In episode 16 we talk with Annamarie Phelps about what it’s like to lead a sport, the importance of elite role models, and how British Rowing has evolved into an Olympic powerhouse sport. We also hear about how she navigated the highs and lows of her own international rowing career.
Annamarie Phelps CBE is Chairman of British Rowing, vice chairman of the British Olympic Association and a Trustee of the British Paralympic Association.
Annamarie enjoyed a successful international rowing career representing Great Britain at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (women’s eight). Annamarie also competed in World Rowing Championships between 1991 and 1995 as well as the Commonwealth Regatta in 1994. She was World Champion in 1993 (lightweight coxless fours) and World Indoor Rowing Champion and World Indoor Rowing Record holder between 1992 and 1995 (lightweight women).
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 15.5.17 – Ep 16. Annamarie Phelps CBE – Chairman of British Rowing on role models, success and leading a sport.
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to A Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
TP: My guest today is the chairman of British Rowing, Annamarie Phelps. We talk about what it’s like to lead a sport, the importance of elite role models and how British Rowing has evolved into an Olympic powerhouse sport. We also hear about how she navigated the highs and lows of her own international rowing career and I started by asking if rowing had always been her thing.
AP: No, not at all. I started rowing in my second year at university largely because my first year exams were so poor, my tutor took me aside and told me I ought to get some structure in my life and he suggested taking up sport and he said, “I think you should go for rowing. Why don’t you try rowing?” So I dragged my flatmate down on the beginning of the next term, at the beginning of the second year when we were at college and started rowing and unfortunately she was much better than me and she made the first novice boat and I was in the second novice boat and that pattern continues really. So I wasn’t particularly good but I had always done a bit of sport and I had always been quite fit, so I think in the end sheer bloody mindedness and being reasonably fit sort of won out.
TP: Had you ever done rowing before or was that a new idea?
AP: It was completely new and actually what was really nice about it, because when I got to university I hadn’t really been very sporty and almost all the girls that were there were all county hockey players or county netball players, well they seemed to be. They were either that or they were very arty. So I was only the third year of women in the college that I went to and there weren’t very many of us and if you then took out the arty, acting, singing, musicians and everything else, the number that were vaguely sporty was really quite small, so it was down to about 20 in our year, and we had to produce a football team, a hockey team, a netball team, a rowing team and everything from those 20 people. So everybody did everything basically. We just all doubled up and tripled up.
TP: So were you also doing hockey and netball?
AP: Not hockey. I was never very good at hockey, but I did play football. I played in our first soccer team and was persuaded to go in goal the night before when I was a little worse for wear in the bar and I turned out in my kit and my trainers to play as goalie for the women’s football team for their first match and the other team had two shots at goal and we lost 2-0. So I did carry on playing but that was the last time I was put in goal.
TP: Let’s get back to rowing for a minute. When did you know that you were good?
AP: I don’t know that I ever thought that I was that good. I always had something to get better at. Technically I always struggled to start with but I was quite strong and quite fit and as you go through you always try and challenge yourself. There’s a saying in rowing that you always want to be the worst person in your crew because a boat is only as good or only as fast as the slowest person in it. So you always want to be with people who are better than you and I always aspired to be in a crew where everyone was much better than I was and hopefully they would drag me up to their level. I don’t know that I ever felt that I was particularly good and there were some times when I really didn’t believe I was at all. I actually quite seriously didn’t believe I was good, even when I was training and rowing at the highest level.
TP: How did you cope with that not thinking you were good? Did it motivate you?
AP: Very poorly sometimes. Sometimes fine. Sometimes it helped. I think because I was quite fit, I always had quite a good lung capacity and quite a good oxygen uptake and things like that so on the indoor rowing machine, through sheer brute strength, you can do an awful lot and I think the first time I broke the world record and won the indoor rowing championships in Boston in the US, I was quite dazed and quite astounded, but there wasn’t anybody else who was a lightweight woman of my weight that could do that. So it seemed a bit weird really and I remember being questioned by American journalists about whether or not I had been taking drugs, which I hadn’t. So that bit was quite strange, but there are times when it doesn’t matter that you’re not good because you are working on it and getting better. There were times when I had some quite, we all have dark moments as athletes and I had some fairly dark moments through some of my years, particularly when I moved from lightweight up to heavyweight and ended up with Over Training Syndrome and some real issues around that for a while and I was really lucky to have fantastic people around actually just to pull me back and sort me out.
