The rowing events at 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games took place on Lake Casitas from 30 July to 5 August.
The women’s races, which were over 1,000m for the last time at a FISA event, attracted 52 entries from 18 countries, totals which were badly affected by the Communist bloc boycott, of which more shortly, but included entries from China and Korea (the hosts of the following Olympic Games) for the first time in women’s international rowing.
Since the very beginning of international rowing competitions, for men as well as for women, Great Britain had used volunteer Selection Boards to decide the teams. This had a certain logic back in the days [which, it is widely agreed, went on for far too long – Ed.] when the fastest club crew in each boat class was identified and then it just needed a decision as to whether they were fast enough to be sent or not. However, with both men’s and women’s rowing now being run along squad lines and coached throughout the season, and a paid Director of Coaching (Penny Chuter) in place, time was really up for the concept of Selection Boards.
However, it can be quite hard to make volunteers redundant, particularly those who enjoyed the power [which was distinctly not the case with the Women’s Selectors who without exception disliked the role but did it because they knew someone had to – Ed.], so a compromise solution was arrived at, involving a single Selection Board (instead of the separate ones that had operated hitherto for men, women, and juniors) comprising representatives of each team. “This was more of a disaster,” Penny says, “Because when the board was talking about the men’s team, say, of the seven people on the board there was perhaps only two or three who actually knew about those crews. So the majority of the panel was not an expert on the particular squad whose selection was being discussed, so that didn’t work at all.” The women’s team representative on the joint Selection board was former international Christine Davies who had also been a Selector for the previous three years.
The headline version of the Communist bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics is that Russia decided to boycott the Games in retaliation for the US-led boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, and insisted that the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries did the same. Romania, however, which had long been the maverick of the Eastern bloc, and China, which was very much its own kind of communist state, defied the boycott. Romania took the gold medals in five of the six women’s rowing events and got the silver in the sixth.
It was, however, much more complicated than that.
For most of the four years between Moscow and Los Angeles, the Russians had actually been planning on competing at the Games. This changed when the Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, who had actually been against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the Western boycott of the Moscow Olympics, precisely because of the damage it would do to Russia’s international standing, died in February 1984. His successor Konstanin Chernenko, announced on 8 May that the Soviet Union would boycott the LA Games – ostensibly out of fear for Communist athletes’ safety – and, crucially, boasted that a total of 100 other nations (including China) would too. If this came to pass, it could prove a fatal blow for the viability of the 1984 Games and quite possibly the whole Olympic movement.q
The People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, had not competed at a summer Olympic Games since 1952 due to a dispute over its political status and its objection to Taiwan competing as the ‘Republic of China’. These issued had gradually been being ironed out, and some frantic diplomacy in the days after the Russian boycott was announced, secured a promise from the Chinese to enter.
The Romanians were also persuaded to defy the boycott. At the time, the LA Organising Committee seem to have considered this rather an impressive coup, but later events and analysis revealed that the decision had been used by the dictatorial Romanian president Nicolae Ceaucescu for personal and national ends to increase the standing of both in the eyes of the rest of the world. The deal included the International Olympic Committee and the LA Organising Committee each stumping up $60,000 towards the Romanian’s travel and transportation costs of about $180,000 in total.
In the end, only 14 countries upheld the boycott, and the Chinese and Romanian teams were welcomed with particularly huge cheers when they paraded into the stadium during the opening ceremony.
Squad management, coaching and formation
In the autumn of 1983 Rosie Mayglothling began working as one of the Amateur Rowing Association’s National Coaches, with dual responsibilities for the development of women’s rowing domestically and as Women’s National Squad Co-ordinator. This was the first time there had been an ARA National Coach with responsibility for women’s rowing since 1976, and the first time there had been a Squad Co-ordinator since 1980.
There were three distinct training ‘groups’.
Noel Casey was the squad’s senior coach, who had the right to decide what the top sweep boat would be (eight or coxed four) and to coach it. In the end he chose the eight and Richard Ayling took on the four and the pair. The sweep group was based at Hammersmith.
At some point during the regatta season, Steve Gunn was brought in to replace Richard Ayling, but he realised he was being set up and refused to get involved any further out of fairness to Richard.
Beryl Mitchell trained on her own, coached by Jim Clark, the husband of her great friend and 1976-1977 pairs partner Lin.
The crew sculling squad, which amounted to a double in the end and has been described by several people as “a bit of a mess”, or words to that effect, was variously coached by Rosie, Mark Hayter, Bill Mason at Imperial College, Graham Hall (whose main focus was the men’s eight) and Jim Clark.
Both Rosie’s and Noel’s work was overseen by Penny Chuter in her role as Director of Coaching.
Winter training, assessment and racing
The squad competed at various domestic events including Weybridge Ladies ARC Sculling Head in October, where Gill Bond was the fastest sculler, followed by Stephanie Price, Belinda Holmes and Katie Ball, and the Head of the River Fours in November, where a Lea crew containing Kate Holroyd, Jean Genchi, Katie Ball and cox Sue Bailey coached by Eddie Wells (the coach of the four in 1982) fought a ‘battle of the coaches’ with a Thames crew coached by Noel Casey and containing Sarah Hunter-Jones and Tessa Millar and others. Unfortunately, no record of the result has been unearthed. Eddie seems to have disappeared off that year’s GB coaching scene after this.
Compared with previous years, there were far more formal assessments this season, building up a body of evidence to contribute to selection decisions later. Kate Holroyd remembers doing regular erg tests on Gjessing machines, and a VO2max test on fixed bicycles at the British Olympic Association too.
