1989 World Rowing Championships

The 1989 World Rowing Championships took place on Lake Bled in what was then Yugoslavia from 3-10 September. 55 openweight and 30 lightweight boats competed from 27 countries, which was the widest geographical participation in any women’s championships yet, although the number of crews was very slightly down on recent years.

In the last of the dramatic changes which took place around that time in the international women’s rowing which had started in 1985 with the extension for the racing distance from 1,000m to 2,000m, making the quad coxless, and introducing lightweight events, the coxed four was replaced by the coxless four, leaving only one international seat for female coxes (in the eight).

Coaching and squad formation

The international schemes only began formally on 1 January 1989 as it took a while after the Seoul Olympics for the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) to work out what financial and human resources were available.

Steve Gunn, coach of the Olympic coxed four in 1988, who also had a full-time job as a teacher and rowing coach at Hampton School, was appointed Chief Coach for the openweights, and coached the coxless four. Bob Michaels, a coach at Westminster School, was in charge of the lightweight women and coached the coxless four. He had previously coached the GB openweight women’s eight in 1988 that ultimately wasn’t sent to the Olympic in Seoul. The other 1989 crews were coached by their club or personal coaches one they were selected.


The merchant bank Hill Samuel, which had come on board at the last minute as a sponsor before the Seoul Olympics, embarked on a four-year sponsorship package of £20,000 per year for the GB women’s rowing team up to and including the 1992 Olympics. However, at the March Council meeting of the ARA, Director of International Rowing Penny Chuter noted that the international programme had “never been in such financial difficulty” in the 15 years for which she’d worked for the ARA, and this made planning their racing schedule virtually impossible. She warned that entire squads might need to be cut to balance the budget.

Trying to make sculling happen

Traditionally (and we’re talking here about the entire history of British international rowing, men’s as well as women’s), Britain was a sweep rowing nation, and although there was a certain amount of single sculling going on, crew sculling had never much been our thing. Since women started competing internationally in 1951, Britain had only had a quad at the main championships of the year on five occasions, and in the previous ten years the only GB openweight single sculler had been Beryl Mitchell, and there hadn’t been a sculler at all in any of the years of the previous Olympiad. By 1989 this was just about beginning to change; a major shift had happened the previous year when all women were expected to do the initial trials in singles. In 1989 not only was there was eventually a quad, but Ali Gill and Tish Reid set their sights on single sculling at the World Championships too.

Ali, who had gone to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a spare but had been allowed to race in the double scull, remembers, “I came back from Seoul really motivated. I really wanted to row properly. At the time I knew quite a lot of the men’s squad because I was going out with one of them, and they kept telling me that the women’s programme wasn’t hard enough, so I decided the only way to do that would be to break away from the women’s squad and train on my own as a single sculler. I was really arrogant about it, which understandably didn’t do me a lot of favours with the rest of the women.”

She started training with the men at weekends at Leander where she was allowed to keep her boat on the lawn. “Doing their training nearly killed me,” she says, “But I kept hanging on in there and I think on about the fourth weekend I was there, AFTER the third session on Sunday, Mike Spracklen came up to me and said, ‘Put your boat back on the water and I’ll coach you.’ I was practically crawling but he took me down the river and coached me.”

Meanwhile, Tish Reid had been so despondent about her 1985-1987 experiences in sweep crews that she’d also decided she wanted to be the master of her own destiny and that therefore the way ahead for her was single sculling, which she had spent the 1988 season learning. In November 1988, she raced at the Head of the River Fours in a quad with two-times lightweight World medallist Gill Bond, US double Olympic silver medallist Anne Marden and junior international Adrienne Grimsditch, finishing 34th overall, the highest place ever achieved by a women’s crew.

The fact that two of GB’s strongest women felt that their greatest chances of success were to train outside the main squad was hardly an endorsement for its strategy or management, however, and it meant that those who stayed within the system, weren’t able to learn from the, or to follow how they were training which might have moved the whole squad on.

Winter training, assessment and racing

First assessment/Tiffin Small Boats Head (26 November 1988)

Tiffin Small Boats Head was used as the first open assessment with the aim of giving newcomers in particular an early opportunity to make their mark. 36 openweight and 22 lightweight women took part in single sculls. The winners were Sue Smith with Tish Reid second in openweight, and Sue Key with Angie Lund second in lightweight. All four of these had previous international experience to varying degrees.

