The 2000 Olympic Games regatta took place from 17-24 September at Penrith Lakes in New South Wales.
Since the 1996 Games, the International Olympic Committee had reduced several sports’ athlete quotas so that the overall total of about 10,000 competitors could be maintained while new sports were introduced. Rowing’s total went down from 550 to 505. For the women’s events, this meant that 73 crews took part compared with 78 four years earlier. But they represented 31 countries, as against 30 in 1996 although this total hides quite considerable change in the actual nations participating: only 22 had crews at both Games.
The World Championships, where the four women’s non-Olympic events (the coxless four and the lightweight quad, pair and single) raced, took place from 1-6 August in Zagreb, Croatia. 47 women’s crews from 29 countries competed, up on both counts from the equivalent event in 1996.
Qualifying for the 2000 Olympic regatta
There were two routes to Olympic qualification: by achieving a certain place at the 1999 World Rowing Championships, or via one of four qualification regattas held in the early summer of 2000 for crews from each of the continents of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe (which included, for these purposes, the other ‘developed’ rowing countries of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). Only the double, lightweight double and single were on offer at the non-Europe regattas. As always, each country could only have one boat per event.
|Boat class||2000 Olympic places (1996 places)||Qualified at the 1999 Worlds||Places available at all Qualification Regattas||Places available at European Qualification Regatta|
|Lt 2x||18 (16)||9||9||3|
The GB quad, double and coxless pair had all qualified at the 1999 World Championships. Of the other events in the programme, single sculler Alison Mowbray had just missed out on qualifying, the lightweight double was quite a long way off, and the eight hadn’t even been entered.
Pre-qualifying three boats was good, but this still left a lot of unknowns at the start of the new season as it was the boat and not the people in it who had qualified, and any individuals could be entered in these boats at Games themselves. In contrast, once it came to the qualification regattas, the same crew that raced had to row in the boat at the Olympics (with a small number of substitutions permitted). This was to stop countries using their top athletes to qualify boats that they didn’t then race in.
Coaching, funding targets and squad formation
Mike Spracklen continued as Chief Coach (Women) for the 2000 season, his fourth with the squad. This was the first time a British women’s coach had completed a whole Olympiad. He was assisted by High Performance Coach Louise Kingsley who eventually coached the double and single sculler Alison Mowbray.
Mike’s group continued to be based at Longridge where all the scullers from the 1999 team – Gillian Lindsay, Miriam Batten, Guin Batten, Sarah Wickless, Katherine Grainger, Lisa Eyre and Alison Mowbray – were joined by the talented youngster Frances Houghton, who had won bronze in the double at the Junior World Championships in 1998 and gold at the Under-23 Nations Cup in 1999, Helen Raine, who had been in the 1999 four, and Elise Laverick who had sculled in the quad in 1997 and rowed in the eight in 1999. Debbie Flood (Frances Houghton’s doubles partner for the previous two years) and newcomer Rebecca Romero were also in the mix but were based at their clubs although they sometimes trained at Longridge at weekends.
Guin remembers, “From the outset, Mike was really keen to get a medal, and for all of the small boats group to race at the Olympic Games. It was a really positive vibe about training together to achieve the first women’s Olympic medal.” The double scull was still seen as the event where there was the greatest chance of getting that elusive medal but Gillian Lindsay and Miriam Batten’s 1997-1999 partnership in the boat had run its course, so the question of which two scullers would be in it (and therefore in the quad) was wide open. Guin says, “At some point in the autumn, Miriam and I had had fairly off-the-cuff discussion about how great it would be to race together for a change,” she explains. “Our mother had always complained that because we never had been, one of us would do well and the other one wouldn’t and this made it hard for her because she didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. And we also knew that this is our only chance because Miriam was going to retire after 2000, and as everything was up in the air, we thought we’d like to give it a go.” As, of course, did all the others.
In the autumn of 1999, Dot Blackie and Cath Bishop, who had been the GB pair since 1997, decided to leave Mike Spracklen’s setup. “It was that or basically walk away because we just didn’t feel it was working for us,” Cath says. In an article in Regatta magazine at the time, she was quoted as saying, “If we had a motto… it would be ‘Leave no stone unturned’. We had to make sure we had covered absolutely everything… ultimately we’ll be [the ones] sitting on the line at Sydney and if we don’t take responsibility for ourselves no one will.” She also said, “We needed a fresh approach… Looking at the way we rowed in the summer and the way we have prepared, we felt that there were some areas we were lacking. We felt we needed to make a change to take that final step.”
The ‘cost’ of their decision was that they had nowhere to train and no one to coach them. Moreover, they were now responsible for sorting all of that out as well as training full time. Generously, Leander Club, where many of the GB men were based, invited them to train from there and Men’s Chief Coach Jurgen Grobler was happy for them to follow his training programme. Dot remembers, “Training at Leander with the guys was brilliant, I loved it. It was fantastic, and we picked things up from Jurgen all day long.” But it was still far from ideal. “Leander were very welcoming,” Cath explains, “But at the same time we were in a limbo; not in the men’s squad and not in the women’s squad.” Jurgen wasn’t able to coach them, though, as he had his own crews to look after. “The idea was that we would get our own coach which we never really managed to do,” she adds. They received some coaching from Oxford’s Boat Race head coach Sean Bowden, Sid Rand and Russ Thatcher. “Various people on bikes or walking their dogs coached us,” she laughs rather wryly now, though it clearly wasn’t in the slightest bit funny at the time. Eventually Darren Whiter, who was coaching Matt Wells, the men’s single sculler, looked after them in a caretaker capacity at the final training camp and at the Games themselves.
After being the focus (and privately-funded) crew at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the GB women’s eight had been the development boat ever since. That said, in 1997 it became the first GB women’s eight to medal at a World Championships, winning an impressive bronze, when it comprised the gold medal winning coxless four along with four new athletes. But the following year it finished eighth, and in 1999 it wasn’t selected to race at the Worlds at all after disappointing results at the World Cup Regattas.
As Chris Dodd wrote in Regatta, “For months it seemed as if nothing could be done. Then Annamarie Phelps, a Thames RC oarswoman and Chairman of the Amateur Rowing Association Women’s Commission… who was a member of the Atlanta women’s eight, sat up and took notice. She and her husband Richard inspired their club to lend a helping hand by making its new high performance coach, Miles Forbes-Thomas, available to try and form an eight.” This was far from starting from scratch but rather brought back in most of those who had raced in the boat earlier in 1999, several of whom had full international experience: Kate MacKenzie had rowed in the pair at the 1996 Olympics, and Alex Beever, Rowan Carroll, Francesca Zino and Ali Sanders had all competed at the World Championships.
The Olympic team crews were supported by grants from the Lottery Sports Fund as part of UK Sport’s World Class Performance Programme.
The lightweights operated separately from the openweight groups. Ron Needs coached the lightweight quad with Pete Sudbury involved towards the end too. Chris Drury and later Miles Forbes-Thomas coached the lightweight double.
The stated performance target was one medal and three finalists at the Olympic Games and at least one medal at the World Championships.
Winter training, racing and assessment
Supersprint Rowing Grand Prix (11 September 1999)
In what Regatta magazine described as a “bold experiment” driven by Steve Redgrave, this new event at London Docklands, saw exciting racing over 350m for internationals, universities, schools and elite clubs. Just back from the World Championships, the 1999 GB women’s double of Miriam Batten and Gillian Lindsay won their category.