She adds that she felt the training in 1984 was a step up from the previous two years with a big shift towards heavy weight training. “We did a lot of heavy weights with low reps. In fact, my personal impression of the whole year was that it was all based on very hard work to get us as strong and fit as we could be,” she says. “Noel Casey wasn’t the most technical coach I’ve had. He just wanted you to be really, really hard, and he would always record how much you were lifting, what your scores were.”
The squad did their first formal assessment at Kingston in November where 39 women raced in pairs and singles. This involved a long piece which took everyone over 25 minutes, followed by three 4-5 minute pieces whose times were aggregated.
32 of the squad also competed at Kingston Small Boats Head, 45 did a the second formal assessment on 10 December, using the same pattern of pieces as the first, and then 52 took part a full weekend of trials on 17-18 December at Thorpe Park which involved 5×1,250m, 3×1,000m and 2×2,500m. All of these trials involved lightweights [on which more much later – Ed.] as well as openweights and some development athletes. Already, things were being run on a much better basis than they had been in recent years.
While not wanting to overload readers with full results from these, the pairs and scullers who came out on top in each session were:
- Long piece and short pieces 1x: Mary Wilson (but Beryl Mitchell not present) with Steph Price second.
- Long piece 2-: Kate McNicol/Kate Holroyd with Alexa Forbes/Beverley Jones second.
- Short pieces 2-: Ann Callaway/Sarah Hunter-Jones with Astrid Ayling/Pauline Hart second. [Astrid was new to sweep rowing having always been a sculler – Ed.]
- 2-: Kate McNicol/Kate Holroyd with Astrid Ayling/Pauline Hart second.
- 1x: Mary Wilson with Gill Bond second (Beryl Mitchell still not present).
- Long piece 2-: Alexa Forbes/Belinda Holmes with Katie Ball/Kate McNicol second.
- Short pieces 2-: Kate Holroyd/Ruth Howe (3rd in the long piece) with Alexa Forbes/Belinda Holmes second. Jane Cross/Jo Toch won a second group of short pieces where the times were all much quicker than the first group’s pieces suggesting a change in conditions.
- Long piece 1x: Mary Wilson beat Gill Bond by two seconds.
- Short pieces 1x: Gill beat Mary with lightweight Carol Ann Wood recording a faster time but racing in the second group.
- Session 1 1x: Nonie Ray with Mary Wilson second. Beryl Mitchell was fourth 37 seconds behind Nonie.
- Session 1 2-: Kate Holroyd/Ruth Howe with Jean Genchi/Alexa Forbes second.
- Session 2 1x: Beryl Mitchell with Mary Wison second.
- Session 2 2x: Gill Bond/Nonie Ray with Lin Clark/Gill Hodges second.
- Session 2 4+: Hazel Sims/Jo Toch/Jane Cross/Alexa Forbes.
- Session 3 2-: Jean Genchi/Jo Toch with Ruth Howe/Kate Holroyd second.
- Session 3 1x: Beryl Mitchell with Mary Wilson second.
- Session 3 2x: Nonie Ray/Gill Bond with Steph Price/Sally Bloomfield second.
The squad’s fourth assessment took place on 11-12 February 1984 at Thorpe Park and began with 6×1,250m from running and standing starts. This was followed by 2×1,500m, and finally 4x750m. Those who did best were:
- Session 1 4+: Sarah Hunter-Jones/Kate McNicol/Ann Callaway/Astrid Ayling, Sue Bailey (cox) with Alexa Forbes/Belinda Holmes/Kate Holroyd/Katie Ball/Kathy Talbot (cox) second. 11 crews raced, some of which were junior, club or development boats.
- Session 1 2-: Jo Toch/Jean Genchi (no non-development opposition)
- Session 1 2x: Gill Bond/Nonie Ray with Sandy Lutz/Mary Wilson second.
- Session 2 4+: Sarah Hunter-Jones/Kate McNicol/Ann Callaway/Katie Ball, Sue Bailey (cox) tied with Alexa Forbes/Belinda Holmes/Kate Holroyd/Astrid Ayling/Kathy Talbot (cox).
- Session 2 2x: Sandy Lutz/Mary Wilson with Lin Clark/Gill Hodges second. Gill Bond/Nonie Ray didn’t complete this session.
- Session 3 4+: Same result as Session 1 4+. The results sheet notes that the winning crew’s time was 89.5% of the predicted gold medal time [though it means speed – Ed.].
- All sessions 1x: Beryl Mitchell with Steph Price second.
Two squad eights also took part in the Vesta Veterans Head in March [yes, you did read that right – Ed.]. Competing for time only, and starting at the back, they clocked he fourth and sixth fastest times of the day, although these were not included in the final results, of course. Jane Cross remembers overtaking a lot of crew, including one which contained a contemporary of her father’s who was an old family friend, who glared at her as if to say, “How dare you go past me!,” as she swept by. “It was interesting because it then gave us a guide to where we would have come in the main Head of the River,” she says.
Three ARA crews also raced at the Women’s Eights Head on 10 March, which was still over a shortened course, and saw 62 crews competing. The main squad eights took first and second places, 15 seconds apart, and a lightweight eight coming fifth, 31 seconds further back, and another one seventh 15 seconds behind that. Securing the top two places was a big improvement on the previous two years when the squad had only been able to put out one crew.
The winning ARA I crew was Sue Bailey (cox), Alexa Forbes, Belinda Holmes, Kate Holroyd, Ruth Howe, Sarah Hunter-Jones, Kate McNicol, Anne Callaway, Astrid Ayling.
