The 1991 World Rowing Championships took place on the Neue Donau (New Danube) canal in Vienna, Austria from 19 to 25 August. There were 63 openweight and 36 lightweight entries from 28 countries. This was the largest total number of women’s crews, of lightweight boats, and of nations they represented (despite Germany now racing as a single country) yet seen at any Worlds or Olympic Games, as invariably happens in pre-Olympic years.
1991 saw two notable changes to the infrastructure of racing: FISA changed its official language from French to English which meant that the start call of, “Êtes-vous prêts? Partez!” was replaced with, “Are you ready? Go!,” and the finish line was marked on the water by a line of bubbles emanating from an underwater pipe at the World Championships for the first time.
Ever since women’s lightweight events had been added to the World Championship programme in 1985, this part of the GB team had been justifiably frustrated that they received less financial support than the openweight team, and particularly so because during those six years they’d won five medals while the larger openweight team had not won any and, in fact, had only qualified for three finals as well as taking part in three more straight finals out of 19 events entered. However, the Amateur Rowing Association’s hands had actually long been tied by the Sports Council’s definition of what its funds, which were a central part of the international schemes’ budgets, were to be used for. Until now, according to Rowing, the ARA had understood that this was “crews of Olympic calibre,” and with no lightweight events in the Olympic Games, the money could therefore not be spent on the lightweights. However, from 1 August 1990, this was changed “crews of excellence,” which gave team managers discretion as to where support was allocated.
For the second year running, Bob Michaels was Chief Coach for the women but this year coached the openweights (in 1991 he’d coached the lightweight four), in particular taking charge of the eight throughout the season. Ron Needs returned to the GB women’s squad for a third stint, coaching just the double initially but later the coxless four too. Pete Proudly, who had been Miriam Batten’s coach at Southampton University, coached her pair and assisted Bob with the late-formed ‘doubled up’ eight that she was also in.
David Lister became Chief Coach for the lightweight women, assisted by Tony Reynolds, and coached the Thames-based coxless four. Simon Larkin coached the Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association lightweight double, and while lightweight sculler Sue Appelboom worked with her club coach, Tony James.
With the 1990 World Championships having been much later in the year than usual in November, because they were in Tasmania, the squad didn’t really get going again until the start of 1991; the usual start-of-season policy statement containing the predicted gold medal times for the year wasn’t issued until February.
Meanwhile, the openweight small boats had seized the initiative and got on with the type of training they felt they needed to do, on their own.
Ali Gill and Annabel Eyres formed a double scull. The background to this is worth noting. The two had first met at Oxford when they’d rowed in the 1987 Blue Boat, and had then both been in the GB eight that ultimately wasn’t selected to go to the 1988 Olympics. Ali had, however, gone to Seoul as one of the two team spares whom the team management entered at the last minute as a double. The following year, having realised that the GB men were training more or less full time (despite a lack of funding to do so) and that this was essential for success, she trained with them, and was selected as the GB single scull for the 1989 World Championships where she found herself to be well off the pace. After losing the singles slot to Tish Reid in 1990, she’d rowed in a four at the World Championships, which she didn’t enjoy at all. Meanwhile Annabel had also had a demoralising experience at the 1989 Worlds (in a quad), and then been dropped altogether towards the end of the 1990 season. As they were working at the much-loved rowing kit business Rock the Boat together, which they’d co-founded with Flo Johnston in 1988, training together also made sense from a logistical point of view.
Ali arranged for Ron Needs to coach them and they trained in Henley out of Upper Thames RC. “Jurgen Grobler had just arrived from East Germany and was coaching the men at Leander, and Ron was coaching at Leander as well as coaching us. So we basically did Jurgen’s programme and Ron coached us technically,” Ali explains, adding, “And that was quite controversial because we weren’t doing the women’s programme which was very different, but I thought what we were doing was right because it was harder.”
The other crew that had taken their destiny into their own hands was the pair of Fiona Freckleton and Miriam Batten. They were less experienced than the double, but had had enough international experience to see that they needed to increase the amount of training they were doing.
After she’d finished racing at her first World Championships in 1990, Miriam remembers, she had talked to a lot of the Germans and the Canadians, whose teams were very successful at that time. “I went and watched all the finals the next day because we’d finished the day before and I thought, ‘I don’t see why they should be winning and we shouldn’t. We should be able to win,” she says. “So when we came back Fiona and I started training together and we did loads of miles. We used an Amateur Rowing Association boat from Hammersmith, and we just trained really hard, in our own little unit. I got Pete Proudly to come up from Southampton, and I think I wrote our training programme because we didn’t have one.”
“Pete was just brilliant,” Fiona remembers. “He was the best technical coach I ever come across. He had the most amazing little exercises that he used to help you understand what made a boat move, and he and Bob saw eye to eye.”
In a note she wrote to Miriam after the World Championships, Fiona described a particularly tough, cold week in February as “where the battle was really won”. They also did some training in single sculls, which invariably finished up being competitive. On one memorable occasion, as the two were vying for the best water, Fiona managed to knock Miriam’s blade out of her hand and she fell in.
Kate Grose and Jo Gough, who had been the GB pair in 1990 and the four in 1988 and 1989, trained in a ‘private army’ pair over the winter too, but unlike Miriam and Fiona who took part in squad training weekends at the Docks or Henley and occasionally rowed in fours as well, made a point of being outside the squad system, hoping to gain selection directly at trials. “It didn’t make us popular with Bob and in retrospect it was a really foolish thing to do but to be honest I was fed up with the system by then,” Kate says. After being beaten by Fiona and Miriam at trials in May, Kate and Jo were incorporated into the eight for a while, but Kate had to drop out after contracting a debilitating virus, and Jo decided to withdraw as well.
The 1990 GB single sculler Tish Reid also continued to train on her own, with her own coach, at Lea RC.
In anticipation of the Olympic Games the following year, which at this time did not include lightweight events for women, three lightweight internationals – Sue Key, Rachel Hirst and Gill Hodges – had switched to the openweight squad. As well as being in the lightweight four in 1986 and 1987, Gill had already rowed for GB at openweight from 1980 to 1985.
First open assessment (2-3 February 1991)
This took place at Kingston and involved a piece of 4-5km followed by an untimed turn of no more than 45 seconds, and then a return leg over the same distance at maximum rates of 24 for singles and 26 for doubles.
