Braced for Boat Race week

Last week in a charity auction, a single seat on a launch following this year’s Boat Race was sold at auction for £500. By that mark, I’ve had few thousand pounds-worth over the last few years but this time I will be on dry land for the annual joust between Oxford and Cambridge.

Maybe it isn’t as historic as the first radio broadcast of the race in 1926, or the first live TV in 1938 – in part because others have done it before – but this year’s live text commentary on the official race website will hopefully be pretty special.

The project uses the blueprint for interactive live text coverage championed by the BBC (where I was normally producer rather than writer, except on rare occasions), the functionality provided by Cover it Live and some great work by Riskpoint, designers of this season’s relaunched Boat Race website to make the whole thing look and feel smooth

Reporters Libby Richards and Oscar Schonfeld will be on Twitter throughout Tideway week (contributing respectively to the @CUBCSquad and @OUBCSquad feeds) and will be my eyes and ears around the Putney Embankment on Saturday, while I’m based in front of a large plasma screen at the Mortlake Boat House, where the crews will end up.

And I hope we will get some good input not only from the 250,000 pairs of eyes lining the course for the race but also the seven million or so watching on TV, who will be able to send comments via the live console or get in touch on Twitter using the hashtag #theboatrace.

Perhaps unlike text commentaries of a decade ago, this isn’t just for people unable to watch or listen elsewhere; it should be a perfect complement on a laptop or mobile, whether as a “second screen” for TV viewers or a useful guide for those on the towpath as to what is going on further along the course.

And it will also be about the entire day, from the moment the crews arrive in Putney at 1130 BST, through the race at 1415 and reaction afterwards, going on until 1530.

The live text page is already available so please bookmark now and join in on Saturday.

I got a chance to visit the Oxford squad in Wallingford during training a few weeks ago, and put this video together for the West London Sport website. Fleming Boathouse is like nothing I’ve seen outside the GB HQ in Caversham, near Reading.

In fact it’s far prettier than Caversham, which is where the Great Britain team on Wednesday will reveal their line-ups for the first World Cup of the year, in what is likely to be an almost-finished draft of the Olympic crews.

There are lots of rumours flying, the obvious one being that Pete Reed and Andy Hodge have moved into the men’s four but also suggestions Alan Campbell has given up on the idea of competing in the double scull and will stay in his single.

All will be revealed on Wednesday but in the meantime it’s worth having a look at The Squad, a web series commissioned by British Rowing to introduce all of Great Britain’s to a wider audience.

The GB squad system in place now would have been completely foreign to national crews in the 1960s, but then (aside from a single medal won in 1964 by a four including Campbell’s coach Bill Barry) so was Olympic success between 1948 and 1972.

That was when GB’s Czech coach brought the country’s top rowers together and won the Olympic medals that marked the beginning of Great Britain’s rise to being one of the world’s top rowing nations.

I was engrossed last week in “Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians” the new book by Chris Dodd (who I work with on the Rowing Voice online magazine).

Look around on Tideway week and you’re likely to see a few of the characters from the Janousek years still lurking (as well as plenty of boats built by Bob after he gave up coaching).

Westminster schoolboys might enjoy the tale of their head coach Bill Mason being ordered to have a haircut by the GB team manager, John Tillbury, while part of the Thames Tradesmen “Beatle Four” in 1973.

One morning Tillbury caught the tradesmen crew coming in a 830am and asked them where they had been.

‘To an all-night party,’ said the boys, ‘and we had a fantastic time pulling girls who fancied us because of our long hair.’

Actually they had been for an early morning paddle on the best water at the best time of day – a practice unknown to the British team until then. Tillbury went mad and pulled them up before the management.

There will be more from Chris, more on the Boat Race and more on the Great Britain squad announcement in the next issue of Rowing Voice, which is out at the end of the week.

Oh, and the new Rowing & Regatta magazine is out this week, featuring an interview with Annabel Vernon – the only Women’s Boat Race blue in the Great Britain squad – about her rowing roots.

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Katherine Grainger in her own words

The latest Rowing & Regatta magazine, which came out on Monday, features a 1,600-word feature on Katherine Grainger’s roots; her route from reluctant recreational rower to four-time Olympian.