A final weekend of seat racing then took place at Docklands in mid-April, run by Penny Chuter with the Selectors, which cut the sweep squad down and also sought to establish ‘compatibility’ i.e. which athletes rowed best with which other athletes. Opinions vary amongst those involved about various aspects of the fairness of these trials both in terms of competitors not trying their hardest in every piece, and the relationship between results and crew selection. However, there is more agreement that Noel Casey was keen on having the ‘big girls’ in his eight. That said, some feel this was the right approach while others believe that ignoring the boat-moving ability of smaller shown in seat racing was a mistake.
Combinations were formed for the first regattas and those who remained after this then went to Peterborough for a week’s training camp.
About the coxes
The main contenders for the two coxing seats at the 1984 Olympics were Sue Bailey, Kathy Talbot and Beverley Wilson.
Sue was extremely experienced, having learned to cox as a child at Stuart Ladies RC (which merged with local men’s clubs to form Lea RC in 1980). She coxed the women’s eight at the 1975 World Championships, aged 14, but after that just coxed at club level, before coming out of international retirement in 1983 to cox the four which contained Lea oarswomen Katie Ball and (eventually) Jean Genchi, and was coached by Eddie Wells from the club. Members of her crews describe her as an excellent cox, and were also highly entertained by her many stories of working as Ken Livingstone’s secretary when he was leader of the Greater London Council.
Beverley had coxed the GB women’s eight in 1983 but didn’t get involved in the squad in the 1984 season until February.
Kathy was new to the squad but had been the first woman to cox Isis (the Oxford reserve crew) in 1983.
Kathy recalls how the pecking order was established. “Bev had missed all of the winter training and as she was taller than Sue and me, she was a lot heavier than we were. She got a run at a number of the early-season regattas, but she wasn’t noticeably better than me, even though she a bit of international experience that I didn’t, and as she was weighing in well above minimum weight, I got the nod. Sue was very good, and there was a lot of goodwill towards her, so she got the first boat and I got the other seat. I was happy to take anything!”
Early season racing and selection
Mannheim (28-29 April 1984)
Beryl, “Reached the final on the first day but failed to impress, and on the second was eliminated in a tough heat,” Rowing wrote, adding that, “She is under tremendous pressure this season following her disappointments the previous year,” [when she didn’t reach the final, having done so for the three previous years – Ed.].
Ghent (5-6 May 1984)
An eight, whose line up is not clear, had what Rowing magazine described as “runaway victories”.
Kathy Talbot remembers coxing a ‘big’ four there too, to test whether they could could hold their own in that boat class as Noel hadn’t definitely decided at this point whether he wanted the eight or the four to be his top boat. Although they finished second to the Dutch, the answer to this test was that, “Our big people weren’t big enough,” Kathy says.
Jo Toch and Jean Genchi came second in the pairs. Jean remembers that although the boat was going rather well, they had some serious steering issues. “There was somebody was on the presentation raft getting their medal for the single sculls and they had to pull their boat out of the water because we were coming straight for them!”
Bill Mason’s quad had broken up before it got as far as their first regatta and raced instead at Ghent as two doubles. Nonie Ray and Sally Bloomfield won on both days, with former international Stephanie Price and Gill Bond coming second on one day and third on the other, Rowing reported.
Essen (12-13 May 1984)
Rowing’s account of the eight‘s performance at Essen was that they, “Demolished the Romanian eight off the start on the Saturday and took victory, and on the Sunday after a slow start, rowed the Soviet world champions down to 0.8 seconds after being led by three seconds at 500m.” The West Germans were third and the Romanian eight fourth, though how close either of these crews were to the ones that raced at the Olympics is not clear. “We had a really good race there, obviously,” Kate Holroyd says, adding. “I remember it being really fast conditions with a tail wind.” Their time was 2.59.8.
While the eight that raced here was the final one that went to the Olympics, the four wasn’t. The Essen line up of Katie Ball, Tessa Millar, Ruth Howe and Anna Page, coxed by Kathy Talbot came sixth on one of the days. Rowing pronounced them as, “Not outclassed but not currently in the same league as the eight.”
The best result for the pair of Jo Toch and Jean Genchi was also sixth. “We’d borrowed a lighter boat because we thought we’d go faster, but the course was like a sea, so it didn’t help,” Jean says. “In those days we went by coach to Essen, so you’re travelling all that time, then you race and then the water’s so rough. I do remember feeling very depressed coming back that weekend, and we didn’t think we could do that well in a pair, because we’re quite lightweight.”
After this, Rowing said, there were further trials for the four, “Incorporating the pair with a view to finding the strongest units.” [Hold this thought, we’ll be back to this plot line soon – Ed.]
Vichy (19-20 May 1984)
In the single sculls, Beryl finished second on the first day to Hungarian Sculler Mariann Ambrus who had won the silver at the World Championships in 1975 and bronzes in 1977 and 1978, quite a while ago by now.
Nonie Ray and Sally Bloomfield finished second behind the Dutch in the doubles.
Interlude: The four and the pair
The further trials for the four and the pair involved seat racing. Jean remembers securing her place in the four at Ruth Howe’s expense. Jo Toch seems to have beaten Anna Page, so Ruth and Anna became the pair, and the ‘new’ four was Katie, Tessa, Jo and Jean, which was an awfully long-winded way of finishing up with exactly the same crew (apart from a change of cox) that had been the GB four at the World Championships the previous year, which all the members of it had found went “very nicely” then. At least in hindsight it’s a shame they hadn’t spent the intervening nine months developing as a unit.