The fastest sculler on both days was Anne Marden but she was a US national (and 1988 Olympic medallist) who happened to live in Britain and was not eligible for our team so is omitted from the results below.
Most of the openweights only did the first session.
Note: Those who had already competed for GB at a World Championships or Olympics are in italics, and those who went on to do so in 1991 are in bold.
Session 1: Single sculls
The fastest sculler was Anne Marden but she was a US national (and 1988 Olympic medallist) who happened to live in Britain and was not eligible for our team.
- Tish Reid
- Ali Gill
- Annabel Eyres
- Aggie Barnett
- Kate Grose
- = Sue Appelboom and Tonia Williams (lightweights)
Session 1: Pairs
- Sarah Kell/Annamarie Dryden (lightweights)
- Cecilie Tindlund*/Claire Davies (lightweights)
- Jo Turvey/Jo Pow
* A Norwegian student at the University of London who was only taking part in the trials as her clubmate Claire Davies’ rowing partner.
Session 2: Singles
- Tish Reid
- Liz Holmes (lightweight)
- Sue Appelboom (lightweight)
- Fiona Freckleton
- Tonia Williams (lightweight)
Session 2: Pairs
- Kate Grose/Jo Gough
- Cecilie Tindlund/Claire Davies (lightweights)
- Sarah Kell/Annamarie Dryden (lightweights)
- A Lane/Sue Smith
- Jo Turvey/Jo Pow
Second open assessment (23-24 February 1991)
This also took place in Kingston and followed a similar format to the first open assessment.
Tish Reid was absent.
Session 1: Singles
- Kate Grose
- Annabel Eyres
- Aggie Barnett
- Claire Parker (lightweight)
- Sue Appelboom (lightweight)
Session 1: Pairs
- Fiona Freckleton/Miriam Batten
- Suzanne Kirk/Sue Smith
- Cecilie Tindlund/Claire Davies (lightweights)
- Anna Durant/Alison Staite (lightweights)
- Caroline Christie/Charlotte Williams
Session 2: Singles
- Aggie Barnett
- Sue Appelboom (lightweight)
- Annabel Eyres
- Fiona Freckleton
- Gill Hodges
Session 2: Pairs
- Jo Gough/Kate Grose
- Kareen Marwick/Miriam Batten
- Anna Durrant/Tonia Williams (lightweights)
- Caroline Christie/Sue Smith
- Alison Brownless/Alison Staite (lightweights)
Women’s Eights Head (9 March 1991)
In line with the policy for this year whereby GB squad members would race as their clubs wherever possible, in order to give club credit for the huge support they provided to the national team, no GB crews were entered for the Women’s Head this year and athletes were released to race for their clubs instead. The winning crew was a University of London WBC composite which included four Dutch internationals, Anne Marden, Kate Grose and Jo Gough, coxed by GB international Ali Norrish.
Training camp: Norwich RC (29 March-3 April 1991)
As can be inferred from the venue (where Kate Grose was a member), this was a ‘work on your technique and get some miles in away from the usual distractions’ type of training camp rather than an assessment one.
Scullers’ Head (6 April 1991)
A lot of internationals and serious triallists took part, although not Tish Reid. The top five were:
- Anne Marden (23:21)
- Ali Gill (23:29)
- Rachel Hirst (23:49)
- Sue Key (24:19)
- Miriam Batten (24:22)
1st closed assessment (19-23 April 1991)
The stated purpose of these trials was “to form crews for the early season regattas”, and Bob Michaels stated in advance that those attending, “Are advised that a great deal of importance will be attached to the results of this assessment.”
28 openweight athletes were invited; although the strategy document issued in March stated that only 24 would attend, the layout of the original list implies that the additional four were there for experience:
Bob Michaels’ Squad Strategy Document for March-August 1991 stated that the trials would take place at the Docks and that, “A six day booking has been made in case of inclement weather or other unforseen circumstances.” However, the trials actually seem to have taken place on the 1,000m rowing lake in Peterborough [perhaps because of an unforeen circumstance so unforseen that it required a change of location? – Ed.]. Fiona Freckleton remembers, “The format was: race 1,000m from the start, turn around in a limited amount of time, race 750m back and then change partners and repeat.”
The results of the final pairs matrix involving seven pieces were:
1. Miriam Batten (aggregate time 57.06)
2. Charlotte Williams (58.24)
3. Philippa Cross (58.37)
4= Rachel Hirst (58.41)
4= Aggie Barnett (58.41)
6. Kate Miller (59.41)
7. Jo Pow (60.25)
- Fiona Freckleton (57.34)
- Jo Turvey (57.52)
- Kareen Marwick (58.01)
- Caroline Christie (58.31)
- Sue Key (59.29)
- Flo Johnston (59.38)
- Lesley Baguley (60.14)
The other triallists raced in a separate wave or were single sculling (Tish Reid).
Miriam and Fiona’s path to success at these trials was disrupted by two potentially show-stopping incidents. Fiona recalls, “We went up to Peterborough the day before the trials to paddle, but when we got to Peterborough our riggers were not in the trailer. So we drove back to Putney, found the riggers in Thames boathouse. and then drove back to Peterborough before paddling. We were absolutely certain we’d put them on the trailer and spent most of the journey speculating as to who might of taken them off and why! It certainly made us hungry for victory.”
Once it got to the morning of the race, there wasn’t enough space on the lake for all of the pars and scullers to warm up safely, so several crews, including Miriam and Fiona, did their warm up outing on the quite narrow and bendy river instead. Unfortunately, they collided with a barge. “We got to a corner, we were going one way, the barge was going the other and I didn’t see it until too late. Our boat broke in half between my feet and my bottom, and we went right under the barge. I came up one side, Miriam came up the other side, and the first thing she said was, ‘Have you got the strokecoach?,'” Fiona remembers, laughing (now), and adding. “I was also wearing my ‘lucky socks’ which were put in the bin later that day,” presumably because they clearly weren’t.
Early-season racing and assessments
An innovation by FISA the previous year was the creation of the World Cups for male and female single scullers, which involved a series of races in the USA and Europe from early April to mid-July. The aim was to make rowing more of a spectator sport, and the initiative was successful in gaining TV coverage.
