The story of the British Rowing Championships
The last four decades have seen major changes, developments and achievements for the British Rowing Championships. Since the early days of the Seventies, the evolution of this high profile event is fascinating, inspiring and impressive –and not without its highs and lows.
In the late 1960s the British rowing scene was undergoing major change at all levels. Junior racing was mainly the preserve of the traditional rowing schools, but more clubs were offering it, and across Europe it was growing rapidly. FISA, the international rowing federation, responded by organising a World Junior Regatta which evolved into the World Championships. UK women’s rowing was a fast-growing part of the sport, but lacked any proper opportunities for competition. All of these changes combined to fuel the demand for a British rowing championships.
Domestic competition was based around side-by-side river regattas but internationally the expectation was for multi-lane, still-water racing. Ideally the new national championships would meet these new standards, to help competitors preparing to race internationally.
The new 2000m course under construction at the National Water Sports Centre (NWSC) in Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham provided the key. The NWSC was the first six-lane rowing venue in England, with the design and layout inspired by the new Olympic course in Munich.
The ARA (Amateur Rowing Association, predecessor to British Rowing) formed a National Championships Committee in 1970, with John Stephenson as its first Chairman. In the same year the senior GB trials were held at the NWSC for the first time. The plan was to run the first Championships in 1971, but it was decided that the timescale was unrealistic so the event was delayed to 1972.
At the inaugural National Rowing Championships of Great Britain, 94 clubs entered 23 events. The facilities at the new venue were sparse. The now-familiar buildings were not completed, so everything for the first Championships had to be brought in or improvised on site. All the races began at the same 2000m start, but the Juniors only raced over 1500m, and the Women and Colts (J16s)over 1000m. It was a strange atmosphere as most races finished in the middle of nowhere rather than at the main 2000m finish.
Dame Di Ellis DBE, Honorary President of British Rowing, coxed the St George’s Ladies RC crew that won the Women’s Coxed Fours event.
“It was glorious weather,” recalls Di. “The water was calm which made for excellent racing on our first 2000m six lane course. After a nail biting race we felt like world champions as we approached the landing stage to receive our gold medals. The sheer pride and joy of the 1972 St George’s four in winning gold at the National Championships did, I am sure, contribute to four of them giving a lifetime’s service to rowing as coaches and administrators, with one of the crew winning world medals. ”In 1976 the number of competitors topped 1,000 for the first time, with many crews attracted by the prospects of winning whilst the national squad was away at the Montreal Olympics. In 1982 there were 337 entries for 38 events, and by 1992 the 68 events on offer included J14s and Coastal boats.
Today the Championships routinely attract more than 1,500 competitors in over 800 crews, and includes Adaptive events as well as a full range of Junior, Open, Women’s, under-23 and Lightweight events.
In the early years winners were presented with trophies, but the organisers soon realised that, in line with international practice, winners’ medals would be more appropriate. Since the 1970s the Championships has presented gold, silver and bronze medals, and the names of all National Champions are recorded in a beautiful Roll of Honour book, which can now be viewed online at the British Rowing Championships website.
Since those early pioneering days the Championships, which became the British Rowing Championships in 2010, continue to evolve. To improve national accessibility, they are held at Strathclyde Country Park in Lanarkshire every four years. And Great Britain’s unrivalled reputation for running top-quality international rowing events at Holme Pierrepont, Strathclyde Park and now at Eton Dorney Lake is grounded in the experience of running an annual multilane National Championships for 40 years. During the 1970s and 1980s, the National Championships was an integral part of the GB selection process, with many National Champions going on to win international honours. But the demands of international rowing mean that, since the 1990s, prospective GB rowers have not been available to compete for their clubs at the national event.
British Rowing decided that from 2013, the British Rowing Championships will be split in two, with Junior events continuing on the traditional July date, and Senior events moving to a new date in October. This change will allow those seeking international selection to compete for their clubs in Senior Championships events.
Jim Harlow, Chairman of the British Rowing Championships, says “The number one reason for the change is to improve the quality of competition, and having internationals at the October event will do that. Both events will be carefully reviewed as part of an ongoing process to assess the best format for the future. The new format for 2013 is a big change and marks an important step on our return to becoming a truly national championships once again.”
Written by Jane Slatter on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Championships. Thanks to Ivan Pratt for his help with this article.