Nottinghamshire International Regatta (2-3 June 1984)
The eight won by hefty margins over club opposition both days.
Beryl won the single sculls fairly comfortably ahead of an Irish sculler and Mary Wilson of Reading in that order on the Saturday, and again on the Sunday when the other two swapped places.
A squad double, probably Nonie and Sally, won by seven seconds on the Saturday and doesn’t seem to have raced on the Sunday.
An ARA quad finished 17 sec behind the Italians but beat the French by six seconds on the Saturday. On the Sunday the ARA crew is marked as “2”, suggesting it may have been a different combination of people. They were beaten again by the Italians but only by seven seconds, with the French less than half a second behind (possibly also in a different combination).
The four won by 12 seconds over club opposition both days.
On the Saturday, the new squad pair of Ruth Howe and Anna Page, finished second behind an Irish crew but, crucially, with Kate Panter and Heather Brown of CUWBC less than a second behind them. The squad crew was second to the Irish again on the Sunday when Kate and Heather were absent. The likely reason for this is that Heather had just been diagnosed with glandular fever.
Interlude: The pair (again)
The back story to Kate and Heather’s pair was that Kate (who had been in the GB eight the previous year as well as having been in the GB junior team for two years, and was a student at Cambridge University) had been in the squad but had been dropped after she’d injured her back weight training in early May. “Determined not to be written off, Kate… went back to Cambridge where she began racing in a coxless pair with fellow Blue, Heather Brown,” wrote sports editor John Whitbread in the Surrey Herald.
With Heather out of the picture due to her illness, Kate was on her own, but having done so well at NIR relative to the squad boat, she was given the chance to show whether she could improve its speed. Some time trials were held where Ruth Howe rowed with each of Kate and Anna Page in turn, which Kate won.
The four and the pair for the Olympics were finally selected, and very quickly had to face the might of the world (including the Eastern bloc) at Lucerne regatta.
Interlude: The quad
Meanwhile, Rosie Mayglothling in her role as Women’s Squad Co-ordinator had been trying hard to get a quad going again, involving scullers from around the country. Mark Hayter was involved with coaching them and remembers seat racing trials with two quads. With very little time to gel the final crew together, he says, selection did take the individuals’ perceived ability and enthusiasm to adapt into account more than it would have if the group had had longer to form. As a result, the crew didn’t necessarily include the four fastest single scullers available and some of those who were not in the crew therefore felt the process had been unfair.
The crew that raced at Lucerne was Lin Clark, Sandy Lutz, Stephanie Price, Gill Bond, and cox Pauline Wright (who was also coxing the eight). Lin and Stephanie were experienced internationals, Lin particularly so, Sandy had been the GB junior sculler in 1982, and Gill had been on the periphery of the squad for several years.
Lucerne (15-17 June 1984)
Lucerne regatta was, in some ways, the major regatta of 1984 because East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia all took part, which they didn’t at the Olympics.
The eight came fifth and sixth. Richard Burnell described in The Times how they were, “Well up with the leaders, the United States and East Germany, after 500 metres but then falling back behind Canada and Bulgaria, finishing fifth,” which was quite the opposite of how their race had gone in Essen when they’d been down at half way before closing on the Russians by the line.
After the regatta and looking ahead to the Olympics, Chris Dodd wrote in the Guardian, “Although the women’s eight did not perform as well as in earlier regattas, they are worthy contenders in what will be a very depleted [Olympic] regatta.”
Kathy Talbot remembers the four being in the small final because the main Eastern bloc crews got most of the places in the main final, and having a good race with the Dutch and the Poles.
Beryl was fifth on the Saturday and fourth on the Sunday in the single sculls. Richard Burnell was scathing about the first of these performances, writing, “Beryl Mitchell still fails to put her sculling act back together. She was never going to beat [the Romanian or East German] but in the last 500m she allowed both the Danish and New Zealand scullers to come through.” Jim Railton put a more positive spin on her second result, though, pointing out that only the Romanian sculler from the first three on the second day would be competing at the Olympics.
“[The pair] were told that to make the Los Angeles squad they had to beat the qualifying time at Lucerne regatta,” John Whitbread reported later in the Surrey Herald. “They did this, finishing just half a second slower the US Olympic pair.” He continued, “Kate and Ruth will now race as Britain’ coxless pair unless they are required as substitutes for the women’s eight or coxed four.” His piece quoted Kate as saying, “I think we have surprised a lot of people by the way we have formed such a successful pair so quickly. Ruth and I both knew it was our last chance for selection and we were determined to make it work. Fortunately we seem to have clicked from the start and I think we can only get quicker from here.”
The double and the quad were also given performance targets for Lucerne that they had to reach in order to be selected for the Olympics.
Nonie and Sally in the double, “Had a disappointing result at the pre-Olympic regatta in Lucerne and failed to qualify for the Olympics,” according to Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941-2014: The Struggle Against Inequality by Jane Kingsbury and Carol Williams. “However Nonie appealed on the grounds that all the times at Lucerne were fast and, thanks to a boycott of the Olympics by the Soviet bloc that year and FISA encouraging as many other entries as possible, there was room for another competing boat, so Nonie and Sally were accepted to row in the double sculls event.”
The quad, however, were unsuccessful both at the regatta and in their bid to be selected. Rosie recalls, “I foolishly said, ‘You need to do this time to be selected,’ which they did. But there was a roaring tailwind and when you looked at where they’d come relative to the other boats, their performance wasn’t at the right level, and I remember having to say, ‘I can’t really recommend that they go.'” She adds, “Nowadays I’d have set a percentage of gold time or a percentage performance relative to our top boat, I’d have looked at who else was in the event in advance, and it would have been planned much better.”