Tish Reid was invited to take part in the 1991 World Cup on the basis of her ninth place at the World Championships in 1990, and finished a respectable eighth overall on points, one place behind Anne Marden.
- World Cup 1: San Diego (6-7 April 1991) – 6th
- World Cup 2: Piediluco (20-21 April 1991) – 7th
- World Cup 3: Duisburg (25-26 May 1991) – 14th
- World Cup 4: Hjelmsjö, Sweden (1-2 June 1991) – 7th
- World Cup 5: Amsterdam (29-30 June 1991) – 19th
- World Cup 6: Lucerne (12-14 July 1991) – 13th
Ghent (10-12 May 1991)
Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill won the double sculls on both days against decent opposition, Annabel remembers, vindicating both their decisions to form the crew and to follow the GB men’s training plan.
Fiona Freckleton and Miriam Batten were fastest British pair on the Saturday, when they not only won the event but also set a new course record of 7’24.23″. Rachel Hirst and Kareen Marwick were second, five seconds behind, with Sue Smith and Suzanne Kirk third, quite a long way further back.
Various coxless four combinations were tried. Philippa Cross, Jo Turvey, Charlotte Williams and Caroline Christie won on the Saturday, with another crew stroked by Aggie Barnett second. On the Sunday Rachel Hirst, Kareen Marwick, Miriam Batten and Fiona Freckleton took the gold, finishing three seconds ahead of the lightweights Claire Davies, Catherine Lee-Elliott, Alison Staite and Sarah Kell. A second openweight crew of Aggie Barnett, Flo Johnston, Katie Miller and Sue Key was third but 21 seconds behind.
An eight containing the Saturday coxless four raced on the Sunday.
The GB lightweight coxless four stroked by Katie Brownlow won on the Saturday in a time that was one second quicker than that of the winning GB crew in the openweight event, with a second lightweight GB crew, stroked by Claire Davies, taking the silver medal.
So although Miriam and Fiona had been training together hard as a pair all winter, at this early stage of the season, it still seemed open as to whether they would race as a pair or be part of a coxless four.
Sue Appelboom also raced at Ghent in lightweight singles but as a club not a GB entry.
Duisburg incorporating World Cup 3 (25-26 May 1991)
More openweight combinations were tried out over the weekend. Neither Bob Michaels nor Fiona Freckleton went to Duisburg because they were on duty with their Westminster School crews at the National Schools Regatta that weekend.
On the Saturday, Miriam Batten, Kareen Marwick, Rachel Hirst and Jo Turvey took the bronze medal in the openweight coxless fours with the lightweight A crew Katie Brownlow, Annamarie Dryden, Alison Staite and Sarah Kell (who were described in Rowing as “dieting down slowly”) sixth, quite a long way off fifth place. The following day the same lightweights were fourth when the openweights did an eight instead. A second openweight four of Charlotte Williams, Caroline Christie, Philippa Cross and Sue Key didn’t reach the final on the Saturday. Claire Davies, Tracey Bennett, Catherine Lee-Elliott and Vikki Filsell raced in lightweight coxless fours on both days, coming fourth on the Sunday.
The eight, coxed by Ali Paterson, finished fourth after a French crew just edged past them in the final 500m. The race was won by a whopping seven seconds by Romania, with Germany second, another seven seconds ahead of France, which was not good news for the British.
Suzanne Kirk and Sue Smith were fifth in the coxless pairs on the Saturday (but didn’t make final on Sunday), and Kate Grose and Jo Gough came sixth.
On the Sunday, the GB double scull of Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill snatched the bronze medal, just a few feet ahead of Romania, though eleven seconds behind the German winners.
The openweight single sculls event was part of the new World Cup and consequently attracted a large entry. Anne Marden and Tish Reid both raced with Tish finishing 14th. Sue Appelboom enjoyed her first international win in the lightweight singles on the Saturday. “I beat somebody who had been in the final at the World Championships the year before so I remember feeling really good,” she says. She didn’t win on the Sunday and reckons, “I think my mind was a bit blown by having won the first day.”
In the lightweight doubles, Helen Mangan and Felicity Medinnis-Leach won the silver medal on the Sunday when, although 10 seconds down on the German winners, they were eight seconds clear of Liz Holmes and Nicky Dale. Claire Parker and Tonia Williams were also entered.
Second closed assessment: Docks (10-16 June 1991)
For the openweight group, the dual aims of these trials were, “To form the strongest crew combinations,” and, “To assess the standard and potential of each of these crews including any single sculler.”
Readers will recall that 28 openweight women had been invited to the previous closed assessment; this time the list was cut to 20. Although the accompanying notes make it clear that the assessment was for scullers as well as sweep rowers, it is notable that Tish Reid was not on the list.
The trials for the sweep rowers started with a number of pieces in “fixed combinations” to identify the quickest pairs. Each crew would race a maximum of three pieces and any crew that was beaten twice would be eliminated from further trials. The assessment would end with a pairs matrix of those who were left apart from the quickest pair from the earlier racing.
The pairs matrix which involved 11 of those listed above in a set of six pieces gave the following ranking:
- Miriam Batten
- Philippa Cross
- Gill Hodges
- Kate Grose
- Rachel Hirst
- Kareen Marwick
- Jo Turvey
- Jo Gough
- Caroline Christie
- Sue Key
- Suzanne Kirk
Fiona Freckleton remembers that she and Miriam won the first of the fixed combination pieces, after which she went home because she had flu. However, this actually fitted in fine with Bob’s statement that the top pair wouldn’t be included in the pairs matrix to identify ‘the best of the rest’, so it’s unclear why Miriam did take part, but it was possibly to even up the numbers on each side.
The lightweight sweep group also did a full seat race matrix, which led to Alison ‘Wilma’ Brownless and Claire Davies coming in as bow pair to join Katie Brownlow and Annamarie Dryden.
Henley Women’s Regatta (22 June 1991)
In 1991 Henley Women’s was run upstream for the first time, over the 1,500m course it has used ever since.
Ali and Annabel won open doubles, one of the few elite events that had a decent entry, racking up up four ‘Easily’ verdicts in the process. No GB squad lightweight double seems to have raced.