Second assessment (14-15 January 1989)

This open assessment took place at Thorpe Park and involved two sessions each day, with six 1,400m pieces in the first three, and four in the last for the openweights. The first session was in single sculls, and the remainder in doubles or pairs, although the top contenders were all in doubles, which was the preferred boat type by the coaches: pairs were only for those who really couldn’t scull.

The top scullers and crews from the 31 women attending are shown below with the percentage of the 1988 gold medal speed shown in brackets.

Session 1 (single sculls)

  1. Anne Marden (an American Olympic medallist living in London) (86.52%)
  2. Ali Gill (84.90%)
  3. Carol-Ann Wood (86.12% – lightweight)
  4. Kate Grose (83.38%)
  5. Rachel Hirst (82.52% – lightweight)
  6. Annabel Eyres (82.30%)
  7. Adrienne Grimsditch (84.92% – junior)

Penny Chuter commented in Regatta magazine that, although Anne Marden won, the others were “showing a very much improved British standard”. British sculling was slowly developing. Tish Reid wasn’t there.

Session 2 (double sculls)

  1. Anne Marden/Adrienne Grimsditch (80.92%)
  2. Suzanne Kirk/Ali Gill (80.66%)
  3. Annabel Eyres/Kate Grose (80.14%)

Session 3 (doubles sculls)

  1. Anne Marden/Ali Gill (85.90%)
  2. Annabel Eyres/Kate Grose (84.81%)
  3. Kate Miller/Debbie Flewin (83.67%)

Session 4 (double sculls)

  1. Anne Marden/Adrienne Grimsditch (86.00%)
  2. Ali Gill/Annabel Eyres (85.77%)
  3. Louise Rokosh/Rachel Hirst (84.58%)

The 26 lightweight women did two sessions in single sculls. Gill Bond was not present due to injury. The top scullers in morning were:

  1. Claire Parker (NCRA)
  2. Kristel Osborn (Marlow RC)
  3. Rachel Hirst (NCRA)
  4. Helen Mangan (Grosvenor RC)
  5. Katie Brownlow (Thames RC)
  6. Vikki Filsell (University of London WBC)

And in the afternoon:

  1. Claire Parker (NCRA)
  2. Helen Mangan (Grosvenor RC)
  3. Rachel Hirst (NCRA)
  4. Katie Brownlow (Thames RC)
  5. Alison Staite (ULWBC)
  6. Angie Lund (Durham ARC).

The lightweights’ Sunday trials were cancelled due to “icy cold winds and very rough water”.

Third assessment – openweights (11-12 February 1989)

As participation in this trial was by invitation, only 19 attended. Ali Gill beat Tish Reid after “fighting it out” in the Saturday morning singles races. In the afternoon, Ali didn’t take part, but Kim Thomas pushed Tish hard, finishing just five seconds down on her in total over a set of pieces covering 8,500m.

The top combinations in the Saturday afternoon doubles were:

  1. Sue Smith/Kate Grose
  2. Annabel Eyres/Kim Thomas

On the Sunday, the doubles was won by Louise Rokosh/Kim Thomas as Sue Smith/Kate Grose had moved into pairs, where they raced the other half of the Seoul coxed four, Flo Johnston/Jo Gough.

In Regatta, Penny Chuter noted that, “Virtually every athlete showed a realistic chance of selection.”

Third assessment – lightweights (25-26 February 1989)

Claire Parker was once again the fastest single sculler, finishing ahead of Helen Mangan again, and then Sue Key. Claire also dominated the doubles on the Saturday, partnered by Rachel Hirst but this strong combination, as Penny Chuter explained in Regatta, “Is unlikely to make the average weight,” as Rachel was very tall and in a double would need a particularly small crew-mate. Morag Simpson and Alison Brownless were second. On the Sunday, Claire and Helen won the doubles, while Rachel switched to sweep and won the pairs with Jo Toch; in a four it is easy to accommodate someone racing on the maximum individual weight.

Fourth assessment (11-12 March 1989)

Lots of people missed this invitation-only assessment at Thorpe because of flu. Single scullers Tish Reid and Ali Gill tied on the second day (Ali had not raced on the first day), and the “doubles and pairs assessments were not conclusive, according to a brief report in Regatta magazine.

Two further invitation assessments at Thorpe and the Docks were held for the openweight group, and one more for the lightweights.