Amsterdam (23-24 June 1984)
The pair went to this to gain more experience and finished a length behind the Dutch Olympic crew. The four also appears to have raced and done quite well. It’s unclear whether other crews also competed.
The team was announced straight after Lucerne, but at this point, only the eight, the four and Beryl Mitchell in the single scull were named as having been firmly selected. The Daily Telegraph said, “Kate Panter and Ruth Howe will accompany the team as spares and could well compete in a pair if not required as substitutes,” although the Guardian, did include the pair in the list of selected crews. The double isn’t mentioned at all presumably because that their appeal hadn’t been agreed by that point.
As far back as before the World Championships in 1983, when the Warsaw Pact countries’ boycott wasn’t even being suggested, FISA had called on Western European countries to send as many entries as possible to the LA Olympics because they were concerned that women’s rowing might be withdrawn from the Games’ programme altogether if it was seen to be poorly supported (and there was a risk of this because of the cost of transporting boats from Europe to the US). Once the boycott was added to the equation, which hit women’s rowing particularly hard because it was dominated by Eastern bloc countries at the time, healthy numbers of entries from countries like Britain were more important than ever, although the Amateur Rowing Association’s finances were in a fairly parlous state.
Interestingly, the Dutch met FISA’s appeal for crews (which also led to the deadline for entries being extended to encourage national federations to see if they could, perhaps, find another small boat or two to send) by doubling up their pair and four into the eight (or perhaps splitting out a pair and a four from their eight). Their eight got a bronze medal.
Some of the GB women’s crews were definitely ‘late decisions’ but the four was always relatively confident they’d be going. “They were always going to send at least two crews and Beryl,” Kathy Talbot says,” Because you have to have spares for the main crew.” Jean Genchi agrees but adds that she only really believed the four was going to be sent once the quad started being considered. “If they were even thinking about a quad, we were definitely going to go,” she says, although she’s also convinced that the fact they hadn’t been bought a top-class racing boat was an indicator that the Selectors didn’t really support or believe in them.
B: Alexa Forbes (Nottingham BC)
2: Kate McNicol (University of London WBC)
3: Kate Holroyd (Lea RC)
4: Belinda Holmes (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
5: Sarah Hunter-Jones (Thames RC)
6: Astrid Ayling (Kingston RC)
7: Ann Callaway (University of London WBC)
S: Gill Hodges (Tideway Scullers School)
Cox: Sue Bailey (Lea RC)
Coach: Noel Casey
B: Nonie Ray (Cambridge University WBC)
S: Sally Bloomfield (Tideway Scullers School)
Coach: Mark Hall
B: Kate Panter (Cambridge University WBC)
S: Ruth Howe (Lea RC)
Coach: Richard Ayling
Beryl Mitchell (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
Coach: Jim Clark
Training Camp in San Diego
After a lunch at the House of Commons on 2 July sponsored by the Honourable Colin Moynihan MP, the cox of the men’s eight, the GB rowing team flew out to California on 4 July for a three-week training camp, staying at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego (along with most of the GB athletics team though not Seb Coe) and rowing on Lake Otay, about 40 minutes’ drive away.
As well as getting over their jet lag, a terrible cold that got passed round the squad, and acclimatising to the heat, they needed to adjust their body clocks further to prepare for very early races. The screech of dawn racing schedule was necessary because the location of Lake Casitas, where the racing would take place, relative to the Pacific ocean and the desert, meant that it would get windy, as reliably as clockwork, at a particular time in the morning once the land had heated up enough after sunrise. On the plus side, starting the racing at 7.30am and finishing by 10am meant that no one had to compete in the hottest part of the day. Even so, the measured air temperature when they were racing was 18-27 degrees Celsius, and the water temperature was 25 degrees.
The women had particularly early starts as their races were scheduled first on days when there were events for both genders on the programme. “We’d leave at about 3am in the dark,” remembers Kathy Talbot, who drove the minibus for the women’s four, pair and double because Richard Ayling didn’t have a license at the time.
Director of Coaching Penny Chuter, at her third Olympic Games as a coach, was well aware that while long training camps are good from a rowing point of view, they can also cause a lot of problem as people get bored, and get on each other’s nerves from living in such close proximity. To avoid this, the team had a packed programme of activities in addition to sunbathing on the beach and going to “Welcome the Brits” barbeques laid on by the locals. This included visiting San Diego zoo, Seaworld, going to a Tina Turner concert, checking out the talent at Muscle Beach (a famous outdoor training venue for tanned body builders), and watching local kids doing something called breakdancing which had not yet spread to Britain.
They also went to a market just over the Mexican border where everyone remembers seeing a traditional ‘zonkeys’, a donkey painted like a zebra. “The owner wanted us to pay something tiny like two pesos to take pictures, which we refused to do, and now I’m so annoyed we didn’t!,” Kathy Talbot remembers.
Tessa Millar also remembers a few beers being consumed early on in the camp, which led to a big lecture from Penny Chuter when the empty bottles were found in a bin as she’d promised that the team would respect the fact that it was a dry campus. “After that we just took them to the course and threw them away there,” she says. This wasn’t the only culture clash with their hosts. “The college had issues with the tightness of the towelling shorts worn by the gentlemen rowers,” Kathy recalls, adding that she and Sue Bailey, who smoked to keep her weight down, also had great trouble finding air freshner to cover up the smell of cigarette smoke (banned) in their room.
