1988 Olympic Games and World Rowing Championships

Rowing at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul took place at the Han River Regatta Course from 19-25 September. This was the fourth Games to include women’s rowing, and 60 women’s crews took part from 20 countries, the largest number of each so far although the previous two Games had been affected by boycotts, of course.

This was the first Games at which women raced over 2,000m the first where the women’s quad was coxless, and the last where the four was coxed.

The GB lightweight women raced at the World Championships which were held at the Idroscalo Park in Milan from 3-7 August, where 26 crews from 17 countries competed in three events. The only Eastern bloc entries were from Romania and Hungary. As all international openweight boat classes were included in the Olympic programme at the time, but no lightweight ones were, these World Championships were exclusively for the men’s and women’s lightweights, although they were combined with the Junior World Championships in a single regatta.

Squad management and coaching

Ron Needs continued as Chief Coach of the openweight women, a role he’d also had the previous year, but in 1988 he worked very closely with Steve Gunn. Ron was Company Secretary at Beechams at the time (where his secretary did a considerable amount of rowing admin), and Steve was a teacher at Hampton School.

Fiona Freckleton remembers that while Ron, “Was the one who stepped in every single time when no one else would do it, he was also a sort of grandfather figure even in those days and was just far too nice to us. Steve was very driven and a real breath of fresh air, and he worked us very hard in the gym.” Kate Grose agrees, saying “Ron was a really good organiser, but Steve was just so motivational. He wasn’t the most amazing technical coach but he taught us to work hard and we really learned to hurt ourselves that year.”

The lightweight women largely operated as separate sweep and sculling groups in 1988. The three lightweight scullers from the previous year continued (two of them had also been in the double in 1986); Bill Mason continued to coach the lightweight double as he had for the previous two years and selected it. When Carol-Ann Wood became the single sculler she worked with her own coach, Bill Barry, at her club, Tideway Scullers. The Amateur Rowing Association’s National Coach for Women’s Rowing (mainly a grass-roots development role) Rosie Mayglothling coached the lightweight women’s four, with Ian Shore also involved in coaching that group. The athletes who were eventually selected for the crew were all new to the lightweight squad although Jo Toch had rowed in the squad at openweight from 1980 to 1984 and had also been a junior international in 1979, as had Vikki Filsell in 1984-1985.


British international rowing secured a substantial sponsorship with deal TSB Trustcard which cover the men’s and women’s senior openweight and lightweight squads as well as the juniors. According to Regatta magazine, the initial injection of £75,000 would be supplemented by £5 for every Trustcard credit card taken out through special application forms distributed through rowing clubs [many of us club rowers had TSB Trustcards for years just because that first one had a picture of a pair on it – Ed.], as well as a further £2 for each £1,000 spent on such cards. Today’s readers should understand that credit cards were still rather a new thing at the time. Director of International Rowing Penny Chuter announced in February 1988 that an additional £20,000 was being made available for squad kit to be worn for training as well as racing. This included the first all-in-ones the openweights had, and the first featuring the famous royal blue shorts for the lightweights. All squad boats were also stickered with the TSB Trustcard logo.

This was the first time that a single sponsor had supported both men’s and women’s GB rowing, which didn’t go unnoticed by some of the women. “It was definitely a step up in terms of the women feeling that they were part of the team, or I felt that way anyway,” Fiona Freckleton remembers.

TSB used the strapline ‘The bank that likes to say Yes!’ at the time, and Fiona also recalls that, “We had some t-shirts printed at one point which said, ‘The Girls that like to say Yes!’, which didn’t go down very well because they were seen as the women not taking rowing seriously.”

The Trustcard promotion didn’t go as well as either the bank or the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) had hoped, though, and the April issue of Rowing magazine reported gloomily that only 2,000 cards – just 10% of those expected – were issued in the first month. This, of course, had a direct impact on the money available to the squad.

GB rowing’s finances received another blow in early summer when, as a result of a complex situation at the ARA, at the root of which was the fact that only 11,000 people had signed up for the new individual registrations introduced the previous year, compared with a budgeted total of over 50,000, the British International Rowing Office had to give £38,000 back to the ARA, and was advised to make cuts to the costs of sending crews to pre-season regattas and pre-Olympic training camp, amongst other things.

Fiona Freckleton remembers that Ron Needs personally subsidised some of the cost of the women’s openweight squad going to Amsterdam Regatta in July. “What used to happen was we had to pay a contribution which was usually £40 or so but the actual cost was more like £200.  I think he’d actually done this several times before, but as there were 15 of us going to Amsterdam he said he couldn’t pay for us all, but could we all manage another £40.”

A lot of the TSB money was spent on new boats for the men’s coxed and coxless fours,and coxed and coxless pairs. Faced with the prospect that other crews in the GB Olympic team would have to race in two-year old equipment, at the last minute TSB Trustcard provided extra finance for a new men’s eight and women’s pair, and their associates Hill Samuel, a merchant bank, bought a new coxed four for the women.

The athletes came up with various ways to support themselves while training hard: Flo Johnston, Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill founded the rowing t-shirt company Rock the Boat, while Sue Smith’s benevolent employers allowed her to reduce her hours to half time in the summer, and gave her extended unpaid leave to cover the Olympic training camp and the Games themselves.

Winter training, racing and assessment

For the openweight squad, there was a series of on-water assessment, supplemented by regular ergo tests, as well as physiological testing at the British Olympic Medical Centre at Northwick Park.

1st assessment (5-6 December 1987)

The first day of this involved competing at Walton Small Boats Head in singles, pairs or doubles, while the second – in which over 40 women took part – required the triallists to do eight 1,500m pieces with turns of no more than 45 seconds each at Thorpe Park.

Sue Smith and Kate Grose were the fastest triallist double on both days, with Kate Miller and Anna Page the fastest pair (though far from everyone raced in pairs).

At Walton, Sue was the fastest single sculler, with 1984 Olympian Kate Holroyd second. The honours at the internal trial went to lightweight Gill Bond followed by Alexandra ‘Zaza’ Horne.

2nd assessment (16-17 January 1988)

This was the final open assessment that anyone could enter. It took place at Thorpe Park and involved six 1,400m pieces this time. 28 women raced with three others absent through illness. The openweight results were:

Single sculls

  1. Zaza Horne
  2. Sue Smith

Double sculls


  1. Anne Marden (US) and Gill Bond (lightweight)
  2. Suzanne Kirk and Ali Gill

Ann Marden was an American sculler who lived in London and had won the silver at the 1984 Olympic Games in the US quad. She was a member of Thames Tradesmen’s RC and for several years took part in GB trials which had the mutual benefits of giving her some good racing, and showing the British women what world medal standard was.

Sunday morning

  1. Jo Gough and Kim Thomas
  2. Anne Marden (US) and Zaza Horne

Sunday afternoon

  1. Anne Marden (US) and Zaza Horne
  2. Jo Gough and Ali Gill



  1. Kim Thomas and Ali Bonner
  2. Aggie Barnett and Lizzi Chapman

Sunday morning

  1. Lizzi Chapman and Kate Miller
  2. Ali Bonner and Sally Andreae

Sunday afternoon saw the same two pairs occupying the top places although with Ali and Sally first, and Lizzi and Kate second.

The cut to 24 (20 January 1988)

After these trials, Penny Chuter announced the following 24 would continue in the openweight Elite Women’s group:

Sally Andreae, Aggie Barnett, Ali Bonner, Ann Callaway, Lizzi Chapman, Annabel Eyres, Debbie Flewin, Fiona Freckleton, Ali Gill, Jo Gough, Kate Grose, Rachel Hirst,  Zaza Horne, Ruth Howe, Flo Johnston, Suzanne Kirk, Kareen Marwick, Kate Miller, Anna Page, Jackie Prout, Louise Rokosh, Sue Smith, Kim Thomas and Charlotte Williams.

Ali Norrish was the only cox listed at this point.

