British Rowing’s performance director Brendan Purcell has confirmed the coaching team which will lead Britain’s oarsmen and women into the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics planned for summer 2021, after the precipitate departure last August of Jürgen Grobler. Instead of appointing an overall head coach the national governing body has effectively promoted a consortium of four in-house coaches to lead the different sections of the Olympic team, while Tom Dyson will continue to run the highly successful Paralympic programme as he has done for over 11 years.
Since Grobler left almost overnight (at least as far as the rowers were concerned) the British Olympic team has been led by James Harris (women’s sweep), Paul Reedy (women’s sculling), Paul Stannard (men’s sculling) and Christian Felkel (men’s sweep). The first three of these keep their jobs and are predictably confirmed in roles as official lead coaches for their part of the team, but the tricky decision must have come in the men’s sweep team, where Christian Felkel was running the show with the help of Steve Trapmore, the two having been Grobler’s lieutenants in the previous regime.
After what was described by British Rowing as “an internal interview process”, Trapmore takes the lead coach job from this point on, which has resulted in German-born Felkel, who had joined the GB team from South Africa after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, departing Caversham. Felkel now returns to his original home and will join the German rowing coaching team. This puts him in the position of being able to advise the GB men’s biggest rivals, the world champion German eight who hope to seize the Olympic title off defending Rio champions Britain next summer.
“I have loved my time at British Rowing and am sorry to leave the team this close to the Olympic Games,” said Felkel. “I have to think about my family in these difficult times, especially my elderly mother, and it gives me peace of mind to return home. I wish the guys the very best and will look forward to seeing them at international regattas in the years to come.”
However despite this turmoil GB Rowing has managed to capture the services of arguably the biggest asset in rowing guru terms, Robin Williams, to assist Trapmore. Williams left a full-time role with British Rowing in 2016 after guiding Heather Stanning and Helen Glover to a second consecutive gold at the Rio Olympics, allowing him to become an independent consultant coach wherever he wanted. The coach who was part of the 1994 team reviving the fortunes of Cambridge University’s men, who led GB’s lightweight men to their first Olympic-era gold medal in 2007, and who coached Glover, Stanning and Polly Swann to consecutive victories and world record times, has lent his expertise to a variety of teams since Rio, including the Spanish women’s pair of Anna Boada and Aina Cid who claimed world bronze in 2018. Lacking Grobler’s “we will win” talismanic reassurance, who better to have on your side after three years of underwhelming national results than Williams? He will be the ace up Trapmore’s sleeve and it’s possible to see this dream team with light blue Cambridge roots providing stability and confidence to a team rocked by a difficult year.
In the other sections, the continuation of Reedy, Stannard and Harris will reassure rowers who know exactly what to expect of these long-term coaches. Harris coached the GB women’s eight to a first ever silver medal in Rio, while Reedy has guided the successful fortunes of the lightweight women scullers for many years before coaching Vicky Thornley to a first-ever GBR W1x Olympic prequalification in the summer of 2019. Stannard has long been the lynchpin of the men’s sculling squad and a significant factor in the rise of British men’s crew sculling, particularly the development of the exceptional quads programme. Stannard’s cohesive approach was key to the epic silver medal the GB M4x won in 2017 after Pete Lambert’s back troubled forced him to be replaced by a stunned Graeme Townsend during the warm-up for the Sarasota final.
The announcement of these coaching appointments comes two weeks after the unexpected news that the IOC is not after all removing lightweight rowing from the Paris Olympics, catching by surprise nations such as Britain who had been winding down their lightweight programmes. In addition the IOC confirmed that coastal rowing would not be added to Paris 2024, although it is still under consideration for Los Angeles 2028. It’s too early to say what this sudden switch in strategy will do to rowing, particularly the bigger teams who had carefully planned the slow tapering of their lightweight groups.
The IOC news was also appallingly timed for British Rowing, who learned last week that funding for the Olympic rowing programme to 2024 has been cut by 10%, roughly relating to the expected loss of the lightweight crews and perhaps reasonable considering the low yield of medals from 2017-2019. The funding for the Paralympic squad has increased by 20%, reflecting the para-rowers’ extraordinary success and continued strength in the face of very limited numbers of athletes.
The next step for British Rowing will be to decide how to harness the best possible coaches after Tokyo, for the 2024 Games in Paris. With the usual musical coaching chairs which result after every Games being compressed due to the short three-year Olympiad, the decision-makers will have to work very fast to secure the top talent from both inside and outside the UK. Meanwhile an uncertain future beckons next summer, but with familiar faces at the reins.