The original commission was for 800 words but I had to ask for an extension. I could have produced four times that, and much of it would have come from Katherine herself.

In squeezing all the information in, it was difficult to include Katherine’s stories on each subject we touched upon, or to convey fully the gentle sense of humour that runs in tandem with that grittiest of determination. Here are some of the out-takes.

On taking up rowing at Edinburgh University:

“We’re six months out from my fourth Olympic Games and I never saw that coming, it was never the game plan. It wasn’t me growing up thinking: I want to be an Olympian and a multi-Olympian.

“I didn’t start rowing until I was at university. I really wasn’t good when I started. I spent about two years being quite awful at it but I loved it!

“I went to university to get a degree. I started rowing because someone said I’d be good at it (and there was probably free beer or something) and I stuck at it because I loved the people in the club.

“It was one of those clubs that trained incredibly hard, considering it was just university, in your free time but also had a very good attitude to enjoying it. Every session was balanced, we’d go out for a drink afterwards or some food, or make a weekend of it. The personalities there are some of my best friends, people who know how to work hard, play hard and make the most of anything.”

On her first outing at Clydesdale RC, several years before university, with sister Sarah, who is 18 months older:

“Our next-door neighbour Gordon said, ‘You must come rowing!’ Their son Colin would come round and show off the blisters and calluses he’d got from rowing. It’s not very attractive to a girl in her early teens!

“I wasn’t convinced rowing was my thing but they persevered and one day I went down with my sister and two other friends. We did one session on the river but I thought it was a bit rubbish and a bit cold and I wasn’t that good.

“A few years ago my mum finally confessed that Gordon had come round and said, ‘Your daughter’s actually got real talent for this’. I said ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I could have been even better at a younger age’. And she said, ‘It wasn’t you, it was Sarah he was talking about’.

“My big sister lives off that, thinking if she rowed she’d be even better than me.”

On joining the juggling club at university freshers’ fayre, before being nobbled by the rowing club:

“I still have my membership card. When I went to university, everyone said it was an amazing opportunity to try so much. I went along to the usual freshers week fayre. Things you didn’t know existed, had clubs. I learned what korfball was and ultimate frisbee.

“I never went to a meeting. I don’t even know if there were meetings. If juggling was an Olympic sport that could have been mine. I might have had three golds!

“During university, when I was studying for exams, I found juggling quite relaxing. I still do it sometimes. There was a great shop in Edinburgh where you could buy flaming batons, clubs, knives and all sorts of things. I’m still at the two, three, four balls level.

“Maybe post-rowing, there’s a career waiting for me there!”

Here’s a clip of the interview, filmed for the British Rowing website

On her first rowing pot, in a university all-sports match between Edinburgh and Aberdeen:

“We were rowing in a four and one of my clearest memories was that we were waiting to boat and one of the girls cracked out a huge slab of milk chocolate and out coach was horrified.

“But we went on and won anyway. It was chaos, there were blades everywhere, a lot of passion and enthusiasm and no idea what we were doing.

“That’s how rowing started and should be – it was fun and the high of winning, four of us loving it and finishing first.

“My pre-race strategy is a bit different now.”

On realising she could row for Great Britain:

“In my fourth year my coach Hamish [Burrell] came up to me on the ergo and said: ‘You should go for Great Britain trials’.

“I genuinely nearly fell off the ergo. I thought he was joking. To me the GB team was massively on a pedestal, just after the 1996 Olympics.

“I went down [to national trials] in a pair thinking it was going to be embarrassing. All the GB team were there – people who were legends as you come through the ranks – just standing around chatting casually. I thought it was the most incredible thing.

“I did reasonably well at the trials and I was walking behind a group who were the top women at the time. Dot Blackie had been captain at Edinburgh University before I was there and when I was there her photo was everywhere and she’s made it in the British team and just come back from the Olympics. Mid-conversation, she very casually took one step back and said, ‘Well done Edinburgh’.

“Dot Blackie spoke to us and she knew who we were! It was amazing! The door started to open to GB rowing and from then on I had some part in the team.”