TP: Because since your time as an athlete you’ve continued in sport, how do you go from being a world class athlete to being chair of British Rowing? How does that happen?
AP: It’s really funny. It’s not something that I had ever planned but I look back now at some things that people said to me at the time and think, “Goodness, maybe other people thought that I was capable back then.” So I remember in ’95 and ’96 we had a fantastic sponsor and his wife, when I decided to retire, she said to me, “I think it’s a good idea. You can really do something in the sport. I’m sure you’ll be running it one day.” And my coach too, Bill, used to say things like, “I don’t know where you’re going to stop,” but I never thought that I was doing it. I was just doing the things I was doing. But I was always involved, even when I started rowing at university I was always involved with, not so much organising, but either representing people or wanting to help promote the sport or wanting to do something outside of my bit of it, out of my athlete bit.
TP: Is that the appeal, to do something more for the sport? What is the appeal of being a chairman?
AP: I guess so. When I was growing up both my parents, but particularly my dad, was a bit of a committee man. He was always involved with things. So my dad would be part of the local church group, or running the St Vincent de Paul, or he was a governor at my school, or he was secretary to his Sunday league football club. So I grew up watching both my parents do sport, particularly watching my dad being involved with the running of the sport or the running of the organisation or the school or whatever it was, and at the end of the day you’re influenced by what you see as you are growing up. So I think it was always very natural for me, if I wanted to be part of something, to be properly part of it and if I tend to do something, I tend to do it 110%, which sometimes is good and sometimes can be quite hard to reprieve yourself from.
TP: Let’s talk about the role of chairman. What buck stopped with you? What is your responsibility as oppose to the chief exec, for instance?
AP: Well, I guess the chief exec is the buck that stops with me. Clearly to line manage the chief executive and try and ensure that what we’re doing is following the strategic plan and delivering against our objectives. The chairman of a sport is slightly different to chairman of a corporate organisation I think. Both have a membership, one has a shareholder and one has membership and everything else, but there is something very different about sport where, particularly in an Olympic or Paralympic sport where you’ve got a high performance bit which is very professionalised and then you’ve got the wider part of your sport, which is largely volunteer run and full of your members and your clubs and individuals and people who are just absorbed into the whole sport really. We have the most amazing people who dedicate hours and hours and hours of their time to wanting to row and to achieve and then to help other people in it, and that accountability to that broader sport is something that isn’t quite the same as your shareholders because you’re not just delivering them a dividend, you’ve got to try and understand them and you’ve got to try and be there to listen and represent them, but also to try and do what’s best for your organisation, so it’s a really hard balance.
TP: How long have you been chair?
AP: Four and a bit years.
TP: Has your approach to the role developed over time, what you thought it was going to be to what it is?
AP: I don’t know that it’s changed enormously. I have been involved with the organisation since I was an athlete, so since ’96. When I stopped being an athlete I became chairman of the Women’s Rowing Commission first of all and then I took a variety of roles including lead safeguarding officer, doing governance and was deputy chairman for over ten years as well, so I worked really closely with my predecessor, Di Ellis, for a number of years and we had another deputy chairman as well who looked after the coaching side of things. I think it probably has changed, having to do it yourself, but for me what was quite interesting was the role changed anyway because Di’s role before me was as an executive chairman, so we had no chief executive, and she was the one who line managed both the high performance side and then the national side of things, the domestic side. When she stood down, we employed a chief executive and so my role was a completely new, completely different chairman’s role to hers and I think it probably has developed. I think what’s been most testing has been getting the other people in the organisation and probably the wider sport and our council also to all move towards understanding that change, what that meant. I’m not her replacement. Not only am I a different person, but I’m also in a completely different role with a chief executive and with a professional staff of directors.
TP: British Rowing is changing, I suppose.
TP: It seems from a lay person’s view that rowing has transformed itself as far as Olympic medals have gone in cycles. What would you put that down to?
AP: I think it clearly takes money to be able to produce Olympic medals and we shouldn’t shy away from saying that. The Lottery has been amazing for all British sport, but I think it’s been to do with the people we have been able to employ and keep within the sport and the system that has been put in place. So we have an amazing group of coaches and people, an amazing system, and real knowledge within the sport about how to do it and maintaining that knowledge. You always look at it and worry. I worry from year to year and think how fragile we are but we still have managed to keep producing some fantastic athletes at the other end.
