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Olympic Spotlight: North-East rowing set for golden spell
VISIT British Rowing's high-performance training centre at Caversham, in Berkshire, and much is as you would expect from a sporting system that secured six rowing medals, more than any other nation, at the last Olympic Games in Beijing.
The purpose-built lake provides an ideal environment for training and development. The equipment in the indoor gym is state of the art. An army of nutritionists, sports scientists and psychologists are on hand to work with a group of athletes who are expected to achieve great things at this summer's London Games.
It is only when you start listening, however, that you notice something unexpected. Caversham's collective voice boasts a distinctly North-Eastern twang.
Rowing, a sport still saddled with so many connotations of southern elitism, private-school bias and a long-standing class divide, is a North-East success story that has so far gone unwritten. The hope is that once this summer's Olympics are over, it will be hidden no more.
“We don't shout and scream about what we're doing, but it would be nice if people would start to think of rowing as something the North-East could be proud of,” said Hexham's Matt Wells, the elder statesman of the region's rowing contingent and an Olympic bronze medallist in Beijing. “It's probably not the first sport people think of when they think of the North-East, but things have changed so much in the last few years and it would be great if kids from the region felt inspired to get on the water. It's not just football up here you know.”
Indeed it isn't. The relentless recent success of the British rowing team means the competition ahead of next month's main Olympic trials is intense, but with less than six month to go until the Olympic regatta, there is a strong chance that five North-Eastern rowers could be competing on the Thames.
That would be a greater regional representation than in any other sport, and highlights both the strength of the regional club scene and the remarkable dedication that has propelled the five individuals in question to the very top of their sport.
Wells, born and raised in Hexham and all but guaranteed a place in the men's double scull. Nathaniel Reilly-O'Donnell, a former pupil of St Leonard's School in Durham and an established member of the men's eight. Keiren Emery, raised as part of Tyne Rowing Club and a senior world champion last summer. Jess Eddie, another St Leonard's School alumnus and a Beijing Olympian in the women's eight. Kat Copeland, from Ingleby Barwick, a world champion at Under-23 level last season.
All five have already achieved notable successes; all five are potentially on the cusp of the greatest day of their lives.
It is not as though rowing is completely alien to the North-East, indeed the Tyne Regatta, which was first staged in 1834, is older than the more famous annual event at Henley and, in1842, more than 10,000 spectators turned out to watch the racing on the Tyne. Nevertheless, it is at least more than a century since the sport in our part of the world has known times remotely like these.
So what is behind the sudden resurgence? A combination of factors, although when you speak to the North-East's five Olympic hopefuls, it does not take long for the influence of a small number of well-organised clubs and highly-motivated coaches and volunteers to become clear.
“I went to St Leonard's when I was 11 and started rowing there,” said Reilly-O'Donnell. “It's a pretty unique situation. I think there's only one other comprehensive school in the country that has a dedicated boat club attached to it. That's Monmouth Comprehensive in Wales.
“Some other schools row, but only because they're linked to a club. St Leonard's is different because it has its own boat house. That's fantastic because it means you're immersed in the whole world of rowing from a really young age. I was very fortunate to have that.
“There was a guy called Bill Parker. He was the one who set up the boat club at St Leonard's and he's done so much for rowing in Durham and the North-East. He was a design technology teacher at St Leonard's, but he had a massive passion for rowing. He coached me from the age of 14 or 15, and he made the difference in terms of making me believe I could achieve whatever I wanted.”
Emery's story is somewhat similar, although his immersion into the sport came via a club rather than a school. Again, though, the presence of a guiding light was extremely important.
“I was on a bike ride around Newburn (near Newcastle) and saw the rowing club,” said the 21-year-old. “I was a bit of a chav at that age and bumped into a coach called Wade Hall-Craggs, who coaches at Durham University.
“I was pretty cocky, so I just told him, 'I want to give this a go'. He told me to get myself down to the club on a Tuesday night and that's what I did. I was the only junior there at that point because basically no kids from Newcastle rowed. I did a bit of plodding along in a boat and Wade decided to take me under his wing.”
Both were given the opportunity to get on the water by a coach who went beyond the call of duty in order to enthuse youngsters about the benefits of sport, but once they progressed to national level as juniors, they quickly discovered their experiences were completely different to those who had been schooled at the established private rowing clubs of the south such as Eton or Harrow.
“I went on my first training camp when I was a junior and I was the only kid not to go to a private school,” said Emery. “No one would talk to me because I didn't go to a private school. But I look around now and I don't think any of those kids are still rowing for Britain. I am.”
