The 2003 World Rowing Championships took place in Italy at the Idroscalo park in Milan from 25 August to 3 September. The dates were moved back a week from the original schedule to avoid clashing with the World Athletics Championships a week earlier, which would have risked TV coverage of the rowing.
The Idroscalo was originally built as a seaplane port in the 1930s but was converted into a watersports venue once seaplanes’ popularity waned.
78 openweight and 57 lightweight women’s crews took part from 39 countries including a first-time appearance for Albania in the lightweight single sculls. This was the largest number of countries represented (equalling the figure for 1998) at a World Championships and, and was also the largest number of lightweight entries ever and the second largest entry overall, just one fewer than the 1995 total of 136 crews. Both 1995 and 2003, of course, were pre-Olympic years, with Olympic qualification places up for grabs.
Coaching and squad formation
The main coaching structure for the GB women’s squad remained unchanged from that put in place in 2001 for the whole of the Olympiad to 2004, with Marty Aitken overseeing the programme in his role as Chief Coach (Women and Lightweights), and Paul ‘Thommo’ Thompson as High Performance Coach (Women).
The openweight women were mainly still based at Longridge near Marlow and the squad also used Eton’s rowing lake at Dorney for multi-lane racing.
Thommo added industrial-strength core stability sessions to the programme that year. Today, this is a part of any team’s training but back then, Alison Mowbray recounts in her autobiography, Gold Medal Flapjack, Silver Medal Life he’d identified it as “a seriously neglected area internationally”.
In terms of squad members, Alex Beever returned after a year out during when she won the women’s eights event at Henley Royal Regatta, and a year after 1998 World Silver medallist and two-times Olympian Cath Bishop had retired from rowing and gone to work at the Foreign Office, she too decided to make a comeback.
Katherine Grainger, Olympic silver medallist from the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, who had finished a disappointing fifth with her in the pair with Cath in 2001 explained in her autobiography Dreams Do Come True, “As soon as Cath had mentioned coming back, the two of us started making plans to resurrect the pair and this time do it justice, but the power that be had other ideas. As far as the management were concerned we had tried and failed in that project.” She continued, “The challenges and obstacles set in our path were endless. The team manager, head coach and even our own coach all decided it was a bad idea…. The popular concept was that I should return to sculling where I had won my Olympic medal and Cath should prove herself in the single and then they could make a decision where to put her.”
Some time around late November, most of the squad went on the now-traditional orientation visit to the Olympic venues, which comprised at that time a large hole in the ground without any water in it, and the barely half-built Olympic village.
Winter assessment and racing
Scullers Head (30 November 2002)
Guin Batten was the fastest women, recording a time six seconds faster than Frances Houghton, who was second. Alex Beever was third, and Alison Eastman was the fastest lightweight.
AXA PPP British Indoor Rowing Championships (17 November 2002)
Rebecca Romero won the under-23 category in 6.53. Julia Warren was second in open lightweight in 7.14, while Jo Hammond took the under-23 lightweight title in 7.07.
Lightweight long distance trials (7 December 2002)
These took place at Boston in Lincolnshire.
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 2003.
- Helen Casey: 22.14.38
- Kirsten McClelland-Brooks: 22.24.51
- Jo Hammond: 22.28.57
- Michelle Dollimore: 22.41.26
- Alison Eastman: 22.48.21
- Julia Warren: 22.55.89
- Sarah Birch: 22.56.58
- Naomi Ashcroft: 22.57.02
Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (15 March 2003)
This was won by GB squad members racing as their home clubs, with world champions Katherine Grainger and Cath Bishop in stern pair backed up by Sarah Winckless and Elise Laverick.
Final trials (17-18 April 2002)
These took place in Hazewinkel.
- Rebecca Romero: 8.02.66
- Alison Mowbray: 8.06.20
- Sarah Winckless: 8.06.43
- Alex Beever: 8.10.49
- Katherine Grainger: 8.10.57
Frances Houghton and Elise Laverick were ill and didn’t take part at all. Debbie Flood withdrew ill before final, which is why it was only a five-boat race.
Guin Batten won the two-boat B final ahead of Cath Bishop. Guin, who had been suffering from various viruses and their after effects for over a year, retired from international racing after these trials. “I came off the water after failing to make the A final and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care any more’,” she explains, “And I knew the flame had gone.”
