Saturday, 18 September 2021

From rower to celebrity photographer

We talk to the Leander row who won in the World Cup in 2010 and, having narrowly missed out on a place in the Olympic squad, has now turned to a career in photography.

WHEN a boat full of rowers crosses the line — whether at the Royal Regatta finish or at Dorney Lake — does anyone cheering from the banks give a thought to the poor beaten, withered hands on the end of the oars?

The excruciating blisters and cracked skin that rowers have to endure in order to become the best they possibly can is just one of the subjects explored in a photography exhibition on the river and rowing at the Leander Club in April.

Tom Wilkinson of Duke Street was in the Leander eights team which won the World Cup in 2010 and having narrowly missed out on a place in the Olympic squad he has now turned to a career in photography. His one-day exhibition, The Pink Reflections, is a collection of photographs he has collated along with three fellow students on his photography course at the University of East London.

He says: “When you first start rowing one of the things you have to go through is dealing with the big blisters on your hands.

“The blisters burst, then the skin dries up, and then it cracks. So then you start holding the handles in a different position — until you get blisters in new places. You end up with hands that are a complete mess.

“Someone told me to put superglue in the cracks of your hands. It sounds crazy, but it’s the best bit of advice that I’ve been given. The glue sticks it back together and you can carry on training.”

He adds that although wearing gloves is one way to protect your hands, it just quite doesn’t cut it in the macho stakes.

Wilkinson, 26, was brought up in Reading and was a keen rugby player, but it was only when he came to The Henley College for sixth form that he tried rowing for the first time and was selected as a candidate for the Leander team. He gave up rugby and threw himself into his new sport. “When I found out the Olympic Games were going to be in London I really went for it,” he says.

After finishing his studies he joined the Metropolitan Police, and was based in Camden, but when training for London 2012 intensified he had to give up his job.

“I just missed out on a place in the team and I was really disappointed, but I’d had some good experiences along the way, including competing in Poland and New Zealand.”

However, he still managed to make it to the London games — albeit on the other side of the lens. After enrolling on the photography course he was recruited by a company called Capture The Event as a photographer for the games, based at the athletes village in London’s Docklands.

“It was brilliant,” he says. “I was over the moon. I went to see some of the events and just being part of the atmosphere was great. Also, I got to meet the athletes and British medallists. At one point Usain Bolt came into the village. I had a picture of him — an A1 print of him winning his medal — so I ran up to him and got him to sign it. I was really pleased — until my boss, who’d seen what happened, came up and said, ‘I’ll have that’ and took it off me to put on the wall of the shop.

“There were thousands of people outside taking pictures of him, but when I went up to talk to him he was just like a normal person.”

For the exhibition, Wilkinson has chosen a selection of photos including his own action shots, as well as some more “arty” river and rowing images, a series on river bridges, and some portraits.

The exhibition, from 7.30pm to 9pm on Tuesday, April 23 at the Leander Club, is free and open to all. Photos are for sale and proceeds go to the club. Visit

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