In the lightweight singles Sue Appelboom retained the title she’d won the year before, beating Helen Mangan (who had represented GB in the lightweight double in 1990) in the final. Tish Reid didn’t compete in the open singles which was won by Anne Marden.
Bob Michaels’ stated strategy for Henley Women’s was that the same crews would race both there and at Amsterdam the following weekend, although this wasn’t actually what happened in the case of the coxless four.
Fiona Freckleton and Miriam Batten won the open pairs. After there was a lack of entries in the top events for coxless fours or eights, which Rowing magazine claimed was because the presence of the GB squad discouraged other crews, invitation races were run for both boat types. In the coxless fours GB B beat GB A by one and a half lengths after they ran each other into the booms, but the invitation eights between went to form with GB A beating GB B by three lengths.
The lightweight coxless fours event was diminished by two of the four entries, including GB A (Brownlow), scratching, probably so that they could concentrate on getting together after the retrials the week before. In the ensuing straight final GB B (Staite) won against City of Sheffield.
Fiona Freckleton’s main memory of the event is that at the prize giving, “The four’s event had been sponsored by a local florist and when they got their medals they were also given big bunches of flowers, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s lovely, I wish we had flowers.’ But then we went up to get our prizes and our event was sponsored by Brakspear’s brewery and we each got a crate of beer and we decided that was even better!”
Amsterdam incorporating World Cup 5 (29-30 June 1991)
Fiona and Miriam won the pairs comfortably both days, by 16 seconds from a Scottish pair on the Saturday and on the Sunday by six seconds from a French pair, one of whom went on to row in the eight at the World Championships.
The four, with Philippa Cross now replacing Miriam Batten, and the eight both won on both days too, the eight recording a time just outside the course record. Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill came second in the double sculls each day. Tish Reid was 19th in an incredibly competitive World Cup single sculls event.
The new lightweight four medalled and confirmed their selection as the top boat by beating the GB second crew.
Lucerne incorporating World Cup 6 (12-14 July 1991)
The lightweights produced a solid set of results, and showed a fair amount of strength in depth too with two boats racing creditably in each of the crew events.
The lightweight coxless four won by four seconds but as Hugh Matheson wrote, probably in the Independent, “They cannot expect such an easy ride at the World Championships… with all three medallists from 1990 [Canada, Australia and China] still to race in Europe.” The second GB lightweight crew were fourth, less than a second off third place.
Annamarie remembers, “The US crew were really confident and when we were on the start they were whooping and hollering, calling out ‘Yeah, go USA!’ and things like that, which was a bit off-putting. So Katie put her hand up and said to the starter, ‘I don’t think I can see the flag properly, can you take the tent down over the stakeboat boy?,’ so everything stopped while they did that, even though the poor stakeboat boy must have got soaking wet because it was pouring, but it was her way of saying to them, ‘We’re in control too, you’re not going to put us off.’ once the tent was removed she said ‘Thank you very much,’ and we went off and beat the Americans.”
Two British crews also raced in the lightweight doubles where Tonia Williams and Claire Parker came fifth, 13 seconds behind the winners, but only four off third place. Liz Holmes and Nicky Dale were sixth, four seconds further back.
Lightweight single sculler Sue Appelboom was ninth although in this competitive event, her time was only ten seconds off the gold medallist’s.
On the basis of these results, the top four and double, were selected to represent GB at the World Championships. The squad’s selection policy for 1991 (and other years), stated, “In events likely to attract 12 or more entries a crew is unlikely to be selected unless it has shown itself capable of a strong performance in the 7th-12th [B] final. Sue Appelboom’s ninth place was therefore marginal and she wasn’t told whether she was in or not after Lucerne.
The ramifications of several of the openweight results at Lucerne were huge, but before getting into all of that, here’s how everyone got on.
The most impressive of the openweight women’s results by far was Annabel Eyres and Ali Gill’s fifth place in the double sculls. Although they were 10 seconds off winning, they were only just over a second from bronze.
The coxless four of Philippa Cross, Jo Turvey, Rachel Hirst and Kareen Marwick was also fifth, but the three medallist crews in their event finished much closer together leaving them eight seconds behind first place but still nearly six seconds off bronze.
Single sculler Tish Reid was 13th in the last of the six World Cup races.
Miriam Batten and Fiona Freckleton failed to make the pairs final, finishing seventh overall, while the eight came fifth in a time that was 15 seconds off gold and seven off bronze. The crew was Gill Hodges (stroke), Suzanne Kirk, Sue Smith, Caroline Christie, Charlotte Williams, Flo Johnston, Aggie Barnett and Sue Key.
Mike Rosewell summed all of this up in The Times, saying, “The heavyweight women’s results were promising in finals where placings were invariably filled by crews packed with world medal winners, but it is difficult to foresee a championship medal in August with the current line-ups,” a gloomy prediction worth remembering for later.
The first major bit of fall out of these results was that, almost as soon as Annabel and Ali had put their boat back on the rack after their final, delighted that they had exceeded their selection criterion for the World Championships – making the final – by coming fifth, Director of International Rowing Mark Lees called them over and told them that he wanted to replace Annabel in the crew with Tish Reid. “I was devastated,” Annabel says. “The words came out of his mouth and I just turned and ran.”
The idea was pretty extraordinary as there was, of course, only just over a month until the World Championships, and there would be no further opportunities for a new combination to try racing together, but where the whole idea really fell down was that neither Ali nor Tish had been consulted and, in fact, neither thought it had anything going for it. Tish only wanted to single and even if she had been interested in doing a crew boat, recognised that she already had quite an antagonistic relationship with Ali Gill, after spending the previous two years battling with her to be the GB single sculler, and felt, quite reasonably, that if forced into a boat together, “We’d probably kill each other,” an analysis with which Ali agrees. Ali was also entirely against the idea, not least because there simply wasn’t time to gel a new crew together even if they had been willing to try doing so, but realised that the very fact that it had been mooted was damaging to her partnership with Annabel. “We’d been much more successful than anybody else had been in a double for a long time and we had a lot of trust between us. Annabel was a slightly slower single sculler than me but we’d spent a lot of time together and we trusted each other to do our best. That bond of training and pushing each other is really important and Annabel worked really, really hard. But everyone kept saying to me, this is going to be the worst decision you’ve ever made in your life.”
