She sat still, her hands gripping the blade, trying to get her breathing and her mind under control. How did she ever get into this situation?
Jean stared out into the garden. So much to do. They had only moved into the house last year. They had both agreed that her suggestion to give up work to be an ‘at home mum’ was the right one. It meant though that John had to look for a better paid job in an effort to plug the wage gap. He’d managed to find a new, well-paid job. And all looked good.
Then, 3 years later, he was promoted. His new role was based way out in West London and, although he travelled a great deal, the commute from Kent and back, was taking anywhere from 2 to 3 hours. So, a move westwards from London had been essential. John’s new boss had been incredibly helpful and had even found the house in Henley they had moved to.
She’d always been the odd one out in her home. Dad had a Doctorate in science and ran a large plant within ICI. Mum had a science degree, her sister was a surgeon and her brother had a maths degree and was now a flight Lieutenant in the RAF. She’d struggled with school work, her father shouting at her that she was stupid when he pretended to ‘help her’ with homework. At sixteen, she’d had enough and started as an apprentice hair stylist at a local salon. Yes, she had been the family failure….and that was a part of her past that had never left her.
And then, a couple of years later, Jane, her best friend, decided to take up nursing and announced she was leaving to train in London. Jean followed soon after, having been accepted as a student nurse at Kings College in South London. Three year’s hard work and study later, she was a State Registered Nurse. It was towards the end of that third year she met John, they clicked straightaway and eighteen months later had married.
Now, she missed her old job, head of the nursing team in surgical outpatients at Kings College. She’d loved the hustle and bustle every day, enjoyed the team she was a part of and being able to help others. She had been so proud of what she had achieved. Being a mother was also fulfilling…and hard work! But Susie had started school and Peter was now in nursery school. So, she had a little time on her hands and felt strongly that something was missing.
That evening with both the kids in bed and John away travelling, she was mulling over the conversation she’d had earlier with Lizzie, one of the mothers she’d met at Susie’s school. It seemed that Lizzie had been getting at her husband, Geoff, wanting to know why the local town rowing club (where he coached), never had any female members. It seemed that that the tradesmen in the town never wanted ladies admitted when the club was formed in 1839! It had just…well, never changed – but it will if we join!
“Come, on” Lizzie had said, “My friend Diane is up for it. You look as if you’re a fit lass. We only need to find one other and we’re set for a four!”
“I’ve got the kids to look after and John’s away so much. Let me think about it”
“We can train when the children are in school and at weekends.” Lizzie had replied.
“To hell with it,” decided Jean, finishing her coffee and picked up the phone & called Lizzie, “I’m going to do it!”
“Great news! And I’ve got Bridget from school to join us. So, we’re all set for Sunday!”
The next couple of days gave her the chance to fret over what she had let herself in for? Rowing? Great big strapping blokes did that – how were four girls going to manage, would they just be a big joke? Her only previous outdoor activity had been riding (and a bit of hockey at school). Oh, hell, whatever.
Friday night, over dinner, she casually brought John up to date with the plans for her new pastime.
“Wow! Good for you.” Was his only response and he soon fell asleep in front of the TV.
Sunday morning dawned bright and dry (thank God) and Jean met Lizzie, Geoff and the other two girls, Diane and Bridget, plus a small, youngish looking lad, that Geoff introduced “Morning, Ladies, say hello to Brian, he’s going to be your cox.”
The next couple of hours were spent learning how to extricate the boat out of the clubhouse, across the road (with Brian holding up the traffic) and into the Thames. They learnt the language of the boat, the cox’s instructions and the art of getting in and out without ending up in the water.
“OK,” said Geoff, wheeling out his bike “Time to get out on the water, ladies.”
A round of nervous giggles broke out and a couple of minutes later they were out in mid-river drifting downstream with Geoff shouting instructions from the towpath. The next hour went by in a mix of nervousness, mistakes, acute imbalance and a general feeling that they were never going to get the hang of it. However, as a combined result of Geoff’s patience and the girls’ commitment, they finally seemed to get the four running smoothly for a brief period before they headed back to the boathouse. Exhausted and exhilarated, they somehow managed to get the shell out of the water, across the road and back in the boathouse.
“Great start, Ladies,” said Geoff “Look forward to seeing you back here Wednesday evening for your first training session!”