Although still on the list, Debbie Flewin had not taken part in the trial because she had badly injured her knee getting out of a pair which had capsized after hitting another boat on the dangerous stretch of the tidal Thames around Wandsworth Bridge, and had had to have surgery.

Assessment at Thorpe Park (20-21 February 1988)

A month later, 26 openweight women assembled at Thorpe Park for their next trials. The triallists who took part were the named Elite group of 24 plus Lesley Baguley, 1981-1985 international Belinda Holmes (both of whom been at the first and second trials), and Sally Brown, but minus Debbie Flewin who was still injured.

The consolidated results were as follows:

Double sculls

Over 2×5,000m:

  1. Sue Smith and Kim Thomas
  2. Jo Gough and Kate Grose

Over 2×1,250m:

  1. Suzanne Kirk and Ali Gill
  2. Jo Gough and Kate Grose


Over 2×5,000m:

  1. Kim Thomas and Ali Bonner
  2. Kim Thomas and Ali Gill

Over 2×1,250m:

  1. Ali Bonner and Sally Andreae
  2. Kim Thomas and Ali Gill

The photographer Peter Spurrier’s pictures from these trials capture the spirit of many of those involved.

Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (12 March 1988)

Four GB National Squad eights raced at this, coming first, second, third and fifth. The crews which came second and third (lightweights) started lower down the order and finished just two seconds apart but the Head crew, which started No.1, won by 33 seconds.

Women's eight

GBR 1. From bow: Ali Norrish (cox), Zaza Horne, Ali Gill, Flo Johnston, Ali Bonner, Jo Gough, Kate Grose, Kim Thomas, Sue Smith. (Photo © John Shore.)

women's eight at the finish

GBR 2 From bow: Lizzi Chapman, Aggie Barnett, Debbie Flewin, Kate Miller, Sally Andreae, Ruth Howe, Jackie Prout, Fiona Freckleton, Toddy Russ (cox). (Photo © John Shore.)

Ann Callaway was not in either crew because she married Steve Redgrave that day, and neither was Annabel Eyres who was training with Oxford in the final preparation phase for the Boat Race two weeks later.

women's eight

GBR 3 (lightweights). From bow: Jo Toch, Morag Simpson, Sue Key, Sally-Ann Panton, Melanie Holmes, Katie Brownlow, Jo Thellussen, Vikki Filsell, Adrian Ellison (cox). (Photo © John Shore.)

GBR4 was also largely lightweight.

Special assessment (27 March 1988)

This set of trials was conducted at the Docks in pairs and coxed fours over 1,500m. Chief Coach Ron Needs stated that the aim was, “To identify additional athletes to go to the Sabaudia training camp.” Eight women were involved, all of whom were in the group of 24 announced in January. This suggests that some of the group which would be announced five days later had already been identified, as had some of those who would be dropped and these trials were really about finalising who else would get the last few places. Those who took part were Aggie Barnett, Lizzi Chapman, Fiona Freckleton, Rachel Hirst, Suzanne Kirk, Kate Miller, Ann Redgrave and Charlotte Williams.

The cut to 16 (1 April 1988)

The Elite group was cut from 24 to 16. Fiona Freckleton, Rachel Hirst, Suzanne Kirk, Kareen Marwick, Kate Miller, Anna Page, Louise Rokosh and Charlotte Williams were all dropped. The 16 rowers who were left were still two more than would be needed for an eight, a four and a pair, of course, although subs are more or less essential when running a squad of that size to cover injuries and other unavoidable non-availability (such as people taking university exams). Presumably this is why Fiona Freckleton did go on the Sabaudia training camp while Ann Redgrave seems to be the member of the 16 who didn’t.

By this point the squad had acquired two more coxes in addition to Ali Norrish; Joanna ‘Toddy’ Russ and Kirsty Platt.

Early-season training and racing

Scullers’ Head (9 April 1988)

Quite a lot of the women’s squad raced. Anne Marden won the women’s pennant, Zaza Horne was the fastest British woman, finishing second, with future international Rachel Hirst third, and Kim Thomas fourth, just ahead of Sue Smith.

Sabaudia training camp (10-21 April 1988)

The men’s and women’s openweight groups had a joint Easter training camp in Italy.

For the women, this involved a lot of seat races in coxed fours and pairs. Flo Johnston remembers one of these for all the wrong reasons. “Kate Grose and I were in a pair, very early in the morning, warming up to do some seat racing and she said, ‘Hang on, Flo, can we stop for a minute?’, so we did and I was just sitting there not really paying attention and the next thing that happened was she reached over, undid her gate and took out her blade to check something on it, and of course we fell in! So we were the joke of the camp that year because we were this sub-aqua pair.”

Flo adds, “The hotel we stayed at was opposite some kind of military school where there were loads of young Italian men doing national service or something, and every time we came out of the front door in our singlets and shorts they’d be cat calling us. After a while we got a bit irritated with this so one day Debbie Flewin, who spoke fluent Italian, went up to the fence and said something to them and they all completely shut up and when she came back we asked, ‘What did you say?’ And I think one of them had exposed himself to her because she’d just said, ‘Well, that looks just like a penis only much, much smaller,’ in beautiful Italian, and we were never bothered by them again which was brilliant.”

Cox Toddy Russ remembers another amusing incident during one of many pieces of work in the coxed fours. “A LARGE fish jumped out of the water and down my neck,” she says. “I sat up and the crew were all going mad that the boat was unstable, and then whoever was at bow started screaming at the flapping fish while we tried to get it out of the boat. Steve Gunn was NOT amused!”

women's four on landing stage

In Sabaudia. From bow: Toddy Russ (cox), Flo Johnston, Kate Grose, Jo Gough, Sue Smith. (Photo: Sally Thomas’s personal collection.)

On a more serious note, because the water was salty in the coastal lagoon where the rowing took place, most of the squad suffered from terrible blisters as can be seen from the many taped and bandaged hands below.

women's eight at catch

From left: Aggie Barnett, Jackie Prout, Ruth Howe, Sally Andreae, Ali Bonner, Fiona Freckleton, Jo Gough, Lizzi Chapman. (Photo: Sally Thomas’s personal collection.)

Around this time, some members of the squad were interviewed by Dan Topolski for TV coverage (see below) surrounding the heats of the DAF Power Sprints in Kingston. It’s a shame that he describes the women as being “required” to race 2,000m rather than being allowed to do so, as they saw it, and also that the subtitles editor spelled Kate Grose’s surname incorrectly, but this doesn’t detract from their clear determination and professionalism.

Piediluco (23-24 April 1988)

Most of the team went straight from their training camp to the first external event of the summer, the Memoriale Paolo d’Aloja regatta in Piediluco.

Although the regatta only offered sculling events for women, a special pairs race was laid on very early in the morning before the main racing started on one of the days. Kim Thomas and Ali Bonner beat one of the five Russian pairs that were in contention for the Russian women’s eight. Jackie Prout and Annabel Eyres also raced.

Lizzi Chapman, who did a double with Aggie Barnett, remembers getting to the start and saying, “This must be the wrong race, this is a men’s race,” before she realised that the deep-voiced competitors on either side were actually Eastern European women.

The 1987 GB lightweight single sculler Caroline Lucas, who lived in Italy, also raced.

Lightweights injured

Experienced lightweight squad members Sally-Ann Panton and Melanie Holmes were both injured when their pair collided with a Thames RC eight while training on the Tideway. Rowing magazine reported that Sally-Ann suffered five cracked vertebrae while Melanie had to have stitches in a serious cut on her back. This marked the end of their international aspirations for the year.

Ghent (7-8 May 1988)

After beating a ferry strike to get there, GB crews had a pretty good medal haul at Ghent, assisted by a lack of international-standard opposition.

The new lightweight coxless four of Katie Brownlow, Jo Toch, Sue Key and Vikki Filsell won. Carrie Wood raced lightweight singles both days; the other GB lightweight scullers weren’t there.