Annabel was deeply hurt but also furious about how the whole thing was handled, and pointed out to the team management at the time that the proposal assumed that Tish and Ali would be faster and gave her no opportunity to prove that this was not the case. With Ali refusing to countenance the change, she and a demoralised Annabel were duly selected, and set about trying to put the whole issue behind them as they began their final preparations. However, Annabel recalls, Ali was phoned multiple times in the following week by the captain of Tish’s club (who had been a GB lightweight a few years earlier when Mark Lees was coaching other GB lightweights at Notts County), she believes with Mark’s encouragement, trying to persuade her to reconsider (although without consulting Tish). Women’s Chief Coach Bob Michaels, who did not get on well with the Director of International Rowing, advised them to, “Leave the country on an early training camp.” They whether they could go to the openweight men’s camp Silvretta which was being run by Jurgen Grobler, who had advised the women’s double all year but, Annabel says, were told (by the squad management, not Jurgen) that they could not because they would “distract” their male team mates.
It was only then, Annabel wrote following the World Championships, “That I realised the true implications of the battle. Unless we won a medal, we could not prove Lees wrong. Our realistic goal for the crew had been to make the final in the first year and a medal in our second. Instead of looking forward to completing our two year plan, I faced the 1992 season uncertain of our future and decidedly pessimistic.”
Selected but not selected
The next issue arising from the Lucerne results is that Miriam and Fiona had not met the selection criterion for their pair of reaching the final. Hold that thought.
Alongside this, it had been decided with a certain amount of justification that the eight which had raced didn’t really merit selection. However, FISA, the international governing body of rowing, was keen that there were more entries in this boat class, not least to support the continued inclusion of women’s rowing in the Olympic Games, and so it had changed the timetable of racing for the World Championships to make it practical for other boats to double up into it, and Britain wanted to support FISA’s initiative. Consequently, it was decided that a new eight (yes, unraced as a combination) would be sent, formed of the coxless four (which had been selected), Miriam, Fiona, and Sue Smith and Suzanne Kirk who had been in the eight in Lucerne.
So Miriam and Fiona were selected for the Worlds, but not in the boat they really wanted to be in and had trained in all year. There were mitigating circumstances, though. Being a school teacher, Fiona was always exhausted by the end of the summer term, which is exactly when Lucerne took place. On this basis, and only after what Fiona describes as a “huge ruck”, Bob managed to persuade Mark Lees that the pair should be given one more chance to be selected as well, by achieving a standard time of 7.30 during their pre-Championships training camp in Varese (the predicted gold medal time was 7.17). “Bob and Mark really, really fell out over us,” she remembers, “But Bob believed in us.” The boat had not actually been going as well in training as they knew it could. Much later, Fiona noted in her training outing that they only had one good outing between Duisburg and Varese. So after being thrown this lifeline, Miriam wrote later, “We sat down with Pete Proudly and planned a summer of six weeks training on the Tideway on at the best low water. I was working part time in the West end and cycled everywhere to get myself even fitter. We trained with quality. In everything we did, we strove for perfection.”
One aspect of their performance where they successfully invested time was mental preparation. Fiona remembers, “Miriam had reflected on Lucerne and decided that part of the trouble was that she’d been so hyped up because she’d been rehearsing the race in her head so much, that by the time she sat on the start line she was mentally exhausted. So the two of us made links with a doctor called Liz Ferris who was had been an Olympic diving medallist in 1960. The squad psychologist was Brian Miller, who was fine, but we always had our own psychologist and that also made us feel quite special. She was a really helpful influence from outside of rowing which I think was useful and she made us see sense and see that we were going in the right direction.” Miriam wrote later in the Thames Journal, her club’s newsletter, “I learned how to relax, to switch off my seriousness and enjoy the pre-race preparation.”
National Championships (19-21 July 1991)
Most of the women’s squad crews didn’t go to Nat Champs the weekend after Lucerne, apart from the lightweight double of Claire Parker and Tonia Williams, who won by six seconds and Sue Appelboom who won both the lightweight (by nearly five seconds over Helen Mangan) and openweight (by 2.43 seconds over Kate Miller) single sculls, a feat which only she has ever achieved (repeating it in 1994).
At this point Sue till didn’t know if she was going to be selected or not. sure if she was going to be selected to go to the World Championships or not. “Everyone else knew whether they were going, so I think I sought out David Lister, the Chief Coach for Lightweight Women, and said, ‘Look, I’m the only one who doesn’t know, am I selected?’, and he said I was.” His decision must have been on the basis this Nat Champs double win, because her name was not included on the flight list for the pre-Championships training camp which was issued on Tuesday, 23 July, presumably having been prepared the previous week. Rowing magazine’s comment in its later report on the World Championships that, “[Her] selection never looked in doubt after a tremendous year in which she showed herself to be one of Britain’s top scullers,” doesn’t seem to have been fully shared by the team management who were only persuaded by her performance at Nat Champs. She never did get to go to Varese. “My training camp was on the Tideway!,” she observes, wryly.
Varese training camp (7-15 August 1991)
GB training camps in Varese invariably went well, helped enormously by the local microclimate which meant that conditions were usually excellent with very little wind, and this one was no exception. That said, the timing of it meant that the women’s team got back to Gatwick at 10pm on the 15 August but then had to be at Heathrow at 7am the next day to fly out to Vienna, meaning that they arrived at the Championships badly tired. The men’s lightweights started and ended the Varese camp two days earlier giving them time to regroup, sleep and do some laundry before heading to the Worlds.
The new eight got some outings in. “I wasn’t THAT excited about the eight though it had its moments,” Fiona Freckleton says, “But it was put together for a reason which wasn’t necessarily because we were going to go well.”
The main story of the camp, though, was the pair’s last-chance time trial at the end of the week.
Fiona remembers, “Miriam and I were just getting better and better and Bob, bless him, wound us up in exactly the right way. He used to say, ‘Just imagine Mark Lees’ face when you go under 7.30,’ which got us going in a positive way.”