On who she will celebrate with if she wins Olympic gold, after three successive silvers:

“The first person will be Anna [Watkins], who will be there and she will have crossed the line ahead of me.

“Then there will be so many people, almost too many to name.

“The first people you want to see is immediate family – the people who have been there your whole career, who know you and get you.

“I had an incredible emotional reunion with my mum after the podium in Beijing. You can see them from the podium but you can’t get to them. We had to put the boat away, go for drugs testing, there was quite a delay and we finally met up behind the stands and were both in floods of tears.

“I think as a parent you just want to take your child away and make it all OK. It’s tough but if it all goes right, they deserve the most because they’ve certainly helped me through the dark periods.

“Within hours of the silver medal in Beijing, my mum had said, ‘I want to see you in London’.

“I hadn’t made the decision then and I wouldn’t for a while but knowing that someone who is so important to me absolutely believed in me and wanted more for me made the decision a lot easier.

“I’ve gone through a very unconventional route and they’ve just been so supportive, inspiring and inspired.

“For my sister it’s not been easy. She got married a couple of years ago. That was her special day and yet I didn’t know if I’d be in the country. You don’t want to be selfish but so much of my life is rigid and inflexible and it’s not my choice. And that impacts on everyone around you.

“I’ve got some fantastic friends who I first rowed with at university who are a rock solid support. They get it, they know me, they know what it means to me. They’re the people I can go to if I have a bad day and can escape. They make me laugh and I can forget about it for a while.

“It’s been a long career of highs and lows. There’s a lot of people who have been through the highs and lows with me. That’s why for so much more than just me, if the ending’s the happy ending and the right result, a lot of people deserve it more than me. They all will just heave a huge sigh of relief.

“That medal isn’t down to me, it isn’t down to me and Anna, it isn’t down to me, Anna and our coach Paul [Thompson], it’s down to loads of people through my whole life who  have had influence over me, have helped, led, guided and advised me.”

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World Cup heroine Rowsell: It would be great to have a women’s Team Sky

After watching Joanna Rowsell win two World Cup golds over the weekend at a frenzied Olympic velodrome, I had the chance to chat to her on Monday for an article on the West London sport website.

She talked quite a bit about how good the inclusion of the women’s team pursuit in the Olympic programme has been for women’s cycling in general, requiring each nation to focus on strength in depth as they need three riders of the highest standard.

And she said she would like to see a female version of Team Sky in future, giving the Great Britain women’s squad the sort of support many of their male equivalents receive.

Australia’s GreenEDGE team has been set up along the same lines of Team Sky, with a squad including many of the nation’s top track riders, aiming to improve Olympic chances. But it also has a women’s team, who have already had some success this season.

Meanwhile – as you may have read in this blog in December – Great Britain’s top women have to find their own trade teams, and deal with disruption and uncertainty as the women’s circuit is nothing like as secure as the men’s.

Rowsell had a chance to see close-up how Team Sky works when the GB women shared their training camp in Mallorca earlier this year, and got to share their facilities, including a chef who travels with the team.

“It’s great for the men that they’ve got that support but it would be nice to see in future a women’s team too,” she said. “Hopefully Sky will think about that in future.”

Alison Shanks, Joanna Rowsell and Amy Cure on the podium

Rowsell (centre) won Saturday's World Cup individual pursuit (Pic: British Cycling)

Although their focus this year will mainly be on the track, the pursuit team also train and race on the road racing to increase endurance. Rowsell and Dani King both compete for the Matrix Fitness – Prendas team, which provides equipment and expenses, not the sort of sizeable contract their male counterparts enjoy with Sky.

Rowsell named a list of British road riders who would benefit from being on such a team, including Olympic road race hopeful Lizzie Armitstead, Beijing time trial silver medallist Emma Pooley and youngsters Katie Colclough and Lucy Martin.

“It would be great to have a British team, then maybe the team pursuit riders could join them when the programme suits them,” she added.

There are suggestions the Halford’s Tour Series – a circuit of town-centre criterium events – will include four women’s races this year, which is likely to mean another chance to see Rowsell in action on home soil before she goes for gold in London.

In the meantime, you can find out more about her – and download a sponsorship proposal package – on her personal website.