All 16 members of the openweight sweep squad went to Ghent along with the three coxes. Three coxed fours raced on the first day. Sue Smith, Jackie Prout, Ali Gill and Flo Johnston coxed by Ali Norrish was the fastest, finishing just under four seconds ahead of Aggie Barnett, Sally Andreae, Annabel Eyres and Zaza Horne coxed by Toddy Russ, with Ruth Howe, Fiona Freckleton (who seems to have replaced Debbie Flewin in the 16-woman squad), Ann Redgrave and Lizzi Chapman, coxed by Kirsty Platt, just 0.72 seconds behind that. On the second day there were two fours, whose results haven’t been uncovered, comprising Aggie Barnett, Sally Andreae, Ann Redgrave and Zaza Horne coxed by Toddy Russ, and Ruth Howe, Fiona Freckleton, Annabel Eyres and Lizzi Chapman coxed by Kirsty Platt.

A lot of pairs were also entered on the Saturday: Ali Bonner/Jo Gough (who won a silver), Kim Thomas/Kate Grose, Vikki Filsell/Sue Key and Katie Brownlow/Jo Toch, the last two crews being the two halves of the lightweight coxless four.

On the Sunday, Flo Johnston/Ali Bonner and Ali Gill/Zaza Horne were entered in doubles, and Kim Thomas, Jo Gough, Kate Grose and Sue Smith did a quad.

An eight, which Penny Chuter later described as a “nearly first eight”, of Sue Smith (stroke), Flo Johnston, Ali Gill, Jo Gough, Ali Bonner, Sally Andreae, Aggie Barnett and Jackie Prout, coxed by Ali Norrish, won by 17 seconds on the Saturday against “little opposition”. A similar crew won on the Sunday containing Kim Thomas and Kate Grose instead of Sally Andreae and Aggie Barnett.

If the coaches and Director of International Rowing had started to formulate a plan for the openweights based on the seat racing in Sabaudia, it isn’t obvious from these entries.

Tish Reid came second in the single sculls, three seconds behind the Belgian lightweight World single sculls medallist Rita de Fauw.

Essen (28-29 May 1988)

Only two GB women’s crews raced at Essen – an openweight coxed four and a lightweight double – but both notched up some encouraging results over the two separate one-day regattas.

The four of Sue Smith, Kate Grose, Jo Gough and Kim Thomas, coxed by Ali Norrish, “Qualified for the final [on the first day] in a good second place, overlapping the Romanians and ahead of the Soviet crew,” Rowing magazine reported, but continued, “This fine early form was not to be repeated in the final [where they] finished last, nearly 16 seconds behind the Romanians in a fully representative field.” On the Sunday, however, “With the benefit of extra rest and the experience of Saturday behind them, the result was a significant improvement.” Finishing fifth, they were less than three seconds off bronze, compared with 11 seconds the previous day although the other entries seem to have changed somewhat, making firm conclusions difficult. A later ARA press release significance of their Sunday result in showing that they, “Could stay in contention with strong European crews, albeit at the back end of the pack.”

Gill Bond and Caroline Lucas raced in the openweight doubles event as the regatta didn’t offer lightweight categories, and despite being “totally scratch” they provided what Rowing described as “one of the high points of the weekend” by winning on the Sunday as well as notching up a “fighting fifth place” on the first day, less than three seconds off the medals.

Docklands Regatta (28-29 May 1988)

The rest of the openweight and lightweight squads went to Docklands regatta instead.

The lightweight four and lightweight sculler Carrie Wood only raced on the first day but both won.

The openweight squad’s revised training programme for late May and June states that an eight and a coxed four raced, but there’s no evidence of this in the results in the Almanack where there are no events for Women’s Open eights or fours. What they probably did, as the author remembers from only a few years later, was race in Lane 0 in men’s races so that they were alongside boats of comparable speed but without being an official part of that event.

Nottinghamshire International Regatta (4-5 June 1988)

NIR saw more openweight combinations being tried out, or as Hugh Matheson put it in an unidentified newspaper clip, probably from The Independent, “Ron Needs… made a host of unexplained changes, obscuring intentions for the Seoul Olympics.”

It appears that the better oarswomen raced in fours on the Saturday and pairs on the Sunday; two openweight coxed fours raced on the first day with ‘Kim Thomas’ beating ‘Fiona Freckleton’ (these being the women at bow of each boat) by 21 seconds. The second crew finished only three seconds ahead of a Tideway Scullers club crew containing oarswomen who had been cut from the squad earlier in the year. Penny Chuter later described the two ARA crews as a “strong” four and a “weak” four, adding that the members of the “weak” four were from the women’s eight. On the Sunday, two “weak” fours were both beaten by the TSS crew. GB “Gill Hodges” finished four seconds adrift and GB ‘Zaza Horne’ came two seconds behind that. Annabel Eyres, who was in one of the GB fours remembers their defeat by Scullers crew being, “Such a humiliation,” but also an example of the benefits of training in consistent crews, which the squad were not doing.

In the pairs, an unidentified GB crew was beaten by a pair from Commercial RC, Ireland on the Saturday by six seconds, but another GB boat meted out a 19 second defeat on the Irish the following day.

The eight scored two easy victories over domestic crews.

Two lightweight coxless fours raced on both days, taking the gold and silver medals on both, but with the selected GB first crew finishing about ten seconds clear of the second crew of Anna Durrant, Alison Brownless, Morag Simpson and Jo Thellussen each time.

Four women with medals and pennant

The top lightweight coxless four. From left: Katie Brownlow, Jo Toch, Sue Key, Vikki Filsell. (Photo: Sue Key’s personal collection.)

The three members of the lightweight sculling squad, who had been the single and the double in 1987 and the double in 1986, raced on both days at the regatta, with a different doubles combination on each day, and the remaining woman in the single. The doubles did openweight, presumably to eliminate the risk that someone not making weight didn’t mess up what was an important trials weekend. Carrie Wood and Gill Bond won openweight doubles on the Saturday; Caroline Lucas and Gill Bond won on Sunday, both by huge margins over domestic opposition. Caroline Lucas came second in lightweight singles on the Saturday, 12 seconds behind the Italian sculler who had got the bronze medal at the World Championships the previous year. On the Sunday Carrie Wood finished two seconds behind her.

Finalising the lightweight single and double

All three also did a separate singles trial in mirror-flat conditions at 7am on the Sunday morning. Carrie Wood believed at the time that the race was for the right to go into the double with Gill who had long been coached by Bill Mason and who would be coaching it again as he had for the previous two years. The result of the race was that Carrie Wood won by two seconds from Caroline Lucas.. Gill, who had suffered a stress fracture to one of her vertebrae (a repeat of an injury she’d first incurred in 1982) over the winter, was third.

Carrie was initially pleased with the result because she didn’t want to do the single, but was then told that that was what she was to do. The arguments made to her were that she was not only the fastest sculler, she’d also done very well against the Italian. In hindsight, she feels that this may well have been Bill and Penny’s wish all along, at least partly because she believes Bill disliked her natural race profile which involved a fairly consistent pace over the course because it generally meant that they were nerve-wrackingly dropped off the start by those who blasted off, even though they paid for it later when she they rowed through the fast starters.

The new double of Caroline Lucas and Gill Bond clicked very quickly. “We’d meet up before each race and have a paddle, and we just flew,” Caroline Lucas remembers. “It was like magic; it was just perfect every time and just so much fun, relaxed and lovely.”

Final openweight crews

After the experiments with openweight combinations at NIR, the final eight, four and pair were announced. The members of the group of 16 which had been identified at the beginning of April who were not selected were Zaza Horne, Ruth Howe and Debbie Flewin who had been replaced by Fiona Freckleton since then.


