea RC)
3: Sally Dawson (Bedford RC)
S: Katie Ball (Broxbourne RC)*/Clare Carpenter (Lea RC)*
Cox: Natasha Zarach (Kingston RC)
Coaches: Barbara Kaye and Gill Webb
Clare subbed for Katie in the petite final as she had been taken ill.

* Had competed at a previous FISA Junior Championship.

Four fours racing with wooded hills in background

The GB 4+ racing in Bulgaria in a stern-loading boat, unlike its competitors. (Photo: Sue Hastings’ personal collection.)


1981 was remarkable year for women in rowing in the UK. Sue Brown had been the first woman to cox the Boat Race, women rowed at Henley for the first time, Beryl won Britain’s first women’s medal at the World Championships, and the GB men’s eight which won a silver medal at the Worlds was coached by a woman (Penny Chuter).

However, we were operating on a different basis from most of our competitors. Although state-sponsored drug programmes certainly affected women’s rowing, a major contributor to the Eastern bloc’s dominance was the nature of the national rowing programmes in the Communist countries. “We were competing against a completely different system,” Jo Toch reflects now. “The fact that Beryl then got a silver medal in the single just showed that it was possible to beat them, but she did it on an individual basis but you couldn’t really do it on a crew basis because we didn’t have the system. Hers was a remarkable achievement but I don’t think there was any way we could have been winning in crews at that time.”

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2018.

← Back to 1980 | On to 1982 →