Taking control of the para-rowing four
When it comes to winning streaks in rowing, Great Britain’s para-rowing mixed coxed four is one of the sport’s most dominant crews.
The line-up of two men and two women plus coxswain may have changed somewhat over the years, but since 2011, the British have been all but undefeated at major international competitions.
The 2019 season was yet another stellar year for this crew and then in November, at the annual World Rowing Awards ceremony, the crew was named Para-rowing Crew of the Year.
World Rowing talked to the current members on what being part of this crew means to them and what the world can expect as they gear-up towards Tokyo 2020 and Paralympic racing over 2000 metres for the first time.
“Being part of the GB PR3 mixed four project is, and always has been, an awesome experience,” says James Fox, the senior member of the boat. Fox joined in 2013 when the crew was refocusing on the next Paralympic cycle after a win on home waters at the London 2012 Games.
“The big difference between the preparation and racing pre-Rio is that it was all over 1000 metres,” says Fox. “I think the move to 2000 metres was essential for the sport and I’m really enjoying the longer training and racing. The basics don’t change and we’re very aware that in order to stay on top we need to keep pushing our own boundaries.
“We’re lucky to have the PR2 double that won in Rio to push against to keep ourselves in check. That will be incredibly useful for both crews in the approach to Tokyo. But for now we’re just concentrating on doing the same basics well. Consistency is definitely key.
“I love the fact I have been around for a while, but at the moment I’m just enjoying working hard within the team.”
As the crew’s newest member, the legacy of success is something Ellen Buttrick has come to embrace.
“Heading into the 2018 World Championships in Plovdiv, I definitely felt the pressure as the newest member of the crew to maintain that winning streak,” says Buttrick. “I was fortunate to join an experienced boat with reigning Paralympic and World Champions to follow and to learn from, this definitely made my transition into the crew a smooth one.
“After a second season in the boat, our team set a new World Best Time during the semifinal at the 2019 World Championships, followed by a ninth World Championship win. It has been an unbelievable start to my rowing career and I feel very proud to have contributed to the boat’s legacy.”
That legacy is top of mind for Oliver “Ollie” Stanhope, who joined the crew in 2017. Even so, winning the crew of the year award was not something any of them were taking for granted he says.
“To be honoured with this award was a real shock. We faced stiff competition from our own team in the form of the double and the rest of the world. This award has also been earned by the members of the crew from the previous nine years.”
Building on the existing success has been a theme for this boat echoed by Giedre Rakauskaite, who also joined in 2017.
“Knowing full well how good the four was after Rio Games, I focused on proving myself as an athlete that could make the boat go faster,” she says. “Once in the team, the goal was clear: Tokyo qualification and Games selection.”
Helping her transition into the elite boat, Rakauskaite was able to draw on her own experience as a coach.
“When coming into this very experienced crew,” she says, “a coaching background gave me some confidence in my ability as an athlete. It has also helped me better communicate with the team.”
Not to be overlooked are the contributions of Erin Wysochi-Jones, who joined the crew as coxswain in 2018 with experience of high-level men’s and women’s racing.
“Ultimately, my role is to help get the boat from A to B as fast as possible through my skill in the boat but also by supporting athletes off the water,” says Wysochi-Jones. “After coxing eights for many years, the biggest challenge moving from the Olympic programme to the Paralympic programme was transitioning into a bow-loader. In the bow you lose eye contact and non-verbal communication with your crew and you can no longer rely on the cues you may have used for some of your technical calls, as you can’t see the blades or the stern.
“My boat feel has developed hugely and I now love competing in a bow-loader as you feel entirely present in the fury of racing – it is a sensory overload with a lot of noise, movement and some splashing. It is addictive.”
“We have had an exceptional group of athletes, coaches and support staff over the last nine years,” says Nick Baker, coach of the four. “All have played their part in this boat’s success. We’ve had some close calls over this time facing strong opposition, but it feels as though the 2019/20 line-up is deserved of the award being a truly standout crew on all fronts.”
“Since I started in 2013, para-rowing has become significantly faster, more diverse and the depth of quality across the events has improved,” Baker says. “There are some exceptional athletes across the sport that have brought respect and real interest in the sport. Many nation’s para squads have been sharing knowledge with their Olympic teams and driving an inclusive national rowing initiative.”