So how can disadvantage inspire achievement? Possibly in the same way that Eastern Europe has churned out a plethora of successful female tennis players despite extremely limited investment at a national level, while the bloated LTA in this country has produced a long line of mollycoddled losers.
“I've been through hundreds of regattas that helped turn me into the person and rower I am today,” said Eddie, who was part of Durham Rowing Club from the age of eight. “It wasn't always easy. I remember getting changed in the back of a car at Talkin Tarn (in Cumbria) or trekking up to Berwick in the freezing cold in the early hours of a Saturday morning.
“It makes you stand on your own two feet. We had to rig our own boats, whereas you'd go to races against some of the bigger private schools and they'd have someone to do it for them. But you learn to do things for yourself. Things aren't handed to you on a plate, and I think that's stood me in really good stead. We weren't massively under-privileged at our rowing club, but it was what it was. It was an amazing grounding and I wouldn't have swapped it for the world.”
Thankfully, British Rowing has latched on to the fact that less traditional routes into the sport result in a greater likelihood of identifying and recruiting future champions, and a scheme on the Tees is helping to widen the net in terms of providing talented North-Easterners with an opportunity to row.
“I train at Tees Watersport Centre in Stockton, and that's a world-class start centre for GB rowing,” said Copeland, who is hoping to compete in the lightweight pair in the Olympics. “I'm coached by James Harris and he goes into other schools to identify people who might be good at rowing. A lot of the girls I train with are from Egglescliffe School, so the scheme opens the sport up a bit more.
“In the past, rowing was probably seen as a bit elitist, but I think GB Rowing have put in a lot of effort to change that and I think it's a bit different now. It used to be that if you didn't go to private school, you wouldn't be exposed to rowing. Now, that's not the case.”
The result is not only Copeland, but also a raft of talented junior North-Eastern rowers such as Yarm's Rachel Gamble-Flint, who has also been fast-tracked into the national set-up and is viewed as a potential star of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The hope is that this summer will merely be the start of a golden period in North-Eastern rowing, although more immediate ambitions are focused solely on the Olympic regatta that begins on July 28.
“I went down to Trafalgar Square the other day and saw the clock counting down to the start of the Olympics for the first time,” said Emery. “That really rammed things home.”
“I know we go through three years of obscurity and no one knows who we are, but there's a sense that people are waking up to how good the British rowing team is now,” added Eddie. “It's not because we've suddenly become good, it's because we've had four or eight years of doing it really well. That's an amazing place to be to be honest.”
An amazing place to be? One suspects the top of the Olympic medal podium in five-and-a-half months time would be rather better.
Home town: Newcastle
Education: Walbottle Campus
Club: Tyne Rowing Club
Olympic Boat: Lightweight men's four
Previous Olympic experience: None
Achievements: 2011 Senior world championships gold (lightweight pair), Under-23 world championships gold (lightweight pair), 2007 Junior world championships gold (four)
Home town: Durham
Education: St Leonard's Comprehensive, University of London
Club: University of London Boat Club
Olympic Boat: Men's eight
Previous Olympic experience: None
Achievements: 2011 Senior world championships silver (eight), 2010 Under-23 world championships silver (four), 2006 Junior world championships gold (four)
Home town: Hexham
Education: Queen Elizabeth High School, St Mary's University College
Club: Leander Club
Olympic Boat: Men's double scull
Previous Olympic experience: 2008 Beijing bronze (double scull), 2004 Athens seventh (double scull), 2000 Sydney ninth (single scull)
Achievements: 2010 Senior world championships silver (double scull), 2008 Olympic Games bronze (double scull), 2006 Senior world championships bronze (double scull), 2000 Under-23 world championships gold (single scull), 1997 Junior world championships gold (double scull)
Home town: Ingleby Barwick
Education: Yarm School
Club: Tees Rowing Club
Olympic boat: Lightweight double scull
Previous Olympic experience: None
Achievements: 2011 Senior world championships fifth (lightweight single scull), Under-23 world championships gold (lightweight single scull)
Home town: Durham
Education: St Leonard's Comprehensive, Royal Holloway College
Club: Durham Rowing Club
Olympic boat: Women's eight
Previous Olympic experience: 2008 Beijing fifth (eight)
Achievements: 2011 Senior world championships bronze (eight), 2010 Senior world championships fourth (eight), 2007 Senior world championships bronze (eight), 2005 Under-23 world championships bronze (pair)