B: Fiona Freckleton
2: Aggie Barnett
3: Jackie Prout
4: Annabel Eyres
5: Sally Andreae
6: Ann Redgrave
7: Lizzi Chapman
S: Ali Gill
Cox: Toddy Russ

Fiona was quite surprised to find herself in the crew. “It must have been between me and Ruth Howe, and she was much more experienced [having rowed in the pair at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984], and I don’t know why they chose me because she was above me in the rankings, but I think she’d thrown her toys around too much – she’d had a big argument with Penny Chuter at Sabaudia – so they maybe decided they’d rather have me in the bows not being difficult. That said, Ruth was still in the crew for ages because Ali Gill was doing exams in Oxford and couldn’t get to evening outings in London until practically Henley Women’s.” Ruth was also on the flight list issued on 12 June for Amsterdam Regatta (26 June) instead of Annabel although Annabel raced and Ruth didn’t.

The full crew finally got out for the first time on 15 June, just three days before Henley Women’s Regatta. That was also the first time they were coached by Bob Michaels, who was a coach at Westminster School where bow woman Fiona Freckleton worked, and was brought in as dedicated coach for them. Until that point, the eight (whoever was in it) had been coached by Ron and Steve but they were now focused on the pair and four.

Coxed four

B: Flo Johnston
2: Jo Gough
3: Kate Grose
S: Sue Smith
Cox: Ali Norrish
Coach: Steve Gunn

Coxless pair

B: Ali Bonner
S: Kim Thomas
Coach: Ron Needs

The main change in these two crews since Essen was that Kim Thomas went into the pair and Flo Johnston into the four. Although Kim was happy to be in the pair with Ali Bonner for the second year running, the twosome were not amused to discover that despite having been the fastest pair at a number of trials and, as Ali Gill remembers, much more consistent than any other crew, they were not the top boat. And the single attraction of being the top boat is that they could choose who coached it, which meant Steve Gunn. “But Steve coached the four, and we were really miffed about that. We were coached by Ron, and we never developed a good working relationship with him, and we relied heavily on the fact that we were a strong unit and kept ourselves motivated,” she adds.

Selection in rowing, other than for single scullers, cannot be an exact science, because the compatibility of combinations is a significant factor, and this was presumably why the top boat didn’t contain the fastest pair. Looking back on it now with admirable equanimity, Kim says, “I think they always thought Ali was a bit rough and I think they always thought I was a bit small but I might have imagined that. Certainly by 1992 the coaches thought I was a bit small.” But, she adds, “You can imagine all sorts of reasons, though, can’t you?”

The four was the first boat, though, not least because the coaches had decided – almost certainly correctly – that there should be a slightly greater chance of reaching the final in that event. And Flo was thrilled to be in it. “I knew it was between me and Kim for the bow seat of the four, but after they’d gone well in Essen with her in it, I remember thinking for ages that she was going to get it, but I still really wanted it, even though I felt I was only on the periphery.” She adds, “There wasn’t formal seat racing for it, but the rest of the crew did try rowing with both of us and then the decision was made, and before that trial I remember Steve saying to me, ‘Flo if you want to be in that boat, you could make sure that you are by doing the best you’re capable of.’ He gave me a real pep talk, I think because he’d realised that I thought it was a bit of a done deal that Kim would be in it.”

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The four mostly trained at Molesey BC because that was where Hampton School were based, whom Steve was also coaching. “Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes also used to train there a lot, and that was the year when they doubled up in the coxless and coxed pairs, so did a lot of work with them when they were in their coxed boat because although they were still faster than us but they weren’t that much faster than us.”

“We had a fantastic time being coached by Steve,” she adds. “We all loved it because he was very funny and he really bought into the fact that he could really improve us. There was a lot to work with to be fair – we needed a lot of improvement – but that made it easy to see improvement. He taught us that we could do better than we thought.”

Although it had now been decided who was in each boat, for the openweights, this didn’t mean that every boat was actually going to be sent to the Olympics; they still needed to prove that they were fast enough at the last two international regattas – Amsterdam and Lucerne – to merit selection. But before that, the final line-ups had the opportunity to show off their speed at Henley Women’s.

Henley Women’s Regatta (18 June 1988)

Henley Women’s Regatta was a new event in the calendar in 1988. It was the brainchild of Rosie Mayglothling who had realised that women’s rowing would benefit from having a major event at this point in the season for crews to aim for. The first regatta took place on a single day, over a 2,000m course that ran downstream from the Royal Regatta finish to the top of Temple Island.

The date was deliberately chosen to fit in with the International calendar so that the National Squad could race and apart from the double, for whom there was no lightweight event, and the lightweight four, the other four GB crews entered although the coxed four subsequently scratched. Zaza Horne also competed under the GBR National Squad banner, and won Open Single Sculls.

As they should, the pair, the eight and lightweight single all won every race, and with ‘Easily’ verdicts too, except for the eight’s semi-final where they were pressed hard by Thames RC which Annabel remembers was “embarrassing”.

The eight also ‘raced’ University College, Dublin, the only crew that remained in the College Eights event after the other three entries scratched, so that the Irish crew had more than just a row-over. The GB crew crossed the line first, but UCD won the trophy.

1988 eight (c) John Shore

The GB women’s eight approaching the finish. (Photo © John Shore.)

Amsterdam (25-26 June 1988)

The GB lightweights which raced put in convincing performances. Single sculler Carrie Wood won on both days, and the coxless four won on the Sunday, which was the only day its event ran.

The results for the openweights were rather more mixed.

A later Press Release from the ARA described how, “At Amsterdam the four put in some very good performances where they beat the Canadian selected Olympic four on both days, coming second to an East German crew on the Saturday and pipping them on the post to win on the Sunday.” Regatta magazine described their defeat of the East Germans and Canadians as, “Good scalps to take with Lucerne just around the corner,” and added that their performance, “Suggests that women’s rowing is at long last getting in amongst the Eastern bloc super crews that have dominated for so long.” Flo Johnston remembers that this might not have been quite as impressive as they first thought as there were rumours that the East German crew was actually only their U23s. This is hard to check as East Germany don’t actually appear on the original entries list.

The eight was second to the Canadians on both days, by 13 seconds on the first day but by just four seconds on the Sunday after leading to half way and going through the 1,500m mark almost level. “After 1,500m and we then collapsed in a heap and they rowed past us,” Annabel Eyres remembers, “But we were all absolutely overjoyed. I’d never ever been in a position where I’d been leading in an international regatta.” Sally Andreae adds, “It was an exciting race and I do remember everybody being a little bit more pleased with us.”

Rowing magazine reported that the Canadian crew was “apparently their first boat this year,” which turned out to be incorrect as the eight wasn’t actually sent, although four members of it did go in a coxed four which didn’t make the final. Its report added, “This was a stirring performance by our eight. They will go to Lucerne with higher hopes after this weekend.”

Penny Chuter later described the eight’s Sunday row as their “only good performance,” although she also suggested that the result may also have been attributable to a poorer row by the Canadians whom she said had been “caught napping” by the British crew. The times for the two days show that at least one of the crews was inconsistent in its performance; on the Sunday the Canadian crew was nearly six seconds slower, while the GB crew was over two seconds faster.

Rather damningly, the later ARA Press Release described the pair’s two third places behind the East Germans and the Canadians as “uninspired performances,” although they were actually only a second behind the Canadians on the first day, and 0.32 seconds down on the Sunday. Kim Thomas is fairly sure that this was the occasion they fell in on the way to the start after catching a blade on the reeds that grow at the side of he course. “We’d just surfaced and were up to our chests in the water when the East German pair paddled past. It wasn’t a good start! We got in again, but with water sloshing everywhere, which is quite funny when you look back at it now.”

Italian National Championships for Lightweights (25-26 June 1988)

Not surprisingly, only the lightweight double of Gill Bond and Rome-based Caroline Lucas competed – and won – here.

Two women with cup and medals

Gill (left) and Caroline after winning the doubles at the Italian Lightweight Championships. (Photo: Gill Bond’s personal collection.)

Interlude: the eight trains coxless

Jackie Prout remembers how the eight got round a couple of logistical challenges.

We did some training out of Reading University during Henley week because Bob was also coaching his Westminster boys in Henley. One day when we got back from our outing we couldn’t get out of the boathouse because the door had been blocked by cars so we had to bounce a car out of the way, which I’m fairly sure was the start of a long-term back problem I had.