Gold coast camp (26 September-19 October 1999)
For the second year running, the top athletes had a three-week training camp at the Hinze Dam in Australia, to where they would return in 11 months’ time for their final training before the Sydney Games. Cath Bishop wrote in Regatta magazine that this was part of the British Olympic Association’s plan to ensure that, “When the GB Olympic Team arrives here next August, there will be no surprises… once the fine-tuning begins.”
Alongside achieving this familiarisation goal, Guin remembers a key discussion that Mike Spracklen had with the group there. “We were talking about what had gone wrong in 1999 [when none of his crews had done as well as they’d been expected to at the World Championships, in stark contrast with the 1998 Worlds where Gillian Lindsay and Miriam Batten had had won the doubles and Cath Bishop and Dot Blackie had taken silver in the pairs] and I shared some analysis that I’d done which showed that we’d done far less rowing mileage on the water or on the erg in ’99 compared with ’98. I was confident the only difference between the 1998 winning training programme and the 1999 training program was the actual mileage we rowed. At that squad meeting in Australia we made a commitment to put in the mileage and train as best as we could, and that he would set the best training programme; we would do our bit as athletes and he would do his bit as our coach. At the time I didn’t really consider the conversation that important, but he often referred to that discussion later, and I think it gave him the confidence to come back and write the training programme.”
Banyoles training camp 1 (13-26 November 1999)
This involved 11 of the top women scullers, mainly training in doubles. The combinations were changed every few days.
After this Elise and Debbie went back to training with their own coaches on the Tideway and in Henley.
Injury/illness (Part 1)
Guin Batten missed the Banyoles camp because existing nerve damage in her upper spine (a whiplash injury sustained from a car crash when she was a teenager) had now flared up badly and was causing problems with one arm. Her neck was so bad that she remembers being unable to look up at the fireworks on New Year’s Eve (which was the Millennium, of course) and had to lie on her back on the ground to see them.
After that she had some injections and other treatment which started to have an effect and she recorded in her training diary that 11 January 2000 was the first day she did the full training on the programme.
Perpetual British Indoor Rowing Championships (28 November 1999)
As Mike Rosewell reported in Regatta magazine, “Cath Bishop and Kath Grainger produced the race of the day at this year’s British Indoor Championships. Bishop started as reigning British and World Champion. Grainger started as British record older with a best time of 6’34.6″.” Grainger led for the first three quarters of the race, but Bishop then moved ahead and went on to win by five seconds in a new British record time of 6’34.4,” which was only a second outside the World Record.
Banyoles training camp 2 (16-28 January 2000)
This involved the nine top scullers who were vying for the seven seats: (in no particular order) Miriam, Guin, Sarah, Katherine, Gillian, Lisa, Alison, Frances and Helen.
The plan for the first eight days of the camp shows Miriam and Guin (just back from injury) doubling together or quadding with two of the others, while the remainder swapped round in doubles and Helen mostly singled before flying back home early with an injury which marked the end of her international career.
With crew sculling being the focus for the Olympic team, Mike Spracklen had set out at the start of the season in his strategy document that final trials would be in doubles. This made sense because two great single scullers don’t always make the fastest combination – is was vital that the fastest CREW was selected, rather than the two fastest singles, and that’s why there was so much swapping round amongst the others in Banyoles as combinations were explored.
The Batten double, which seemed such a good idea on paper, was turning out to be much harder in reality. “Once Guin had recovered from her injury and we finally got in it, it was awful because she and I sculled so differently,” Miriam recalls. “When she’d been in the single, she’d been coached to sit up and tap it along whereas I tended to row long, sweeping strokes, so as a combination it was hopeless. I couldn’t row like Guin.”
Injury/illness (Part 2)
Almost as soon as Guin had come back from injury, Miriam was ill for an extended period with a string of bad colds and overtraining syndrome-type issues. For the Battens at least, the final winter of preparation for the 2000 Games was not going at all to plan.
Closed trials (13 February 2000)
Originally scheduled to be run in Henley, these took place in Nottingham. They followed open trials in early November (from which 1999 athletes were exempt) and late December (19th).
Each ‘race’ involved a piece in either direction on the lake with times being added together.
Miriam Batten and Frances Houghton were absent through illness. Guin was, she says, “quite unfit” as a result of having so much time off.
NOTE: Names shown in italics denote those who have previously represented GB at senior level and those in bold are women who went on to be selected for the senior team in 2000.
Session 1: Singles and pairs
- Dot Blackie/Cath Bishop (2-): 13:47.1
- Lisa Eyre/Katherine Grainger (2-): 13:58.1
- Kate MacKenzie/Alex Beever (2-): 14:04.1
- Ali Sanders/Francesca Zino (2-): 14:12.3
- Guin Batten (1x): 14:18.4
- Bev Gough/Rowan Carroll (2-): 14:22.1
- Alison Mowbray (1x): 14:22.3
- Sarah Winckless (1x): 14.24.8
- Elise Laverick (1x): 14:26.6
- Tracy Langlands (Lt1x): 14:28.0
It seems odd that Katherine and Lisa, who were firmly in the sculling squad at this point, were doing these trials in a pair as well as in doubles. The reason, Dot and Cath recall, is that Mike Spracklen wanted their position as the GB pair to be challenged. “We were told we had to beat them by some considerable margin or we’d be split up,”Dot says. Cath adds, “I remember Mike saying he didn’t think we’d won by enough and we shouldn’t be in the pair, but others in the ARA and GB rowing disagreed.” The outcome was that they were allowed to remain together; the effect was that they felt their project was further undermined.
Session 2: Doubles and pairs
- Sarah Winckless/Katherine Grainger (2x): 13:24.4
- Guin Batten/Gillian Lindsay (2x): 13:25.2
- Sarah Birch/Tracy Langlands (Lt2x): 13:30.3
- Alison Mowbray/Lisa Eyre (2x): 13:34.7
- Dot Blackie/Cath Bishop (2-): 13:49.4
- Malindi Myers/Helen Casey (Lt2x): 13:51.8
- Kate MacKenzie/Francesca Zino (2-): 14:08.8
- Snaith/Murray (2x): 14:18.7
- Ali Sanders/Alex Beever (2-): 14:29.6
Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (4 March 2000)
Miles Forbes-Thomas’s new GB eight at least partly exacted revenge for having been beaten by Mike Spracklen’s ‘small boats’ eight at Henley the previous summer by taking the headship by nearly two seconds. Which was actually the faster crew was hard to tell as each crew had rather different stream and overtaking conditions. Spracklen’s crew, racing as Marlow RC and stroked by Lisa Eyre after Miriam Batten had to pull out with flu, went off first, while the composite squad boat stroked by Rowan Carroll started later amongst the new entries.
Final trials (11-12 April and 4 May 2000)
Despite their difficult winter, Cath Bishop and Dot Blackie maintained the position they’d held throughout the Olympiad as the fastest British women’s pair by winning the final pairs trials.
‘Final’ trials for the crew scullers were held on two separate occasions because Miriam Batten was still ill. As a result, the combinations of Katherine Grainger/Sarah Winckless, Frances Houghton/Gillian Lindsay, and Alison Mowbray/Lisa Eyre raced each other on the scheduled trials date, and the winner would then race the Battens later.