At some point after this the openweight single scullers Tish and Ali, who had developed “a sort of tussling kind of sculling relationship” according to Ali, did a final race off in Nottingham in “tumultuous conditions”, as Tish puts it, for the singles slot. Ali won. Tish competed independently at various regattas after this and reappears on the GB scene in 1990.

Women’s Head (4 March 1989)

In between all of these trials, two GB crews raced at the Women’s Head which had 152 entries that year. The openweights won overall and the lightweights finished second, 19 seconds behind.

women's eight
GB I. (Photo: Sue Hastings’ personal collection.)

The winning crew was Louise Rokosh, Suzanne Kirk, Debbie Flewin, Annabel Eyres, Sally Andreae, Kate Grose, Jo Gough, Sue Smith (stroke), Joanna Russ (cox), coached by Steve Gunn. Debbie was plucked the night before the race from the Tideway Scullers’ crew which subsequently came sixth to replace Flo Johnston who was ill.

women's eight with union jacks on blades
The GB lightweight crew: from left/stroke: Vikki Filsell, Jo Toch, Rachel Hirst, Sue Key, Alison Staite, Helen Mangan, Morag Simpson, Alison Brownless. (Photo: Sue Key’s personal collection.)

Scullers’ Head (1 April 1989)

Sue Smith was the fastest squad woman, beating Ali Gill into second place by 11 seconds. Rachel Hirst was the fastest of the lightweight squad competitors, finishing 13 seconds ahead of Sue Key. Tish Reid didn’t compete.

Ergo tests

The squad did three seven-minute ergo tests, in mid-December, late February and the end of April. In the first of these, the four members of the 1988 Olympic coxed four took the first four places with Kate Grose top, followed by Jo Gough, Flo Johnston and Sue Smith. However, after all three tests, some of the newer members of the squad were challenging for the top spots as the overall ranking was:

  1. Jo Gough
  2. Annabel Eyres
  3. Kate Grose
  4. Sue Smith
  5. Kareen Marwick

Early summer racing

Crew formation

The lightweight coxless four seems to have been selected fairly early on, and was almost the same as the 1988 crew apart from Rachel Hirst replacing Vikki Filsell. Sue Key moved to bow and took on the steering, while Katie Brownlow and Jo Toch remained in stern pair. This had weight implications for the rest of the crew [in lightweight crews there is an individual maximum of 59kg as well as a crew average limit of 57kg) as Rachel was tall whereas Vikki was much smaller. As Sue Key puts it, “None of us would be lightweight if we didn’t have to be lightweight to be competitive, so it was hard.” Katie Brownlow remembers finding it harder to keep her weight down in 1989 than it had been the previous year as Bob wouldn’t only allow her to run at a very slow speed; in 1988, she says, she’d run two or three half marathons a week at a reasonable pace because she really enjoyed running but also because, without that, “The weight didn’t just drop off.”

The openweight coxed four from 1988 (Sue Smith, Kate Grose, Jo Gough and Flo Johnston) became a coxless four, although they and the 1988 pair of Ali Bonner and Kim Thomas, who ultimately remained in that boat, did race early in the season in various sculling crews as part of the attempt to encourage that discipline. Flo Johnston took on steering the coxless four, which she enjoyed, and was quite experienced at, having steered the GB pair in 1985 and 1986.

This video shows them training at Piediluco early in the season.

As there was not even a suggestion that there would be an eight, for the first time since 1978 (when the GB women’s ‘team’ was just a double scull) and for only the second time since women’s events were included in the World Championships in 1974, there were no international opportunities for British female coxes.

Other crew boats were not firmed up until later.

Piediluco (22-23 April 1989)

At the first international event of the year, which only offered sculling events for women, Kate Grose and Sue Smith won the doubles on both days, while Flo Johnston, Jo Gough, Annabel Eyres and Kim Thomas won the quads, also on both days. Hugh Matheson wrote in Regatta that, “Although the opposition was weak, their pace was impressive, and the results have prompted a welcome interest by Penny Chuter in producing women’s sculling crews for international competition.” In fact, of course, Penny had already been quite interested in this and that’s why the crews were there.

Ali Gill finished fifth in the openweight singles. Caroline Lucas was second in lightweight singles and Claire Parker seventh.