Another exciting event that didn’t do my back any good was the time we had to go out coxless! Toddy had gone out to dinner at the Café Royale in London for her sister’s 21st birthday, and because of fitting round when Bob’s boys were racing, there had been a late decision about where we were boating from and when, so I rang the Café Royale and left a message for her saying that we were going out in Reading and the time. Well, she didn’t turn up, and there was no way Bob could have fitted in the stern of the boat, so we went out coxless, which is quite a feat for an eight on the Reading reach. The outing was meant to be 45 seconds on and 15 seconds stopped as lactate tolerance training. I was rowing at three I wasn’t doing 45 seconds on 15 seconds rest, I was doing 45 seconds on, 15 seconds correct the steering with bow. We didn’t hit anything which was a miracle.”

When we saw Toddy the next day she brought the written message she’d been given at the Café Royale, and it’s not a surprise she never found us because it said ‘red ink’ not Reading.

Lucerne (9-10 July 1988)

Lucerne in 1988 was a single regatta, spread over the weekend.

Chris Dodd wrote in Regatta, “The lightweight women’s four were fortunate with a straight final where most events had very big entries. And they won it in fine style [leading throughout and finishing two seconds ahead of West Germany with the USA in third place]… Caroline Lucas and Gill Bond did respectably to come third in the lightweight doubles.” They finished 10 seconds behind the winning Dutch crew, though and Rowing said, “The British girls were not on their best form all weekend” and “reportedly had problems making weight,” a summary that Caroline agrees with, adding that she was feeling a bit ill.

Perhaps as an indicator of the expectations on her, Dodd pronounced that, “Carrie Wood was disappointing in not reaching the lightweight singles final,” although Rowing focused on the positive and said she, “Pulled out her best race of the weekend… in winning the petite final by two thirds of a length.” Carrie herself remembers, “After I didn’t make the final, I said to Penny Chuter that I didn’t want to race at the Worlds in the single but she said that I’d regret it if I didn’t, and as I’d had slight niggle of illness at Lucerne, I agreed to do it.”

While there was no doubt about whether the three lightweight boats would go to the World Championships, all three of the openweight crews still needed to show themselves worthy of selection.

The coxed four achieved this by making the final, although stroke Sue Smith then came down with a stomach upset brought on by eating a sausage from one of the stalls at the course and had to be replaced by Ali Gill who had stroked the eight’s petite final only two and a half hours previously. “Their sixth place in a rotten time does not represent their potential,” wrote Chris Dodd in Regatta. This video of the race shows Poland finishing fourth, and Canada fifth, over a length clear of the Brits. [Readers should remember this for when we get on to the Olympic regatta – Ed.]

Kate Grose recalls, “I know that when we went to Lucerne it was nip and tuck whether we were going to be selected. But by the end of the regatta we were in because we’d been told what we had to do and we did it, which was just very exciting.”

Rowing in the brand new boat which had been bought for them with last-minute funding, Kim Thomas and Ali Bonner missed qualifying for the main final by four seconds and finished second in the petite final of the pairs, where, according to Rowing, they, “In the small final, “Produced a race more indicative of their true potential when they battled with the East German second pair for the seventh place slot.” An upbeat ARA Press Release issued ten days said of their performance at Lucerne that, “It was clear however that the inadequate preliminary Regatta experiences still left them short of hard competition over the full 2,000m distance.” [Quite what was meant by this isn’t obvious, as they’d been to all the same regattas as the four apart from Essen, and had raced together at the Worlds the previous year too – Ed.]

The target given to the eight’s, as Lizzi Chapman remembers it, was to simply beat the Canadians. Fiona Freckleton remembers that they’d been told they had to make the A final. As the Canadians were probably around the sixth fastest crew, beating them and getting to the main final were tantamount to the same thing, and as things panned out, they didn’t manage either.

The critical race was the repechage in which they raced the Canadians directly as well as the USA and a second USA crew made up of their lightweights which was therefore not in contention for Olympic selection, and from which only two boats would get to the final. USA and Canada took the places.

Rowing said, “The eight had everything to prove and were found a little wanting,” finishing well down on times across the two heats. In the rep they “Looked to have too much to do and so it proved.” They came second in the small final. The main final was dominated by Romania, followed by East Germany, the USA, Russia, Canada and Bulgaria. The winners of the small final were West Germany, making eight crews in total, a fact that becomes relevant shortly.

women's eight warming up

The GB women’s eight at Lucerne. (Photo © John Shore.)

However, it wasn’t quite that simple. Jackie Prout’s back, injured in the car-moving episode in Reading, was getting worse, so much so that she had to be taken out of the boat by the safety launch at the end of the petite final. “It was just awful,” Lizzi Chapman remembers. “There’s no way she should have rowed, but she was so strong and such a great crew mate.”

The eight appeals

The eight were told straight after Lucerne that they would not be going to the Olympics. On 13 July they lodged an appeal, on a number grounds including the fact that Jackie had actually been quite seriously injured when they raced in Lucerne and so their performance there should not be taken into account. This was ultimately turned down. In a meeting with the crew, Penny Chuter made it clear that her judgement had been based into performance and that she had not hidden behind the late budget cuts which the ARA had imposed on the GB team.

Fiona Freckleton remembers, “Ann Redgrave [who had rowed in the Olympic eight in 1984, and had taken a year out of her medical training to row in 1988] was our spokesman, and I think in some ways the highlight of the year was the whole appeal procedure and the feeling that gave the crew because we were doing it because we all wanted to make progress, we all wanted to the ARA to support us and to say that women’s rowing was worth it and that we could go somewhere.”

The Thames crew which had come so close to the the GB eight at Henley Women’s and the National Championships was coached by Noel Casey, who had coached the GB eight at the 1984 Olympics. He had specifically told his crew that he wanted them to try and beat the squad. Miriam Batten, who was at stroke, remembers, “We thought maybe they’d pick some of us to make the squad crew faster.” In the end, of course, as had happened on various occasions in the past when a challenger took on the squad crew in this way, all that happens is that neither is selected.

National Championships (15-17 July 1988)

For reasons that none of those involved are now clear about, the eight then raced at the National Championships. None of the other GB crews had been entered. No suggestion has come to light that this represented the management giving them one last chance to prove themselves worthy of Olympic selection; rather, they may have been sent just so that they could at least get a National title in their last race together. The injured Jackie Prout’s place was filled by Sue Prince, an American who had rowed with Annabel Eyres that year in the Oxford Blue Boat. They won, but only by just over three seconds from the Thames crew which had also pushed them hard at Henley Women’s.

Mean while, though, an unexpected alternative was being planned for two of them.

Olympic team announcement

At the beginning of the season the squad management had stated that 13 July would be the final Olympic selection date but, perhaps because the eight’s appeal, this was delayed by a week. A Press Release issued on 20 July 1988 said of the women’s team:

“A coxed four and coxless pair have been selected as crews in their own right, but in addition the two selected substitutes [Ali Gill and Sally Andreae] will train in a double scull and there is a very slim chance that they might reach minimum selection criteria before the Games in which case they would be entered* in this event on the understanding that the crew would be disbanded if either girl was required to substitute permanently in the four or pair.

“In addition, the eight girls will be entered* in the women’s eight event, but it is only likely that they would ‘double-up’ if the women’s eights event proved to be a straight final. Again, this decision will be made when entries are known.”

* There was no pre-selection for the Olympic regatta until 1996, so entries could be made quite last-minute.

None of those who were in the team that went to Seoul remember going out in this eight at all. “I think Steve Gunn was pretty against the idea, because he believed it would be hard enough to get the four into the final without worrying about another race too,” Ali Gill says. “And getting one crew [to race its way] into a final would be substantially better than having an eight race that would probably finish last and didn’t have to qualify.” The concept became moot anyway as there were seven entries.

Why a double?