Opinions differ as to how these combinations were arrived at. Sarah Winckless believes that Mike Spracklen simply told her that she was in a double with Katharine Grainger. In her autobiography Dreams Do Come True, Katherine Grainger merely says, “I was paired with Sarah.” Alison Mowbray, on the other hand, recalls that he left individuals to choose their own partners, although she acknowledges that her account of how the pairings then came together is speculation.
However the crews were chosen, Katherine and Sarah won the initial time trial but Gillian and Frances won the crucial side-by-side race by 0.8 seconds. Alison and Lisa were considerably further behind, not helped, as Alison describes in her autobiography Gold Medal Flapjack Silver Medal Life, by a bent fin. In hindsight, the fact that the top two crews were clearly of the same standard suggests that a quad might have been a good idea. Equally, a doubles matrix with proper practice for each combination in advance might have identified, or otherwise, whether there an even faster double could be created from one woman from each of these two doubles. But that option wasn’t in the selection plan, and with the final results delayed until the Battens could be included, the outcome of the first set of final trials was that Gillian and Frances had earned the right to race the Battens in the second part of final trials which would just be a two-boat race three weeks later in Nottingham.
Meanwhile, Guin, recalls, “We started getting out on the water again in Henley but we had a head on crash which damaged our boat and literally three days before the final trial we had to switch to another one. The whole thing was a nightmare for us.”
When it came to the race, the Battens led to 750m gone, but Gillian and Frances then overtook them and went on to beat them convincingly. Gillian and Frances elected to race the double, and the Battens, Katherine and Sarah became the quad. Mike Spracklen wrote later in a post-Olympics report, “Miriam and Guin were two of our fastest scullers but were clearly not at their best at the time of the trial.”
The same day Alison Mowbray won the GB singles slot after a trial against Debbie Flood (Lisa Eyre having elected to join the eight’s group along with Elise Laverick after Lisa and Alison had lost their earlier doubles trial for the quad).
At this point Miriam seriously considered giving up. As she’d had a bad experience being in a large crew with the eight at the 1996 Olympic Games, “I was just really nervous about it,” she explains. Guin adds, “She wanted to do the double and she didn’t want to do another boat. Sure, I was a bit apprehensive because I’d had a tough time personally in 1999, but we now year on and I was in a much better emotional place. And anyway, I just wanted to go to the Olympic Games. You don’t train all this time not to go to the Olympics, so Miriam went away and thought about it and decided to do it.”
So the new quad was Miriam at stroke, Katherine at three, Sarah at two, and Guin at bow. “The crew had a really positive attitude, we were going to make this work,” Guin remembers. “We developed the chunky rhythm that Miriam had got from being in the double with Gillian for the previous three years, it was upbeat, and positive, and it had confidence. We actually had a really good time and it was a really fun boat.”
There were four and a half months left until the start of the Olympic Games and all three early season World Cup Regattas to go.
Summer racing and training
Duisburg (13-14 May 2000)
The eight and the new lightweight double (Jo Nitsch had replaced Jane Hall as Tracy Langlands’ partner after that combination’s disappointing 18th place at the 1999 World Championships) raced at Duisburg to give them the extra preparation they needed for the Olympic Qualification Regatta after the second World Cup event.
The eight finished third on both days behind the Dutch (who had already qualified for the Olympics) and the Germans (who, like the GB crew were after one of the two remaining places for the Olympics).
Aiguebelette training camp (17-28 May 2000)
The squad decamped to Aiguebelette in the two weeks running up to the first World Cup regatta to focus their lives entirely on training for that. At this point Mike Spracklen was coaching both the double and the quad. Alison Mowbray had been coached by Miles Forbes-Thomas for final trials but as he had his hands full with the significant task of preparing the eight for the qualification regatta, she asked Louise Kingsley to take over coaching her, which worked well for both of them.
World Cup I: Munich (1-3 June 2000)
Gillian and Frances finished fourth in the doubles, having rowed through from fifth place in the last 500m. They crossed the line 1.34 seconds off bronze and 7.58 seconds behind the German winners. Chris Dodd described the double as being “on the right track” in Regatta, a comment which really only makes sense if the destination of that track is merely making the final.
In the quads, the British crew was fifth. They’d gone through the half way point in fourth place but with a relatively slow middle 1,000m, were overtaken by Belarus in the third quarter who went on to take bronze after the Russian leaders caught a crab in the last part of the race and dropped right back. The GB crew was actually only a little over a second off bronze but they were over seven seconds behind the dominant German and Ukrainian crews which were first and second.
Dot and Cath were also fifth, nearly ten seconds behind the winners in the pair. Chris Dodd described them as “desultory”, noting that although they had a good heat, “There were no top gears and some dodgy steering, and they were trailing last at 1,000 metres after a slow second quarter.”
Alison Mowbray was fifth out of quite a large entry in the single sculls, which was a good for someone in only her second year as an international single sculler. In contrast, the eight‘s result of fourth out of four was concerning, especially as the German eight hadn’t entered and one of the crews that beat them was Belarus, both of whom would by vying with them for the two Olympic qualifying places.
Just as disappointingly, the lightweight double didn’t make the A final, finishing seventh. Chris Dodd described both crews as being, “At a crossroads”.
In the non-Olympic events, Jane Hall was a commendable fifth in the lightweight singles although 20 seconds behind the Finnish winner, while the lightweight quad of Malindi Myers, Kirsten McClelland-Brooks, Helen Casey and Sarah Birch won from a field of three crews.
Henley Women’s Regatta (17-18 June 2000)
The only squad members racing here were Dot and Cath who won the open pairs although Under-23s Ros Carslake and Rebecca Romero pushed them to just a length and a half in the final despite the younger pair having a brush with the booms early in the race. Hugh Matheson wrote in The Independent, “Blackie and Bishop did not race well in Munich three weeks ago and have since spent the time trying to rebuild their rhythm. ‘We came here because we wanted some hard races after the technical work we have been doing,’ said Blackie.”
Miriam Taylor won lightweight doubles with Carolyn Jones. Debbie Flood won the open singles fairly comfortably.
World Cup II: Vienna (22-25 June 2000)
The openweight quad won by over seven seconds although almost none of their main opposition – Germany, Russia, Ukraine, USA – were there. This put them as leaders in the World Cup rankings at this point, which is why they’re wearing the yellow vests in this photo.
Miriam remembers that they’d been working particularly hard on their technique, and that with help from Louise Kingsley, she’d managed to adjust her style. “she was getting us to sit up a bit more and be on top of it which was really useful to have,” she recalls.
Guin says, “The weather in Vienna was horrendous, it was SO rough! At the start of the race the crews were sculling along, just trying to hold on to their oars and then one by one a crew would catch a crab and be out of contention. We got to 1500m and it was clear that, so long as we didn’t make a mistake, we would win. It was a great race, really good fun. We were progressing well and, based on the World Cup results, we ranked ourselves fifth out of the crews we expected to see at the Olympics.”
Her assessment of how the quad was doing was shared by Katherine who wrote in her autobiography that by this point, “The summer season was underway and actually the quad was going very well. We still had ups and downs along the way, but generally we were competing well internationally and moving forward all the time. The double, meanwhile, was having a slightly more inconsistent season.”
The double, pair and single sculler Alison Mowbray were all seventh. With the double having been fourth in Munich where the pair were fifth, this was disappointing for the crew boats. Alison’s result was actually more positive as she’d hit a buoy in the repechage which had put paid to any chance of her reaching the final and therefore she probably deserved to have finished higher up the field. Still, one of the scullers who did make the final was the American Monica Tranel-Micini who would be racing her at the Qualification Regatta.