At the Olympics
Despite FISA’s pleas for Western European countries to enter as many crews as possible because of both the boycott and the general low numbers of women’s crews racing internationally, the eights and pairs only had six entries and so were raced as straight finals. Richard Burnell observed in The Times that although, “A single, sudden-death final adds considerably to the athletes’ psychological strain… for the British eight, full of experience, known to have a remarkable turn of speed, but short on sheer physical strength, this could be good news.”
Because of the distances involved, and the fact that the rowers had adjusted to going to bed early so that they would be able to get up early for their races, only the women’s eight and pair, whose straight finals were not until 4 August, attended the opening ceremony on 28 July. The other crews all started racing on 30 July.
The remaining crews who were left watching the ceremony on TV back in the Santa Barbara village, decided to put on their own ceremony, parading round their village, although they found a better alternative to the unflattering pleated skirts. “It was typical of my four because we were always full of fun and life,” Jo Toch remembers, laughing.
Racing and results
68,385 people attended the rowing in total over the seven days of racing, undeterred by the early starts and the long trip out to the desert venue. “When we boated there was nobody there, but the lake was massive with a separate 2k warmup course at right angles to the racing course so by the time we’d warmed up on that, when we got back the crowds had all arrived and were pretty impressive,” Kathy Talbot remembers.
Princess Anne came to watch on the last day of the women’s racing when Beryl, the pair and the eight were in the main finals. Tessa Millar finished up having chat to her in the stands, during which the Princess, who had competed at the 1976 Olympics in the one-day equestrian event of course, revealed that she would far rather be staying at the Olympic Village than in the elegant hotel that had been arranged for her.
Eight (5th out 6)
“The race was extremely close to the first signal, “Rowing reported, “[With] only the West Germans out of contention for medals. At 500, Romania led by six feet [from the USA], with our girls following in third place half a length down, with the Dutch only feet behind and the Canadians surprisingly half a length behind that.”
“At 650m the USA nudged level, the Dutch pushed through our girls (who were not looking quite as sharp as the race-practiced Dutch [six of whom were doubling up and so had done small boats finals earlier that morning – Ed.]) and the Canadians attacked. At 750m the USA pushed through to lead by nearly a canvas, the Dutch were now half a length up on our girls and the Canadians were drawing level. Over the last 500m despite a last attack from the Romanians the USA held on for gold… The Canadians sneaked through our girls in the last 150m to finish fourth.” GB were fifth.
Richard Burnell summarised the race for The Times, writing, “The British women’s eight put up a tremendous battle, always rating over 40.”
“I do remember being disappointed because I think we thought we could have got a bronze and there wasn’t a lot in it between three, four and five,” Kate McNicol says, adding, “But we didn’t. We must have had an expectation although I don’t remember us articulating it because you don’t.” Rowing concluded, “Although our girls were fifth and disappointed with their result, they were justifiably the fastest British women’s eight yet seen in finishing in finishing 4.7 seconds off the gold medal and 1.6 seconds or half a length away from bronze.”
Comparing the Olympic crew with the eight the previous year when there had been a destructive, backbiting atmosphere, Kate Holroyd reflects that the 1984 group enjoyed a transformed culture. There were multiple reasons for this, she believes. First, their coach, Noel Casey, “Definitely came into his own in ’84 and we really benefited from his strong, uncompromising leadership.” But, she adds, compared with the 1983 line-up in which five of the crew were at their first World Championships, this one also had a much better balance of new blood and experience.
She gives Astrid Ayling a lot of credit for turning them into an effective team. Aged 32 and a veteran of no fewer than ten European and World Championships and the Moscow Olympics, Astrid was very considerably more experienced and also quite a lot older than the rest of the crew who were between 21 and 26 years old. “I loved rowing with Astrid!,” Kate says. “She was always really positive, and we looked up to her because she was the elder statesman. She’d been there, she’d done it and we all benefited from her experience. She was also incredibly strong and incredibly fit and was a great person to have backing up Gill Hodges’ great rhythm. I really believe that the fact that a lot of the reason we did quite well was down to her because she brought us all together. She really was fundamental to it all.”
Single Sculls (6th out of 16)
Beryl Mitchell got her Olympics off to an excellent start by winning her heat, recording the second fastest time to 500m in the process, which qualified her directly for the semi finals.
Before the next race, Chris Dodd wrote in the Guardian that, “Mitchell was reportedly dehydrated after her tough heat on Monday, but has managed to get rid of all trace of ‘Lake Casitas throat’.” This was a virus that ran round the rowing and canoeing village, affecting, albeit briefly, several British crews.
In the semi, Beryl met the Danish and Belgian scullers whom she’d actually only just beaten in the heat, and who had then reached the semi via the repechage. At half way, Beryl was second, but the gaps between first four scullers were only half a second, with just three to qualify. At the line, the Belgian won with the Danish sculler pipping Beryl for third place by 0.14 seconds. “It looked to be a tightly-contested final in the offing,” as Rowing magazine put it.
The final was dominated by the Romanian Valeria Racila who was in lane five, next to Beryl in lane six. “By 500m [Beryl] was 7.2 seconds down on the Romanian and beginning to struggle in last place although still in contention for bronze, with [less than two seconds] covering scullers three to six,” Rowing reported but went on, “Beryl fell back a further four seconds on the leader in the second half in what was a well below par scull.”
Afterwards, Richard Burnell wrote in The Times, “Certainly her form and determination were far better than in the previous two years [and] she led off the start, but it was soon clear that she lacked the mid-course pace.”