At first sight it seems slightly strange that the spares for the four and the pair were asked to train in a sculling boat rather than in the discipline for which they were the subs. But, Ali Gill reflects, “Although no one said this explicitly, I think that having us training in a double rather than a pair, meant there was no chance we would ever get close to the pair as a pair in a training piece, which could have been de-motivating for them.” Possibly for the same reason, Sally remembers, they mostly separately from the other two crews.

The squad management took the decision to enter the double in the Olympic regatta for a number of reasons, and only after they’d achieved a standard time during the Chuncheon City training camp. “Ron’s argument was that training to race was a better way to keep people fit and motivated in case they were needed to sub than training with no clear goal,” Ali explains. “He also thought that as spares it’s a better experience for you if you actually get to race, and the money had been spent to have us out there anyway [had the Games been in Europe there would have been no need for travelling spares, as subs could have been flown out at the last minute, but as they were in Korea, there was a need for time-zone adjustment and acclimatisation], so we might as well get as much experience out of it as we could.” The fact that the eight, which was mostly made up of ‘new blood’, had not been selected meant that Ali and Sally were the only openweight rowers that year who didn’t already have World Championships experience; with the eight so allowing them to race could also be seen as contributing to the squad’s continuity for the future. “It was a very generous thing to let us do it,” Sally adds. Both women freely admit that the GB lightweight double might well have been faster than them.

The three lightweight scullers had all been measured for Olympic uniforms in June, and while the list of those measured tended [for more than just these Games] to include anyone who might possibly be part of the team, the individuals concerned didn’t know that, and they were left with an arguably unfair amount of hope.

Training Camp in South Korea

The team flew out on 20 August and arrived for a two and a half week training camp near in Chuncheon the day before the boats. This didn’t stop them from getting out on the water, though.

swan boat

This is not an Olympic class boat. (Photo © Fiona Land.)

Everyone speaks about what a good venue it was – the rowing took place on a large, Y-shaped lake created by three hydroelectric dams, which offered 12k of water in various directions – and how well the camp was organised, particularly that a British army chef was brought in from Hong Kong to ensure that suitable dishes were prepared. Kim Thomas remembers his blueberry pancakes being a big hit at breakfast after morning outings.

On a more technical note, the crews also benefitted from a new type of mental preparation provided by Simon Holmes, the brother of Andy Holmes, who was rowing in the men’s pair with Steve Redgrave. In his autobiography A Golden Age, Steve describes Simon as, “A doctor with a special interest in sports psychology and also a hypnotherapist.” Although his initial involvement was just with the men’s pair, Simon also worked with other crew in the team once they were out in South Korea. While Simon didn’t actually hypnotise them, Steve describes how Simon would get each crew to lie down quietly in a room, and get them to think about breathing and relaxing until they were in a “semi trance-like state”, after which their coaches would talk them through various race scenarios. Sue Smith remembers, “It was the first time I’d come across anything other than normal coaching. He made us think about the race all the time so that when we were actually racing we knew what we were going to be doing, and we knew that for different situations – each talk would come up with a different situation and he’d talk us through how we’d get through that or how we were going to come up with our surprise.” She adds, “As a crew we had total belief in ourselves.”

This level of mental preparation built on work that had already been done with the team, who had been shown videos of the training venues, and had benefited from talks by the men’s pair’s coach, Mike Spracklen. “He gave some amazing talks on psychology and racing and the effects of what you do in the race, and that made us think, ‘Wow, we can do that, and we can make sure that doesn’t happen.’ He was really, really good. He made you really want to go there and make you really think about how you race.”

When the four were going out for their critical repechage, Sue remembers that Steve Gunn had a quiet word with each of them as they were getting in the boat – another aspect of his effective coaching psychology. “He knew us all well enough to say the right things,” she reflects.

5 of GB women by sign welcoming team to hotel

The team got a warm welcome at their hotel. (Photo © Flo Land.)

Although acclimatisation to heat, humidity and a very different time zone are the main objectives of this kind of camp, they also provide an important opportunity to relax before the big event and after the stresses and strains of the run up to the team’s departure from the UK. Various incidents show that this was achieved too.

Ali Gill remembers that when they first arrived at the hotel in Chuncheon the team management said to them, “‘We know you’ll be feeling jet lagged and what normally happens is that you wake up in the middle of the night and we want you to stay really hydrated and make sure you eat plenty so if you’re hungry when you wake up, just call room service.’ Of course most of us were students or ex-students and were used to not having any money, so the kitchens were awake all night cooking us food. So the second night they had to put a stop to that!”

On a day off, Flo recalls, “We all decided to go and see some temple and took a boat across this other lake and climbed up to this temple. But then someone suggested we had a race back down, which we did, but it was on uneven steps and over tree roots and things. I think we all got a through telling off when we got to the bottom.”

Writing in Regatta magazine in 1992, Kim Thomas described how, “One of the more memorable characters we encountered was the Korean policeman, nominally our interpreter and guide, who entertained us with language lessons and demonstrations of tae kwondo, apparently preferred by Korean police to the handgun for apprehending criminals. Unfortunately he tended to become a little over enthusiastic in displaying his defence skills… it wasn’t until we awoke after one evening to find the physio booked up with several sheepish sore coaches that we appreciated the effectiveness of his art, and we approached his offers of audience participation with greater caution.”

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The team also visited Chuncheon city itself, where local people didn’t always know quite what to make of them. “The whole thing was just an out-of-this-world the experience,” Ali Gill remembers. “Most of the people there had never seen westerners before never mind six foot women rowing up and down the lake that they usually fished on for their living.”

Kim Thomas adds, “There was an American army base in Chuncheong which was close to the border between North and South Korea so and whilst we were out rowing on the lake you could hear the choppers going out, just like on MASH.”

Women's four in yellow boat on glassy lake

The four on training camp in South Korea. (Photo: Sue Hastings’ personal collection.)

At the Olympic Games

The team moved to Olympic Village 8 September, and finished their preparations on the Han River course which was only about 20-30 minutes drive from the main Village, allowing the rowers to be based there for the entire games, which often isn’t the case.

Opening ceremony

The opening ceremony for the Seoul Games was the last for a Summer Olympics to be held during and is infamous for the roasting of a number of doves, released to symbolise peace, when the Olympic cauldron was lit. It was, of course, spectacular, and involved a mass demonstration of taekwondo, as well as a skydiving team descending into the stadium in the form of the Olympic rings.

Flo Johnston remembers, “Often rowers aren’t able to go because of when the racing starts, but we were and it was just HUGE! The team managers had to go to the market and buy some terrible hats because it was very hot and the uniforms didn’t include any. I actually wore Linford Christie’s blazer because mine was too small across the shoulders and none of the athletes were going, so the quartermaster got various of their jackets out for me to try on and his was the one that fitted.”

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Most of the racing took place early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat. Kim Thomas remembers, “They brought in loads of Korean school children to sit along the banks, which is always good and they were very enthusiastic.”

Coxed four (6th out of 10)

The four’s campaign started with a five boat heat from which only one crew would qualify directly for the final, a place which Romania took comfortably. their time was the slowest of all the crews across both heats apart from Korea’s, and they were virtually novices. “We did an absolutely awful heat,” Kate Grose remembers. “In fact it was so bad that Steve told us that he didn’t want us to watch the video of it because was so much less good than we were capable of. But of course we did go and watch it and we were MORTIFIED!”

In the repechage they were drawn against Bulgaria, Canada and Poland, and needed to finish in the top two to reach the final. Given that the ARA’s team announcement back in July had described them as having an outside chance of reaching the final, and with their poor first round behind them, it’s not surprising that they were not feeling confident. Steve Gunn must have been well aware that for a crew like this, it’s the repechage which is the most important race of the regatta rather than the final that they were trying to get to, because he produced an inspiring pre-race talk that drew together both the technical work he’d already done with the crew, and their belief in him which this had engendered.