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Women’s Boat Race announcement – highlights and reaction

There were hints here and there over the last few days but for many, the news that the Women’s Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will gain parity with the men’s event in 2015 came as a shock when Rachel Quarrell’s story was published in the Telegraph on Wednesday morning.

Women were admitted to membership of the MCC in 1999, while Wimbledon granted equal prize money to men and women in 2007. This is another major milestone for equality in sport.

A media conference at Somerset House provided an opportunity to get answers to some of the logistical questions. Much is still to be decided but in summary:

  • From 2015, the women’s race will be run on the same day over the same course, moving from its current place at Henley-on-Thames, usually the weekend before the men’s event.
  • New funding from asset management company BNY Mellon and its subsidiary Newton – under a five-year agreement – will bring equal funding to men and women from this year, without reducing the amount the men’s squads currently receive under the deal with Xchanging that expires this year.
  • The three-year delay is to allow for an improvement in infrastructure and performance levels for the women’s boat clubs and to iron out logistical issues such as who boats from where, who races when and how the media gets to watch both.
  • The men’s reserve race will remain as part of a triple bill but the women’s reserve race and the men’s and women’s lightweight events will remain in Henley.
  • The BBC has committed to covering the races equally, although a contract has not yet been sealed with the broadcaster past 2014.

There are more questions and answers in this Rowing Voice blog, written by Rachel and me and in this article on the West London Sport site.

Matthew Pinsent made clear the task ahead for organisers when he said of the women’s clubs: “To this day one of the big attributes of someone in the squad is that they have their own car.”

Sir Matt expanded on this, and named two women – Anna Watkins and Natalie Redgrave – who could have featured more heavily in the Women’s Boat Race had parity been achieved earlier, in my blog entry for Hear the Boat Sing.

Here is a pick of the reaction on Twitter. So far, no one has raised a single objection. The main sentiment seems to be that it is amazing the change did not happen sooner.

Posted in rowing, sponsorship, the boat race, women's sport | 5 Comments

Bonus tracks from Paralympic cycling stars

The para-cycling track World Championships get under way in Los Angeles on Thursday and more of the interviews the team gave me at their media day in Newport will be online this week as the 14-strong squad look to improve on the nine gold medals they won last year.

The interview with John-Allan Butterworth is running on both the Channel 4 Paralympics website and the British Cycling site. Olympic champion Ed Clancy tweeted after reading it: “I’ll never moan about a hard day training again!”

I’ve edited some of the audio recording from the interview too:

Butterworth lost his left arm in an attack on Basra Air Station (Photo: British Cycling)

Obviously, Butterworth’s is a frightening story but I found this interview intriguing more because of his matter-of-fact approach and attention to detail – two factors that his coach Chris Furber believes are a major factor in his success.

Furber said: “He’s highly analytical and that fits brilliantly with track cycling because it’s a highly analytical sport. It’s about numbers and drag and laps and splits and times. He thrives in that environment where I’m giving him constant factual number feedback.

“He’s also a little  bit of a dreamer who believes in himself and I think you need that as well because you need to be able to look at world bests and think: I can make that, I can beat that.

“He’s very hard on himself and sometimes needs a bit of pepping up but is a really good guy to have on the squad.”

My feature on the “wild world of tandem racing” is also on the Channel 4 site as is an interview with Jody Cundy on how he stays motivated despite having won so many world and Paralympic titles.

The official website for the 2012 Worlds has live video coverage each day, a schedule and a page for results. The British Cycling Twitter feed reports the latest news from LA and you can catch up with the latest by searching on Twitter for #ParaTrackWorlds.

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GB Rowing media melee

Last Friday brought the first media day of the year for the Great Britain rowing team, exactly six months out from the start of London 2012. The buzz was reflected by the 106 journalists in attendance. As one regular attendee said, “Do you remember when it was three of us and a dog?” The answer is probably more recently than you think.