“The time trial itself was a more perfect 2k than we had ever done,” Miriam wrote afterwards. “We started first followed by the faster [boat types] who planned to finish roughly at the same time as us to spur us on in the last part of the course. We floated over the race, perfectly together and fully spent at the end., the team cheering for us, encouraging our minds to push our bodies harder. An agonising 30 minutes later we learned that we had earned our place, our chance to race the rest of the World in the pair.” They recorded a time of 7.25.4. “Bob didn’t look triumphant, he just looked really smug. Really, really smug,” Fiona recalls, “And he said, he’d like to be a fly on the wall when Mark Lees got to hear about it!”
B: Miriam Batten (Thames RC)
2: Philippa Cross (Thames RC)
3: Fiona Freckleton (Westminster School BC)
4: Rachel Hirst (Nottinghamshire County RA)
5: Susanne Kirk (Tideway Scullers’ School)
6: Sue Smith (Tideway Scullers’ School)
7: Jo Turvey (Putney Town RC)
S: Kareen Marwick (Tideway Scullers’ School)
Cox: Ali Paterson (University of London WBC)
Coach: Bob Michaels
B: Kareen Marwick (Tideway Scullers’ School)
2: Rachel Hirst (Nottinghamshire County RA)
3: Jo Turvey (Putney Town RC)
S: Philippa Cross (Thames RC)
Coach: Ron Needs
B: Annabel Eyres (Tideway Scullers’ School)
S: Ali Gill (Upper Thames RC)
Coach: Ron Needs
B: Fiona Freckleton (Westminster School BC)
S: Miriam Batten (Thames RC)
Coach: Pete Proudley
Openweight reserve: Caroline Christie (Thames RC)
Lightweight coxless four
B: Alison Brownless (Thames RC)
2: Claire Davies (University of London WBC)
3: Annamarie Dryden (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
S: Katie Brownlow (Thames RC)
Coach: David Lister
Lightweight double scull
B: Claire Parker (Nottinghamshire County RA)
S: Tonia Williams (Nottinghamshire County RA)
Coach: Simon Larkin
Lightweight single scull
Sue Appelboom (Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC)
Coach: Tony James
It is notable that there is no openweight single sculler on this list. Tish Reid feels that this was much less to do with her performance (although her 13th place at Lucerne didn’t really achieve the ‘capable of a strong performance in the B final’ selection criterion for events with 12 or more entries) than the fact that she wouldn’t go into a crew boat. “One of the ARA heavies, Sir or Lord somebody or other actually write me a letter telling me that I was being selfish, and it was stiff upper lip to do things for one’s country,” she remembers. “But I just flatly refused. As I saw it, I was supplying my own equipment, funding myself, working with my own coach, basically making the selection criteria or not with my own resources, so it seemed to be a bit much to then dictate to me what I had to do. I actually took this to appeal, arguing that it would be another method of getting experience, of getting in the mix for the Olympics next year, but they just refused.”
At the Championships
The weather for the World Championships was hot, with headwinds on some days and tailwinds on others. “There was very little infrastructure on site and the athletes’ rest area was just a load of military tents with camp beds and carry mats,” Fiona Freckleton remembers. “And there were so many mosquitoes – we had bites in places you didn’t even know you had! There’s a nudist colony down at the start of the course, so the whole thing felt a bit ‘Heath Robinson’.” Over 25 years later Wilma still finds it hard to forget her crew struggling to stifle their laughter while their coach was trying to give them a bit of a telling off about something from the bank up by the start on one of the training days before the racing started, as unbeknownst to him an elderly naturist was standing directly behind him further up the grassy slope at such a height that his willy was directly above the coach’s head when viewed from the boat.
Lightweight coxless four (2nd out of 8)
Stroke Katie Brownlow had also stroked the crew for the previous three years, but the other three were all new to international competition at senior level, although Claire Davies had been a GB junior in 1989. “We were very much like three little ducklings following Katie around,” Wilma remembers.
Their campaign started moderately when they came second in their heat of four behind the Americans they’d beaten in Lucerne. In the repechage, though, they were, “In command, winning by two lengths from Germany,” as Geoffrey Page described it in the Telegraph.
By the second last day of the regatta there was a howling tailwind so the crew made sure they had visualised how they were going to row in those sorts of conditions for their final which was on the last day of racing. At breakfast the next day, though, news came through that the wind had swung right round and there was now a strong headwind, “So we had to start again with our thinking!,” Annamarie remembers.
In the final, “They were never lower than third place and the push they made against the leading Chinese with 900m to go took them past the Americans,” according to Chris Dodd in the Guardian who described them afterwards as, “A crew with little form to recommend them before these championships,” a comment which seems hard to justify given they’d won at Lucerne. Geoffrey Page added, “They challenged the Chinese briefly for the gold medal, but could not match their strength in the final stages,” and Annamarie recalls, “Somewhere around 1500m Wilma said, ‘Let’s go for the Chinese,’ but by that point they were heading off into the distance.” Looking back on it now, Wilma says, “We were very inexperienced. If we’d had more belief we probably could have got closer to the Chinese though I’m not sure we could have beaten them, they were almost a class apart. But I thought we did amazingly well considering we were new.”
Mike Rosewell described Katie Brownlow’s stroking as “impeccable” in The Times.
GB are in lane 2, second from the camera in the video below.
The crew’s silver medal was Britain’s third in the event in the seven years it had been running.
What goes through a first-time international’s mind?
Competing at your first World Championships is inevitably a big psychological challenge. Annamarie says, “I remember being on the start with this headwind blowing on our backs and really worrying in case I caught a crab. I just wanted to row well and not do anything awful, and was sitting there thinking, ‘Don’t let us come last!’ And then I thought, ;D’you know what, if we come last we’re sixth in the world and that’s pretty OK, so actually we could just come last, although I didn’t want to come badly last. But we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s just go for it. But I was still really, really worried about whether or not I was going to do something awful and lose my blade so all I did during the race was focus on Katie and think, Row well, row well, sit up.’ I had David’s voice in my head going, ‘Sit up, don’t lean over, don’t lunge at the catch, sit up,’ and when Wilma called out, ‘Come on we’re in second, let’s go,’ I remember thinking, ‘Oh!,’ and looking up and counting one, two, three, four, there are four crews behind us, we really are second! And then that panic about not doing anything stupid came back again.”