“Steve just sat us down and said, ‘I’m not going to come out with any rubbish about how you could do better than you did before, because you actually know that. You wouldn’t have been selected if you were that bad. So this is what you’re going to do,'” Kate remembers. “‘You’re going to go off and you’re going to be last at 250m, and I’m fully expecting you to be last at 500m but at 500m you’re going to have a nibble at Poland, and you’re going to have a big push and you’re going to row through Poland.’ And we thought, ‘Right, great!’ Then he said, ‘What will happen next is that after you’ve gone past Poland, which you’ll do from 500m to 750m gone, Ali is going to have a look and see where you are compared to Canada, and don’t forget the Canadians think you’re useless and they know that they were bronze medallists at Lucerne and at the Worlds in 1986 so they’ll be expecting this repechage to be a procession, so although they won’t have expected you to go past Poland, they won’t worry because you’ll still be quite a long way behind but at that stage you’re going to push really hard and as soon as she sees you getting even faintly within striking distance Ali’s going to call for you to do a start on the run and you’ll get level with them, at which point they will explode through fear and complacency as much as anything else, then you will row through them and come second.’ So we all said ‘Fine!'”

The crew had already practised the push that they’d use on the Canadians. Flo says, “We had this kind of secret weapon that we’d do if we were got the slightest bit of overlap with another crew. which involved just upping the rate massively, going really crazy and that would sort of give us a little jump but the key was that when you came back down to the race pace to come down really hard, really strong, really long and just carry on the momentum that you’d got from this sort of hiccough.”

When it came to the race, Steve’s predictions proved correct as they reached 250m in sixth place. “Ali said, ‘You’re last – yes, just where you want to be! 500, still last – exactly where we’re meant to be, race going exactly according to plan!,'” Kate recalls, and Flo adds that the important thing about this was they didn’t get stressed about being at the back in the most important race of their lives.

They were considerably surprised, though, when things continued to pan out the way he’d said. “Ali told us that she could see Poland, so we did a big push and we went past Poland. We were SO astonished!,” Kate says. “And then we were waiting for this amazing call which wasn’t going to happen if we never got anywhere close enough to Canada and it was, ‘Get ready, get ready, YES!’ And Ali did it, and Sue our stroke jacked the rate up to 44 and we all followed and then we rowed past Canada and they completely exploded. And I really believe that it was just a case of complacency because they just didn’t expect it.” She reflects, “I’m far from sure that Steve really thought we could do any of those things but he told us a good tale and we really believed him, which was the important thing.”

The British crew finished two seconds ahead of Canada and seven ahead of Poland, and were in the final. “We were absolutely chuffed to bits and that was my gold medal, that’s how I felt,” Flo remembers.

During the race, the TV coverage, which Flo’s brother got up in the middle of the night to record for them in the days before programmable videos, was focused on Bulgaria in the lead and didn’t catch the GB crew’s monumental effort. “All the commentators had basically written us off,” she says, “And then suddenly, you can hear Chris Baillieu in his very clipped English, going, ‘Oh I say, the British girls seem to be coming back! They’ve done terribly well.’ It was very funny.”

Kate remembers Brian Armstrong, the Team Manager, meeting us at the pontoon when they came in. “He was just delighted, he was so, so pleased. I think he and Steve Gunn were the two people in the coaching and management team who were genuinely really pleased. I think everyone else was either slightly irritated that this total bucket boat that was meant to do really badly had actually somehow got into a final. Later on that evening Brian was in the bar with Hugh Matheson who was writing for the Independent and he said to Hugh, ‘It was good about the girls, wasn’t it?’ And Hugh replied something like, ‘Yes, much better performance than the heat, still pretty slow, but not too bad.’ And Brian said, ‘You do realise they made the final, don’t you?,’ at which point Hugh had to dash off an make a phone call to London because he’d only watched the race to half way at which point we were still nearly last, and then he’d filed his report. As I understand it, the early editions of the Independent had a headline that was along the lines of ‘British Women Fail As Expected’, because my mother wrote to him she was so angry, which I’m sure he didn’t care about at all!”

GB women's 4+ happy

Looking happy warming down after the repechage. (Photo: Kate Grose’s personal collection.)

In the final they finished sixth, only slighty over a second behind on the Americans with whom they had a two-boat tussle for most of the course whilst the other four fought it out considerably further ahead. “I was never sure why we didn’t do the big move that had worked so well in the rep,” Flo says, while admitting that this would only have made the difference between sixth and fifth at most.

By qualifying the final, the four became the first British women’s boat to do so at a Games when everyone was there (the 1984 and 1980 Olympics having suffered from boycotts, and no British women’s crews reaching the finals in 1976 which was the first Olympic Games to include women’s rowing). As Steve Gunn wrote later, they’d shown that, “British women really could race the rest of the world.” It’s a shame the commentator in this very brief clip of them crossing the line in the final didn’t mention this immensely significant achievement.

6 people in red, white and blue kit

From left: Sue Smith, Jo Gough, Kate Grose, Flo Johnson, Steve Gunn, Ali Norrish. (Photo: Sue Hastings’ personal collection.)

Coxless pair (8th out of 10)

The pair came fourth out of five in their first round heat of five boats from which Romania qualified directly for the final. Like the four, they needed to come in the top two in their rep but sadly finished behind Bulgaria and the USA, a little under four seconds away from achieving this.

In the small final they came second behind Canada but beating West Germany and Korea.

Although the ARA’s July Press Release set their target as “a good place in the small final,” looking back on their performance, Kim says, “The big thing was getting to the final at that stage. And we didn’t. So we were disappointed.”

Double scull (9th out of 10)

Like the pair, the double also had a five-boat first round – in which they false started – with one through to the final. They finished fourth, 36 seconds off the winners, though comfortably ahead of Korea.

They finished last of the four crews in the repechage, 26 seconds off qualifying, before coming third in the small final, once again ahead of Korea.

Ali Gill says, “I remember being just totally blown away with the whole experience the whole time which somehow made me feel we were going to do really well, and then rather naïvely not being quite able to believe how fast everybody else was. I had no frame of reference – I hadn’t been rowing long enough to know anything.”

A photo of the double in action can be seen here.

World Rowing Championships

The team

Five of the seven members of the lightweight team had considerable international experience; Sue Key and Katie Brownlow were both in their first year rowing for any GB team.

Lightweight coxless four

B: Vikki Filsell (University of London WBC)
2: Sue Key (Thames RC)
3: Jo Toch (Burway RC)
S: Katie Brownlow (Thames RC)
Coach: Rosie Mayglothling

Lightweight double scull

B: Gill Bond (Civil Service Ladies RC)
S: Caroline Lucas (Circolo Canottieri Roma)
Coach: Bill Mason

Lightweight single scull

Carol-Ann Wood (Tideway Scullers’ School)
Coach: Bill Barry

Final preparations

In the run up to the World Championships in Milan both the men’s and women’s lightweights had a training camp in nearby Varese supported by a £12,700 donation from the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta.

This video shows the lightweight four’s immaculate bladework on perfect water there.

The double overcame the logistical challenge of living in different countries by training together in Italy before this too, thanks to the generosity of the Civil Service, for whom Gill worked, who gave her five weeks leave so that she could go straight from Lucerne regatta to Rome where Caroline lived. With his duties as coach to Imperial College over for the academic year, Bill Mason was able to be there too. “We couldn’t have done what we did without that time together,” Gill says.

The course and the weather

Racing took place on the Idroscalo in Milan, an artificial lake originally built as a seaplane airport. It is about 200m longer and also wider (considerably in some places) than a standard, purpose-built 2k rowing lake. Katie Brownlow remembers, “It wasn’t terribly well marshalled before you got on to the actual rowing course part.”

The weather was extremely hot.

Lightweight double (3rd out of 8)

Having not got the only direct qualifying place from their first round heat, Caroline and Gill progressed to the final from the repechage from which which four of the six boat would get through. They led for the first 500m, but then dropped back, passing the half way mark in third place, after which they “Were content to maintain fourth place, which they held to the finish,” according to Rowing magazine.