TP: I was talking to Cath Bishop a few weeks ago about her silver medal with Catherine Granger and it was the beginning of a whole tranche of Olympic medals, particularly on the women’s side. I asked her the question, did she think that was significant to athlete’s coming after her and she said she didn’t know whether it was or not. Do you think it is?
AP: Absolutely. I think that every step along the way shows the people coming after you what is possible. You need role models. Absolutely you need role models. You need people to be able to look up and say, “I want to be like that. I want to be that person. I can do that or I can do better than that.” I was in the eight with Cath in ’96 and we managed to do a world best time in our Olympic qualifying race, but then came seventh at the Olympic games and didn’t make the final, so we were hugely disappointed. But we made that transition and that step to being a world class crew during that season and I think that those sorts of things really help. They really help for the next generation to come along.
TP: I am personally a big believer that elite role models make a massive influence. How important are elite role models?
AP: It’s interesting you say that because there has been a lot of discussion about the fact that they don’t inspire people. I think that elite role models, particularly athletes, absolutely inspire young people. Maybe they don’t inspire your 40 or 50 year old, slightly overweight bloke on the street, or a mum, or whatever else to go down to the rowing club or to go and do a Zumba class. They might not inspire that level. But they absolutely add the magic dust, the stardust, for young people. I was totally inspired by Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut in the early 70s. That’s who I wanted to be and I wanted a leotard just like theirs with a stripe under the arm. That’s all I wanted. So yes absolutely, I really think they do. Anecdotally we get stories all the time of kids who have come into the sport of rowing inspired by Catherine, inspired by Anna Watkins, by Kat Copeland, by Sophie Hoskin, all those people are hugely important to us and we all did it. We all looked up to the people before us. I rowed with a girl who had medals before and she was the only one in my lightweight four who had been to world championships before, so she was absolutely, all I wanted to do was do what she was doing.
TP: What do you think are the most challenging things that a sport has to deal with?
AP: The breadth of views that people have.
TP: Within the NGB or within society generally?
AP: I think mostly within the NGB. Even within the NGB there are people who think that…everybody has an idea about the right way to do things, the right way to row the boat, the right way to do the stroke, the right way to run a meeting, what we should be spending our money on, what the strategy should be, where we should be going, what the priorities should be, and the NGBs are, they’ve got a really wide area that they are trying to look at, everything from school children starting coaching education, water safety for us, through to the elite team and Olympic success, commercial revenue. There’s just a myriad of things that are going on and then you overlay that with all the international politics or the domestic politics, dealing with your finding bodies, dealing with local authorities about facilities. It’s a massive jigsaw, a massive muddle of different things. So I think all of those have competing challenges and competing points of view. That’s the bit. Trying to always explain to people why you’re doing things. Trying to keep on top of why we’re doing all that we’re doing is quite important and I probably spend most of the time that I’m out and about amongst our clubs, listening to people, trying to understand where they are coming from, trying to understand their position and trying to explain why we are doing things the way we’re doing them or why we are planning to do things the way we are planning.
TP: You’ve led the independent investigation into alleged discrimination and bullying within British cycling. We obviously can’t talk about the details about the investigation but you have had a rather unique opportunity to pick apart another system. I suppose I’m interested in what you’ve learnt about how sport it governed and how athletes can be managed. Could you share any insight into what works and what doesn’t within sport, within the organisation?
AP: Crikey. That’s a difficult question, especially as I’m not going to refer to anything specific. Sport, to some extent, is a microcosm of society and what we mustn’t forget is that people in sport, I was going to say deserve to be, but actually have a right to be treated and respected. I actually just think it’s about relationships between individuals. If I think back to my experience as an athlete, the times when I was most pushed and most stressed and most put to the edge, it didn’t work for me. It broke me down. I mentioned earlier on, I had a period of Over Train Syndrome and with that came depression and time off of training and that was through other athletes actually undermining what they thought I was able to do. I don’t think I ever experienced that from a coach or from any of that from a staff perspective and if fact the coaches and staff were really supportive. I do remember once my coach yelling or swearing or saying something really quite sexist to me during an Ergo and I know that he was trying to incentivise me and trying to get me going but it just didn’t work and I got off the Ergo afterwards and I can’t say on here what I said to him, but I told him where he could stick his words and that wasn’t really going to work and could he, in future, just be a little bit more encouraging.