A packed day of interviews brought stories, features and even video content for a variety of destinations. I’ll include links here as they’re published but here are some of the pieces that are already up or in the pipeline:

  • Profile of Katherine Grainger for Rowing & Regatta magazine. In a 35-minute interview, filmed by the British Rowing website, Katherine talked about her route from reluctant rower to six-time world champion, and how she almost took up juggling instead of rowing. The magazine is out at the beginning of March.
  • Interview with Greg Searle for the first 2012 issue of Rowing Voice, which is due out in the second week of February. I also spoke to Garry Herbert – the BBC commentator who coxed Greg to gold in 1992 – for a column in Voice. Rachel Quarrell and I published a blog on Sunday rounding up the selection issues among the heavyweight men’s squad.
  • Perhaps the only hard news story of the day was Alan Campbell’s revelation, in an interview for West London Sport that he is taking part in trials for the double scull, and could move from the single if successful. Alan also talked about his “spiritual home”, Tideway Scullers School in Chiswick, for a piece that will help launch WLS’s video offering (and marked my first shoot-edit project).
Mark Hunter is rowing's Olympic athlete of the year

Mark Hunter is rowing's Olympic athlete of the year

  • Annabel Vernon, Olympic silver medallist and twice world champion in the quad, is the only member of the GB women’s squad with a Boat Race blue, compared to five in the men’s squad. The Women’s Boat Race currently takes place at Henley, far away from the hype and live TV of the men’s version. We spoke for a feature that will go out in Rowing & Regatta in April, the second in the series that begins with Grainger. Asked whether it was time for parity between the men’s and women’s races she said, “I mean, what century are we in?”
  • I also popped over to Reading Rowing Club, where Sir Matthew Pinsent was helping to launch the Nation on Trial scheme, encouraging members of the public to record their time for 2,000m on a rowing machine, and raise money for charity in a scheme that builds on the Siemens-sponsored Stroke for Stroke initiative of previous years.

A busy rowing weekend also included Saturday’s Quintin Head, which provided the race footage in the Campbell video, and that evening’s GB Rowing Team dinner at Twickenham, where Mark Hunter – world champion in the lightweight double scull – was named rowing’s Olympic athlete of the year, and earned a rather large trophy. Most other Olympic sports named their athlete of 2011 in December but rowing always waits until its annual shindig.

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Things I’ve learned about para-cycling

On Tuesday I had the chance to meet the Great Britain para-cycling team as they prepared at a training camp in Newport for the World Championships, taking place in Los Angeles next month.  By the time the Worlds begin, it will be less than six months until the start of the London 2012 Paralympics.

These are just a few of the things I discovered during the day, which will mean I’m keeping more of an eye on action and results both in LA and in London:

1. Newport is ideal preparation for London

The British team, who train full time and whose top athletes are fully funded, are normally based in Manchester with their able-bodied counterparts. With the Para Worlds and the London Track World Cup both looming, though, track time in Manchester is precious so the para team have decamped to the Wales National Velodrome in Newport.

Despite its rather drab industrial estate surroundings, Newport’s track is world class, designed by the same person who put together the track in London’s Olympic Park. GB’s Olympic and Paralympic riders will prepare here for their Games this summer.

Tandem rider Anthony Kappes said: “I’ve never ridden two tracks that are the same. The geometry is different. Although they’re all 250m the banking is different, the angles are different and the drop-offs between bankings and straights are different shapes.”

2. Paralympic tandems are among the fastest ever

Three years ago, Kappes was half of the duo that clocked the fastest time ever over 1km distance by a British pairing on a tandem – able-bodied or disabled – in 1 min 1.626 sec. Now Kappes, who is visually impaired and acts as “stoker” behind his able-bodied pilot, the Sydney Olympic silver medallist Craig Maclean, is aiming for the world mark, which is almost two seconds faster.

Tandems were dropped from the Olympic programme in the 1980s, and from the able-bodied World Championship programme in 1992 so para cycling showcases the fastest racing in the world, with the tandem sprint a display of force and speed that outshines Olympian Chris Hoy’s solo efforts.

There are problems with taking tandems faster than ever before: frames just are not built for the amount of power being put through them and the coaches have to deal with broken frames and fittings, and exploding tyres, in almost every session. During afternoon training behind a motorbike “derny” on Tuesday, Barney Storey, pilot for Neil Fachie in GB’s other tandem, suffered a broken seat while riding at 72km/h.