“How did that go then?” John wanted to know as soon as she got back home.
“Get some coffee on!” Jean responded retreating into the bathroom, “I’ll tell you when I’ve showered.”
The training session kicked off with a mile run along the tow path and back. They then went down into the basement of the old brewery next door where the club were allowed to store their gym & weight training equipment. After an hour, it seemed like medieval torture! After 2 hours, they could just about hobble back to their cars!
Gradually, with training midweek, as much running and home exercises as they could manage and rowing Saturdays and Sundays, they were starting to feel like rowers. Through late autumn and over the winter they pushed on through fair weather and foul (even through snow in February).
In March, Geoff got them together and announced “OK, I’ve been watching you closely over the winter. You’re doing really well but now it’s time for a couple of changes which I think will improve matters. Firstly, I’m putting you in a much newer & lighter cox-less four. I’m also going to ask Lizzie to swap places with Jean. This is going to concentrate the two strongest ladies (Bridget & Diane) in the middle of the boat – the engine room. I’ve also been watching Jean and I think that she is the most technical rower; she has a very clean, consistent stroke and will set a rhythm and a pace that’s going to drive you to success.”
Success? They looked at each other.
“Oh, didn’t I mention, I’ve entered you into the Abingdon Head next month.”
Jean was thrilled; she now had the leadership role and the responsibility to drive & maintain the hardest pace they were capable of. She was also aware that a Heads of the River was a processional time trial. You lacked the stimulus of a competitor next to you but really had to set to and maintain the best pace you could throughout the course. She knew she had stamina but this was going to be a real responsibility. Could she rise to the challenge?
That morning Jean felt everything was falling into place. The four was so much more responsive, their balance, their timing through the stroke and their finish seemed to improve. The only thing that really felt strange was that she had to steer the shell by swivelling her right foot – she managed but felt it was like trying to reverse a car without the aid of rear-view or wing-mirrors!
Over the next four weeks, they seemed to improve steadily and were beginning to feel like the efficient crew they needed to be. Abingdon went well, seeming just like one of their now stiff training sessions. 2,000 metres was never going to be a doddle and their time was, well, reasonable for a novice crew. Geoff was pleased and the crew were forming a tight bond.
Training continued through early Spring and was interspersed with heads at Wallingford and Reading with the distances gradually increasing & performance improving. And then, Geoff dropped the bombshell with the news that he had entered them for Marlow Regatta. Not a processional head but a full-blown race against two other crews over 2,000 meters. The training went up a notch…or two, the crew fretted and Jean did her best to maintain morale.
Now, sitting there, gripping her blade, with a competitor either side, crowds on the riverbank (John and children somewhere), and seconds only before the start, Jean tried to calm herself. Geoff had done his best to coach them in how to deal with various scenarios but she knew, deep down, this was all about power, persistence and performance
“Come forward!” Came the bellowed command from the umpire in the launch behind. They slid forward on their slides and dipped their blades into the water.
“Ready?” They tensed again. The crowd now silent. “Row!”
They were off, with Jean setting a fearsome pace at a rate of just over 40 strokes per minute as the crowd erupted. She maintained the high strike rate until she sensed the two competitors easing down their starting pace and maintained hers for a few seconds longer. The effect gave them a half-length lead as they lengthened their stroke and settled into a rate somewhere in the mid 30’s. The shell felt beautifully balanced, the crew perfectly synchronised.
They had almost a full-length lead over both of the other crews as they passed the 1,000-meter mark. Jean eased back slightly as their lead increased. At the 1,500m mark, though, she saw Reading was starting to gain on them and lifted her rate again. The Reading crew did likewise and were steadily pulling in her lead. The Kingston boat had now fallen away, out of contention.
The Reading crew were now level with them as they entered the last few hundred metres.
“Steady!” she shouted back to the crew and upped the rate. As they neared the last 100 metres she could see they were still level.
“Full pressure!” she roared back at the crew and lifted the rate still higher. She pushed them still harder, her lungs fit to explode and then…they crossed the line…
They had won by a canvas! She was exhausted…but now she knew what real achievement felt like.
In loving memory of Jean Armstrong – died 27th September 1988
Image courtesy of Imperial College Boat Club