The eight attracted six entries this time, which finished in two groups with Belarus and Romania out in front and then, after a gap of six seconds, Australia, Germany and Great Britain with Canada bringing up the rear. Overall, it wasn’t a great result, but it was promising that the British crew was only 0.66 seconds behind Germany. A photo of them racing can be seen here.
The lightweight double was tenth, and the lightweight quad, in which Jane Hall replaced Malindi Myers, was seventh in the openweight event.
Time for a complete change of plan?
After Vienna, and with just two and a half months left before the start of the Olympic regatta, Mike Spracklen put forward a radical idea – to scrap the quad, double and pair and do an eight instead. This would usurp the eight that had now raced at the first two World Cup Regattas, but it would still need to qualify.
On a purely factual basis, this was therefore a high risk strategy after three and a half years focusing on sculling crews (and the pair). While this crew had shown itself to be very considerably faster than the main GB eight at Henley Royal Regatta the previous summer, the main GB eight had beaten them at the Women’s Head only a few months earlier. What closed the proposal down, however, was that the athletes refused to go along with such a morally dubious idea.
Katherine Grainger refers to the sorry episode in her autobiography, saying, “To race the eight, however, would be risking three boats to get one result and would also cause untold devastation for the existing British eight that was trying to qualify for the Games. So eventually the idea went away and we returned to our own boats.” For many of those involved, the very fact that it had been suggested never went away and the existing fault lines between the boats became wider as different people were left with different views on who had said what, to whom, and when.
Injury/illness (Part 3)
Shortly before Henley Royal Regatta, the quad did some training with an American women’s eight which was over to race there. As the fastest boat type in the Longridge group, the opportunity to do competitive pieces against another fast boat was invaluable.
However, Guin remembers, “Our steering wires broke during the session and, instead of stopping, we carried on by steering with pressures. This is what caused Sarah to get a rib stress fracture – she already had a problem with tight ribs and had had a bad rib injury the year before, plus she was doing the cals from the two seat so was having to look round as well, and steering with pressures was the final straw. It was a devastating blow for us, as we had had our eyes set on racing the full Olympic field in Lucene and seeing how close we could get to the leaders. We all felt guilty because we should have gone in and fixed the steering and not tried to race pieces while steering with pressure.”
There were now two weeks to go until the final World Cup Regatta in Lucerne, and two and a half months till the Olympics. With rib fractures taking at least six weeks to heal, what was immediately obvious was that the quad wouldn’t be racing in Lucerne.
Henley Royal Regatta (28 June-2 July 2000)
Debbie Flood won the Prince Royal Challenge Cup, the women’s sculls event, beating Rebecca Romero in the semi-final and then five-times winner Maria Brandin in the final.
At the time of writing (in 2020), she remains the only British winner of the event since it was officially added into the Henley programme in 1993 (Beryl Mitchell had won the invitation women’s singles test event in 1982).
Olympic Qualification Regatta (10-12 July 2000)
And so to the acid test for single sculler Alison Mowbray, the eight and the lightweight double scull.
With the Olympic Games being on the other side of the world, Alison had already had to make a difficult decision about her boat. The GB team boats were to be transported to Australia by ship, and this meant that they had to be sent off before the qualification regatta. Alison had two sculling boats, one of which was newer and slightly faster than the other. In the end, she had to elect to send the slower boat to Sydney so that she could race her faster boat at the qualification regatta and give herself the best chance of following it there herself. The very idea that an athlete wouldn’t have their best equipment at an Olympic Games seems insane, but it’s just one example of the reality of global, multi-sports events where the gargantuan logistics involved mean that it’s very hard, very expensive and usually both for everything to be optimised for an individual.
Alison was up against a sizeable field in the Qualification Regatta, so her racing started with a heat. In fact, this worked to her advantage as she didn’t do particularly well in her first race, losing focus as the water on either side of the course, which is on a natural lake, got wider. Having identified the problem, she stormed her repechage from which two scullers went through to the final, finishing first. So far so good but, as she notes in her autobiography, this put her joint third on times, yet only three scullers could qualify for the Olympics.
Making every single stroke count in the final, she finished a superb second. She had booked her place to Sydney as Britain’s fourth Olympic single sculler, following in the wake of Beryl Crockford, Tish Reid and Guin Batten. It was a serious achievement. Notably, the third qualifier was American Monica Tranel-Micini who had reached final in Vienna when Alison hadn’t. All the evidence was that Alison was progressing all the time.
The eight also performed superbly, having raised their game considerably since the second World Cup regatta, and produced the performance they needed first time in their four-boat race from which only two would qualify. They made it – by 0.49 seconds, overturning the result they’d had in Vienna to cross the line just ahead of Germany. They were also only 1.62 seconds behind Belarus who had been over ten seconds ahead of them in Austria.
Sadly, Jo Nitsch and Tracy Langlands didn’t make it through in the lightweight double. With just two crews to qualify, they finished fourth, some 7.4 seconds off second place. Tracy subsequently became the GB lightweight single sculler and Jo Nitsch replaced Kirsten McClelland-Brooks in the lightweight quad with Jane Hall, Sarah Birch and Helen Casey.
World Cup III: Lucerne (14-16 July 2000)
With the openweight quad out because of Sarah Winckless’s rib injury and the crews which had raced at the qualifying regatta heading home, it was a rather depleted GB women’s team of just the pair, double and new lightweight pair that took part at the main Lucerne regatta in pouring rain.
Frances and Gillian were sixth in the doubles, while the pair were seventh again. Cath Bishop wrote in her regular piece in Regatta, “We have definitely made mistakes from which I hope we can only learn.”
On a more positive note, though in a different class of event, Miriam Taylor and Malindi Myers won the lightweight pairs by over 20 seconds in a two-boat race against the French. They had also beaten them by a similar margin in the ‘race for lanes’ the previous day. Somewhat extraordinarily, the pair had to pay their own travel and accommodation expenses to attend because, despite having been selected a week earlier, the only women’s lightweight sweep boat was not deemed eligible for this basic level of funding in order to get race experience before the world Championships.
Back to the openweight team, with only two months now until the start of the Olympic Regatta, the top boats were in disarray.
Guin remembers, “In the run-up to Lucerne, we couldn’t go out in the quad because of Sarah’s rib and Miriam’s back had been a bit sore so she had some time off too and Katherine and I ended up in a double. We trained alongside Fran and Gillian, and despite Katherine and I being scratch as a double, we were more than a match for them, which we hadn’t expected.”
After Lucerne, Mike Spracklen had Gillian and sometimes Frances sub into the quad which needed to get out on the water again. In due course, he announced that he wanted to reselect the quad. Understandably, all of the athletes who have published their recollections of this period or have been interviewed for this account have slightly different perspectives on what was said and the decisions made at this point, although they all describe it as a massively painful and hugely unsettling few weeks which were nothing like the focused preparation that Olympic crews should be having by this point.
‘Reselecting’ the quad came down to putting either Gillian or Frances into it instead of Sarah. But which one? And was the boat definitely faster with one of them in it than it would be with Sarah once her rib had healed?
Spracklen’s final decision was that all three women would be trialled for the two seat in the crew after a period of training in which each would row in the boat for several outings. The format of the trial was that the boat would row a 2k timed piece with each one in it. Clearly there was a risk of fade by the whole crew over the three pieces. This was to be mitigated by each piece starting an hour and a half to two hours. Each crew would do a timed 1,000m piece, turn briskly, and then a timed 1,000m back again to control for changed in headwind and tailwind conditions. The remaining inherent unfairness was dealt with by drawing who would go first, second and third out of a hat.