In an unidentified newspaper, Chris Moore described Beryl’s as, “The biggest disappointment,” of all the GB women’s crews’ results, though noted that, “She made a flying start.” He also predicted that this would, “Surely prove to be her last major championships,” which he was right about, but only in terms of openweight racing.
Coxless pair (6th out of 6)
In the straight final of the pairs, “The race immediately developed into two battles, for first to third and then for fourth to sixth places,” Rowing reported. The British pair went through half way in last place, but in touch with the two crews ahead of them. However, then then, “Faded after their valiant first 500m.”
This video shows the finals of the pairs, singles and eights.
Coxed four (7th out of 9)
The draw pattern for the nine-boat event started with two heats – one of five and the other of four crews – from each of which one boat would progress straight to the final and the remaining seven would go into two repechages with two crews from each of those going to the main final and the remainder to the petite final.
The Chinese and Korean entries were eminently beatable, Kathy Talbot remembers, “They turned up in stern-loaded boats, and were really there to get experience for the next Olympics which were going to be in Seoul.”
The GB crew was drawn in the four-boat heat with Australia, Canada and West Germany. The Canadians won the race comfortably, followed by Australia three seconds further back, West Germany a further four seconds down, and Britain 1.6 seconds after that.
Comparing times across the two heats, Kathy says, “It all came down to whether it was us or the Westies who were the sixth fastest, and we were unlucky. The Westies got the three-boat rep with the Chinese in, so they got through, while we had the four-boat rep, and while we beat the Koreans easily, we were third, so didn’t qualify. If we’d been in the other rep instead of the West Germans, we would have made the final and they wouldn’t have, and it would have been nice to get to the final, even if it wasn’t deserved.” Jean agrees, reflecting that, “Looking back now, I think all of us would have been really pleased if we’d got to the final”.
An unidentified newspaper reported that, “The British crew led their three rivals off the start but they had neither the class nor strength to maintain their effort and the Americans, quickly followed by the Australians, quickly surged past them.” Writing in the Guardian, Chris Dodd said that the four, “Raced in the stronger of the two repechages, and the US went into an early lead, pulling the Australians with them, and leaving the British and Koreans trailing.”
In the petite final, where Jean feels they probably rowed their best, Rowing magazine described how, “They knew they could not underestimate the Chinese [who had actually recorded a better time than the Brits in their repechage] – and so it proved. At 500m following a superb start, the four stroked by Katie Ball was leading by just under one length. However, as the crew approached 750m, the heavier Chinese started to gain with each stroke. With little more to offer in either rate or effort the British girls hung on gamely to win by 0.5 seconds.” The Koreans finished quite a long way back. “Our claim to fame is that we beat the People’s Republic of China, all 20 billion of them,” Kathy laughs.
Even today, Katie, who went on to be a high-performance sports coach, says, “I always look back and think, ‘What if we knew then what we know now?’ We didn’t even set goals. If we’d been 1.6 seconds faster we would have made the final. If we’d sat down and thought about it and planned it, maybe done some different things, changed our diet, not gone to the beach. I think we would have found that second and a half. It was just that. A boat length.”
Although the LA Olympics turned out to be a fantastic success as an event, British television didn’t carry the same level of coverage that it has for more recent Games. “Our final was televised in Canada and Greece,” Jean says, “But the captain of my club, the Lea, happened to be on holiday in Greece holiday so he saw us race in our small final!” She adds, “The only time I got on British TV was in the second week of the Games when the BBC was going round chatting to people in the village and I was in the background so my mum saw me on telly!”
About a boat
Unlike the GB eight and, indeed, the six finalists in the coxed fours, which all had Empachers, the four’s boat was a Janousek, a popular club marque with a reputation for being affordable and solid, two traits which are both generally incompatible with being light. “When they weighed all the boats [to check they met the required minimum weight], ours was 22kg heavier than everybody else’s,” Jean remembers wryly, to which Kathy adds, “I suppose the only thing you can say is that it probably was the fastest available craft in the country.” Katie is more to the point, “I was so angry. And I thought, not only are we little compared to all these giants, we’ve got a heavy boat too!” The £20,000 a year sponsorship from British Home Stores that the women’s team received in the four years up to 1984 certainly wasn’t allocated to buying a new boat for the four.
Double sculls (8th out of 8)
In some ways the double sculls event was wide open as no nation that had ever won a gold or silver medal in the category at the Olympics or World Championships was taking part. That said, there were still a lot of good crews in the event.
The double came fourth in its four-boat heat from which two crews qualified for the final. At half way they’d been within less than a second of the Dutch Hellemans sisters, but, “The pace told and at 750m the British lost cohesion, crabbing and faltering,” as Rowing magazine described it.
Their next race was the six-boat repechage, and the crew deserved to have a ray of hope going into this as their time to half way in the heats was the fourth fasts of the crews they were now racing. “The double scullers Nonie Ray and Sally Bloomfield started well in a repechage from which the first four crews moved to the final,” Chris Dodd wrote in the Guardian. “They were with the pack in fourth place at half way, but had to use too much energy trying to keep on terms with the Dutch, Swedes, and Canadians. The Americans crossed the line fourth and the Austrians also went past the British.” Another, unidentified paper was more abrupt, reporting, “The British double were in trouble from the start and could not hold off even the Austrians, who also did not qualify, once they had passed 500m.” Rowing magazine shed more light on how this happened, explaining, “The duo had a good start, were third at 250m and although fifth at 500m, were only half a length down on the fourth-placed Americans in the last qualifying slot…. Coach Clark was mystified over his crew’s inability to pace themselves and put it down to inexperience.”
