AS town centre manager, Peter McConnell is well known in Henley.
AS town centre manager, Peter McConnell is well known in Henley.
The 50-year-old marketing expert spends much of his time visiting businesses and coming up with ideas to help shops prosper.
But what many of the traders may not know is that as a teenager he was an accomplished rower and shared a boat with Steve Redgrave when they were at Great Marlow School in Marlow together in the late Seventies.
He is still good friends with the man who went on to become the five-times Olympic champion — thanks to the tragic loss of fellow crew member Robert Hayley.
Mr McConnell says he was “plucked from obscurity” by the English teacher who founded the school rowing club and placed in the coxed four despite being in the year below the rest of the crew. He sat in the three seat behind Redgrave, the stroke.
“The first year I was in it was 1978 and we won quite a lot of stuff,” he recalls. “The next year, at junior level, we won everything we entered, which was fantastic.
“We raced every weekend in the summer so there must have been 20-odd events that year, including the National Championships, the Schools Head and Marlow Regatta.”
At that time, there was no event at Henley Royal Regatta for which they were eligible but that didn’t stop their winning streak.
Mr McConnell says: “We represented England at the home countries match, which was run on a reservoir near Cardiff, and beat Monmouth School, representing Wales.
“We faced them in the final at about half the regattas that year and we always won. One of their crew is a still a very good friend of mine and stays with me during Henley.”
The next year, 1979, the other members of the four left school but they all continued rowing together for Marlow Rowing Club. They also kept winning and Redgrave in particular was showing promise.
“We did trials for the junior GB squad and Steve was head and shoulders above the rest,” says Mr McConnell. “The selectors were very keen on taking Steve and not the rest of us but he showed tremendous loyalty towards the crew and carried on rowing with us.”
He says they would have gone to the junior world championships in Moscow that year, a year before the Olympics, but were at the national championships when the crew suffered an equipment failure while leading the race.
Mr McConnell recalls: “Clive’s [Pope] seat broke and because we weren’t the flavour of the month with the selectors after Steve’s decision to continue rowing with us they wouldn’t let us re-race. Half an hour later, Steve won the single sculls event and went to the Junior Worlds.”
A much worse tragedy followed when Robert Hayley died from a heart attack while at Redgrave’s house.
The other three, plus cox Nick Baatz, were pallbearers at his funeral.
Despite what was a traumatic time for them all, they continued rowing.
Mr McConnell says: “Steve then went on to his incredible career and Clive and I formed a coxless pair. He got picked for the junior championships in 1980 but I didn’t.
“Although I was a year younger and so had one more year, I had run out of people to row with in Marlow.”
His junior rowing career then came to an end after he contracted appendicitis just before the Team GB trials.
However, he went on to represent Imperial College, London, and qualified for Henley Royal Regatta for the first time, reaching the semi-finals of the Visitors’ Cup.
He went on to compete at Henley on more than 10 other occasions, although he never won a trophy.
Mr McConnell says: “Henley is just an unbelievable experience, especially at the weekend or if you are a local club as there are so many people cheering for you.
“It is the only chance you get as a club oarsman to experience what it is like being in a stadium. You hit Upper Thames and there is a huge cheer that goes up and it ripples down the course. It is completely different to any other rowing event.”
His most memorable race at Henley was while competing in the Thames Rowing Club eight for the Thames Cup in 1994.
Mr McConnell recalls: “It was a race we should have been winning by a mile but for some reason we were a length down coming into the enclosures on the Thursday.
“Then we could hear this almighty roar and we put in a massive sprint and won by a length. It was the sheer force of the crowd that pushed us through. We were then beaten by the legendary Nottingham lightweight crew.”
The last time he competed at Henley was in 2005 in a double scull and it was during this race that he realised he was no longer up to it: “It is an awfully long way when you’re over 40, especially in a small boat like a double scull.”
He had raced in an eight, a four, double and quad sculls and even tried to qualify in the diamond sculls one year but narrowly missed out.However, he has enjoyed success elsewhere having joined Upper Thames Rowing Club in 1997 as a veteran, or master.
He was in a coxed four that won the Masters Regatta in Groningen in Holland in 1994 and he was in a double scull that won the pairs head in London in October.
“The Masters Regatta is a really friendly event and is one of the biggest regattas in the world with about 10,000 competitors,” says Mr McConnell.
“I have won a few medals at the Masters World Championships. People come from all over the world so it is a pretty big thing to win for old men like us.”
Off the water, he became a member of the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley in 1998 and Leander Club in 2003.He also writes the official race reports for the Boat Race and says: “Following the race in a press umpire’s launch is the most fun in the world. You see lots of little nuances you don’t see on television.”
He is also chairman of Regatta Radio, which is now in its eighth year of broadcasting for 10 days before and during the royal regatta.
It covers the build-up to the event, including interviews with athletes, crews, coaches, stewards, rowing journalists and many of the characters associated with the regatta as well as broadcasting live commentaries during the five days of the event. “Being involved in Regatta Radio is brilliant,” says Mr McConnell.
“Putting on a station for rowing is a unique thing in the world and we now have 30,000 listeners. It is a valuable resource and good fun to do.”
He continues to row, training five times a week on the Thames during the summer and sometimes six or seven.
“Given the opportunity I would row every day,” he says. “It gets into your blood, it’s addictive.
“If you have a degree of success early on it’s nice to continue, especially if you find good people to row with and win every so often. It also keeps you fit — I’m pretty good for a 50-year-old.
“It is all about being able to compete and still win things and getting a thrill out of it. I am lucky enough to live in Henley, which has the best backdrop. It is the most beautiful place in the world to row on what we call ‘God’s own river’.”