Thursday, 05 August 2021

Winning women who prove rowing is a sport for life

THE veteran women at Upper Thames Rowing Club are proof that you’re never too old to succeed in

THE veteran women at Upper Thames Rowing Club are proof that you’re never too old to succeed in their sport.

The squad, which includes several former Olympians and world champions, boasts an impressive record at masters’ competitions in Britain and abroad.

The women mostly enter category D eights events for crews with an average age of 50 or above but occasionally compete in category C for those aged 43 to 50.

In recent years they have won in the C8 class of the Henley Masters’ Regatta and at last year’s event won both the C8 and D8.

In March this year the women took home the veterans’ pennant at the Women’s Head of the River race for the first time.

They beat about 350 rival crews over a 6.8km course on the Thames Tideway between Mortlake and Putney.

A few weeks later they raced in the Vesta Veterans’ Head of the River, held on the same course, and won the D category easily as they had done the previous year.

In October last year a category D Upper Thames women’s eight competed in the three-mile Head of the Charles river race in Boston.

They came fourth out of 39 crews, less than six seconds behind the winners.

They will be back there this autumn and are aiming for top spot as they will be allowed to start in fourth place whereas last year they began at the back of the pack.

The Upper Thames crews are drawn from a pool of more than a dozen women, most of whom live in Henley.

The core group of rowers, aged between 45 and 57, comprises Alison Gill, Juliet Machan, Miriam Luke, Jo Wilby, Naomi Ashcroft, Helen Mangan, Anna Van Leemputten and Judith Burne, who all live in Henley, and Louise Wymer, from Brightwell-cum-Sotwell.

Many are multiple winners of the Henley Women’s Regatta and the Henley Masters’ Regatta.

Ashcroft, Luke and Machan have all previously won gold medals at the world championships while Burne has won silver.

Luke also won silver as part of the GB quadruple scull at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney — the first British women’s crew to win an Olympic medal.

Gill came fifth in the women’s double sculls at the Barcelona Games in 1992. She was also part of a GB women’s eight that set a new world record at Atlanta in 1996, finishing in just over six minutes and 15 seconds. This was finally broken by an American crew in 2011.

Burne, the squad’s youngest rower, and Wymer have won gold and silver respectively at the Commonwealth Games.

Wilby, who is the squad’s co-ordinator, is a former British indoor rowing champion while Mangan set a new British indoor rowing record this year after winning gold in the lightweight 55-to-59 category in seven minutes and 41.5 seconds.

Van Leemputten has won the women’s lightweight double sculls at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta and rowed for Belgium in the FISA World Cup series.

Luke was appointed chairwoman of the Henley Women’s Regatta in 2012 while Wilby is the site manager, Ashcroft the master of ceremonies and Wymer helps with the prize-giving ceremony.

The squad is coxed by Di Yarrow, of Park Road, Henley, who joined Upper Thames three years ago and is also a core member.

The 35-year-old has coxed winning crews at the Henley Women’s Regatta and in the British championships.

When too few core members are available, the squad calls upon a wider group of rowers including Jenny Page, Sue Keevil, Elise Cope, Rebecca Sadler, Guin Batten, Janet Vickers, Mandy Calvert and cox Brendan Desmond.

Wilby, 57, took charge in 2005 after moving to Henley at the suggestion of her husband Timothy Capell.

She previously lived near Bagshot and had run the Tideway Scullers’ veterans for about six years.

She says: “I had been competing in the Henley Masters’ Regatta for many years before I moved. I knew the town well and loved it so it seemed like a logical decision. The atmosphere is fabulous and fairly relaxed because as far as high-level achievement goes we’ve all been there and done that.

“Everybody has experience of training under the stricter squad system but now we row primarily to keep fit and for pleasure.

“As a veteran, you can row with whoever you like. It is all about enjoyment but at the same time training hard to achieve the same target as we all want to win.

