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Road To Rio: North-East rowers ready to make waves at World Championships
THERE might be no Kat Copeland as she takes a well-earned break on the back of her Olympic heroics, but when the British team travels to South Korea this week ahead of the World Rowing Championships that start a week on Sunday, it will still have a strong North-Eastern core.
Copeland’s Olympic success challenged the impression of rowing being an elitist, southern sport, with the lightweight double scull champion having honed her skills on the River Tees as part of Tees Rowing Club’s successful ‘Start’ programme.
Tees RC’s Tina Stiller will hope to emulate Copeland’s success when she competes in the quadruple scull at Chungju, and she will be joined by five other rowers from the North-East and North Yorkshire, the biggest contingent from this part of the world ever to compete on the World Championships stage.
Jess Eddie (Durham) and Zoe Lee (Richmond) will team up in the women’s eight, Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell (Durham) will contest the men’s four, Jamie Kirkwood (Ashington) will line up in the lightweight single scull and Will Fletcher (Chester-le-Street) will form part of the lightweight four crew.
With three North-East rowers having been involved in the women’s eight that won a silver medal at the recent World Under-23 Championships, and Tees’ Anna Fairs having performed with distinction at the recent World Junior Championships, this is something of a golden period for the region’s rowers.
The hope, at the start of a four-year cycle that will culminate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, is that Copeland’s historic triumph last summer will only be the start of the success.
“It’s great to see that rowing is so big and so successful in the North-East at the minute,” said Eddie, whose senior status within the squad is reflected by the fact that this will be her eighth World Championships. “It’s starting to be seen as a big, growing sport in the North-East, and that’s great to see.
“Funnily enough, we were talking about it within the squad the other day and having a chat about why the North-East suddenly seems to be producing all these good young rowers, and why they’re maybe a bit different to some of the rowers coming through from elsewhere.
“If you come down south, there are lots of boat clubs, but they tend to be linked to universities or private schools. In the North-East, it’s seen as much more of a social sport and the clubs tend to be inclusive and open to all.
“Clubs like Chester-le-Street, Durham, Tees or Cambois – they’re part of the local community and anyone can go and give rowing a try. Rowing is seen as a normal sport, not an elitist thing, and I think the British team is reaping the benefits of that with the quality of rowers that’s coming through.”
Lee, Kirkwood and Fletcher are all making their World Championships debut in South Korea, and the trio’s promotion to the senior squad is part of a wider process of moving on from the team that competed at Eton Dorney last summer.
A number of last year’s Olympians have retired, with others changing boats to form new-look crews, and it will be interesting to see how the British team performs on the World Championships stage at such an early stage of its transition.
“It’s strange to look around and see all these new faces, but it’s also really exciting,” said Eddie. “There’s a real freshness to things and I think you probably need that the year after an Olympics.
“People like Zoe and Jamie, who are making their World Championship debut, bring a real excitement to the group, and that rubs off on everyone else and gives you a lot of energy.
“It’s healthy for the sport to have new people challenging the rest of us who have been around for a bit longer, and this is the first real chance for us all to see where we’re at in terms of competing against the best in the world.
“No one can be completely sure what’s going to happen, but make no mistake about it, British Rowing wouldn’t be sending people to South Korea if they didn’t think they were world class.”
Eddie will compete in a new-look eight after finishing fifth in the same boat in last year’s Olympic final.
The reigning Olympic champions, United States, look stronger than ever, and posted a new world’s best time as they won the final World Cup of the summer in Lucerne last month.
They will be strong favourites to follow up Olympic gold with the world title, but there is little to separate the crews behind them and Britain will line up for their opening heat confident of challenging for a medal.
“If we’re honest, it’s going to be hard to beat USA,” said Eddie. “I think everyone was a bit shocked by just how fast they were in Lucerne. We’re not scared by them, but we’re going through a process of transition and we’re probably not quite where they’re at yet.
“But everyone else is pretty closely matched and it was only really in the last 200m of the Lucerne race that we lost a bit of time to some of the other crews. We can make that up, and anything can happen at a World Championships.”
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