Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The voice of rowing: meet the man behind the mic

The voice of rowing: meet the man behind the mic

THE Olympic Games would be taking place in Tokyo this week if they had not been postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. One of the people who would have been there is Robert Treharne Jones, from Middle Assendon, who was looking forward to commentating on his fourth Olympic regatta. PHIL SIMMS spoke to him about his life and career in the sport.

YOU may not recognise his face but you will almost certainly recognise his voice.

Robert Treharne Jones is known as the “voice of rowing” and has been the senior race commentator with FISA, the international rowing federation, for almost 20 years.

The Tokyo Olympics, which were due to take place this summer but have been postponed to next year due to the coronavirus pandemic, will be his fourth Games.

The 69-year-old first became involved in rowing in 1970 while at medical school at Barts Hospital in London. He then spent 20 years as a GP in Devon before deciding to concentrate on a career in journalism and medical IT systems.

For 15 years he was a member of the BBC Radio 5 commentary team for the Boat Race and he has covered the rowing world championships, commentating for Eurosport in Paris.

He was also press officer for Henley Royal Regatta for 15 years, where he continues to be part of the commentary team, and was press and publicity officer for Leander Club in Henley for 14 years until last year.

Dr Treharne Jones was born in Banstead, Surrey, on March 25, 1951. His father, Cyril, was a mining engineer and his mother, Elaine, a housewife.

Due to his father’s work, the family moved around a lot, so his childhood was spent in Cheltenham, Swansea and Leicestershire.

Although he would while away hours in a dinghy on a pond, it was rugby that was Dr Treharne Jones’s first sport and it helped him get into medical school and shaped his career.

He recalls: “My father was always keen that we, as children, should have a ‘proper’ job. My sister became a lawyer and a judge and I read medicine.

“Part of the reason I got into Barts was because, at the time, hospital rugby was very strong. I played in the 1st XV at school, but it wasn’t a particularly strong rugby school.

“When I got to Barts I was picked for the 3rd XV at a time when they were putting out six or seven teams every weekend. I played a couple of games in which I felt like I had just been beaten up. I fancied the idea of rowing because I used to like paddling around in dinghies.”

Despite later becoming a captain of boats, he describes himself as nothing more than a “mid-table club rower” who won “a few pots” but had neither the talent nor the ambition to compete at a higher level. His other interests included writing and he became editor of the hospital journal and by the time he qualified as a doctor in 1978 he was assistant editor of a national magazine called Rowing.

Dr Treharne Jones also met his future wife Kate at medical school, where she was studying nursing.

They married in 1979 and went on to have three children, Madeleine, who now runs an online marketing business, Phillippa, who works at Aston University in Birmingham, and Annabel, who works for NFU Insurance.

As a junior doctor, he would move jobs every six months in order to gain the necessary accreditation to become a GP.

In 1981 an opportunity arose when he was sent by his magazine to cover the international regatta at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham.

Dr Treharne Jones explains: “I was asked to write a piece on the politics of the regatta. Since the course opened in 1973 it had to get sponsorship, which had gone by the wayside and it was struggling to attract international crews. As well as writing my piece I put my hand up and, although I didn’t know much about press and publicity, I said if they needed some help, to give me a shout.

“Within a few months, the event was taken over by the Amateur Rowing Association, now British Rowing, to try to get it back on its feet. I was surprised to get a letter out of the blue inviting me to take charge of press and publicity for the whole event with a budget of £4,000.”

Part of the remit was commentary, which he knew nothing about, so he invited a well-known rowing commentator to take charge. The ccommentator agreed but two weeks before the next regatta he pulled out.

Dr Treharne Jones recalls: “This left me in a bit of a quandary but I had run all the pre-publicity, put the press arrangements in place and had someone running it at the venue so, in theory, I was at a bit of a loose end. I solved the commentary situation by climbing into my own car with a radio set and a set of start notes and I did the commentary myself driving up and down the course and it was quite well received.

“That was my first commentary — a 2,000m international event — and I have been doing it ever since.”

That same year he joined the commentary team at Henley Royal Regatta at the invitation of a friend who thought he had “a nice voice”.

Dr Treharne Jones began by doing the race reports at the back of the umpire launches, which would be relayed to the floating stand and announced to the spectators. However, it took him years to graduate to frontline commentator.

He explains: “In the mid-Eighties I joined the elite group. I sat there taking notes for a while but again without having the chance of speaking over the radio. When I asked when I might be going live one of the group suggested it had taken at least 100 years before he had been allowed to go live and then I wasn’t asked back. I was sent back to the launch and was only asked back to commentate a few years ago.”

In 1985, he became a GP in Torquay. He developed an interest in IT and medical computing which enabled the practice to become fully computerised, as far as possible.

He says: “I haven’t needed to handwrite a patient’s notes since 1988 and it was my interest in medical IT which later led me to develop built-in utilities for major clinical providers.” In 1986 Dr Treharne Jones was called in at the last minute to commentate at the world rowing championships in Nottingham after the lead commentator pulled out — “the same bloke who had let me down five years earlier”.

After this, he began writing for the UK national press about the Boat Race. He also joined he BBC Radio 5 team that covered the event.

At the 1989 Boat Race, he was given his own position on the bank of the Thames. The main commentator was Brian Johnston, who was in the launch on the river for his final time.

The next year Dr Treharne Jones was brought on to the launch as the “stats” man but new lead commentator Peter Jones collapsed mid-race.

Dr Treharne Jones recalls: “He had a massive stroke and I tried to do what I could from a medical standpoint.

“I made the boat continue to the finish rather than pull to the side because expert medical advice was waiting at the end, where the ambulances were.