- Bev Gough/Ros Carslake: 7.41.28
- Kate Hewitt/Louisa Rowbotham: 7.46.41
- Kathryn Stewart/Natasha Howard: 7.49.27
- Katie Greves/Jess Eddie: 7.51.12
- Marsaili Scott/Beth Rodford: 7.54.53
- Alison Trickey/Lizzie Crighton: 7.59.67
Lightweight women (single sculls)
- Tracy Langlands: 8.17.77
- Helen Casey: 8.19.08
- Jo Hammond: 8.22.12
- Sarah Birch: 8.23.21
- Jo Nitsch: 8.28.16
- Julia Warren: 8.28.47
- Michelle Dollimore: 8.35.13
- Kirsten McClelland-Brooks: 8.36.00
- Sally Orr: 8.48.74
- Naomi Ashcroft: 8.50.13
- Helen Ellison: 8.57.98
- Louise Collins: 8.59.67
The standout performance here was from newcomer Jo Hammond whom International Manager David Tanner complimented for having an exceptional ergo” in his wrote up of the trials for Regatta magazine.
Following final trials, the openweight group did crew formation seat racing at Dorney to determine who would be in the two top boats, the double and then the quad. The outcome of this was that final trials winner Rebecca moved into the double with Debbie, and Elise won her trial against Kath for the last place in the quad with Alison, Sarah, and Frances. Alex became the new single sculler.
This left Katherine Grainger without a crew because Cath Bishop had been cut from the squad after final trials, where, according to her own memory and Katherine Grainger’s account in her autobiography, Thommo had dressed her down outside the boathouses.
What happened next was, as Cath explains, “I’d written a letter of appeal to Marty Aitken, but was firmly told that my performance at final trials hadn’t been good enough I’d been told it was over and I’d actually made the phone calls to go back to work at the Foreign Office full time. I thought I’d been quite stupid to put myself through it all again, but hey, it was over, and at least I had a good job to go back to.”
“However,” she continues, “A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call asking if I’d come and sit in on some pairs trials because they were short of people.” This must have been after the sculling crew formation trials because as Katherine remembers it, she went straight to Cath’s house to start making plans as soon as she had failed to be selected for the quad. Katherine made it clear to Thommo during the winter that her “first choice would be to be in a pair with Cath” but, she says, he told her that “He had worked with world champions before and he didn’t think she had what it took to be a World Champion.” Katherine, naturally, disagreed, knowing quite how good their pair had felt on occasions. Once the pair became the only option for her, she adds, “I… knew we needed Thommo on the journey. His skill, knowledge and expertise would be vital and we needed to move past this temporary hostility…. we respected his knowledge and trusted his sharp, technical eye as to how a pair should move.”
Cath and Katherine sought extra help from a new squad physio, Ashleigh Wallace, who devised innovative sessions to develop their core stability specifically to help them cope better with rough water.
With Bev Gough and Ros Carslake, the pair from the previous year, still in the mix as an established unit, though, both pairs were entered for the first World Cup regatta, which would effectively be a trial to see which would be selected as the GB crew for the rest of the season.
Essen (17-18 May 2003)
Only two GB crews seem to have competed here. Bev and Ros finished fifth in their pair, and a lightweight quad came third.
World Cup I: Milan (30 May-1 June 2003)
In the pairs, Bev and Ros raced as GBR1 and finished fifth, while and Cath and Kath, racing as GBR2 won the silver medal behind the Romanian crew who had won teh World Chmpionships for the previous two years. Ros and Bev should ideally have then formed the core of a development four or eight, but as Alison Mowbray points out in her autobiography, they were so far ahead of the next group in trials that this wasn’t particularly practical, although they did race in a four at Lucerne.
Rebecca and Debbie came fifth in the doubles. Frances was injured so the quad couldn’t race. Instead, Alison and Sarah raced as GBR2 in the doubles, finishing 10th, and Elise Laverick took fifth place as GBR2 ahead of GBR1 sculler Alex Beever who was eighth.
Helen and Tracy were sixth in the lightweight doubles, while Jo Hammond was once again the star of the show, winning her first international race in the lightweight singles. Sarah Birch finished fifth in the event, 15 seconds behind Jo.
The Lightweight quad didn’t enter because some crew members were taking exams, according to Regatta magazine, although this seems unlikely given the ages of those involved.
World Cup II: Munich (20-22 June 2003)
Cath and Kath won, cementing their selection as the GB pair. The Romanians hadn’t entered. Chris Dodd described in Regatta how they achieved, “A masterful recovery from a bad start… they moved through the field at 34 strokes to the minute until they were second after 500 metres and leading by half way. They commanded the race and then provided a nail-biting finish as the Belarussians challenged menacingly on the last 200 metres.”
