A small revolution is taking place on the banks of the Thames. Its rallying cry reaches from the council estates of West London to some of the UK’s most prestigious educational institutions. Children whose DNA has been stamped by the noise and pollution of the urban environment have been invited out onto the area’s greatest natural resource – the river – and the results have been life-changing. In a world that’s also increasingly constrained, both physically and imaginatively, by social media’s dictates, the simple act of putting down their phones and taking to the water is helping these children both to broaden horizons and defy expectations.
The revolution’s leader, Steve O’Connor, has neither the firebrand-waving habits nor the impressive beard you might expect from someone challenging the social order. I go to meet the former champion rower at Fulham Reach Boat Club, where he has been CEO since he founded it at the foot of a smart new development of flats in 2014. It’s an overcast morning in July – beneath grey skies, the Thames sprawls somnolent and brown, slumped away from the banks like an unmade duvet. I arrive a little early and am impressed to see O’Connor – who is unaware at this point that he is being observed – unfussily helping different rowing crews carry their boats towards the river.
“Last year we got 1,200 kids rowing,” he declares when we finally sit down to talk in the boat club’s gym. “Eighty per cent of them have said we love this sport, we’d like to keep going. That’s pretty incredible.” He’s right, it’s an achievement that would be impressive on any level. Yet what marks this out is Fulham Reach’s specific aim of busting the view of rowing as an elite sport. According to recent stats, 97 of the 117 schools that have registered with British Rowing are fee-paying. O’Connor’s mission has been to recruit pupils from a wide range of local state secondary schools including Kensington Aldridge Academy at the base of Grenfell Tower.
In the five years since O’Connor started the club, 14 schools have been signed up, and there are now plans to sign up ten more that are local to a second site in Reading. O’Connor, who himself is state-school educated, says “I’ve rowed in a boat with bricklayers and barristers in the same crew. As a rower I’ve never experienced problems with class – I’ve never seen anybody selected for a boat on the basis of anything other than how fast they can make a boat move. But from the outside it can look like a closed door. One of the first questions we ask the kids is, ‘Who thinks this is a posh sport?’ And they all put their hands up.”
O’Connor combines approachability with a gentle hum of efficiency: his alert oar-straight posture is offset by eyes that gleam with quiet excitement about what he and the club are achieving. “We try and get on the curriculum for these schools which means that ideally we’re seeing every student,” he says. “There’s a wide range of backgrounds, which means, for instance, that some children haven’t had swimming lessons before. So instead of thinking of how do we get these children rowing as quickly as possible in many ways it’s about how do we overcome the fear of drowning? And beyond that make it enjoyable? Safety comes first, so everyone wears a lifejacket until we deem it all right not to.”
Teamwork, focus, confidence and ambition are O’Connor’s four pillars of achievement, and he has especially enjoyed watching the confidence spread to other areas of the students’ lives. “You put these juniors in boats and send them out on the Tideway, which they see as risky so they’re slightly scared,” he explains. “Then you show them how they can conquer it and excel. According to their teachers a lot of them are coming out of their shell. What’s interesting too is that students who are badly behaved at school are often really well behaved here. Sometimes, for instance, we’ll have a child saying, ‘I don’t want to row’, so we’ll reply, ‘You can cox’. They’ll agree, not realising this means they’ll be in charge of the equipment and the lives of the people in front of them. And they rise to the challenge.”
The Fulham Reach story that has grabbed headlines – and the movie can surely only be a matter of time – has been the dramatic change in fortunes of a young man called Schuyler Audley-Williams, who was living on the White City estate and being home-schooled when his father brought him to the club. “He was 12-years-old,” says O’Connor. “Mixed race, with an Afro, and six foot one. We all took one look at him and said, ‘You’re in’. It turned out he was being home schooled because he was very academic, but his father couldn’t find a school that was right for him. Because he wasn’t socialising with other kids at school his confidence was low.”
Within a year Audley-Williams had broken two records on the rowing machine. When he started competing in races in a single, O’Connor tells me with some amusement, “We had emails from people accusing us of cheating. Saying ‘there’s no way this guy’s 13.’” As Audley-Williams’ confidence grew through praise and encouragement from the club, first he went back into formal education at West London Free School, and then – following enquiries made by his father about possible scholarship opportunities – he applied to Eton. He won a scholarship, and has already completed his first year which, according to O’Connor, has gone very well, not least socially.
O’Connor started to row at the age of 14 when he was at Beckett School in Nottingham: “I started to row with racing equipment, as carbon became a thing. There were still a few wooden oars floating around.” Because of the emphasis on safety, the students at Fulham all start out in “big stable tub quads” which he describes as “heavier than boats that most of the clubs would use”. The club does have a competitive fleet for more experienced rowers, “what’s interesting is letting the kids see the Filippis and the Empachers, because once they’re starting to do well in the sport, they’re thinking ‘how do I get into that boat?’”.
As a continuing indication of how the rowing can impact on all areas of the children’s lives, O’Connor is setting up partnerships with Oxford and Cambridge colleges to demystify Oxbridge for state school children. Teenagers are invited for three residential weekends, in which they are also coached in rowing. Ark Burlington Danes Academy and Trinity College kicked off the scheme, and O’Connor’s now working on a partnership between Pembroke College, Oxford, and Fulham Boys’ School.
Being a man who’s clearly not content to tread water, beyond the Oxbridge project he’s also looking at rowing as a way of rehabilitating prisoners. “We’ve run a ten-session pilot in Feltham Prison on indoor rowing machines that has gone well,” he tells me. “Once they leave the prison, they can train here on the river. If you want to change it’s much easier not to offend again if you don’t go back to the environment you come from. We can teach them to row on the machines in prison, give them targets to hit, and make them feel good about themselves. If we stop even one person from reoffending it will have been worth it.”
Despite the huge success of what he has achieved, O’Connor still has to spend a lot of time fund raising and drumming up support for the club. “We have rent, business rates, a full coaching team. Operationally we do very well but it’s expensive to run.” The developer of the upmarket flats where they are based committed initial funds of £3m, which they are deploying “as slowly as possible – we don’t want to use it up straight away”. Otherwise money comes from “Grants, trusts and individuals – National Lottery funding will kick in in September which is great”. All this allows him to work with a professional full-time team, rather than volunteers, something which he emphasises is intrinsic to how successful the club has been.
As he points out, the project is invaluable too when you take into account the restrictions on outdoor space for schools that have been imposed by the government. “The cuts on green space have been severe,” he says. “But the river is always going to be there. We actually sat and worked out that if you take the surface area of the Thames from here to Teddington Lock, it’s the equivalent of about a thousand fields. To make use of that is an amazing resource for the kids to have.”