How did you get into rowing?
I was known as ‘Daddy Longlegs’ at my primary school because I ran faster than all the girls and most of the boys, always winning many races at sports day. At 11 I was taken to a hockey international, where my ambition to play hockey for England was born. My grandfather had played rugby for England and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, I had been sent to a school in the heart of the City of London which did not play hockey and where academic achievement was all-important. My ambition withered but when the opportunity to take my A-levels amongst the rolling fields of Dorset at Bryanston School arose, I grabbed it with both hands.
Despite rowing being on offer at Bryanston, I only ever navigated the river in a canoe, extremely badly as I was unable to travel in a straight line. Rowing was known as a sport for the girls who were more intent on finding a pleasurable pastime than exerting too much energy on the sports pitches. Very different to now, when girls’ rowing is on a par with the boys!
It was not until I arrived at Pembroke College Oxford to read Fine Art, that I took up rowing. I managed to resist for the first year, deterred by the 6am starts on the river through the winter months and more intent on enjoying a social life. I had been very fit at Bryanston so, when the lack of sleep, poor diet and a few too many drinks began to catch up with me, I decided to take up rowing in order to get back into shape. After a few sessions and despite the ignominy of catching a boat stopping crab when asked to slot into the college first eight at Torpids, I was hooked.
What are your memories of sport at Bryanston School?
The can-do ethos that pervades the school meant that I was like a child in a sweet shop, trying every sport on offer – including shooting, where myself and two friends became better shots than most of the boys. One of our trio went on to shoot for England at university and another began training for the Modern Pentathlon with the aim of making the Olympic team. We all canoed, some more successfully than others and played netball and hockey for the school. Having abandoned any hope of making the English Hockey team, I played netball with the fabulous Alison Leigh as coach and a vibrant group of girls.
In the summer term I became involved in athletics. I quickly felt frustrated training with the girls and instead me and a great friend joined up with the boys’ squad. We benefitted hugely from being at the back of a pack of boys and with a strong desire to beat some of them. Our mentor was Harold Tarraway, an ex Olympic runner whose understated coaching style and constant encouragement meant that we came on in leaps and bounds. Mr Fale, a similarly encouraging Housemaster, ran with us and was an ever positive presence. We both competed at County championships and quite remarkably I became Dorset County 800m champion.
Having always struggled to get into school on time when living in London, I found myself voluntarily getting up before breakfast, for a training run. I will never forget the first run – there was a knock on my window in Harthan at 6am amid pouring rain. Three of us set off through the woods and along the river. The male member of our trio went on to play rugby for America. It was testament to Bryanston’s open-minded attitude and willingness to allow the pupils to take the initiative that let us all flourish in the sports we chose.
How did your time at school help you develop as a professional sportsperson?
Bryanston taught me the benefits of self discipline and how far that can take you. It is a school that has an enduring reputation for providing a nurturing environment in which pupils can flourish and achieve their dreams. Yet it retains the illusion of being a laid-back kind of place, the result is that Bryanstonians are able to achieve without feeling they are under pressure and in a way that allows them to take control of their own lives and stay true to themselves.
The chart system meant I learnt to value time and not waste it, packing as much into the day as possible. I was able to monitor my training and see the benefits, doing some form of sport at least once a day became the norm.
For the first time in my life I really worked, at my academic subjects, in the art department, on the sports pitches, in the theatre, because it was all fun. As a result, I came out with A-level results that I would never have dreamed possible and with a new found love of sport. I had learnt to see the correlation between hard work and achieving results, it seems obvious but the message had not hit home before. At this stage I felt sure I had missed the boat in terms of become an international athlete but the next stage in my career proved that wrong. I have no doubt that Bryanston laid the foundations.
What has been the highlight of your sporting career?
The highlight was being selected for the Olympic team in the Double Scull for Barcelona 1992. I had taken up rowing in 1987 and was trialling for the GB women’s eight by 1988 but we were not selected to go to Seoul. It was a huge disappointment but with hindsight it spurred me on to train for another four years by which time I had become a decent oarswoman.
Although we did not medal, we made the final and came fifth, the highest position a GB Womens double had achieved thus far. I like to think that Katherine Grainger’s road to success started on Lake Banyoles back then!
How can we develop the next generation of rowers?
With lottery funding allowing athletes to dedicate themselves to their sport rather than worrying about finding a job, the main battle in developing young rowers has been won. In the 1990s any rower with a desire to continue at a competitive level had to fit training around a job and we were competing on the International circuit against professionals from the East. It is much more of a level playing field now, although UK appears to be ahead of the game in terms of funding the next generation of athletes, as the results in Rio illustrated.
The danger period comes when young rowers, having achieved success at school, leave for university. It is hugely important that an athlete with ambitions to continue rowing, researching their choice of university thoroughly. Often, school boat clubs are better resourced than university clubs, Bryanston being a good example with its state of the art Boat House, excellently maintained equipment and a dedicated coaching team. Arriving at a university boat club that is poorly resourced and badly situated can easily put off young athletes with great potential.
What are your plans for the future?
I have now moved into coaching and have enjoyed developing the first year boys at Radley College, introducing them to the joys of the river. It is the most rewarding year group to coach as progress is so rapid. My husband, who was also a rower, and I have been running a boarding house for the past 12 years which has now come to an end. We are both looking for new challenges in areas where we can make a difference to less advantaged children who do not have the same opportunities available as those lucky enough to attend a school such as Bryanston or Radley.
We are both lending our expertise to a local charitable rowing club set up to introduce young children in the Oxford area from all walks of life. I have found coaching in the private sector challenging at times, with the new generation of ‘helicopter parents’ who are not always content to entrust their children’s development to the experts on or off the water and where nothing less than gold medal standard is acceptable. It will be rewarding to help develop the next generation of rowers in an environment very similar to Bryanston, where talent is nurtured and encouraged and success is rewarded but never demanded.
Annabel Eyres attended Bryanston School