Once they’d crossed the line and were waiting to row into the medal pontoon, Katie remembers telling the others to be happier, though she adds now that their apparent lack of ebullience was probably just because they were quite tired!
Coxless pair (3rd out of 9)
The pair was drawn in a heat of five crews in the first round, from which only one would qualify directly to the final. The finished third, eleven seconds off the French winners [remember this for later – Ed.]. The Germans won the other heat in a much quicker time. Geoffrey Page, writing in the Telegraph, described them as the only one of the GB openweight crews that looked, “Anywhere near the necessary standard,” although Miriam felt they raced badly, with nerves getting to them.
“Miriam and I looked at the times from the first round and we thought we can definitely beat enough crews to get through, but we just mustn’t make any mistakes and we just underestimate anyone,” Fiona Freckleton recalls. “The night before the race Bob talked us through it all, as he always did, and he said something that made us think, ‘He doesn’t believe we can beat these Australians.’ We both came out of the meeting and looked at each other and said, ‘He doesn’t think we’re going to do it.’ And I think that was probably deliberate, he thought the best way to wind us up would be to tell us that he didn’t think we were going to do it.”
There were four boats in their repechage of which two would get through, and their analysis proved correct when they, “Cruised home behind the Canadians but made the final with 10 seconds to spare,” as Hugh Matheson put it. “We didn’t really care whether we came first or second,” Fiona Freckleton remembers, “Because for us just being in a final was a new step up.” Miriam agrees. “Vienna for me meant making the final so by the time we were under starters order in the final I had nothing to lose,” she wrote later in the Thames Journal, although she still thought their row was no more than “mediocre”.
Bob Michaels took a totally different approach for his pep talk before the final. “What he said to us was that racing in a World final is something that so few people ever do that you’ve just got to go out there and really relish the moment,” Fiona recalls. “Although his actual words were something like, ‘These are extreme emotions that are denied the ordinary man,’ and I came out of the meeting saying, ‘WHAT is he going on about?!'” Fiona, who worked with Bob at Westminster School, always liked his enigmatic comments, but recognises that they didn’t work for everyone, which is perhaps why Miriam’s memory of the talk was less positive; in her later piece in the Thames Journal she remembers him saying, “‘This may be your only World Championship final so you should go out very hard with the favourites and hang on.’ Mad man I thought.”
“We were lucky because the conditions really suited us,” Fiona says of the final. “There was a strongish tailwind but the conditions at the start were really, really flat, really nice. Bob was always really good at was adjusting how boats were rigged for conditions so he changed the span and the inboard and moved our feet forward, and it made a real, real difference to us. We didn’t have a great start – we were still sitting there while everyone else was gone and 500m in we were level, 1k we were level with the Romanians. They were in lane 1 and we were in lane 6. And I was calling and steering and I remember glancing across at that point because were were just coming up to our second push, and I looked across and I could see the Romanian girl was looking across and she glanced and then looked again as if she could not understand what the British were doing level with them!”
At half way the GB pair was in fourth place but by then producing the fastest third 500m of all the crews in the race, they moved ahead of Romania who had also been over taken by France with 500m to go. Miriam wrote in the Thames Journal, “Keeping the rating high and with lightning fast catches in the tailwind, we made all our pushes count. By 1,000m we had fended the Romanians and French off by sending our finishes.” “The first I knew that we were in for a medal was when Fiona started urging me to go for the silver,” she was quoted as saying afterwards in the Telegraph. They maintained their third place by being second fastest in the final 500m, crossing the line less than three seconds off silver, but more than three seconds clear of the fourth-placed French who had beaten then so soundly in the heat.
“It was really exciting and I remember sitting on the other side of the finish line and when the results came up on the score board, Miriam and I looked at it and went, ‘We’ve got a medal, We’ve got a medal! It was just not what we had expected,” Fiona says, adding. “Then the really funny thing was that we realised we didn’t know what to do next so we tried to follow what the others were doing and we made the biggest botch we’d ever made of landing because we were totally over-excited.”
“When our names were announced to the crowd for the medal presentation, we flung our arms in the air, lowering them quickly. We hadn’t shaved our armpits all week. I had been rather preoccupied!” Miriam says. “I couldn’t stop smiling. As we rowed back to the boating area I sang so loud, I sang and sang I was so happy.” She wrote later in Regatta, “Standing on the medal rostrum is fantastic. I recommend it.”
Chris Dodd wrote in the Guardian that the result, “Made them the first British women to win a medal in a sweep-oared event at a World Championships,” although obviously the word “openweight” was missing from this as GB’s lightweights had already won two silvers in the coxless fours prior to this year. Mike Rosewell got it right for the Times, although in a different way, writing that this was, “Britain’s first open women’s rowing, as opposed to sculling, medal,” [acknowledging Beryl Mitchell’s 1981 single sculls silver medal] although to be totally accurate he should have made clear that he was referring to the World Championships era as GB had won bronze in the coxed fours at the 1954 Women’s European Rowing Championships. Geoffrey Page noted in the Telegraph that this was, “The first world rowing medal to be won by Britain in the women’s openweight events,” while the British Rowing Almanack hailed the pair as, “The first Britons to win a world rowing medal in women’s open events,” both of which leave the astute reader wondering if Beryl’s medal had been forgotten.
Lightweight double scull (5th out of 13)
Tonia and Claire came third in closely-fought heat of five where the first four crews finished within three seconds of each other. At the half way point they’d been in fourth place, but then pushed past Portugal and Switzerland to move into second, Rowing reported. At 1,500m the Swiss moved back past them, but they managed to maintain their lead over Portugal to secure the direct route to the semi-final.
There, “The British double produced another well-controlled scull… coming from behind the field to take second place at 1,500m,” according to Rowing. Their time was the fourth fastest across the two semis, but in the final the Danes whom they’d beaten in the semi upped their game to take bronze and the British duo finished a respectable fifth.
They can be seen briefly in Lane 5, second from the left of the screen initially and then second from top in this video:
Although they didn’t medal, the result certainly justified Tonia’s relocation from New Zealand to Nottingham the previous year; she had dual nationality, and had previously been unsuccessful in gaining selection for the New Zealand team.