Ghent (6-7 May 1989)

Tish Reid was fourth in single sculls on the Sunday. The lightweight four won at openweight, as did a quad of Louise Rokosh, Kate Miller, Suzanne Kirk and Kareen Marwick, and two doubles – Kate Grose and Sue Smith on the Saturday, when they also set a new course record, and Debbie Flewin and Annabel Eyres on the Sunday (having come second the day before).

DAF Power Sprints finals (21 May 1989)

This domestic competition was one of a series of attempts over the years to create new formats for boat racing that might engage the public more than traditional regattas. A number of GB internationals took part in the women’s event which was in coxed fours. The crews all had to be from single clubs which suited the 1988 Olympic four as they had all already joined Tideway Scullers that year, but the organisers asked them to replace two of the crew in the interests of closer competition.

The lengthy video below includes appearances by past and present GB squad members Aggie Barnett, Kate Holroyd and Fiona Freckleton in the Kingston crew, Sue Smith, Jo Gough, Kate Miller and Kareen Marwick in TSS, Lorna Rundle and Rebecca Holmes (a former junior international) in the Lea crew, and Martha Plessas, Melanie Holmes and Sally-Ann Panton rowing for Thames Tradesmen’s. There was considerable needle between the Kingston and TSS crews because Aggie and Fiona had been in the 1988 GB eight which had not been selected to go to the Olympics while Sue and Jo from TSS had been in the four which was sent. Kingston, were therefore particularly delighted to win the final.

Duisburg (27-28 May 1989)

The regatta was marred by a screaming crosswind giving a huge advantage to the lane on one side of the course, and Regatta magazine’s report of it is marred by Geoffrey Page omitting to give the GB women’s crews more than a passing reference despite going into great detail about how the men got on.

The whole squad competed in small boats.

Two lightweight fours raced on the Saturday in a five-boat straight final that one of them won GBR 1 was Rachel Hirst, Jo Toch, Anna Durrant and Vikki Filsell, GBR 2 was Katie Brownlow, Sue Key, Morag Simpson and Alison Brownless, although the crew names don’t mean that GBR 1 was the winner. On the Sunday, only one crew – Vikki Filsell, Anna Durrant, Alison Brownless and Morag Simpson – raced, finishing second out of four.

Annabel Eyres’ main memory of her double with Kate Grose was that they struggled to go in a straight line, a fact she blames on themselves but was quite possibly because of the crosswind.

2 women in GB all in ones
Kate Miller (left) and Louise Rokosh did a pair in Duisburg. (Photo: Kate Miller’s personal collection.)

Ratzeburg (10-11 June 1989)

Tish Reid came third. Ratzeburg was not part of the main squad’s plan.

Henley Women’s Regatta (17 June 1989)

Both the openweight and lightweight GB squads entered the second Henley Women’s Regatta in force, although is disappointing that three GB crews – two doubles and a pair – scratched.

Helen Mangan beat Claire Parker by three quarters of a length in one of the finals of the lightweight single sculls which was split into two divisions. Ali Gill won the openweight singles by three lengths over the junior Adrienne Grimsditch. Ali Bonner and Debbie Flewin lost in earlier rounds.

In the lightweight pairs, GB B beat GB A; these crews seem to have been the two halves of the GB second lightweight four which was to race in July at Lucerne:

Three GB crews were entered in the openweight pairs. B scratched. C very nearly went out in a heat and only got through because their opponents, former internationals Jackie Prout and Aggie Barnett from Kingston RC threw away their lead by catching a crab almost on the line. GB A then went on to beat C in the final.

In openweight doubles GB B, containing Annabel Eyres, won after A and C had scratched. Annabel Eyres, Kareen Marwick, Suzanne Kirk and Gill Bond won openweight quads.

The lightweight coxless four won easily; the openweight coxless four won by three quarters of a length against Tideway Scullers. The lightweight four also doubled up in the only ever running of the lightweight eights event which attracted three entries.

Amsterdam (24-25 June 1989)

The lightweight coxless four raced.

coxless four
The lightweight four training in Putney. (Photo © John Shore.)

Nottinghamshire International (24-25 June 1989)

Records are a little hazy about what was the last running of Britain’s only international, multilane regatta, which had struggled for years from to a lack of overseas entries and, indeed, entries full stop. Although it was in the calendar for 1989, it clashed with the popular Amsterdam regatta, and was possibly rebranded the British Open Championships (not to be confused with the National Championships in July, of course).