Plan A was that this trial would take place on the new rowing lake at Dorney before the whole group set off for their next training camp on 11 August (just over a month before the Olympic regatta would begin and with no more international events to try the new combinations at).
Guin remembers, “With Mike’s announcement, our positive time in the quad just evaporated and the feeling of uncertainty came flooding back. In training, as we rotated Sarah, Gillian and Fran into the boat, it felt like we could never just relax and get comfortable.”
Injury/illness (Part 4)
Then Guin got flu. She says, “So Mike made the decision that we’d do trials in Aiguebelette not in the UK because we couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t deteriorate over a period of racing. And that made everything even more uncertain. It felt like we were holding it together by the skin of our teeth.”
Silvretta altitude camp (4-22 August 2000)
While the main women’s squad headed to France, the pair set off to Silvretta in Switzerland with the men’s squad to complete their final pre-Australia training.
“We were already rowing badly before we got there,” Dot remembers, “But by the end of it my confidence was completely shot from having my rowing picked apart. This was going to be my third Olympics so I knew it was my last throw of the dice and I was so far from my best.”
Aiguebelette training camp (11-22 August 2000)
Spracklen’s sculling group arrived in Aiguebelette ready for the trial only to discover that the buoyed course wasn’t set up on the lake. But the French course team stayed up late to put it out, and the trial took place the next day, 12 August, a month and four days before the start of the Olympic regatta.
The draw for running order had Gillian going first, Frances second and Sarah third.
Guin explains that the other three of them were fully committed to making the trials as fair as possible by being consistent because they didn’t know which of the others was fastest so it was in their interests to ensure the best person was selected. “In training, it felt lovely with Fran in the boat. It was always long and powerful when she was there,” she says. “I found it really hard with Gillian because it felt really heavy at the catch. But later I realised that was because she’s so clean on the catch. It’s a clean heavy not a slow heavy which is a real difference. She’s really quick on, she’s really dynamic, explosive. And when we went out and did the piece with her it absolutely flew.”
Gillian was duly selected into the quad and Sarah and Frances became the double. Guin reflects, “In my opinion, you couldn’t have made those trials any fairer than they were but the fallout was horrendous.” while Sarah says, “The results were the results and Gillian made the boat go well. She’s a phenomenal athlete and that’s life sometimes unfortunately but it took me an awful lot of time to recover from it.”
The groups split. The double joined Alison Mowbray and worked with Louise Kingsley, while Mike Spracklen just coached the quad. Probably the only bridge between the two was Katherine Grainger who was good friends with Sarah. All of them – including the pair – are very positive about the help they received around this time from team psychologists Chris Shambrook and former Canadian international Kirsten Barnes, a member of Thames RC.
The new quad immediately embarked on a classic Mike Spracklen heavy workload of training. “What a shame it all happened like that,” Miriam says, “But you just get your head down and make your boat go the fastest you can. Control the controllables. We worked really hard. We were all absolutely shattered.” As well as over 300km a week on the water, including many high-intensity pieces as well as technique work, they also continued to do long, low-rate ergs and weights. The video below captures them doing some fartlek starts in Aiguebelette.
Final Olympic team selection
B: Ali Sanders (City of Sheffield RC)
2: Rowan Carroll (Nottinghamshire County RA)
3: Elise Laverick (Thames RC)
4: Francesca Zino (Queens Tower BC)
5: Alison Trickey (Queen’s Tower BC)
6: Alex Beever (Queen’s Tower BC)
7: Kate MacKenzie (Thames RC)
S: Lisa Eyre (Marlow RC)
Cox: Charlotte Miller (London RC)
Coach: Miles Forbes-Thomas
B: Guin Batten (Thames RC)
2: Gillian Lindsay (Marlow RC)
3: Katherine Grainger (St Andrew BC)
S: Miriam Batten (Thames RC)
Coach: Mike Spracklen
B: Frances Houghton (University of London WBC)
S: Sarah Winckless (Walbrook RC)
Coach: Louise Kingsley
B: Dot Blackie (Thames RC)
S: Cath Bishop (Marlow RC)
Coach: Darren Whiter/Sean Bowden
Alison Mowbray (Thames RC)
Coach: Louise Kingsley
Debbie Flood (Tideway Scullers School)
Debbie’s status entitled her to an official uniform but didn’t include access to the Olympic Village so she stayed in a house at the rowing venue in Penrith.
It’s worth noting that Louise Kingsley was only the second female British rowing coach at an Olympic Games (the first being Penny Chuter).
Gold Coast training camp (25 August – 12 September 2000)
For the quad, there was still much to do at this final training camp, technically, physiologically and in terms of crew bonding. Guin remembers, “We’d been advised that when we went to Australia we were to have a few light days of training and only build the mileage up gradually. Well, on the first day we got up at 8am and got in the bus and started the big mileage right away!”
“There was a load of stuff that we were still bedding down at the same time as just piling into training,” she continues.” We tried it with Gillian in the stroke seat instead of Miriam, different combinations, and we had to move the steering from bow, where you need it when you’re on a river, to stroke ready for racing. And then we had a session where we went off with the women’s eight up one of the arms of the Hinze dam, a really long way from the boating area, and it got really windy and quite rough. We all turned back but we were different speeds so Miles and Mike, who were together in the launch, decided to follow us because the eight was a bigger boat and slightly less likely to take on water. After a while Gillian started to get really, really cold and was shaking so they took her out of the boat and drove her back to land. So it was now up to the three of us to get the quad back which was actually better because it sat higher up out of the water and the waves weren’t breaking into the boat as much but then we came round a corner and swamped. I was shouting over the wind, ‘This is our boat for the Olympics, we haven’t got another one, get out of the boat!’, so we had to jump out before the boat broke and we swam it to the shore, got the oars out and then managed to empty it. It was bl***y heavy. But that was our bonding moment as a crew. Everything had been really hard because of the stress and actually this was the first time we’d relaxed. The next day we started doing pieces against Ed Coode and Greg Searle in the men’s pair. They were great and we were starting to fly.”
It wasn’t all a positive path to peak performance, though; Katherine recounts in her autobiography how she felt humiliated when, with just two weeks to go before the Olympics started, Mike Spracklen told her that she needed to lose weight to reach the optimal rock-over position in the boat and that, “The boat was a millimetre further under water because of me.” She was reassured by her crew to ignore this comment but, she recalls, she was upset as well as frustrated because by this late stage, “Any serious change in my weight would potentially jeopardise my performance, but I was now uncomfortably self-conscious.”
As usual, the whole team did a timed 2,000m piece 10 days before the start of the regatta. The five women’s boats and seven men’s boats were divided into races with start times handicapped according to predicted gold medal times that took into account the different speeds of the various boat classes with the aim that everyone in each race should finish together if they all rowed at the percentage of predicted gold medal speed. Guin again, “And we won! We beat Steve [Redgrave’s four] so we knew we were quick.”
At the Games
On 12 September the women’s team moved into the Olympic Village and started training at the racing venue, the International Regatta Centre at Penrith Lakes which was about 45km.
The Opening Ceremony was in 15 September. Sometimes it’s a bit of a debate as to whether the rowers can go because the regatta is always scheduled for the start of the Games and it’s too late a night for those who are racing the next day. For that reason the men’s eight didn’t go, but the women’ races which had fewer crews in, started a little later so they all did.
