British Rowing Deputy Chair Kate O’Sullivan honoured with the British Empire Medal

Congratulations to Kate O’Sullivan, a life member of Tees Rowing Club, who receives a British Empire Medal in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list

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Kate pictured with GB rowers Beth Bryan and Jo Wratten

Kate O’Sullivan, Deputy Chair of British Rowing, has been awarded a British Empire Medal in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list, announced today.

Hearing the news, Kate said: “I’m very honoured to have received it – a little bit shocked. It all feels very surreal at the moment, especially given the incredible group of volunteers we have all around the country.”

The British Empire Medal is awarded for service that has made a significant difference to the local community. Since first stepping into a boat nearly 40 years ago and then becoming captain at Tees Rowing Club, Kate has devoted her spare time to the sport, despite having a full-time career spanning engineering, research, organisational development and, more recently, as an executive coach and programme facilitator.

Mark Davies, British Rowing Chair, said: “I’m absolutely delighted for Kate. Like so many of our other volunteers who give so much of their time for nothing (particularly over this difficult period), she has consistently proved herself happy to help for no reward at all, but it is wonderful that she has been recognised formally for her enormous commitment.

“We are very grateful to her for everything that she does.”

A familiar face on the towpath, Kate has been part of the rowing community at club, regional and national level, in a breadth of different roles including coach, club president, captain, regatta chair, coach educator, Northern Rowing Council Women’s Rowing Representative and British Rowing Council member.

Between 2006 and 2017, Kate chaired the National Coaching Committee and was a member of the Sport Committee between 2012 and 2017. In 2017, she was appointed Deputy Chair of British Rowing.

Volunteering as one of the 70,000 Games Makers at London 2012

Kate has special memories of being a Games Maker at London 2012

After coxing at Leeds University Boat Club, Kate moved to Stockton-on-Tees for work and on her first day in the office was persuaded to join Tees Rowing Club by new colleague Bob Bainbridge. Keen to go back to her other sports, she promised to visit the boat club once, recalling that when she got to the club “there was something about the community and the crew”. That was back in 1985 and of course she is still there.

Reflecting on what Tees means to her, she said: “It gives me friendship – my family live quite a long way away, so it is like an extended family for me really. The key thing is that it is a community and there’s some really good people there who just enjoy their rowing.

“It is a real privilege that people trust you to try to make the right decisions collectively with others for the sport”

“I think one of the things that rowing has done is to keep me grounded. We all have to go through a few bumps in the road, but it’s always given me that supportive community, not just at my club but also within the wider rowing community. It goes beyond the sport.”

Her volunteering roles mean that she is connected to very different areas of the sport, from juniors through to the British Rowing Board.

“It is a real privilege that people trust me to do things – that people trust you to take their kids out rowing, that students trust you even though they’re terrified to go out on the water and have a go at something… That people trust you to try to make the right decisions collectively with others for the sport.”

But, on a personal level, the roles have also provided different challenges to overcome.

“As Deputy Chair of British Rowing, a big learning for me was that sometimes I might have to be making decisions that might be counter to what people are talking to me about when I’m out and about. My responsibility is to the company and I have to make decisions that are right for the sport and the company – and that is not necessarily what the members always want.

“Going to dinners and doing after dinner speeches are another challenge. People who know me might be surprised to hear that this doesn’t come naturally and there’s been a lot of learning for me to become comfortable with that role.”

“Seeing how our whole community came together to tackle the challenges arising from the pandemic has been such a privilege to watch”

Most days, Kate can be found on the River Tees, coaching junior and student crews and she particularly loves seeing people stretching their comfort zone to achieve things that they might not have thought possible.

“For me it’s all about the experiences and how they shape people. I just love seeing people who are petrified of doing their first stroke then being able to row. Or, if I think about one lad who’s gone from not saying anything to now standing for his university captaincy, anything like that gives me pleasure.”

She is also keen to share the sport with the local Tees community as a force for good.

“I was out coaching last night – and we’ve had a few problems with gangs of kids. I have a project rolling round in my head called ‘Tees Rowers Building Bridges’ and I really want to find a way of getting a community going. We do need to find a way of breaking the cycle with these local kids.”

But, overall, what’s been her proudest volunteering moment?

“Just seeing how people work together, to be honest. Seeing how people in my own club work together to get the trailer all sorted out. Seeing how our whole community came together to tackle the challenges arising from the pandemic has been such a privilege to watch.

“Yes, of course, seeing Kat Copeland get her Olympic gold medal – that was immense. I can remember being on a beach in Northumbria when Laurence Whiteley got his Paralympic gold and drawing ‘well done Laurence and Lauren’ in the sand, and people looking at me as if I was a little mad.

“Of course, you’ve got to be proud of those moments and see the impact of their achievements on their home towns.

“The one thing that I hope we never forget, as a sport, is to applaud achievements at every level. I fear that sometimes we forget that.

“I was really proud about getting a message from our H and I masters crew who were at Wansbeck Regatta, a few weeks ago, when I was at my niece’s wedding. They fed back to me what an absolute credit all the juniors were. But it wasn’t just how they conducted themselves on the water – it was also how they conducted themselves off the water.”

Pictured with the winners of the City Games Sprint Quad Event - Mazyar Amini, Ben Summers, Lewis Henson and Isabel Heal

Pictured with the winners of the City Games Sprint Quad Event – Mazyar Amini, Ben Summers, Lewis Henson and Isabel Heal

With many other proud moments to share, Kate mentions memories of youngsters at BUCS Regatta coming through the ranks, and the rowing community coming together to create a sport that anyone and everyone can try.

As clubs find their feet after the year of the pandemic, many will need support now more than ever. What would Kate’s advice be to clubs and also to people thinking of stepping forward to help?

“Firstly, be kind to yourself and those around you. Say thank you to those club members who have shown strong leadership through the pandemic. We need to let people know how they can help, and how they can use those opportunities to combine a passion for the sport with maybe that ability to close some gaps on their CV as well.”

She added: “I don’t think we should be shy about encouraging people from outside of our sport to come in.

“Also, those of us who’ve been around for a while need to remember that we were the perceived obnoxious 24-year-olds trying to change the way things were done. Somebody created a pathway for us to come in when we were younger, and we need to be creating those pathways and opportunities for others.”

A huge incentive for people to volunteer is to get a different level of experience, whilst giving something back to their community, and Kate reflects that being able to draw upon her own experience in rowing has helped her make every major transition in her professional career.

But back to the British Empire Medal. How will she be celebrating this weekend?

Thankfully, there’s a regatta to go to, she says, so with a 6:00am start on Saturday, Kate hopes to be in bed when the announcement comes out at 10.30pm on Friday night.

“I’m taking 25 entries to Durham Regatta at the weekend. I’ll be on the riverbank getting boats in and out the water; checking they have their riggers on properly! I hope to catch up with old friends I haven’t seen for a very long time. I will have one eye on what is happening down at the British Rowing Masters Championships.

“Maybe I’ll take some cakes or buy a round of 99s. Durham ARC normally has an ice-cream stall!”

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