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My Winding Road to Rowing

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Our second spotlight on MBC rowers features Masters rower Emma Drinkwater who shares her winding road through sport to rowing.

📸Emma Drinkwater Enjoying every opportunity to row at MBC

From a young age I remember my Dad talking about his rowing career: stories of races won and lost, all the pasta eaten, and the nights celebrating or commiserating down the pub; we’ve even seen a newspaper article about his win at Staines Regatta in a pair.  It was a big part of his youth and the family stories of meeting my mum on the riverbanks are legendary, so despite my reluctance to row as a teenager, somehow, rowing was always in my blood. My father did manage to get my brother into rowing at Hampton School and pictures of pots he won still sit on the bookshelves in our family home, but rowing wasn't for me, I just wasn’t interested - or so I thought. I forged my own path playing lacrosse at school in the late 80's and loving the open air and the lack of boundaries aspect of the game until all sport seemed to stop once I reached my 20s and I discovered living my best life in London.  I wonder why?

Fast-forward to 2002 and a brief foray into yoga whilst living in Sydney (you can’t throw a stick without hitting a yoga centre in Sydney) offered a gentle reintroduction to exercise until I returned to the UK in 2008 when I spent a good few years pounding the trails of Farnham as a runner. I found CrossFit at the grand old age of 43 which quickly became an obsession. One of the great things about CrossFit is that it encourages a wide variety of movements and equipment - one being the erg.  We’ve all seen CrossFitters absolutely destroy an erg, with little to no actual technique other than brute strength, but I was lucky enough to learn a huge amount about rowing on the erg at the CrossFit gym and in seminars with RowingWOD training and even went on to entering BRIC for the 500m and 4km Mixed Relay in 2019.  

Through my CrossFit gym I got to know, and eventually work with, our very own MBC GB and Olympic rower Cam Nichol. I helped out at his company RowingWOD with admin for his rowing seminars for CrossFitters. Cam is an inspiring human and a very good advert for rowing (his 2m wingspan helps) so perhaps it was his influence, together with my fathers rowing passion searing through my veins that gradually, the idea of trying out some water rowing began to grow. 

At this point, my son Ollie was looking for something fun for him and his friend to do during the summer holidays. Our nearest boat club (Guildford) didn't have any available courses but I managed to book him and his mate on what I think were the last 2 spaces on the Junior Learn to Row summer course at Molesey Boat Club in summer 2020. As I sat on the riverbank having a coffee watching the kids have a great time, it became increasingly apparent that I was itching to give rowing a go.  It looks easy and fun right?  How hard can it be? I laugh now thinking how naive I was. So, I signed up for the Adult Learn to Row in early September. About a week after the kids had finished their course, I started my course on the water.  Daisy Leppard was our coach and we started our training on the erg which I was very comfortable with, so we quickly progressed onto the water with the Explore single boats; heavier than a fine single they provide an excellent solid base in which to feel wobbly as we got to grips with being in our boats.  I spent each day gaining confidence and was soon able to go up and down the cut in front of the clubhouse being coached by Daisy from the bank.  With some capsize drills under my belt, Daisy declared she felt comfortable for me to go in the fine Explore single. Hurrah!  I felt like the King of the World!  And then got in the fine single and was firmly bought back to earth with a splash - how on earth do people do this and look so comfortable?!  It’s impossible to stay upright. At the end of the week, I was really excited to continue my rowing journey, but the world had other plans - Covid hit again. 

Everything closed down in November 2020 before starting to open up again during the spring allowing normal life (ish) to resume. In April 2021 Chairman Guy Leppard and Explore Lead Ian Knight invited a few of us to go out in a four (I still think Ian and Guy only got me in that boat to stop me sending them emails pestering them asking when I could start).  It was fantastic to get back in a boat after over six months and see if I could remember how it all worked; and also figure out how to row in a boat with other people!! Catering for new and returning rowers rowing in wider touring boats, the Explore Group was the perfect place to start my new rowing lifestyle and I soon clocked that the group had lots of sessions each week, coached and unsupervised.  The Explore group is lucky enough to have amazing volunteer coaches in Ian Knight, Richard Steed (also the club President), Neil Richardson, Phil Neale (our singles coach) and Steve Parsons, so there were plenty of opportunities to get out on the water to practice.  But, as important as learning to row, I found a group of lovely people who were all starting or returning to rowing, and enjoyed being on the water as much as me. 