Quad (2nd out of 9)
The quad opened their account modestly, finishing second in their heat of five from which only one qualified directly for the final. they crossed the line 3.22 seconds behind the Russians, most of which they had lost in the first 500m. Their time was fourth fastest (just) across the two heats, so they were in the mix but it would be stretching it to say that they were on for a medal on this basis.
Two days later, they won their repechage by 4.8 seconds to qualify for the final. Ukraine, who won the other rep, recorded a slightly faster time with a similar margin so on paper Britain were still only fourth.
The day before the final, which was four days later, they moved out of the Olympic Village and into a house which Steve Redgrave’s four had been staying in out at Penrith Lakes. The men’s four’s final was the day before the women’s quads, and having notched up Redgrave’s historic fifth gold, the four had moved back to the Olympic Village to party. The women’s eight with whom the quad had been sharing flats there had also finished racing, which was why the quad thought they’d be better off in the peace and quiet away from it all. This is always an issue even at single sport championships when different people finish racing on different days: again, the whole setup is often far from ideal for the individual.
As well as watching the men’s four win the day before their final, they also watched with horror as Ed and Greg dropped from leading to fourth place. “It was gutting to see a crew we had trained with get rowed down by the French crew who rated 40 for the whole of the last 750m! In Olympic finals people do extraordinary things and push themselves. We took this on board,” Miriam remembers.
That evening they had their crucial pre-race talk with Mike Spracklen and psychologist Chris Shambrook. “Miriam pointed out that if we could beat Ukraine who beat us on time in the rep, we could get a medal, and they weren’t that far ahead,” Guin recalls. “But in the rep the race plan Mike gave us had us racing full pelt to the last 250m and then cruising in so we hadn’t done a full ramp up and we knew that if we had the race of our lives we could beat Ukraine and win the bronze medal.”
But how to do that? “We knew we’d all raced really, really hard in previous races in our careers, but we needed to work out a way we could guarantee that this would be the race of all races. We HAD to do it. It was Miriam’s last race. I hadn’t given up everything I’d given up to come away without a medal. So I said, ‘We need to talk about how much it is going to hurt and about what it’s going to feel like at the end of the race.’ So Miriam spoke about how she felt at the end of the World Championships in 1998 when they’d won and they literally couldn’t move for about 15 minutes, and I spoke how I wanted to race as hard as I’d raced in Atlanta where it took me that long to get back to the pontoon because the pain was so bad, so the whole focus was not on doing the best we can be but making sure we left everything on the race track and that this business of pain was what was part of being a successful athlete. The currency of an endurance athlete as pain, and how much of it you’re prepared to tolerate is how fast you will go and that was our focus.
Guin continues, “Mike had put a plan together which was a base rate of 34 which was quite high in those days, but that was we thought our optimum race pace was. And from that base there would be a point in the race when we’d step up to 36 and hold that until we wound it up for home. And he said, ‘Guin, you make the call at the point when you feel it will have the most effect on the outcome of the race.’ I felt a heavy responsibility; to call something we had never done before, in the biggest race of our lives. Being a single sculler, I was always cautious of big energy moves, blowing up in a single is frightening and very public. I was probably the most cautious person in the crew, I was going to have to be brave. Mike finished the meeting with the words, ‘In the race, when you think you are about to die, don’t worry nobody’s ever died from rowing. You’re only 2% on the way to death; tomorrow I want you to go and find the other 98%.’”
When it came to the race, the German favourites took the lead but after 500m the Russians were with them, just 0.38 seconds down. The British crew were in third, 0.92 seconds further back.
At half way the ranking of the first three crews was unchanged but the Germans had extended their lead over Russia to 1.37 second, and the gap between Russia and GB was now 1.21 seconds, with another 0.93 seconds between Britain and Ukraine.
The British quad then produced a phenomenal second half of the race – the fastest of all the crews – and with 500m were 2.73 seconds clear of Ukraine and had closed the gap on the second-placed Russians to 0.33 seconds. Germany had a lead 2.10 seconds Germans. Both Miriam and Guin credit this surge to Katherine. Miriam remembers, “Guin called THE push around half way and it was almost like someone had turned the engines on. The whole boat lifted, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever gone this fast before! Wow!’ That was really powerful. I’m sure Katherine discovered how hard she could pull. Raw power, it was just incredible.” Guin adds, “That was Katherine coming of age at that point. That was simply amazing.”
Continuing their blistering pace in the final quarter, the British and Russian crews crossed the line together, requiring a photo finish.
Here’s how the race panned out:
“Obviously it was quite tight coming into the line,” Miriam says, “But not how we expected it to be tight between third and fourth, so by the time we crossed the line we knew we had a medal.” This is not to say that they weren’t exploring the frontiers of pain in the way they’d discussed the night before. “Coming into the line, I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands because I had no blood in them and all I was thinking was, ‘Don’t catch a crab, don’t catch a crab,'” Guin says, adding, “I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t see properly so my brain was starting to close down but because we’d drilled the lift at the end in by practicing it so many times, when we shouted ‘Go’ at the end we would all lift at the same time together.” Katherine wrote in her autobiography that as they entered that last 500m, “I wasn’t sure where the other crews were but I didn’t care, I just wanted us to get everything possible out of ourselves in the last minute we had. By then all four of us were shouting and screaming and yelling and I have no real idea what we were communicating other than heart and soul and passion and we burst across the line in a blaze of unplanned energy and emotion.” At this point she was just overjoyed that they were the first British women’s crew to win an Olympic medal and assumed it was bronze.
They brought the boats into the medal pontoon but walked up the shore to be interviewed by the BBC while the jury considered the photo finish. In due course, the British official Mike Sweeney came over with the crucial piece of paper. “I knew that we’d got the silver because he went over to the Russians first and they always go to the losers first, so it was really special,” Guin explains. They’d crossed the line just one hundredth of a second ahead.
This was history made. At the seventh Olympic Games to include women’s rowing, some 24 years after British women had first raced at the Montreal Games in 1976, Britain finally had an Olympic women’s rowing medal.
In the video below, shot in 2014, Miriam and Katherine discuss that day and what it meant.
Eight (7th out of 7)
The eight finished last in their heat of four, but only 0.48 seconds behind their old nemesis Belarus – closer than they had been at the qualifying regatta. In the repechage, from which only one crew wouldn’t progress to the final (with the entry restricted to seven crews, there was only an ‘A’ final), the British and Belarussian eights fought it out for the final qualifying place but Belarus managed to maintain the upper hand, crossing the line 4.04 seconds ahead.
Another photo of the eight racing can be seen here.
Pair (9th out of 10)
While everything eventually came together for the quad, the pair were heading in the opposite direction. Cath recalls, “It just wasn’t a preparation that meant we were ready to race or going our fastest and in a good mindset and believing we could do it. I think in many ways it had taken a lot of emotional energy to do the break, to make it sort of work, and to hold ourselves together and support each other and I felt I’d probably used up all my emotional energy before I got to the Games. I’ve never regretted leaving the squad system because in my mind it was the right thing to do and the only thing to do. The only other option would have been to have walked away at that point, but we had to see it through. But all the finding coaches, being the outsiders all the time, and even just getting the boat on the trailer to go to the right place and so on was hard going.”
The pair were last in both their first round heat and their repechage, well off the places that would qualify them for the A final in both cases.
