Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Rower thanks family for ‘keeping their faith in me’

A ROWER who almost gave up the sport is competing at the Olympic Games in Rio.

A ROWER who almost gave up the sport is competing at the Olympic Games in Rio.

Stewart Innes, from Binfield Heath, is in the Great Britain pair with fellow Leander Club athlete Alan Sinclair, having only made his senior international debut in May last year.

The 25-year-old finished fourth at the GB rowing trials, which merited selection with Sinclair at the European championships in Brandenburg, where they won silver.

Despite missing the world cup in Lucerne through illness, they then picked up bronze in Poznan, which earned them their call-up for Brazil.

Innes, who is 6ft 4in, says: “You always dream of the Olympics but you never actually dare to say it but it is clearly what everyone is aiming for.”

He will be supported in Rio by his family, father Duncan, a retired project director at Hewlett Packard and a former GB rower, mother Nicky, a retired teacher, sister Claire, 27, and brother Angus, 23.

“I am proud that my family are coming and going to experience everything,” says Innes.

“It is their journey too as they have been so supportive of me. They have been to every race and not missed anything so going to the Olympics is vindication for me and for them for all their hard work and my washing and the meals and everything — I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Innes was born at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on May 20, 1991. At the time his family lived in Harpsden Road, Henley, but they moved to Binfield Heath not long afterwards.

His father won gold at the lightweight rowing world championships in Amsterdam in 1977 and a bronze in the same competition in Hazewinkel, Belgium, three years later. There was no lightweight competition in the Olympics at the time.

He also competed at Henley Royal Regatta several times and, as a member of Upper Thames Rowing Club, would spend his time on the Henley reach with his brother Graham, who was captain of boats at Oxford University and won the Boat Race twice.

“Growing up we would be told that ‘Dad’s gone rowing’,” recalls Innes. “I knew that he liked to go rowing with his brother and we would cycle up the towpath and follow them. It never occurred to us that he had been good!”

His father first took him out on the water when he was about 11 and he would also be taken to Henley Royal Regatta, which he hated.

Innes says: “We would sit in the stands and I would not know what was going on. There would be big gaps between races and I would sit there being hot and hungry.

“I really didn’t know anything about his rowing — my dad is very modest and kept it pretty quiet and it never really occurred to me to ask.”

His sister attended Headington School in Oxford, where she rowed and took part in GB trials.

Innes attended Shiplake Primary School, Crosfields in Reading, Lambrook in Ascot and then St Edward’s, Oxford, where he rowed.

He says: “I was really active as a kid and used play anything and everything. I played football but I was useless as I couldn’t co-ordinate my limbs — I guess that happens to people who grow quickly. I also played cricket and I was pretty good at cross-country but I loved to be on the water, whether it was in a boat or a kayak.

“At St Edward’s I was dropped from the rugby team for being unfit so I used to rowing as an escape from school life. For me time by the river was never time wasted, it was great fun and from there my passion grew.” He was 13 when he took part in his first race in an octuple at the schools head on the Tideway.

“I remember sitting there in the freezing cold but having a great time because of the guys I was rowing with,” recalls Innes.

“The first year we got better and better and got to national schools [regatta] and made the final. We were going pretty well and I thought we would win it but in the final someone hadn’t done their gate up properly and their blade fell out. Still it was our first taste of racing and I loved it.

“In my second year we had a new coach who made us train really hard for that age group, which helped me. I would progress a little bit more every year.

“In my J15 year I won a medal at the national schools in a coxed four. That was my first taste of winning anything and the following year we got better and better.”

However, Innes then suffered the first of several injury setbacks when he fell off his bike and broke his collar bone. He spent three days in hospital and had to take the summer off. He missed out on that year’s national schools regatta and also his first chance of racing at Henley.

When he returned to training, he was determined to become fitter and faster.

“I had this idea of doing the GB trials,” says Innes. “Nobody at the school had done them for a few years so I started running 5km to school and doing ergos before lessons.”

It worked. Innes earned his first GB vest in 2008 at the junior world championships in Linz, finishing 16th in the pair.

At the following year’s Munich junior international regatta he won gold in the four and bronze in the pair before helping the eight to a silver medal at the junior world championships in Brive.

Innes says: “By this time things weregoing pretty well and I had become captain of boats at school. It was a running joke as I had to stand up in assembly and do the rowing announcements and then tell everyone that I had won.