📸Explore member. As long as the weather and stream allows we wrapped up and got out on the river

I began to go to 3 sessions a week and was excited to find rowers like breakfast and coffee as much as I did.  The miles driving up the A3 (I come from Farnham) soon clocked up, rowing presents appeared on my Christmas list, and I started dreaming of having my own blades. I began to realise how much fun there was to going backwards, up and down a river! Much to my fathers joy - rowing became my new obsession.

The summer of 2021 came around and we were told about the events organised by the Thames Valley League: a series of events aimed at people who are recreational rowers who want a bit of added competition.  Offering both longer and shorter races it was a perfect low-pressure environment to start racing boats. Which meant learning to go faster.  Whoop whoop!

📸 Explore team. Crew mates: Gwyn, Lisa, Neil, Emma and Mesh

Over the course of the summer various crews got together and we raced all over Surrey, Middlesex, and Berkshire in side-by-side and time trial races over 1km or 500m.  Racing in a crew is fantastic fun and even better with excellent crewmates.  Much to my Dad’s delight I got to race the same Regatta at Staines that he had held the course record for back in 1970.

📸 Emma Drinkwater. Emma's father, Robert Drinkwater and pairs partner Mick Branton win the Staines Regatta July 31 1970

What didn’t we do over the next few months? We got to row in the Jubilee Pageant with the other Thames Valley League clubs with the Queen’s boat, Gloriana. That's something I won't forget in a hurry as we nearly got reversed into by Gloriana with no prior warning - a special highlight!  

We also went coastal rowing and I have never found a more hardy bunch of nutters than coastal rowers.  Kudos to all of them…

📸Explore group. A fun day out with the Explore group and the hardy coastal rowers

As I settled into Explore life, single sculling became a particular favourite of mine. Whilst I loved the camaraderie, chatter and laughter of being part of a crew boat, I also liked being able to focus my mind in a fine single. I think Ian could see I was keen to spend more time in fine boats and suggested I chat with Michelle Sturtridge, another return to rowing club member who had started in the Explore group like me. She is a legend at the club: fiercely committed and an extremely competitive rower. This would mean leaving the wonderfully stable Explore group and crew boats behind which was quite nerve-wracking, but it was a challenge I was keen to take on.  Michelle, and Charles Bowman (who runs the Masters sculling group) invited me to row with them one Sunday morning, I think it was possibly the worst steering I’d done in my entire (very short) rowing career, I was so nervous, but they seemed to think I was doing something right and I was invited to join them single sculling on Sunday mornings. Charles kindly found me a club boat to use which proved to be a bit faster than the boats I’d been rowing in so far. The rowing got more technical, very quickly, and I went down a rabbit-hole of new learning: catches, finishes, drives and recovery.

My first ‘proper’ race didn’t come in a single (I don’t feel confident enough to put myself through that gauntlet, yet) but in a double with Alex Mitchell, a fellow returning rower and Explorer. We’d tried taking out a double on a few occasions and hadn’t either fallen in or crashed into something, so thought we’d try our hand at the Walton Silver Sculls race. Alex brilliantly steered us to a victory in our age category and we are currently in training for the Walton Small Boats Heads in December.

📸Explore member. Alex Mitchell and Emma in training for the Walton Silver Sculls race.

Crossfit founder CF Greg Glassman's manifesto reads: 'Regularly learn and play new sports,' which best describes my 'winding road' learning and playing new sports until I found my way to rowing.

The opportunities to row at Molesey Boat Club have been endless and I have genuinely enjoyed every minute of my whirlwind introduction to rowing. I have to say a huge thanks to everyone that has encouraged and coached me along the way at MBC.  Your friendship, encouragement and top tips have made all the difference to my rowing experience.  And to all the Explore rowers, thank you for being such a welcoming bunch of lovely people. Chapeau.

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