The Almanack carries no results for the regatta, but Annabel Eyres noted in her training diary that she won in a double on the Saturday, while another record of a doubles race lists four GB crews and two British club crews taking part, with GB (Ali Bonner, presumably with Kim Thomas) winning from GB (Annabel Eyres) which finished five seconds back, GB (Suzanne Kirk) another two seconds down in third, and GB (Claire Parker, the lightweight crew) a further second behind in fourth.

Lucerne (8-9 July 1989)

Once again it was the lightweights who delivered by far the most competitive performances.

The lightweight coxless four had a straight final which they won after drawing steadily away from West Germany who had been the leaders at the 500m point. A second British coxless four of Paula Smith, Sally-Ann Petrie, Martha Plessas and Lorna Rundle, racing as Thames Tradesmen’s/Lea was third, 11 seconds down on the GB squad crew (Paula and Sally-Ann had been in the GB crew in 1985 and Sally-Ann again in 1987).

Claire Parker and Helen Mangan in the lightweight double finished second by six seconds in their heat, from which only the first crew progressed straight to the final, but then qualified via the repechage, breaking away from the pack along with a French crew. In the final, Rowing magazine described how they were “dropped in the first 1,000m of the race” before fighting back in the third 500m”. It went on to describe their fourth place, little more than a second off the bronze medal Rowing described as “a creditable performance” in a field that contained three West German combinations, two of which were first and third.

Lightweight single sculler Caroline Lucas faced a similar first round draw from which only one boat went through, and as she drew the reigning World Champion she also had to race a repechage, which she won. GB’s other entry, Kristel Osborn, was eliminated. Caroline then suffered another unlucky draw in the semi-final, which saw her finishing fourth; her time would have been second in other semi. In the petite final, as Rowing magazine put it, “As expected… Caroline dominated this race from start to finish, winning by over seven seconds, thus fairly well proving that she had just had an unfortunate draw or she would have been in the grande final.”

In contrast with these solid performances, the drive to get British women sculling at world class level still had a long way to go. In their heat, Ali Bonner and Kim Thomas in the double, “Finished last, 250m behind the winners,” and then came last again in their repechage, although only 3.26 seconds behind the winner. As the event had a big entry, this meant they didn’t even reach the small final. Having found that they just weren’t fast enough at sculling they switched back to rowing in a pair after this, the boat they’d done for the previous two years.

Ali Gill and Tish Reid raced in different heats of the single sculls but both came last, a considerable way behind the winners in a high-class event. Tish was eventually tenth overall. Ali was eliminated before the small final.

The same quad that had raced at Henley Women’s had a straight final but came last out of six crews, eight seconds off the medals and 27 seconds off the gold medallists, “Underlining the efforts Britain needs to make in crew sculling in the future,” as Rowing put it. Gill withdrew from the squad after this for a number of reasons.

Three British pairs raced: a GB crew of Kate Miller and Louise Rokosh, former internationals Jackie Prout and Aggie Barnett as Kingston RC, and UL (former under 23/senior international) lightweights Anna Durrant and Vikki Filsell. In the heat, the Kingston combo beat the squad crew, exacting revenge for having thrown away victory at Henley Women’s by catching a crab just before the line. All three crews ended up in the small final where they finished 10th, 11th and 12th overall, but in the order KRC, UL then GBR. After this, as Kingston coach Maurice Hayes wrote later, “The pair was invited to row off for World Championships selection but rightly declined the offer as we knew whoever won would not be quick enough internationally.”

Perhaps the only ray of hope for the openweights was the coxless four, which had performed well above expectations at the 1988 Olympic Games to reach the main final, although they were coxed then. Racing in a five-boat straight final in Lucerne, “The British crew who started fast were just second at 500m,” rowing reported, before dropping back to take third place, although they were 11 seconds behind the gold medallists from East Germany.

National Championships (14-16 July 1989)

Taking place in Scotland, the lightweights crew boats gained close(ish) racing experience by doubling up in openweight events as well as their own.

The lightweight coxless four snatched the gold medal in their event by just three seconds over the Thames Tradesmen’s/Lea crew which had come third at Lucerne, but also won the much more popular openweight coxed category, this time by eight seconds.

Helen Mangan and Claire Parker romped home in lightweight doubles with a winning margin of 15 seconds, but had a tougher time of it in openweight which they won by four seconds.