The British crew again had a good first half in the small final, going through the 500m mark half a second up on the Austrians, but eventually crossed the line just under four seconds adrift.
Despite the absence of the Eastern bloc crews at the 1984 Olympics, the GB women’s team’s results in LA are arguably not really much better in terms of places than those from the 1983 World Championships (the eight was 5/6 compared with 8/8, the four was 7/9 compared with 8/10, and Beryl was 6/16 compared with 7/18). With the Easties missing (apart from Romania), the LA Olympics were a real opportunity to race on the level playing field that British women had been calling for for years, and although the eight was close, we still didn’t manage to clinch that long-awaited Olympic medal.
However, important improvements had been established: a culture change within the group that made up the eight; two more crews (the pair and the double) had raced; and an organised, squad-based system of ongoing assessment had been re-established. Out of sight of the squad, Rosie had been running women’s training weekends to develop club rowing and show those with aspirations how they should be training to step up to the next level. The big challenge for the GB team was whether the new momentum could be sustained without the immediate motivation of an Olympic Games in sight.
Around the games
As they still do today when the rowing takes place at a satellite location, the rowing teams moved back to the main Olympic village once the regatta was over, and had a whale of a time.
Kathy Talbot remembers being somewhat concerned because, “We were put in the same building as the Israelis because we were both high risk terrorist targets – in our case the IRA were a possible threat. There were lots of people with guns hanging around!” However, she was delighted to be handed something like $50 spending money as a result of a McVitie’s biscuits promotion whereby 3p was donated to GB athletes for ever token sent in from special packs available earlier in the year.
They were all also presented with a commemorative bottle of coke in a special edition box. Kathy still has hers!
Several members of the team also took the opportunity to get a free haircut at the Vidal Sassoon salon in the village; almost everyone loved being able to send and receive a new thing called ’email’ to other athletes from special terminals; and Kathy remembers enjoying playing a computer game called Track and Field which involved all the events of the decathlon. “Also, Walt Disney had done a special release of their classic version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the Olympic Village, and that was the first time I’d seen it, sitting in a tent with a whole load of Romanians,” she says. “It was Disney’s great donation to the Olympic athletes because you couldn’t see it anywhere other than clips at Christmas time!”
The athletes also had access to an early form of email, which they could use to send messages to each other from terminals in the village.
Practically everyone was wowed by the Beach Boys’ concert in the village, but the athletes were treated like celebrities as well.
“It was all a crazy time,” Jo Toch remembers. “When you went out of the village it would take you half an hour to get out because everyone wanted your autograph. In my case this happened a lot because apparently I looked quite like a Romanian runner who had won a medal, so then when I’d leave the village I’d get mistaken for her and I’d get mobbed which was quite funny. And after the Beach Boys concert they invited me to hang out with them in Malibu, and I got to go back stage at the Hollywood Bowl and to various Hollywood parties. There were just all these kind of things that happened because you were an Olympian!”
The closing ceremony also made a huge impression on the whole of the team. “Lionel Richie sang all night long to us,” Astrid recalls, while Jean remembers running around with Seb Coe. Tessa and Ruth decided to wear animal masks. “Afterwards they put us all in school buses to take us back to the village,” Kathy says, “And they held the whole freeway back to let us through. I’ll never forget the sight of all the car headlights stacked back into the distance while we got whizzed straight through, which was quite nice!”
The celebrations continued back in the UK. “I hadn’t expected all of the invitations afterwards,” Jean Genchi says. “They were a real bonus!” The most memorable of these was a reception hosted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Lancaster House. Just after she arrived, someone accidentally spilt some wine on Jean’s white skirt, and she is amused that Mrs Thatcher was most concerned about whether she was able to wash the stain out.
Although the results paled rather compared with the GB men’s coxed four winning GB’s first Olympic rowing gold medal since 1948, GB women’s rowing did step up in its organisation and leadership in 1984. Some of the team met up for a 30 year reunion lunch in 2014.
1984 FISA Championships for Lightweights
1984 saw women taking part for the first time in the FISA Championships for Lightweights that had been introduced for men in 1974. The women’s events were a trial designed to prove that women’s lightweight racing could be as competitive as other categories despite it being theoretically slightly slower.
Read a full report about this ground-breaking event here.
FISA Junior Championships
Three GB women’s crews raced at this event in Jönköping, Sweden.
B: Diana Shaw (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
2: Sarah Kell (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
3: Rachel Modell (Lea RC)
4: Lorna Rundle (Lea RC)
5: Sarah Merryman (Staines BC)
6: Helen Bloor (Nottingham BC)
7: Sarah Allen (Wallingford RC)
S: Alexandra Sanson (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
Cox: Nicola Coulson (Queen Elizabeth High School BC)
Coach: Doug Parnham
As reported in the Almanack, “The crew was assembled after trials in June and trained together thereafter under the guidance of Doug Parnham, ARA National Coach for Junior Rowing in his first coaching role with the junior team…. The crew members were physically much smaller than their opponents and were unable to match the power of the larger crews.” They finished fifth out of five, quite a long way behind the next crew.
B: Ruth Casson (Marlow RC)
2: Allison Barnett (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
3: Rebecca Holmes (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
S: Kim Thomas (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
Cox: Ali Norrish (Weybridge Ladies ARC)*
Coach: Steve Gunn
The crew finished sixth out of eight, beating Canada and the USA, and were only 0.03sec off fifth place in the final.
* denotes a previous cap in the GB junior team.
B: Vicky Filsell (Mark Rutherford School RC)
S: Anna Durrant (Mark Rutherford School RC)
Coach: John Bell
The crew finished outside the top twelve.