Rebecca and Debbie were second in the doubles, although Chris Dodd noted that the 2002 gold and silver medallist crews were absent. In the single sculls, Alex Beever came fourth, as did the quad in a straight final where they crossed the line just 0.09 seconds behind the Ukrainian crew. Alison noted in her autobiography that at this point in the season she was finding it hard to make the technical changes that Thommo sought and so was worried thet she might lose her seat to Alex. In addition, he berated her when they got home for looking across at the Ukrainians for one stroke near the end of the race, and blamed her for lowing the crew a medal.
Helen and Tracy were the only lightweight boat to race and won the bronze medal.
World Cup III: Lucerne (11-13 July 2003)
Kath and Cath finished third behind Canada and Belarus. Again, the Romanians weren’t there. This was enough for them to secure overall victory in the World Cup series.
The quad also came third, with Alison’s eyes glued firmly forwards.
In the double, Alex subbed in for Rebecca after the heat because she was having back problems. Alex and Debbie eventually finished seventh, with Alex also 13th in the single sculls.
Bev Gough and Ros Carslake came seventh in a development coxless four with Sarah Martin, who had been in the under-23 pair the previous year, and Carla Ashford.
The lightweight pair of Julia Warren and Michelle Dollimore won by 2.8 sec over Greece in a 3-boat straight final, their first international event of the year.
Helen and Tracy finished fourth in the lightweight doubles, as did the lightweight quad.
B: Alison Mowbray (Leander Club)
2: Sarah Winckless (Walbrook and Royal Canoe Club)
3: Frances Houghton (University of London Women’s BC)
S: Elise Laverick (Thames RC)
Coaches: Paul Thompson/Miles Forbes-Thomas
B: Rebecca Romero (Leander Club)
S: Debbie Flood (Leander Club)
Coach: Mark Banks
B: Katherine Grainger (St Andrew BC)
S: Cath Bishop (Marlow RC)
Coaches: Paul Thompson/Miles Forbes-Thomas
Alex Beever (Leander Club)
Coach: Mark Banks
Lightweight quad scull
B: Jo Nitsch (Leander Club)
2: Tegwen Rooks (Tideway Scullers School)
3: Jo Hammond (Rob Roy BC)
S: Sarah Birch (Kingston RC)
Coach: Simon Cox
Lightweight double scull
B: Helen Casey (Wallingford RC)
S: Tracey Langlands (Leander Club)
Coach: Marty Aitken/Marysh Chmiel
B: Julia Warren (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
S: Michelle Dollimore (Kingston RC)
Coach: Ron Needs
Openweight sweep reserve
Final training camp in Varese
Cath and Katherine peaked perfectly at this final piece of preparation. “We had a brilliant camp,” Cath remembers. “We trained a lot with the women’s lightweight double, which is very close speed to an openweight pair in terms of world best times. We did tons of side by side stuff that helped us massively. They’re supposed to be something like five seconds faster, and it was just the perfect challenge all the time. We’d done some great build ins next to them too.” Katherine noted that, “We had moments when our boat flew unlike anything I had ever seen or felt.”
Nevertheless, there were challenges. Cath explains, “Thommo’s grandmother in Australia passed away and of course he couldn’t get back, so that was hard for him, and our boat got holed by the one above it coming off its rack so we had to miss an outing while it was mended. Then there was a problem with the hotel and we had to change rooms – there was a whole catalogue of things that but we were still very focused. More alarmingly, although she wasn’t worried at first, Katherine developed a back problem. They’d been doing a lot of catch exercises, which are very helpful for improving that important part of the stroke but can also be hard on the back. She remembers, “One day while we were paddling I felt a painful twinge in my back. It wasn’t anything I’d experienced before… I checked with the physio later who had a look but wasn’t concerned.”
Did a lot of important catch exercises which were quite hard on the back; one day whle just paddling, Katherine “felt a painful twinge” of a type she hadn’t experienced before, although the physio was uncercerned.,
At the World Championships
The conditions in Milan were oppressively hot throughout the championships.
Pair (1st out of 16)
Boats qualifying for the 2004 Olympic regatta: 8
The pair finished second in their heat behind Belarus. With only one crew from the race qualifying directly for the semi-final, this mean that they would have to go through the repechage. Katherine recounts, “We finished behind and off the pace, displaying none of the excellence that we had showed at the training camp. Thommo met us off the water and demanded to know what had happened. When we couldn’t answer, he sent us off… saying he didn’t want to see us again until we had answers.”