There were no openweight squad crew entries and not surprisingly lightweight sculler Caroline Lucas didn’t come all the way from Italy either. Debbie Flewin came second in the single sculls (which only attracted a meagre seven entries), finishing 11 seconds behind Cathy Baker of Tideway Scullers, but was subsequently given the spare seat in the GB quad vacated after Lucerne by Gill Bond.

Final selection

Quadruple scull

B: Deborah Flewin (Tideway Scullers’ School)
2: Annabel Eyres (Tideway Scullers’ School)
3: Kareen Marwick (Tideway Scullers’ School)
S: Suzanne Kirk (Tideway Scullers’ School)
Coach: Bill Barry (Tideway Scullers’ School)

Coxless four

B: Fiona Johnston (Tideway Scullers’ School)
2: Jo Gough (Tideway Scullers’ School)
3: Kate Grose (Tideway Scullers’ School)
S: Sue Smith (Tideway Scullers’ School)
Coach: Steve Gunn (Hampton School BC)

Coxless pair

B: Ali Bonner (Kingston RC)
S: Kim Thomas (Durham University BC)
Coach: Drew Robertson (Durham ARC)

Single scull

Ali Gill (Upper Thames RC)
Coach: Mike Spracklen


Kate Miller (Tideway Scullers’ School)

Lightweight coxless four

B: Sue Key (Thames RC)
2: Rachel Hirst (Nottinghamshire County RA)
3: Jo Toch (Tideway Scullers’ School)
S: Katie Brownlow (Thames RC)
Coach: Bob Michaels (Westminster School BC)

Lightweight double scull

B: Claire Parker (Nottinghamshire County RA)
S: Helen Mangan (Grosvenor RC)
Coach: CD Riches (Westminster School BC)

Lightweight single scull

Caroline Lucas (Circolo Cannottieri Roma)
Coach: Riccardo Dezi (Circolo Cannottieri Roma)

Lightweight spare

Vikki Filsell

Training camp

Both the lightweight and openweight squads had a pre-Championships training camp at Lake Bohinj, which was equipped with a well-established infrastructure for water sports, and was conveniently sited about 30km from Bled. Everyone remembers it being a particularly beautiful venue as, indeed, is Bled itself.

At the Championships

Lightweight coxless four (2nd out of 7)

The lightweight coxless four came into the Championships with a hugely successful season behind them, but for three of them – Sue, Jo and Katie – that had also been the case the previous year, and the spectre of their disappointing and unexpected fifth and last place at the 1988 World Championships could have lurked. “I was nervous because of that,” Sue Key remembers, “But the fact that the crew had changed, not that I mean it was either better or worse but just that it was different, helped me to get away from that memory.”

Another difference from 1988 was that the crew had more than a single race. In their heat, they stamped their mark on the event by winning very comfortably and qualifying directly for the final. Their main rivals, the defending World Champions from China who had not been in Lucerne, did the same in the other heat.

Rowing magazine’s report described how the final unfolded, saying, “The British girls led by half a second at the 500m point. This was nearly a second by 1,000m and after fighting off the Chinese attack at 1,250m, had stretched to 1.3 seconds by 1,500m. However, just when it looked as though gold was in their grasp, the Chinese girls changed a gear and Katie Brownlow, who stroked a brave race, could find no answer. The girls had enough in hand to hold off a late West German challenge and finished just clear water down to get a well-deserved silver medal.” Regatta magazine said, “The placed themselves beautifully between triumph and defeat in a duel with the Chinese in which every stroke was breathtaking.” In reality, away fro these journalistic flourishes, Katie Brownlow remembers, “That was good result but it was really hard. I think by the last quarter I was seeing in black and white, I wasn’t actually seeing colour any more. We gave it everything we’d got and then, yes, the Chinese came through.”

For Jo Toch, who had first rowed in the GB senior team in 1980 in addition to being in the GB junior coxed four in 1979, it had been a long road. “I was really happy when I got my silver medal, because all of that time I had never got a medal even though there had been occasions when I’d come really close to it,” she says. Sue agrees that they were just delighted to win a medal at all, “Particularly after what had happened the previous year.”

four women with medals and coach
Celebrating their success in Bled. From left: Katie Brownlow, Jo Toch, Bob Michaels, Rachel Hirst, Sue Key. (Photo: Sue Key’s personal collection.)