A photo of them at the start in their heat can be seen here.
They finished third out of four in the B final. Dot says, “We didn’t row well. There were no two ways about it.” It was her third and last Games as she retired from rowing after that.
“It was devastating, just devastating,” Cath reflects. She also remembers how, at the end of the B final race, as they drifted despondently beyond the finish line, Dot leaned forward and said to her, ‘We gave our all, but you are better than this. You’ll go to Athens and win a medal.’” Cath says now that the very idea could not have felt any more impossible at that moment and she didn’t want to hear it, but she did always hold on to Dot’s belief in her, and felt that a part of her was racing in Athens for Dot as well as for herself when she won the wilver medal four long years later. She adds, “It was an incredible thing for Dot to say in that moment of deep despair.”
In a chapter entitled ‘It’s all about medals: Truth and myth in high-performance sport’ in her book The Long Win, Cath writes that after the Sydney final, “I felt a total failure, embarrassed to speak to people who had come to watch. I felt ashamed of the losing result, regardless of giving my utmost and having raced harder than probably any race… before or since. There were a whole host of reasons for the poor result – there always are: some visible, some less visible, some within our control, some beyond our control. No matter how hard we pulled in those Olympic races, our effort wasn’t making the boat go faster…. Following Sydney, I sank into a deep put of personal despair for over a year that went far beyond how good I was as a rower into the deep recesses of my mind where I considered what self-worth I might have.”
Despite their personal misery, both Cath and Dot were there for the quad whose final was the day after the pairs. Katherine Grainger wrote in her autobiography that after her crew had got out of their boat following their medal ceremony, “The first athlete I saw there was Dot. She gave me the biggest hug and it meant the world to me, knowing that just 24 hours earlier her own dream had fallen apart… To have had the strength of character to come over and fins me to congratulate me for my wonderful result in the wake of her own devastating disappointment showed a courage and compassion that I don’t think I possess myself.” Katherine says she was also humbled the next day when Cath Bishop, whom she describes as “the person I admired most in the team”, dropped by the quad’s apartment and found her rather at a loss for what to do as the rest of the crew were all off doing their own thing. “She took me out for the day and we sat in the stadium with beers in hand talking and laughing and witnessing fantastic track and field events unfolding before us. Cath had suffered the same awful year that Dot had. They went from silver medallists two years before sadly to an unstoppable slide into disappointment at the greatest sporting show on earth. Cath had proved herself time and time again… but there was no Olympic prize to show for all the effort. Her disillusionment must have been enormous, and yet here she was looking after me.”
Double (9th out of 10)
Like the quad, Sarah and Frances were faced with the huge task of blending a new crew just a month before the Games. But unlike the quad which had become the first boat, both were in the psychologically shattering position of not being in the crew they wanted to be in. Sarah was also still recovering from her injury and the disrupted training that had enforced which can lead an athlete to question their fitness. And Frances was only 19. In addition, the first time they raced together at an official regatta was at the Olympics. Altogether it was a huge burden for both of them but they tackled it with consummate professionalism.
In their first round heat, Sarah explains, “We did everything we could but finished fifth.” They then came third in their repechage, 5.04 seconds off the second qualifying place, and were eventually third in the B final too.
“It was potentially a really good double,” Sarah reflects, “But we didn’t have quite the time to get ready for Sydney. When you dream of being on an Olympic start line you imagine you’ll be in the best form of your life but that’s not what happened to me.”
Although doubtless equally disappointed at the time, Frances described later in her book, Learnings from Five Olympic Games, that she had nevertheless achieved the goal she’d set herself. “Before I went to Sydney, I only ever wanted to be an Olympian – just once.” she writes. “Then I planned to finish my degree and get a ‘proper’ job.” A few months later, she upgraded this, as is obvious form her book’s title, but that’s a rowing story for another time.
Another photo of them racing can be seen here.
Single scull (10th out of 19)
After she’d qualified for the Olympics, Alison had identified her realistic goal for the Olympics as making the top ten which would be a step on from her 11th place at the 1999 World Championships. Her minimum acceptable goal was reaching the semi-finals.
In her first round heat of five (which was won by the eventual silver medallist Romyana Neykova of Bulgaria who was at her third Olympics) she finished a respectable third out of five, less than three seconds behind the Polish sculler and well, well clear of the Argentinian and Algerian entries. The progression pattern for this big event was that the first two from each heat went directly to the semi-finals and the rest were put into four repechages of three of four boats from which the first two would go on to the semi-finals.
Alison’s lined up in her rep against Monica Tranel-Micini from the USA (whom readers will remember she’d beaten – just – at the Qualification Regatta), and scullers from Chile and Tunisia. For her, this was the biggest race the Games; she’d known there was practically no chance she could have beaten Neykova and qualified for the semis from her heat but this time she certainly could achieve her semi-final goal if, and of course it’s a big if, she could produce one of her best performances.
She writes eloquently in her autobiography that this was, of course, at least her third big race of the year. She’d had to beat Debbie Flood at final trials to be selected as the GB sculler, and then she’d had to qualify for the Games themselves in Lucerne – both of them races which could have ended her season there and then. By the evening before her rep she was struggling with the massive mental effort required to go out and do it all again. With the support of coach Louise Kingsley, she pulled it off, and convincingly at that by winning her repechage by 3.07 seconds from the American. She had done what she set out to do and was in the Olympic semi-final.
The fact that reaching this stage of the single sculls competition was a challenging goal means, of course, that everyone else who had done so was very fast so these race were at a whole different level from the heats (from which no one gets eliminated) or the reps (which don’t include the heat winners who are generally the best crews). Alison finished sixth in her semi, only a very respectable behind, and in a faster time than the American who was sixth in the other semi.
In the B final she pulled up one more place, beating Maria Brandin of Sweden as well as Monica Tranel-Micini of the USA (yet again) to come tenth overall. It was a very, very solid result.
Another photo of Alison racing in her heat can be seen here.
Mike Spracklen’s stated performance target was one medal and three finalists at the Olympic Games. He and the team succeeded magnificently with the first of these but missed the second substantially.
The significance of the quad’s silver medal was, of course, enormous. After six Games when the British women had come home empty handed though with a string of fifth places (most recently, the double and pair in 1992 and Guin in the single in 1996), they had finally done it. This was the start of what turned out to be the ‘era of the silvers’ that extended through 2004 and 2008 until the team won their first golds (all three of them) at London 2012.
Miriam Batten reflects, “We’d DONE it! British women could now believe that we were there, we now knew how to get there, and that was really exciting because for me having been on that journey all the way from my first international year in 1990, and even 1988 when the eight wasn’t deemed good enough to go. After all those near misses, finally we had a hit!”
The funding was a crucial enabler but, both she and Guin say, the belief amongst the athletes that the system would work was equally important. Guin explains, “Emotion was a key part of how we produced what we did in that race, like the fight or flight response. Whether that emotion was anger, hatred, love, desperation, fear, that was what drove that last part of the race. And I think if we hadn’t had that horrendous experience of 1999 and the last five to six weeks of 2000 reselecting the crew, that level of emotion might not have existed and we would only have got the bronze. Nothing had gone right, yet we made it. For us it was a really special moment.”
Yet, as Katherine Grainger wrote in her autobiography, “Although it had been in one respect the most successful Olympic result ever for the women’s team, it wasn’t a universal success…. Relationships were fractured, athletes resentful and a large proportion of the team were left disenchanted – and although that wonderful silver medal was rightly celebrated, behind the scenes there was a sense of ‘But at what cost?”
