Sam Townsend is part of the GB Rowing Team tuning up for this month’s Winter Assessment on the 2012 Olympic course

INTRODUCTION

Sam Townsend came into the sport as a 16 year-old through the GB Rowing Team “Start” programme. So what exactly is that?

The GB Rowing Team ‘Start’ programme supported by the Lottery Sports Fund and sponsored by Siemens is a national talent identification and development scheme that aims to find, recruit and develop new, emerging talent through a network of regional rowing bases across the country. 

Since its inception in 2001 the programme, its members, coaches and local host clubs have grown from strength to strength, each year feeding an increasing number of rowers through to the senior squad.  Initially termed the World Class Start Programme, many rowers have graduated from the programme and gone on to represent GB at senior level including Annabel Vernon, Anna Bebington (now Watkins) and Olivia Whitlam who competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. 

A series of tests are completed, normally at 16 years of age at school or in the first year of University, to indicate potential in the sport of rowing and selected athletes are based at one of the regional centres where they are supported and developed by a full time coach, taught to row and follow an intensive training programme.

Heather Stanning, Mohamed Sbihi, Anna Watkins and Sam Townsend have all graduated from the programme and for the next four weeks, they will be here on the GB Rowing Team website to share their experiences of the project and how it has helped them on their way to achieving their dreams. 

We start with Sam Townsend who was part of the GB men’s quadruple scull last season – an exciting boat which has emerged over the past three seasons to win world cup medals and is on the cusp of a serious world-level breakthrough.

Once you’ve read about Sam, if you’d like to find out more about rowing and the Siemens-backed and lottery-funded “Start” programme please go to:  https://www.britishrowing.org/gb/start-programme.

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SAM TOWNSEND INTERVIEW

At the age of 16, Sam Townsend was a keen sportsman at school and talented all rounder in football, rugby, cricket, shot and discus but rowing certainly wasn’t on the cards.  It is thanks to his school PE teacher, Dave Luke, a GB rower in the 90s, for introducing him to the sport of rowing. Sam is now on course as a medal hopeful for London 2012.  Sam admits he owes “Mr Luke” a lot:

“I didn’t get identified in the usual way as I was ill when the testers came into my school, Chiltern Edge, so Dave Luke drove me down one day to my local club in Reading where he knew they were testing some juniors.”

Sam’s stature and physical prowess impressed the coaches, scoring highly on the strength tests in particular.  He was also endurance tested on a rowing machine and a spin bike alongside being measured for height, weight and arm span.  Sam was an exciting prospect and hence identified as an athlete with great potential. 

Despite receiving a letter identifying him as an athlete with all the right physical attributes to excel in rowing and the possibilities that were open to him, Sam’s real interest was still in football.  He aspired to play professional football just like his brother and it wasn’t until his mother prompted him to respond to the letter that Sam began to realise perhaps rowing might be for him. 

Shortly afterward Sam met with coaches Richard Hamilton and Mark Earnshaw who explained that Sam showed great potential and that with a lot of hard work, training and direction as a member of the Start Programme (then World Class Start), he could go far in the sport. 

Sam was left with a tough decision to make, he knew that it would be difficult to carry on playing football alongside joining a brand new rowing programme.  As an U16 footballer, Sam had enjoyed a successful year, part of the team winning the Berks and Bucks Cup but deep down he knew that he may never make it to the level he wanted to reach.  Sam realised that not only did rowing better suit his physique but joining the Start Programme was an exciting prospect that would give him the platform on which to develop his talent as a potential Olympic rower.

Sam was lucky that he lived near the regional centre in Reading and had the opportunity to be coached by Mark Earnshaw.  He was part of a pilot project for the then World Class Start Programme that started up in Cambridge, Reading and Durham.  Sam was certainly a raw talent:

“I was put on the water pretty much straight away by myself.  It was a steep learning curve as I used to fall in a lot, I was big and powerful but inflexible so I couldn’t get into certain positions which meant I also got injured quite a bit to begin with so I needed to work on this a lot.” 

Upon initially joining the programme it was a fairly gentle lead in with about three or four sessions a week, now Sam trains anything up to three times a day most days of the week. 

“We get Sunday off every third or fourth week, you don’t get much spare time outside of all the training, but when I do I enjoy a round of golf with my brother and Dad every now and again.”

One of his more recent hobbies is now planning for his upcoming wedding, although he admits that he’s not sure how much he enjoys it!  Sam is engaged to Natasha Page, a member of the GB Rowing Team senior squad.

When asked what was the best thing about being in the Start programme he said it was the access to top coaches and facilities, also the people he met through the programme including his fiancée, Natasha.

“I think most of us would safely say the worse part was the monthly training camps with all the Start rowers.  We used to dread those weekends as we would all be exhausted by the end of it, but we had complete trust in the programme and the coaches that were delivering it.”

Sam also graduated in the summer of 2010 with a 2.1 degree in Rural Environmental Science from Reading University. 

“The University were very accommodating of my rowing commitments and allowed me to take a split year so that I could fit in all my training alongside study.  I didn’t perform as well as I should have at A Levels because I got too carried away with rowing.  The training is so physically demanding that being offered the extra flexibility at University allowed me to train my hardest whilst not jeopardising my studies.”

Sam graduated from the Start programme in 2004 when he made the transition into the GB U23 team.  As a graduate of the scheme, however, Sam occasionally goes back to the centre or attends camps to visit the current Start rowers and pass on advice.

“Ultimately you have to really enjoy what you are doing to make it through the tough times.  You have to genuinely be in it for the long haul as it takes a lot of patience and trust in your own ability before the results start to come.  This was especially true for me not having come from a rowing background, I’ve been going for eight years and still haven’t achieved what I want to.”

He has enjoyed a successful career so far, most recently racing to a silver and two bronze medals at the 2010 World Cup Series and was part of the men’s quadruple scull placed 5th at the World Championships in New Zealand. 

Despite being the first GB men’s crew to reach a world championships final in this discipline since 1982, Sam admits that they came off the water disappointed not to win a medal so they are aiming high for London 2012.

“We’ll be aiming for an Olympic medal, ultimately the gold, but it’s one thing to say it and another to put in the hours of blood, sweat and tears to get there.”

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