Later, the Almanack report of the Championships merely noted that “The lightweight four fulfilled expectations with a silver medal,” and the fact that no bigger fuss was made was actually a mark of how solid GB women’s lightweight rowing had been in the five-years since the category was added to the World Championships; this was the team’s fifth medal.

A photo of perhaps the most effort-filled faces imaginable, taken by Peter Spurrier, can be seen here.

Quad scull (6th out of 6)

The quad, which Rowing magazine fairly accurately described as having been sent “for experience,” (Annabel and Suzanne had not raced at a World Championships, while Kareen and Debbie had each only done so once but not as scullers) were in the unfortunate situation of not being able to get as much experience as anyone had hoped because their event turned out to be a straight final.

To add to this, Debbie Flewin became ill and collapsed after training two days before their one and only race. “Kate Miller was the spare, and she was actually faster than a lot of us in a single, so she subbed in for training once or twice,” Annabel remembers, “But Debbie raced in the end.” Ali Gill was also approached about racing in the quad after she had been eliminated from the single sculls, but refused to do so. “Having just done really badly [more on this shortly], I didn’t fancy another experience of getting beaten, so everyone was really annoyed with me,” she recalls, adding, “Team behaviour wasn’t one of my specialties at that point!”

The quad was last throughout their race finishing “a massive 36.42 seconds behind the winners,” as Rowing put it. “It was disastrous. We were just awful,” Annabel recalls, while Suzanne explains, “It was an utter fiasco from start to finish. We’d had a whole series of coaches. Rosie Mayglothling coached us for a bit, then Penny Chuter came out with us for a while, and finally Bill Barry took us on. He didn’t train us particularly hard and I don’t think we learned anything. It was humiliating.”

Photographer Peter Spurrier captured the devastation felt by Debbie, and Annabel and Kareen, and Suzanne.

They can be seen briefly in lane two (second from top of the screen) from about 6 minutes 3 seconds in the video below:

Although this crew certainly didn’t work out in practice due to the lack of real investment in it by the squad management and the unfortunate low entries, the principle of sending them was sound. If ‘development’ boats are not sent, as selectors have pointed out in the past, there is no incentive for new faces to try and step up to international level, and nor is there a place for them to get the experience needed. Annabel, Suzanne and Kareen all went on to race at the World Championships in 1991 and at the 1992 Olympic Games.

Lightweight double scull (8th out of 10)

Helen and Claire didn’t have a good time in the first two races at their first World Championships, coming last in both their heat and their repechage. However, they finished second in the petite final behind Switzerland but beating Canada and, by default, Korea who did not start.

Coxless four (8th out of 9)

“The British crew, third at Lucerne, were hoping for a good final place, [but] got a shock in their first round heat. Last to 1,400m, when they rowed through the Soviet crew, they were 12 seconds down at 1,500m on the [winners],” Rowing reported. In Lucerne they had been 2.66 seconds behind West Germany, but when they raced them here in the repechage the deficit was 9.75 seconds. In the petite final they came second behind Russia who perhaps had upped their game since the heat.

Reflecting on how much worse this was than their sixth place at the Olympics the previous year when women’s fours were still coxed, Flo says, “It didn’t really translate into a coxless four that well. I don’t know why but it just didn’t.” Kate agrees, “We thought it would be better because we were a light crew and we thought we’d be more competitive. But it didn’t gel and we didn’t race very well. We’d raced the West Germans a lot that year at various regattas, and I think we had beat them a couple of times, but they managed to beat us quite soundly in Bled.”

Lightweight single scull (10th out of 13)

Caroline finished third in her four-boat heat which was enough for her to progress straight to the semi-final without having to go to the repechage. In the semi, though, she “Never really looked as though she was going to get into the grand final and a sluggish middle of the course allowed her opposition to get away from her,” according to Rowing magazine, and finished fifth, two places off qualifying. In the petite final, it continued, she, “Held third place to 500m, then dropped back to fourth,” beating the French sculler and by default the Portuguese sculler who didn’t start.

After a promising sixth place in lightweight singles at her first World Championships in 1987 followed by an excellent bronze medal in the lightweight double scull with Gill Bond the next year, this was a very different performance. Caroline, who had been coached by her boyfriend and now husband for several years, explains, “I’d lost the spark. I’d just got married and I think my priorities were no longer the same. Also I remember this distinct change from being coached by your boyfriend to being coached by your husband. I think I was looking for more sympathy from him now he was my husband!”