Two days later, they won their repechage, and went on to win their semi-final as well, two days after that, finishing just 0.96 sec ahead of the USA. However, in warm up Katherine felt what she described in her autobiography as “an agonizing stab of pain” in her back, though she managed to keep the problem from Cath by insisting that they stop while a race came past with the attendant launch wash, and using that time to stretch and breathe while the pain subsided.
She got through the semi on adrenaline but more or less had to be lifted out of the boat afterwards. She remembers that Thommo was extremely frustrated by the setback – he, too was under pressure to deliver medals.
Cath again, “There was a day we weren’t totally sure we were going to get to race the final,” but in the end, with the aid of strong pain killers and taping from the team physios, they made it to the start line. Katherine says she focused on the mantra “trust the process” to avoid all of the stresses and uncertainties that were swirling round them, and Cath adds, “Nobody was thinking about medals any more because of what had happened and the ups and downs of the week. So we lost the outcome pressures, and could just be very process focused. I was thinking, ‘Let’s do our thing. This is maybe our last race, this is it for us, let’s go out and do ourselves justice.’ It’s the most I’ve ever been in the moment within a race, not aware of where I was when I crossed the line and Katherine has often said similar.”
They passed through the first three timing points in fourth place behind Romania, Belarus and Canada. In the final 500m, they started their final sprint and overtook the leading boats one by one. Katherine wrote, “As we flew past the Romanians, it felt as if they were in slow motion.” They won by 1.01 seconds.
Cath, who had been in the GB team from 1996 to 2001 before retiring for 2002, reflects, laughing, “It was my first year back, the first and only time I heard the National anthem! It was just amazing! Really, really, really amazing after all that had gone before and all that had gone that year.”
Here are photos of them racing, celebrating after crossing the finish line and with their medals.
Lightweight pair (2nd out of 6)
At their first World Championships, and with only a straight final, Julia and Michelle faced a big challenge and had to deliver right from the first stroke, and they did. They were second at each of the interim timing points, and finished 2.27 seconds off the Romanian gold medallists and 1.97 seconds ahead off the first of the two pursuing crews from Greece and the USA who were eventually separated by 0.12 seconds in a photo finish for third and fourth.
Here are photos of them racing and with their medals.
This was the last year that the women’s lightweight pair took place until 2018 as it had triggered the ‘natural death’ rule brought in in 2001, which stated that any event in which there are fewer than seven starters in three consecutive World Championships (there had been six in 2001, four in 2002 and now six again) would automatically be removed from the programme of the World Championships for the following years.
Double scull (4th out of 15)
Boats qualifying for the 2004 Olympic regatta: 8
Rebecca and Debbie finished second in their heat behind Germany, second again in their semi-final behind Russia, and then fourth in the final behind gold medallists New Zealand, who had been in the other heat and semi-final from them, Germany and Russia. They were 5.41 seconds off the bronze medal.
Here’s a photo of them racing.
Quad scull (4th out of 14)
Boats qualifying for the 2004 Olympic regatta: 7
The quad finished second in their heat behind Australia. This was enough to put them straight into the semi-final, where they finished second time behind Germany.
In the final, the GB crew were first at 500m gone, but had dropped to fifth at half way, where they remained at 1,500m gone before overtaking Ukraine in the last 500m. At the finish line, Australia were the clear winners after which there was a three-boat photo finish between Belarus, Germany and the British quad, from which the outcome was that Belarus took silver, 0.78 seconds ahead of GB, and Germany bronze, just 0.31 seconds behind.
Sarah Winckless remembers, “We were definitely in a medal position at 1,900m gone and we just missed out. Coming fourth was gutting but it was also probably the closest we’d been to a gold medal ever in a World final.” She adds, “It was a strong crew – I’d rowed with Fran in 2000 and she’s a phenomenal athlete as the others are, and she just brought a solidity and simplicity to it.
Lightweight double scull (7th out of 21)
Boats qualifying for the 2004 Olympic regatta: 9
In their second year as the GB lightweight double, Helen and Tracy won their heat by over two seconds, but came fourth in the semi-final, 4.44 seconds behind the third of the qualifiers. They then won B final by 0.55 seconds.
Here is a photo of them racing.
This was the first time that Britain had qualified a dwomen’s lightweight double for the Olympics, having missed doing so at the final qualifying regattas for the previous two games since the event’s addition to the programme there in 1996.