TP: Did he appreciate your sentiments?
AP: Absolutely and it never happened again and we went on.
TP: This podcast is about performance. It’s about different people’s view on how to get the best situation or what people think of success. What does success mean to you personally?
AP: I don’t know. To me personally, I think if I can achieve even a fraction of the things that we set out to achieve at the beginning of becoming a chairman. So one of the things I wanted to do was to try and be much more inclusive. Try to make sure that we had a strategy that the sport and the wider sport bought into and try to keep the governing body relevant to both its elite athletes and to its clubs and its members, and that’s really difficult because in order to achieve that you have to go sometimes away from it in order to get closer to it. We’ve had a big restructure of things. So success, I don’t know what success is and I think you never quite reach success. When you’re racing it’s easy because you win a race and you know that you’ve done what you achieve to do. Setting steps along the way is always good. Ticking things off to say we’ve got this in place and we’ve got that in place, but the bigger picture, the bigger success story for British rowing for me would be having the opportunity for any child that wanted to be able to row to be able to try it. I think I’s much more that and about inclusion and about having a sport that genuinely is open where we don’t just open the doors and let people in, but actually people are out there advocating and trying to get everybody in. But that’s some way off I think.
TP: Is there anything you wish I’d have asked you?
AP: No, not really. There’s some things that I would like the answers to. What do I do next and how does it all work and all those things. Is there anything I wish I’d done? I wish I had won an Olympic medal. That would have been nice to have. My children now, everybody they meet, every time they meet a rower on the team and they have all got an Olympic medal or whatever else, and my kids always say, “Of course you went to the Olympics, but you didn’t get a medal did you mummy?”
TP: Why didn’t you get an Olympic medal? Was it about your performance? Was it a strength thing? Was it raining in the day?
AP: It was. It rained every day in Atlanta. It was miserable. I think there are a whole variety of things. Basically we peaked for our Olympic qualification regatta, which was six weeks before the Olympic Games, so it wasn’t quite long enough really to peak, go down and then come up again. So that’s one reason. I think when we got to Atlanta, there wasn’t the depth of women’s rowing then in 1996 that there is now at that top end, so probably we could have been a stronger crew if we’d had a bit more depth pushing up underneath us and a bit more competition for places in the eight, and I think on the day we just didn’t do everything right. There was some indecision. There was indecision about the wind direction. We didn’t make a good decision about our blade length. A million things. You have nine women in a boat and you imagine it’s bad enough with a small team of two and Cath was in a pair when she did get her medal. You can control that the eight was, it didn’t have the same focus and the same killer instinct and the same kind of machine-like ability to know each other that we had had in the four. So the four that I was in, we knew each other well enough and we all knew what we were doing, absolutely trusted.
TP: What does it feel like watching those races now?
AP: The one that we did well in? It feels quite out of body actually. It feels a bit weird. I’ve never watched any of my Olympic races. I quite enjoy watching it because it reminds me that I did used to do it. It’s not just all about managing the chief executive and chairing council meetings and all those things, and I really try and go and see rowing and be out on the water as much as I can.
TP: Do you still row now?
AP: Vey occasionally. I have a kit bag semi-packed. If anyone needs spare on bow side, I’m ready to jump in.
TP: I’ve just got some quick fire questions that I’m asking everybody. What do you eat for breakfast?
AP: I always have bran flakes with a few raisins and chia seeds on.
TP: Favourite piece of sports kit?
AP: My all in one from 1991, which I still have and very occasionally put on to do an Ergo.
TP: Sporting hero?
AP: Nadia Comaneci.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have been given or given to somebody else?
AP: Goodness. Most useless bit of advice?
TP: Or if that’s too hard, a great bit of advice that you’ve been given.
AP: My standard line is always, if there’s space in your kit bag, fill it. So I always fill everything and Richard, my husband, will tell you that my days are packed from back to back meetings and equally when I was an athlete and on the team, I would never leave any space in my kit bag. If I could squeeze another pair of socks in, I would squeeze them into the corner just in case.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
AP: Art and craft.
TP: And the last one, best performance enhancer.
AP: Crikey. Sleep.
TP: Thanks so much Annamarie. I really appreciate it.
AP: Thank you.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.
TP: Thank you.[Music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]