Coxless pair (11th out of 11)

“The British pair selection was a mystery,” Rowing magazine wrote. “At Lucerne Kim Thomas and Ali Bonner had been in a slow double. Now they had been placed in their 1987 and 1988 combination, untested and unraced by Chief Coach Steve Gunn.”

To add to their woes after abandoning their attempt to support the ‘let’s scull more’ strategy, after coming last in their heat, Ali’s back gave out during their repechage. “It had been on and off I think for a bit and then it just flared up. The timing was appalling,” Kim remembers. So the services of spare woman Kate Miller were called on again, this time for definite, but bringing her in called for a major re-rigging of the boat so that Kim, who had been at bow (on bowside) could now stroke it (still on bowside). “I think we got a warm up that morning, and maybe a paddle the night before as well,” Kim recalls.

In the small final, “The British girls led Australia to 500m, then rather lost touch,” as Rowing described it. “It was not much fun,” Kate says with admirable restraint.

Although the caption for this photo by Peter Spurrier says’s Kim and Kate, it’s actually Kim and Ali just after the start of their repechage.

Kate then sculled in the race for spares in which she was at least pleased not to be last.

Single scull (unplaced out of 14)

Despite having made a massive change to her training, Ali found that she was nothing like fast enough when she got to the World Championships. In her heat, she was third to half way but then, as Rowing described, “A poor third 500m dropped her to fifth.” In the repechage she actually only finished 1.61 seconds off qualifying for the A/B semi-finals. There were no C finals in those days.

“I just remember being mortified,” Ali says. “I was so embarrassed about how slow I was. I took my boat off the water after not making the small final and I literally put it on its rack and walked away. I wouldn’t talk to anybody for hours.”

Peter Spurrier’s photos of Ali at the Championships can be seen here (keep pressing Next when you get there to see more pictures of her).

World Rowing Junior Championships

The Junior World Championships took place in Szegd in Hungary from 1-6 August, and both boys and girls raced over 2,000m for the first time, their distance having previously been 1,500m. Unfortunately, according to the Almanack, “Racing was marred by the unfairness of the prevailing wind conditions.”

Claire Davies was impressed by the size of the crowds spectating, although her  mum found out that this may have been because they were incentivised – with bread – to do so. Part of the Iron Curtain that made up the border between Hungary and Austria had started to be dismantled that May and Claire remembers quite a few members of Eastern bloc teams disappearing during the Championships.

Coxless four (5th out of 8)

B: Claire Davies (Royal Chester RC)
2: Angeselle Galpin (Upper Thames RC)
3: Sarah Mordaunt (Marlow RC)
S: Helen Bowsher (Henley RC)
Coach: CD Riches (Westminster School)

4 girls in red t-shirts
The 1989 GB JW4-. From left: Claire Davies, Angeselle Galpin, Sarah Morduant, Helen Bowsher. (Photo: Claire Rimmer’s personal collection).

The video below, of the Serpentine International Regatta in the aearly Autumn of 1989 includes a feature on Helen Bowsher.

Coxless pair (4th out of 7)

B: Fiona Richardson (Clyde ARC)
S: Kirsty Boyd (Clyde ARC)
Coach: Ralph Gillies (Clyde ARC)

Single scull (9th out of 12)

Adrienne Grimsditch (Northwich RC)***
Coach: Andy Turner

GB female single sculler
Adrienne at the 1989 World Junior Rowing Championships. (Photo: Claire Rimmer’s personal collection.)

The Almanack commended the pair and the four for, “Showing the ability to come back on opponents who, in some cases, were almost half their weight again.”

Only Claire Davies from this team went on to represent GB at senior level, racing in the lightweight four in 1991 and 1992. Adrienne Grimsditch was successful as an under-23.

Match des Seniors

The only GB women’s crew in the Under-23 Championships which took place in Amsterdam from 22-23 July was an openweight coxless pair of Anna Durrant and Vikki Filsell, both of University of London Women’s BC, coached by Andy Mills, the UL boatman. Anna had already represented GB three times as a junior, whilst Vikki had been a junior, under 23 lightweight and then senior lightweight in 1988.

← Back to 1988 | On to 1990 →

© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.