On the subject of Mike Spracklen, of whom both Battens are staunch supporters, Guin says, “There’s no such thing as a perfect coach. There’s no such thing as a perfect season. All you have is what you have in front of you and I think a lot of the success of our teams and all our athletes is bloody minded determination and I don’t know whether that comes out enough. The decisions made by the chief coach when the plan is affected by illness and injuries are the critical elements of success. And Mike did get the Olympic medal and did get all of the small boats group to the Games.” Miriam adds, “Mike’s not the most perfect coach but he’s a very good one so you’ve got to get the best out of him rather than blaming him. That’s not going to make you go faster. He’s an incredible coach.” Nevertheless, what may be motivational for one individual may just be destructive for another. Several of the group have spoken or written that he would frequently use a phrase along the lines of, “What would a true champion do?” if an athlete wasn’t doing exactly as he directed during a session. The Battens both relate that this often prompted them to step up to his mark, but Katherine Grainger, who describes this as “a method of control” in her autobiography, writes, “One of his gifts was knowing what buttons to push with people, and he took much pleasure from pushing them often… It was used to devastating effect on anyone he felt needed to be pushed, reeled in or challenged.” Cath Bishop describes the question as a “taunt” in The Long Win, adding, “He had a particular knack for asking this at times we felt particularly vulnerable, weak, struggling with self-doubt or simply exhausted.”
After Sydney, Spracklen’s contract wasn’t renewed by the Amateur Rowing Association.
The World Championships for non-Olympic events took place in Zagreb from 1-6 August 2000 at a combined regatta with the World Junior Championships as was now the custom in Olympic years.
The team’s final preparation took place at a training camp in Hazewinkel which didn’t particularly acclimatise them for the hot, hot hot conditions in Croatia.
B: Helen Casey (Wallingford RC)
2: Jo Nitsch (Kingston RC)
3: Jane Hall (Kingston RC)
S: Sarah Birch (Kingston RC)
Coaches: Ron Needs, Pete Sudbury
B: Malindi Myers (University of London Tyrian Club)
S: Miriam Taylor (Star Club)
Coach: Louise Kingsley
Tracy Langlands (Thames RC)
Kirsten McClelland-Brooks (Kingston RC)
Pair (1st out of 7)
Mim and Malindi romped home in their heat, winning by over nine seconds which put them straight into the final. This was a promising opening salvo, although the Americans who won the other heat recorded a time that was nearly five seconds faster.
In the final, the British and American crews took the two centre lanes. “We were basically expecting it to be a race between us, them, the Germans and the Greeks,” Miriam remembers. “We lost the Greeks fairly early on and then the Germans, but the critical bit was somewhere in the last quarter of the race when the Americans steered really badly and we absolutely hammered 20 strokes and pulled away from them.” As a result, their last 500m was extremely fast and they crossed the line 2.8 seconds ahead of the Americans with the Germans a further 14 seconds behind. It was a textbook race.
Although this was Malindi’s fourth World Championships medal, Miriam was entirely new to racing at this level, and she recognises the invaluable role that Louise Kingsley (temporarily switched away from her work with the Olympic double to look after them) played in their success. Having only been in the boat together for a month, she reflects, “Louise did a decent job of preparing us, particularly psychologically, because it was the biggest regatta we’d been to as a crew and it was the most important one.”
Single (5th out of 17)
Tracy came fourth in her first round heat of five from which only the first scullers qualified directly for the semi-final. In her repechage, from which three more would go through to the semis, she bagged the third spot in quite a spread out field.
Hers was the slower of the two semis, but you can only race who’s there, and she again secured the last qualifying place before going on to finish fifth in the final.
Quad (5th out of 13)
As a combination, the World Championships was this crew’s first race although in had reasonable experience together in parts. Once the new lineup was put together after Lucerne, Sarah Birch remembers, “There was a fair amount of arguing about who was going to stroke. We experimented with Jane stroking and with me stroking. The rest of us used to complain that Jane rated too high and the boat didn’t go as well when she was in the stroke seat, and I think she was unhappy because she felt she was doing the right thing and the rest of us weren’t good enough to keep up, which was probably fair. Poor Helen was new to all the bickering.” In the end, Sarah stroked.
The quad came third in their first round heat of four which saw all the crews finish within five seconds of each other. This put them straight into the semi-final where they were third after another tight race in which the first five crews were again quite close.
They finished fifth in the final, 4.79 seconds off the bronze medal position.
The lightweight quad’s result was reasonable, but the fourth, sixth and now fifth places that the British boat had achieved since 1997 when the event had been added to the World Championships programme were not up to the string of medals (including the 1993 gold) won in the lightweight coxless fours which the quad had replaced.
In contrast, Britain had now medalled in the lightweight pair in all six of the years since it had been added to the programme in 1995, and this was the second gold.
Was it that Britain was better at sweep than sculling? And if so why? Was it the system, the coaching, or the training? Whatever the reason, it’s notable that the lightweights met the performance target of at least one medal at the World Championships by winning in a sweep boat.
World Junior Championships
These also took place in Zagreb from 1-5 August 2000 alongside the non-Olympic senior events.
Coxless four (4th out of 9)
B: Katie Greves (Headington School Oxford BC)*
2: Beth Rodford (Gloucester RC)*
3: Harriet Cogger (Gloucester RC)
S: Alice Bray (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)*
Coach: Domenyk Honey
After finishing third in their heat of four, although then winning the repechage, the British crew finished just outside the medals behind the two crews which had beaten them in the heat and the winners of the other heat.
A photo of them can be seen here.
Eight (6th out of 8)
B: Katie Greves (Headington School Oxford BC)*
2: Beth Rodford (Gloucester RC)*
3: Harriet Cogger (Gloucester RC)
4: Alice Bray (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)*
5: Jo Cook (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
6: Alison Whelpdale (George Herriot’s School RC)
7: Sarah Waldron (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
S: Pip Cook (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
Cox: Monique Metcalfe (Lady Eleanor Holles BC)
Coach: Cathy Partridge
* Indicates a previous participation at the World Rowing Junior Championships.
These Under-23 World Championships took place in Copenhagen on 29-30 July 2000.
Single scull (1st out of 10)
Debbie Flood (Tideway Scullers School)*
Coach: Ian Roots
Debbie followed up her success at Henley Women’s, Henley Royal and the National Championships by winning convincingly (her margin was nearly four seconds) on the international stage – a hugely impressive achievement, particularly as she had been troubled by injury during the year, according to the Almanack. She also won at the World University Championships in Poznan two weeks later, representing St Mary’s College.
Pair (1st out of 8)
B: Ros Carslake (Newcastle University BC)
S: Rebecca Romero (Kingston RC)*
Coach: Ian South
The pair snatched gold by 0.19 seconds after rowing Russia down on the line.
Coxless four (4th out of 9)
B: Nicole Scott (University of London Tyrian Club)**
2: Helen Fenhoulet (University of London Tyrian Club)*
3: Helen Austin (University of London Women’s BC)
S: Anna Saunders (Pembroke College (Oxford) BC)
Coach: Alison Paterson
* Indicated a previous participation in the Nations Cup.
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The photo at the top of this page shows the GB quad (nearest the camera) catching the Russians in the last few strokes of the Olympic final and is from Guin Batten’s personal collection.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.