3. GB’s approach is a brutal “gold or nothing”

Great Britain’s team is packed with stars – they won nine golds in Motichiari, Italy last year and there are six Paralympic champions in the 14-strong squad heading to LA – but few of them are already certain of selection for the Olympics.

Results at the Worlds will dictate how large a squad GB is allowed to take to London 2012 but they could be in a position of having to leave a silver medal prospect – like one of the tandem pairings – at home because there is a better chance of gold elsewhere.

Lead coach Chris Furber said: “We want to win almost every event that we enter so that shapes how we select the squad. The athletes are here because they want to be number one in the world. Second place isn’t good enough for any of them.”

4. Jody Cundy’s motivation is still sky high

Jody Cundy has been to four Paralympic Games – three as a swimmer and one as a cyclist since switching sports in 2006 – and won five Paralympic golds, as well as 10 world titles across both sports but the 33-year-old from Cambridgeshire is not finished yet. In fact he could keep going until the 2016 Paralympics.

Cundy is preparing for his sixth Paralympics (Photo: British Cycling)

Looking forward to London, he told me: “It will be an opportunity to go there in the prime of my career, compete on home soil, in front of a home crowd. It’s stuff dreams are made of.

“It would be the perfect place to retire if I pull off a gold medal performance but I’ve only been in the sport since 2006 and as long as I’ve got motivation I can see myself taking at least two years, and then seeing if Rio’s on the cards.”

Cundy, whose right foot was amputated when he was three, finds motivation from new challenges. After a 10-year international swimming career, he moved into cycling in 2006 and, after winning the “kilo”, 1km sprint time trial, and team sprint in Beijing he added the 4km individual pursuit to his repertoire, winning world silver last year.

Jody is well worth following on Twitter too.

5. Sarah Storey is faster than ever

She may not have managed to achieve her aim of making the Olympic team but Sarah Storey, 34, has come back to the para-cycling team far stronger after her time with the able-bodied team pursuit squad, to the degree where she has earned a place in the sprint team – an event where all-male trios are the norm – in LA.

Should that team stick together, it could be one of five golds Storey targets at the Paralympics, along with the 500m time trial and 3k individual pursuit on the track and the road race and road time trial, both of which take place at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit.

Furber said: “That close harmony we had with the able-bodied programme where she was training with the team pursuit girls has opened the door for her to ride in our team sprint. She is now able to ride a lap of the track faster than she’s ever been able to before. She is also able to start better.”

6. Attention to detail can save your life and win you gold

Butterworth lost his left arm in an attack on basra Air Station (Photo: British Cycling)

Jon-Allan Butterworth says the Basra Air Station, where he was working as an RAF weapons technician in 2007, was generally attacked between four and 11 times a day. Had the ground he was lying on been harder, he believes, the shrapnel from a shell would have bounced at a higher angle of around 45 degrees, and not severed his left arm.

What feels like an alarming attention to detail in such a traumatic situation appears a key trait for Butterworth, a likeable, chatty rider from the West Midlands who won the C5 kilo title with a world record in on his World Championships debut last year having come through the Ministry of Defence Battle Back scheme.

Butterworth also took part in the setting of a record for the number of consecutive loop-the-loops by four aircraft flying in formation. He was a passenger in a plane that managed it 26 times before they felt too sick to continue.

7. Hoy’s former team-mate will be watching in London

Maclean won Olympic team sprint silver alongside Chris Hoy 12 years ago and plans to be watching from the stands when his fellow Scot begins the quest for three more gold medals in London.

Maclean, now 40, made his last appearance at an able-bodied World Championships in 2006 and started riding as a tandem pilot after the Beijing Games. As tandem is the only Paralympic event where able-bodied guides can win medals, he could join an exclusive club in August.

But rather than closeting himself in Newport in the run-up to the Paras, he will be watching some track cycling heats, and has tickets for the athletics 100m heats too.

“There’s part of me that would still like to be competitive at able-bodied sport but age and injury goes against you,” he admits. “Not that it’s a poor second [to be at the Paralympics]. It’s a bonus at my age still to be able to compete.”

Posted in cycling, paralympics | 1 Comment