In the final, Rowing continued, “The British girls looked to be out of contention, nearly two lengths down as they approached the last quarter. Bond/Lucas timed their finishing burst extremely well to take the bronze medal from the Canadian and fading West Germans.” The journalist Richard Burnell wrote, “After a season of injury and interrupted training… they suddenly came good after 1,500m, clawing their way past Canada and West Germany and closing on France to snatch an unexpected bronze medal.”

Caroline, who had only single sculled at this level until then, remembers how much she enjoyed doubling with Gill that year. “It was like sculling with an engine behind you! So in the final I remember feeling the most exhausted I’d ever been in my whole life, and that it really, really, hurt but I didn’t want to let Gill down, or let Bill down, and I just kept going.”

2 women in GB kit

Gill Bond (left) and Caroline Lucas just before the medal ceremony. (Photo: Gill Bond’s personal collection.)

This was the third medal that GB had taken in this boat class in the four years that it had been included in the World Rowing Championships, and was Gill’s second as she’d got the silver in 1986 with Carrie Wood.

Lightweight single scull (5th out of 13)

Carrie Wood’s problems at the World Championships started before she even got there.

“At Lucerne I had a slight problem with one of my eyes but I thought, ‘Oh, I’m probably just tired.’ because I had working long hours. Then I woke up the day we were to travel out to Italy, and I felt like a horse had kicked my head. I’d only got an eye infection but I was so ill with it that if Kate Brownlow hadn’t pretty much carried me through the airport, I wouldn’t have made it onto the plane. Once we in Varese I had to wear sunglasses indoors. I couldn’t read, and I certainly couldn’t train. Bill Barry was on the phone to me asking me why I wasn’t training, so after about five days like that I went down to the rowing club and told Rosie that I was fine. However, she made me take my resting pulse which was more than 20 higher than it normally was so she wouldn’t let me go out, and took me to an optician instead. His advice was never ever to wear contact lenses again otherwise I’d go blind! So when I raced in Milan I was still only recovering from being ill, I hadn’t trained properly, I couldn’t see properly, I was wearing sunglasses that Katie had lent me but I wasn’t used to them because I never usually worse sunglasses, and because I was so miserable and had weight to spare, I’d stuffed my face a bit so I’d put on weight but it was fat not muscle.”

Having reached semi-final (of course, only one sculler needed to be eliminated before this stage), Carrie needed to finish third to reach the final. Rowing magazine reported that she, “Held third place and the vital qualifying slot to 750m, but could not hold the place and drifted out to finish fifth.” Carrie herself remembers, “People told me afterwards, ‘You were only a length down, if you’d pushed, you’d have got it,’ but I looked round and because the nearest sculler looked fuzzy to me with all my eyesight issues, she looked a long way away, and I thought I was more like three lengths down, though I probably couldn’t have got it anyway. But t make it worse, when I got in after the race I was really upset and Bill Barry wasn’t even there because he’d got chatting to someone and he had my shoes so there I was on the landing stage, no coach, no shoes, no place in the final.”

The petite final was led by the Swiss sculler with the Yugoslavian and Carrie in hot pursuit. As Rowing recounted it, Carrie, “Was in contention throughout the whole race, succumbing to the pressure only in the last 250m.”

Lightweight coxless four (5th out of 5)

The coxless four had the difficult challenge of a straight final, which was made all the harder when they collided with an Australian crew in warm up, after officials had directed them both into the same lane in opposite directions. With bow women bruised and riggers bent, the race was delayed while repairs were made.

Rosie Mayglothling remembers, “They came back in and we had to rebuild the boat and I probably made a wrong decision then because I approached it by saying, ‘Calm down, don’t worry, it’s not your fault, it’s not their fault, it was just an accident that happened,’ whereas I know that the Australian women’s coach, Barbara Fenner, who’s quite a feisty person, and she used the situation to wind her crew up around it.” Katie Brownlow, however, feels Rosie’s approach was the right one for her crew. “I got to know the Australians latter when I lived there for a while, and I can see that geeing them up would probably have worked quite well for them but I’m not sure that would have worked for us.”

Once they finally got going at the end of the day, as Rowing magazine put it, “The British four were never in the race and finished in last place, a disappointment for the girls.” Jo Toch remembers going into it feeling very optimistic but as soon as they went off, she realised that something was wrong. “I couldn’t put any work on and when we crossed the line last I thought, ‘What’s happened?’ Afterwards people said, ‘Oh was it the crash,’ but I knew it wasn’t that and I just couldn’t understand it. Then when we were at the Worlds the next year, our coach mentioned before the final that he’d caught some people changing the gearing on our blades but had put them back, and I realised that was what must have happened in 1988. Someone must have altered the bowside blades and made the gearing really easy on my side. The GB men’s crews then told me this kind of sabotage happened all the time so they always used to check everything on their boats, but because GB women hadn’t really been seen as opposition that people would need to knobble before, it wasn’t on our radar.” Katie remembers the incident in 1989, and says that it was the Chinese coach she’d seen hanging round their equipment then, however neither she, Sue or Vikki remember an issue in 1988 and Sue’s recollection of the race is simply that, “We just never got going,” while Vikki, who was steering, doesn’t remember having a problem with that, and although she quite likes to be fired up for a race, says, “I can normally do that for myself, and if it was only me who would have preferred that, it wouldn’t account for the whole thing feeling so lacklustre.”

The race was won by the Chinese – that nation’s first rowing gold. According to the Independent newspaper, the GB crew’s time was a new British record.

World Rowing Junior Championships

Eight (5th out of 6)

B: Katy Herbert (Kingston Grammar School BC)
2: Antonia Cuming (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
3: Lindsey Williams (Hereford RC)
4: Alison Lane (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
5: Katherine Buckingham (King’s School, Ely BC)
6: Michelle Pettit (Upper Thames RC)*
7: Penny Thatcher (Eton Excelsior RC)
S: Emma Holman (Royal Chester RC)
Cox: Louise Furness (Queen Elizabeth High School BC)
Coaches: Julian Fox (Hampton School BC), Pete Sheppard (Kingston Grammar School BC)

Penny Chuter, writing in the Almanack, said that this crew, “Put up a very creditable performance in beating Bulgaria,” adding, “This was the first women’s junior eight to really race aggressively, which bodes well for the future.” However, while the omens may have been good, none of the crew in fact went on to represent GB at senior level.

Double scull (Unplaced out of more than 12)

B: Sharon Noble (Mark Rutherford School RC)
S: Michelle Lee (St Neots RC)*
Coach: John Bell (Mark Rutherford School RC)

Single scull (9th out of ?12)

Adrienne Grimsditch** (Northwich RC)
Coach: D Mills (Northwich RC)

Penny described this as, “A very tough event in which [Adrienne] was certainly well in contention.”

* Indicates a previous GB junior cap.

Match des Seniors

Four British women’s crews took part in this U23 Championships which took place in Hazewinkel from 23-24 July:

Coxless pair (3rd out of 3)

B: Sarah Merryman (Staines BC)
S: Becky Bangay (Staines BC)
Coach: Ian Shore (Staines BC)

This crew had also been the U23 pair in 1987.

Single scull (11th out of 11)

Suzanne Kirk (Tideway Scullers’ School)
Coach: Kevan Armstrong (Tideway Scullers’ School)

Suzanne’s result reflects the fact that she was quite ill at the time with an undiagosed kidney problem. “I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t move the boat like I usually did,” she says, adding that she only realised what the issue must have been a year later when the cause of her feeling dreadful was finally identified.

She went on to row for the GB senior team from 1989-1992.

Lightweight double scull (5th out of 7)

B: Kristel Osborn (Marlow RC)
S: Clare McDougall-Smith (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
Coach: Alan Hooker (Marlow RC)

Kristel had also been in the U23 lightweight double in 1987.

Lightweight single scull (4th out of 5)

Nicola Cuming (Bedford RC)
Coach: Doug Halse (Bedford RC)

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© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2018.