World Champion Anna Watkins tells us how she started out in rowing

Anna Watkins began rowing recreationally at the age of 18 when she started at Cambridge University in 2001.  Having initially decided to take up the sport at Rob Roy Boat Club to get fit and have fun, Anna soon realised that she wanted to take rowing more seriously. 

In 2003, GB Rowing Team Start Coach Adrian Cassidy identified her potential after putting her through her paces to measure strength, power and endurance on the incremental bike and ergometer.  Watkins performed well, meeting the qualifying criteria and was subsequently accepted onto the Start Programme. 

“I knew that Start was a really good scheme and route into the GB Rowing Team, so it gave me a real confidence boost when I made the qualifying criteria.  I knew I had the correct physical attributes to be successful in rowing, so the only limiting factor was how quickly I would be able to learn to row.”

Adrian already had too many people in his training group, so he “delegated” her initial coaching to a local volunteer, Oliver Watkins.  It was a blossoming relationship that not only put her on the path to the beginnings of her successful rowing career but also in discovering a future husband; Oliver and Anna married in 2009. 

Anna also had the benefit of joining in the group circuits sessions and on-the-water training with Adrian, in addition to one-to-one coaching to advance her rowing technique quickly, alongside an individually-tailored weights programme that was specific to her development needs. 

Start also involved training camps every month which Anna attended in either Nottingham or Peterborough.  It was an extremely busy schedule of training consisting of dynometer and 1km ergometer testing, spending the rest of the time racing on the water in singles. 

“Because of my limited experience on the water I would fall in a lot anyway, but  Start used to make us do some challenging things on these camps so I’d fall in even more!  It was a quick learning curve though and we had a great coaching network around us”, she said.

Anna experienced early success, setting a BUSA (British Universities) record on the ergometer in 2003, progressing quickly to gain selection for the GB U23 Team where she became World U23 Champion in the four.  Shortly afterwards Anna was drafted into the senior squad in 2005 at a time when GB Rowing Team were looking to build their women’s eight squad.  It was a particularly busy time for Anna academically, having completed her undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences and then studying towards a masters in Geological Sciences. 

Anna spent the following year working as a Geological consultant part time, however she quickly realised it was going to be a challenge to fit in all her rowing commitments as well.

“I enjoyed my time working there, it was a very interesting job. However it was a struggle to fit in three training sessions before starting work in the afternoon.  As I couldn’t commit fully to both, I felt like I wasn’t doing either very well so when I had secured my place in the senior squad and the financial support from the National Lottery that accompanied that, I was able to concentrate on rowing full time.” 

It appears that Anna enjoys the busy lifestyle, though, as she is currently completing a PhD in Mathematics at her own pace and hopes to finish it some time after the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

When asked what was the best thing about the scheme, Anna jokes “The Start Programme found me a husband!”  Aside from that Anna emphasises that the most significant difference it made to her rowing was the confidence it always gave her to believe in her own abilities and attributes. 

“The worst thing about Start was at the beginning when I remember feeling very technically incompetent because of my limited experience.  All the physical attributes were there to be developed but at first I didn’t know how to adapt that onto the water, as often I was a lot stronger than other rowers but I couldn’t go as fast as them.”

“On the positive side, though, Start gave me the confidence and foundations on which to develop my technical training by surrounding me with people that knew exactly what they were doing and how to coach me so that I could progress as quickly as possible.”

Despite being a member of Start Anna was still heavily involved with her club, they were particularly welcoming and helpful so she enjoyed participating in training sessions with the wider club occasionally.  Anna also explains that being a graduate of Start she felt it was important to give something back to the scheme by visiting her old club to give inspirational talks to the young and emerging rowers in the region.  Recently crowned World Champion, with an impressive record of an Olympic bronze and several other World medals to boast in her cabinet, Anna is a true role model for young and aspiring athletes to look up to. 

When asked what advice she would give to those on Start she expresses how it is important to have the right physical make up to be identified in the first instance.  However, many do find it mentally very tough as it requires a big commitment and dedication to training especially to get through the challenging and grueling testing. 

“It is also really important to get on with people in order to get the best out of the crew.  It doesn’t matter how well you are performing individually, it’s the team performance that counts and ultimately makes the difference between winning and losing.”

Anna thinks that if she weren’t rowing she would like to be a Geologist due to the opportunity it provides to travel to a lot of exciting places and meet interesting people.  After a hard day of training Anna enjoys baking and is also kept busy by renovating her dilapidated house.  On the rare occasion when Anna gets the weekend off she takes every opportunity to visit her family in Staffordshire and catch up with old University friends who are scattered around the country. 

Looking ahead to London 2012, Anna is certainly an exciting  prospect where her ultimate goal is to continue setting her standards high and finish what she has started in the double scull by aiming for an Olympic gold.  There is no doubt that Anna’s real passion lies in rowing however after the Games she hopes to start a family at some point in the future. 

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The GB Rowing Team Start Programme

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 local host clubs across the country. 

Since its inception in 2001 the programme, its members, coaches and 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 local host clubs 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 they are taking time out from training 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. 

Having already heard from Sam Townsend and Heather Stanning we have now heard from Anna Watkins, Olympic bronze medallist and World Champion.  Anna has been rowing in fine form recently, praised for performing in ‘dominating style’ at the World Championships back in November with team-mate Katherine Grainger, receiving the 2010 World Rowing Female Crew of the Year award.  Now that you’ve read about Anna, 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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