Lightweight quad scull (7th out of 10)
The quad had a rather disappointing start, finishing third in their heat, nearly 12 seconds down on the first-placed crew from the Netherlands. They came fourth in the repechage, over 5 seconds behind the second of the two crews that qualified for the A final. They won the B final by 0.06 sec from Austria.
Photos of them can be seen here and here.
Single scull (10th out of 20)
Boats qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Regatta: 9
Alex finished fourth in her heat from which only one sculler progressed directly to the semi-finals, but then bagged the second of the two qualifying places available in the repechage by over five seconds from her next challenger, Gitta Barz of Hungary.
Her fifth place in the semi-final was over 20 seconds off qualifying for the A final, though, and she finished fourth in the B final, one place and just 1.89 seconds off qualifying the boat for the 2004 Olympic Games.
A photo of her racing can be seen here.
LTA Coxed Four (1st out of 5)
Able-bodied cox Loretta Williams, who worked for the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing) as a Coaching Development Officer, steered the visually-impaired men’s crew to victory in the LTA (Legs, Trunk and Arms) Coxed Four event.
Cath and Katherine’s gold medal was, of course, a superb result. It was the third openweight gold medal for GB women (the first two having been won by Alex Beever, Sue Walker, Libby Henshilwood and Lisa Eyre in the coxless four in 1997 and then Miriam Batten and Gillian Lindsay in the double in 1998) and the first sweep gold in an Olympic boat class.
In terms of Olympic qualification, the team’s results at the 2003 World Championships were solid, with places secured in four of the six events available. There would be three more places on offer for the single and two for an eight at the final Qualification Regatta in 2004; while it was possible that someone coudl qualify for the single, the chances of an eight being formed that could achieve this were slim, after two World Championships without such a crew being developed. What was also clear, was that any medals at the 2004 Olympic Games would have to come from the current team members.
Cath Bishop reflects, “A year out from Athens, we were, in a way, perfectly poised. Except Katherine’s got a really bad back.”
World Rowing Junior Championships
These took place from 5-9 August at Schinias, near Athens in Greece, where strong winds whipped up rough water to such an extent that the GB men’s eight became too waterlogged to finish their heat. As is usual, the Junior Championships were used to test the venue for the following year’s Olympic Regatta. International Manager David Tanner rightly voiced concern that in the Almanack that the conditions, which were prevailing rather than unlucky, “raise many serious questions” for that.
Coxless four (2nd out of 7)
B: Laura Greenhaulgh (Headington School Oxford BC)
2: Sophie Hosking (Kingston Grammar School BC)
3: Henrietta Greene (Lady Eleanor Holes BC)*
S: Natasha Page (Gloucester RC)**
Coach: Eve Singfield
The report in the Almanack noted that the four, “Won a fine silver medal a fraction behind Italy… Never before has a British girls’ four been so close to gold. With 25 strokes to go, stroke Natasha Page pushed for the front and the British boat showed just ahead but the Italians’ last push gave them the verdict on the line.”
Double scull (6th out of 13)
B: Victoria Land (Avon County RC)
S: Caroline Barrett (Royal Chester RC)
Coach: Paul Stannard
* Indicates a previous participation at the World Rowing Junior Championships.
World Under-23 Regatta
This took place in Belgrade in what was then Serbia and Montenegro from 25-27 July 2003.
Coxless four (6th out of 11)
B: Tracey Matthews (Tideway Scullers School)
2: Alison Knowles (Exeter University BC)
3: Marsaili Scott (Durham University BC)
S: Beth Rodford (Molesey BC)
Coach: Gary Stubbs
Beth had previously rowed for GB at the World Rowing Junior Championships in 1999 and 2000.
Coxless pair (3rd out of 7)
B: Katie Greves (University of London Women’s BC)*
S: Jessica Eddie (Durham ARC)
Coach: Pete Somerville
Katie and Jess had both had previously represented GB twice at Junior level; Katie in 1999 and 2000, and Jess in 2001 and 2002.
Although no ‘development’ crews raced consistently as part of the senior team or at the World Championships, what no one could yet know was that four of the 2003 Under-23s – Katie Greves, Jess Eddie, Beth Rodford and Alison Knowles – and three of the juniors – Natasha Page, Sophie Hosking and Laura Greenhaulgh – would go on to medal at multiple World Championships and Olympic Games. The pathway was bearing fruit, although it wouldn’t be ripe in time for 2004.
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© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.