“At the end Peter was taken to hospital where he died a few days later.”

He stayed with the Radio 5 team for 15 years, covering not only the Boat Race but also the world championships and the royal regatta, among other events. From 1994 to 2008 he was also the international rowing correspondent for RTE Radio in Dublin. In 1997 he also began writing about rowing for two national newspapers in Ireland.

In the mid-Nineties, he also worked for Eurosport at their studios in Paris, where he was “further away from the action than most of the viewers”.

Dr Treharne Jones has now attended every world rowing championships since 1997, when it was staged in France, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he got involved in commentary for World Rowing, once again by coincidence.

He explains: “I was due to go to the world cup in Munich to follow the Irish team. Then they said they wouldn’t be entering but I went anyway.

“As I was at a loose end, I asked to help with the commentary and they said ‘yes’ and I was well received.

“World Rowing was beginning to formalise the way it did commentary as it had begun to realise that decent commentary helped to sell the sport and bring in spectators.

“Previously, it had been a bit hit and miss so I got my name on the list of English language
commentators.”

He had a scary experience at the world championships in Poland in 2005 when a launch that was taking him back to the start for the next race ran out of fuel in the middle of the course while a race was underway.

Dr Treharne Jones recalls: “There we were, halfway up the course with the race bearing down on us, and our boat conked out of petrol.

“Our driver calmly lifted a jerry can of fuel, screwed off the top, stuck in a funnel in the tank and started pouring, which would have been straightforward had it not been for the fact that he had a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“I was up the other end under the mistaken assumption that I could jump over the side before the blast hit me but he was able to fill the engine with fuel, start it with the race only about 50m away and pootle off to the side.”

Between 2008 and 2014, Dr Treharne Jones led the commentary team of Regatta Radio, which had been launched in 2006 to broadcast the racing to people in the Henley area only during the event.

The temporary station disappeared when the regatta itself began broadcasting each race live on YouTube.

Dr Treharne Jones says it was a shame that it had to stop.

“The business case for the station disappeared but with that the opportunity to train new people,” he says.

“I have always liked the idea of bringing on new people to take our places when we eventually move on. It also keeps me on my toes when I see other people getting better and better at it.”

He was part of the Olympic commentary teams at Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. The 2012 regatta took place at Dorney Lake, which he knew well from attending previous events.

Dr Treharne Jones says: “Working as a member of the team and hearing that Dorney roar which greeted us at the finish of every race is a memory I will never forget. I really had to give it both barrels at the end of a race. I was probably inaudible for the last 250m.”

As in other sports, it is important that a rowing commentator keeps his or her voice neutral while still conveying the excitement and atmosphere of a race.

Dr Treharne Jones explains: “I am supposed to be all things to all people. I have to explain performances, no matter the nation or the crew.

“The only time I let it slip was at the world under-23 championships in Bulgaria [in 2017] with the GB men’s double of Seb Devereux and Sam Meijer, who came from behind to win.

“I didn’t realise that my microphone had not been turned down and at the end I just said, ‘Yes!’ Afterwards I was talking to Seb’s parents at a function at Leander and they told me that they still had the recording of that race commentary.”

He says other Team GB athletes have told him they like to hear him while racing as it helps them.

“They have said that even though they are competing at a regatta miles from home, they can hear me over the PA and they feel more at home,” says Dr Treharne Jones.

“As far as pronunciation goes, I talk to a lot of people. The most valuable time is walking around the boating area and talking to the athletes and the coaches. Eastern European names are the most difficult.”

It is this connection with the athletes which made his time at Leander Club so enjoyable.

He worked there for 14 years from November 2004 to November 2018. It was the first time the club had employed a press officer.

Dr Treharne Jones says: “The Leander committee at the time realised they needed a press and publicity guy and they looked around for one who might fit the bill and my name came up.

“I was called in for an interview with Sir William Barlow, the only member of the then committee who I didn’t know, and when he learned of what I had done in this field he was satisfied.

“The role didn’t exist before and there was no direct link between Leander and the press at that time. There were occasional pieces in the Henley Standard but I don’t know how they appeared there, so much of my role at the beginning was developing relationships.

“The perception of Leander at that time was there is a big building on the other side of the river from the town and very few people get across the threshold unless you are invited.

“We had young men at the time — we had only just started to include women — going in one side and when they came out the other they had medals and no one knew how the magic happened.

“I would like to think that more people understand more about Leander and there is more appreciation of what happens there.” Dr Treharne is particularly pleased with the Heroes Return parade which he helped to organise following each Olympics.

He says: “The saying that ordinary people do extraordinary things lends itself absolutely to our rowers. They are also a joy to interview because when you ask them a question, they provide an articulate answer you can write down without having to fill in the gaps.”

Dr Treharne Jones, who is still a member of the club, sympathises with the athletes who were also due to go to Tokyo this summer.

He says: “It is disappointing for a lot of athletes who have spent the last four years of their lives on hold, training for it, particularly those who came away from Rio with disappointing results and were trying to go again.”

In the meantime, he is keeping himself busy. He is back at Barts as a trustee of a heritage charity looking to restore the Grade I listed buildings in time for the hospital’s 900th anniversary in 2023 and last year became chairman of its Friends group.

He is also president of Castle Dore Rowing Club in Cornwall, where he was captain while he was training to be a GP in the early Eighties.

He helps keep his voice in working order by singing and is a member of both the Aliquando chamber choir and St Mary’s Church choir in Henley.

“Singing helps my breathing, although it annoys my musical directors, who feel it should be the other way around,” he laughs.

Whichever is right, there is no doubt that it is his deep, warm voice has not only helped him reassure patients in the surgery but also made him a household name in rowing — even if his face isn’t familiar.

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