“Everyone gets on and happily accepts feedback and constructive criticism, so it’s a very pleasurable experience. There’s lots of banter and we’re always joking with each other about how we’re performing.

“A fair percentage of rowers carry on after competing in the younger age groups, although if they have rowed very hard for several years they may feel they’ve had enough. Many either move to another sport like cycling or triathlon or back out because of injury. You do tend to see a lot of the same people on the veterans’ circuit.”

The women train at least five times a week, including two outings on the river at weekends.

Because many have full-time jobs or look after children, each works out by themselves on weekdays.

They do not usually follow a set routine but must keep themselves in good shape by running, walking, cycling or using a rowing machine.

In the weeks before a competition, however, they will follow a formal programme devised by Mangan, who is a qualified rowing coach.

When they are on the water they usually row between Marsh Lock in Henley and Hambleden Lock.

They will practise short sprints or longer, steadier endurance runs depending on the length of the event they are preparing for.

Wilby, of St Mark’s Road, says: “The trust is there for us to train alone in the week and have faith that we’re going to deliver when we come together.

“It’s very different from a strict squad structure because, as masters, we don’t work that way. It has to be more flexible. Most of the time people set their own mixture of cardiovascular and strength training. Personally, I do a lot of cycling in the summer.

“Our training depends more on intensity than duration. Thirty minutes on a rowing machine is tough for a single session but you might do an hour’s running or more than three hours’ cycling instead.

“Basically you’ve got a bunch of fit, like-minded people who like to train and like to race. Our rowers enjoy the training so they do it all year round unless there’s a reason they physically can’t. They’re incredibly driven and it’s just a way of life for them.

“I’m very proud of the team we’ve got. I often get comments from within the group and outside it saying what a fantastic set-up we have.

“If we’re ever one person short, we know plenty of skilled current or former rowers who would like to go for a paddle. They’re people who keep themselves fit and know what they’re doing — we couldn’t just take anyone as they’d struggle to keep up and suffer horribly!”

The women do not follow a set diet but rely on common sense to stay healthy.

Wilby says: “Given that we’re veterans everyone eats very well and sensibly. There are no strict eating plans but we don’t eat much rubbish or junk. I think that comes naturally after years of high-level training. We all like our wine and chocolate every once in a while but we’re not in McDonald’s every day!”

The squad always has a long-term goal in mind and is currently focused on winning in Boston.

The women are considering entering the FISA World Masters’ Regatta in Denmark next year.

Wilby says: “Winning the Head of the Charles would be amazing — it would be the icing on the cake after all our other achievements this year. We should do well because our start position means we won’t have as many boats to steer around.

“I’ve been in crews that have come third and fourth on previous occasions but I’m not settling for that. It feels like unfinished business because it’s quite a big investment to get ourselves out there.

“The training is a bit like preparing for a marathon as it’s more of a long distance race than a sprint. We’re currently doing 500m or 1,000m bursts for the Henley Masters’ Regatta but our routine changes as our priorities change.

“We like to train side-by-side with other age groups and often race against our younger rowers as they’re preparing for the Henley Royal Regatta. It’s useful for both sides to have that variety of experience.”

Wilby says there is no upper age limit for being a rower, even for newcomers.

“It’s self-limiting to some extent but you will come across category G scullers in their seventies,” she says.

“We are the kind of people who are determined to keep going for as long as possible, not just for the sport but for the social side of it.

“The masters’ events are extremely well-attended in Britain — entries for this year’s Henley Masters’ Regatta are already closed because of numbers. There are crews coming to race from all over the world.

“You can even start rowing at a later age as there are masters’ novice crews too. If you can join up with others who’ve never rowed that’s the best way forward. There’s nothing worse than being the person who slows the boat down.

“We could easily see ourselves doing this in another 10 years’ time — it keeps you fit and as long as you’re still enjoying it there’s no good reason to stop. If you want it to be, rowing is very much a sport for life.”

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