“It is difficult telling people how good you are but I am working on it!” When he left St Edwards’s, Innes decided to take up a scholarship at Durham University, so he could continue to row and progress with Great Britain but things didn’t exactly go to plan.

“I spent the whole of my first year at university being ill,” he says. “I got post-viral fatigue. I was working myself too hard and wasn’t looking after myself.”

After getting back to full fitness, he competed in the quadruple scull at the 2011 world U23 championships in Amsterdam.

Then he tore a ligament in his wrist while weightlifting and had to have two operations to repair it. He had to wear a cast for six months until February 2012.

After returning to training, Innes was unhappy with the coaching at Durham and tried to join Tees Rowing Club but was forbidden from doing so by GB Rowing.

He recalls: “The Durham coach wanted me in a crew boat, so I wasn’t allowed to scull. I wanted to give the scholarship back.

“I was told I wouldn’t be fast enough to be in a single, which I thought I could be, and I was put in a pair and we came last in the 2012 GB trials final.

“I knew that I was good enough but wasn’t being given the chance, so I was frustrated. When I finished university I was on the verge of quitting.”

In fact, Innes kept his belief in his own ability and rather than give up rowing he joined Leander Club.

He was determined to give it his best shot but, once again, injury hampered his development.

“Two days before I was due to start I broke my foot,” he recalls. “I broke my fifth metatarsal after rolling it over while in Scotland. The injury kept me off the water for two months so I spent that time lifting weights.”

His injuries were partly due to being hypermobile, a condition that means his joints have an unusually large range of movement.

Innes found form in 2013, winning the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at the royal regatta as part of a Leander and Molesey Boat Club composite crew that set a course record of five minutes and 58 seconds.

“We still hold the record for that,” he says proudly. “That was brilliant — winning was something I had really wanted to do for so long.”

He was selected for the 2013 U23 world championships in Linz, Austria, and took part in the heats of the men’s quadruple sculls but missed the semi-finals and final through illness.

Innes says: “We were unbeaten and thought we were in with a chance of a medal but then I was sick with the norovirus.

“It was really unfortunate as the boat went on to come fourth. Had I been there I think we would have won a medal.”

In 2014, Innes had to try to break into the men’s senior squad.

He decided to take a part-time master’s degree in diplomacy at Reading University, which meant he could compete at the university world championships.

He says: “I came third in the single sculls, which was one of the hardest races that I have ever done and at that point I didn’t think I would get a look in at the GB team.

“The next year I was going to do as much as I could to get into the squad. I did the full Leander programme to make sure I was as strong as possible.

“I began just before Christmas, so I did it on my own, and then I thought if I was going to break into the team that had to be the minimum I did. To get better I had to do more than the others.

“I came fifth at the national trials in Boston and then I got invited to a GB training camp in Portugal where I met coach Jürgen Gröbler.

“When he asked me, I had no hesitation in saying ‘yes’ but he didn’t want me as a sculler but as a sweeper, a reserve, instead. Afterwards I thought, ‘how is this going to help me?’ It was frustrating as I was only keeping someone’s seat warm while being kept out of a single scull and all the people I would be going up against would be on the water.”

At the next GB trials he came 10th, which he says was “frustrating”.

Then Gröbler surprised him by asking him the fill in for Stan Louloudis in the men’s eight at the European championships in Poznan which took silver behind Germany.

Innes retained his place for the world cup in Varese and this time GB beat the Germans by two-tenths of a second. He then formed a second GB men’s pair with Ollie Cook, losing in the final of the royal regatta to the other GB crew but beating the South African pair who had come third in the world championships the previous year.

He then raced in the same pair at Lucerne in the world championships, finishing second in the B final and eighth overall.

Last year, Innes was drafted into the men’s four, which had been under-performing.

“The training camps were the first time we raced together and we have got better and better,” he says.

“I had watched them previously and thought that the boat was impenetrable, which was the reason why I had trained myself into oblivion that year.”

He helped the four qualify for Rio before switching to the pair after the GB trials. He says: “It really has been a whirlwind season that has come out of nowhere to win a medal at the championships.

“I felt that I was good enough but it has taken me a while to turn myself from being a very good junior to being good enough to make the senior team. For me it has always been about getting the most out of myself.

“My dad has been so supportive all the way. If I ask him for his input he will always talk about something that I could do differently and is a calming influence.

“A friend told me once that I was the unluckiest guy in rowing because of my injuries, but hopefully that’s now in the past.”

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