Coxless four (5th out of 10)
After coming last in their first round heat from which only one crew progressed to the final, the GB four turned things round in the repechage where, Hugh Matheson wrote in the Independent, they were, “Put under pressure by the Soviets’ heavyweight power at the start, but they held on to a two second margin, resisting several sprints by the Soviets,” whom they’d passed after 500m.
In the final they reached the 500m marker in third place in a very close race, but by half way had been edged out into fourth by the Germans, and were then overtaken by the Chinese too in the third 500m. They held fifth position to the line.
Double scull (6th out of 12)
Annabel and Ali came fourth in their heat of six crews from which one went straight to the final. Ali caught a small crab near the start but it didn’t affect the outcome. To achieve their goal of making the final, they had to finish in the top two in the repechage to qualify. Better at finishing than starting races, they reached the 500m marker in fourth place but then sculled through the Austrians to go through the half way point in third place. Still in third at 1,500m, they launched an impressive sprint in the last quarter to pass the Australians too, crossing the line a crucial 0.21 seconds ahead of them after recording a last 500m time that was over a second faster than that of any other crew including the winners who were only 1.61 seconds ahead of them.
In the final the GB crew was last to 500m, and stayed there, losing just a little bit more at each marker, although their finishing sprint meant that their last 500m was fractionally faster than the fifth-placed Bulgarians.
Lightweight single scull (7th out of 14)
In Sue’s first round heat the first two places went to very fast scullers from New Zealand and America. Sue finished fourth, just under four seconds behind the third placed Swiss sculler who was well behind the two leaders. With only the first three progressing directly to the semi-finals, Sue went to the repechage.
Geoffrey Page wrote in the Telegraph that, “Sue Appelboom, in her first World Championship, was surprised by the standard in her lightweight sculls heat and must go to the repechage,” but this statement would seem to have been inferred from on the times rather than anything she actually said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised because I knew it was going to be tough and I was never even expected to make the final because it was my first Worlds,” she says. Mike Rosewell’s take on the result in The Times was that, “Appelboom, whose domestic record stands at 36 wins in 40 appearances, was distressed after her performance,” but Sue herself doesn’t remember feeling “distressed” either.
Sue then won the five-boat repechage with what Rowing described as “a well-paced scull”, coming from third to first in the last 500m with a “strong surge” to secure her place in the semi-final. Mike Rosewell reported that, “Bananas were being eaten after the race because she weighed in at five kilograms below the permitted limit,” to which Sue adds that she remembers being laughed at by the official when she weighed in at under 55kg a she could have been up to 59kg as a single sculler.
In the semi-final, where she needed to finish in the top three to reach the main final, she, “Made good use of her strong finish again… but had left herself too much to do in the last 500m. Drawn against last year’s gold medallist and the American newcomer, Appelboom struggled to stay with the leaders and let the third placed German sculler gain seven seconds on her by 1,500m. Lifting her rate and power, [she] reduced the gap to about four seconds,” Rowing said.
This race profile helped her to win the petite final. “Greece’s sculler led from the start but Appelboom never let her slip away,” according to Rowing. “The Greek pushed strongly just before 1,500m to stretch her lead out to just over a seconds but Appelboom sculled back powerfully… to win by just under a length.” Sue was pleased with how she rowed. “I felt I’d fulfilled my obligations for being selected. If I’d made the final it would have been a bonus really,” she reflects.
Eight (9th out of 12)
The women’s eights attracted a record entry, encouraged by the deliberate change in the timetable of racing to make doubling up into this crew a practical option, which is what the GB women did, of course.
After coming fourth in their first round heat, from which only one qualified directly to the final, the British crew missed qualifying in the rep by less than a second. They were third in B final; highlights of the race are shown in the video below.
As Ali Gill says, “1991 was the most successful the openweight women had been. I knew Miriam and Fiona because I’d been with them in the four [in 1990] and they were really hard grafters whereas not sure all the women were quite as hard grafters. And they deserved it… no one thought they were going to do it, but they did. It was absolutely amazing.” Fiona, who is often quite self-effacing about her rowing, says that it was the team’s overall performance as well as the pair’s historic medal which, “Made an impact that really put British openweight women’s rowing much higher on the map,” although she adds that, “The Eastern Bloc breaking up had a lot to do with it.”
World Rowing Junior Championships
As usually happens when it is practical, these took place at the venue for the following year’s Olympic Games, Lake Banyoles near Barcelona in Spain, from 1-4 August.
Quadruple scull (7th out of 7)
B: Samantha Green (Upper Thames RC)
2: Sorrel Smith (Bryanston School BC)
3: Caroline Dring (Kingston RC)
S: Alison Whittingham (Women’s Rowing Centre)
Coach: Ian South (Kingston RC)
Coxless four (5th out of 9)
B: Jane Hall (Kingston Grammar School BC)
2: Gillian Lindsay (Clydesdale ARC)*
3: Robyn Morris (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)*
S: Leanne Hutton (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)*
Coach: Richard Walsh (Clydesdale ARC)
* Denotes a previous participation in the Junior World Championships.
The Almanack described the final of this event as, “One of the closest for many years with all six crews clearly of medal potential,” and added that the British foursome, which it noted was of “generally small stature” produced, “An excellent performance… that should provide encouragement for the whole of junior women’s rowing.”
Double scull (15th out of 18)
B: Jackie Findlay (Worcester RC)
S: Libby Henshilwood (Bedford High School RC)
Coach: Nick Leigh (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
Coxless pair (5th out of 7)
B: Joanne Leach (Kingston Grammar School BC)
S: Claire McIntosh (George Watson’s College)
Coach: Louise Sheppard (Kingston Grammar School BC)
The Almanack also commended this “competitive crew” for their performance in the final, noting that they, like the coxless four, were of “small stature.”
Match des Seniors
These under-23 championships took place at Naro in Sicily from 26-28 July.
Coxless pair (5th out of 5)
B: Krista Thorpe (Kingston Grammar School BC)
S: Jackie Thomas (Upper Thames RC)*
* Denotes a previous participation in the Match des Seniors.
Lightweight double scull (5th out of 7)
B: Liz Reid (Tideway Scullers’ School)
S: Phoebe White (Rob Roy BC)
The photo at the top of this page of Miriam Batten, Pete Proudly and Fiona Freckleton is from Fiona Watson’s personal collection.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.