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Rowing coach with the golden touch
Published 07/07/14

IT’S clear when speaking to international rowing coach Robin Williams that he lives and breathes the sport.

His impressive career has seen him row at six world championships for Great Britain, win the Boat Race with Cambridge an astonishing seven times in 11 years as chief coach and taste Olympic glory when he coached Heather Stanning and Helen Glover to gold at London 2012.

The 55-year-old learnt to row when he was at Monmouth School in South Wales.

“I always remember those first few days of rowing on the River Wye,” he says. “That was a really valuable experience that put me in touch with the sport.”

He attended University College London and rowed for London University Rowing Club, first representing Great Britain in 1981 at the age of 22.

After leaving university, he worked for the Financial Times as an advertising manager from 1983 to 1987 and also had a brief spell as a salvage diver in the Caribbean.

He rowed for Great Britain for the last time in 1991 and says a decade in the boat gave him a good grounding to become a coach.

In the early Nineties he joined London Rowing Club and became “a bit of a player-manager”.

He recalls: “I had one of the earliest professional coaching jobs in the country. In theory it was part-time but in rowing there’s no such thing really.

“London was where you had to be really if you wanted to be an international. It was before the days of Dorney Lake.

“I had three years at London Rowing Club, which was one of the national centres for the Great Britain lightweights. It was a good springboard for a coaching career because we had GB rowers there. We won a lot of stuff at all levels and I think that got me established as a coach.”

In 1994 both Oxford and Cambridge were competing to sign him up to coach their Boat Race crews.

“I went for Cambridge,” he says, “but in choosing one you make yourself the enemy of the other.

“The obvious thing about the Boat Race is you have got two chief coaches with more or less have the same resources so it’s a pretty honest reflection of you as a coach. If you can organise people, motivate them and utilise the resources you’re given, you will produce the crew to win on the day.”

He says that winning the Boat Race provides “a great sense of reward that what you have done has worked”.

Losing, however, is “very painful” — “There’s a lot of soul-searching. Second place is the first loser.”

Mr Williams, who lives in Makins Road, Henley, with his wife Anna and children Lizzie, 22, and Matthew, 18, says his job as Cambridge coach was rewarding but hard work. “I worked my guts out,” he says. “It was a great job with long hours but the kind of challenge that completely captivates you and I’m sure also takes its toll on home life.”

He would get up at 5.20am every day for training in the gym, starting at 6.30am.

After that the student rowers would go off to lectures while he had two or three hours in the office — “there’s a surprising amount of office work being a coach”. At lunchtime they would go to the rowing lake at Ely where conditions could be very bleak.

The coach recalls: “We have come back down river with ice literally all down the looms of the oars and icicles in the back of people’s hair. You’re dressed more like Shackleton as an Antarctic explorer — it was perishingly cold. Sometimes the river would be freezing around the boat as we were rowing home.”

After returning to Cambridge and completing more office work, he would end up doing a 12- to 14-hour day but he says: “It didn’t seem like a long day, just busy.”

After 11 years with the university, Mr Williams decided on a change and he became lead lightweight coach with British Rowing and the family moved to Henley.

He had coached the lightweight men’s four to 10th place at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 — the year the lightweight category was introduced to the Games.

However, Great Britain’s lightweight crews had very little success over the next decade.

Mr Williams says: “I thought it would be quite nice to have a change and get back with the lightweights and see if I could do something about the results, which in fact did happen.”

In 2007 the lightweight four he was coaching won gold at the world championships in Munich and the following year came fifth at the Olympics in Beijing.

In 2010 Mr Williams took a break from rowing and set up Totally Outdoors in Reading Road, Henley, selling outdoor clothing and goods, including rowing equipment.

But it wasn’t long before he was tempted back.

He says: “I’d only been doing that for about six months when the phone rang and British Rowing asked if I’d come back and do some coaching. My heart was really in coaching if I’m truthful.”

Stanning and Glover were in the women’s pair on the understanding that if someone in the eight fell ill one of them would fill the seat.

However, in 2010 they won silver at the world championships in New Zealand, which meant their status changed from a support crew for the eight to a crew in their own right.

Mr Williams began preparing them for the London Olympics, training primarily at Caversham Lakes, and they were surrounded by an “army of experts”.

“The coach tends to be the contact point for everybody. He has to know a little bit about everything,” he says.

“The longer I’ve coached the more I think it’s about mental attitude and mindset. I think it should be fun and enjoyable. It’s not too difficult to make it a miserable experience. The training is hard, people get grumpy and tired.

“I have a fascination with rowing technique. It’s a mixture of science but also a fair bit of art. Rowing has to be completely synchronised otherwise it fails very quickly.

“I have gone down a pathway of high performance coaching. There’s quite a thrill in being able to help people reach their potential and to do it quickly.

“When you push the crew off for the last time there should be nothing left in your head you need to say. The aim of the coach is to make yourself redundant at the end of the process.”

He achieved exactly this at Dorney Lake as Stanning and Glover won the final of the women’s pairs comfortably having already set a new Olympic record in the heats.

Before the final, the three of them found a quiet spot at the lake and played Boggle for 45 minutes.

“It was fun,” says Mr Williams. “They needed to see the enjoyment in the occasion and not be intimidated by the Olympics to get their best performance.

“We put the last tile down on the board, closed it up and went out to the boat.

“They won the final and basically demolished the opposition. It was about as clear cut as you’ll ever see. That was very gratifying.

“For three years we’d worked in private every day. I knew what they had for breakfast, if they were tired, what their aches and pains were.

“But the moment they crossed the finishing line everybody in the world knew who they were. In that moment I felt like I’d lost them in a way.”

Mr Williams was diagnosed with bladder cancer in December and underwent surgery at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. In February, he was told he was in remission.

He says: “It does make you reflect on life in a philosophical way.”

However, he is still passionate about rowing.

He says: “To be happy in life, to find something you like doing and then have someone to pay you to do it, that’s how I feel about rowing.

“It’s something I enjoy anyway and to have made a career out of it is great.”

Published 07/07/14

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