Karen Turnbull, Australia

Age: 69
Club: Lake Macdonald Rowing Club, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Sculling or sweep?

I started with sweep but my favourite is definitely sculling. I love it.

At what age did you start?

I was 57 when I started. I’ve never thought of age. I just do what I want to do.

How did you get into rowing?

I was outrigging on the Noosa River and I pulled in near the Noosa Yacht & Rowing Club. A guy in a boat was coaching and I looked at him and said, ‘Ooh, that looks good. One day I’m going to try that.’

He said, ‘What about tomorrow?’ I said. ‘You’re on’.

Early the next day he put me in a sweep boat and after that first session I knew that rowing was for me.

‘What about 2 oars?’, I said. ‘We have a sculling class tomorrow’, he said. ‘I’m coming for that too’, I said.

So I started sculling alongside sweep straight off. I loved it. Couldn’t get enough.

What did you love about it?

It was different from outrigging because you have so much to think about. I could see it would take a long time to learn.

Something captivated me—the gliding, the fact that you were together working as a crew. And I could visualise that it would be serene.

That was on the Noosa River when it had fewer craft on it. Now it’s absolutely loaded so I moved to Lake Macdonald where motorised craft are not allowed.

What coaching did you receive?

I’ve had the opportunity to be coached by a lot of coaches.

I remember one coach of a junior squad. I used to try to overhear everything he said and one day I asked him to show me something. He quickly said, ‘You can never coach masters because they will never get it’. That was like a red rag to a bull to me. I was going to prove him wrong.

If I saw anyone coaching, I would go up to them and ask if they could have a look at what my hands were doing, or see if there was anything they could help me with now. And if they told me something, I would work hard at that.

Why do you row now?

Rowing is addictive!

And I row with a group of friends that are ‘family’.

I love waking up before the sun comes up—there’s something magic about it. If I get to the lake first, I quite often sit in the car or get out and listen to nature at its best.

If I feel tired, once I get out on the water something takes hold of me and before I realise it I’m pacing on and I forget that I felt tired. It’s totally therapeutic.

Favourite boat class

I’ve always loved the single. It’s me against me. I like the balance I’m able to achieve in my boat and every stroke feels good.

My boat, Madam Lash, is a Sykes racing single.

I’m happy to jump in a 2x or a 4x if needed because I think it’s good to have that variety and it’s always nice to be together with the others, and to help where I am able to help.

Favourite seat

I’m a born stroke, that’s why my boat is named Madam Lash, which is the name given to me by a fellow rower.

As stroke, I don’t have to worry about what’s going on behind me, I don’t have to look at any bad strokes or see oars hitting the water. I’ve got clear vision. Yes, definitely stroke. It’s the spot where I’ve pretty much always been.

How often do you row and at what time?

I row 3 to 4 times a week. That’s enough. I’ve got too many other things that I do.

In summer, the alarm goes off at 4.30 am and I’m on the water by 5.10 am.

In winter, the alarm goes off at 5 am and I’m on the water by about 6.10 am.

Typical training session

On the river, we did 12 km most mornings. Now, on the lake, my average is about 8 km, only because I do other things after rowing so and also I’m not competing now.

I give myself a pretty good workout. And all the time I analyse what I did on the last stroke so that I can improve on the next stroke.

I like to set a target most times I’m out. More often than not I do set some sort of program.

A couple of staircases of 3-2-1 (minutes) starting at stroke rate 18 and going up to 22—that’s pretty good. Then switch to 4-3-1 starting at 16, with the second one starting at 18.

10 minutes on, 10 minutes off is another one I sometimes do without stopping for about 3 km.

What are you working on in the boat now?

Each time I’m out I try to row without my oars touching the water. I am working on that all the time. At the moment I’m hoping I achieve that about 70% of the time.

Favourite drill

I believe everyone should start off their session with square-blade rowing. About 10–15 strokes each of arms only, rock over, quarter slide, half, three-quarter and full. Do this for at least 1 km if you can. I think it’s the only way you’re going to achieve near-perfect balance in your boat without dragging the oars on the water.

You have to force yourself to feel what’s going on and if you hear those oars hitting the water you know you’ve got to apply a little bit more pressure down.

Without a doubt, this is the most significant thing that anyone can do as far as I’m concerned.

Getting into racing

I loved racing right from the start—the whole thing of learning and being taught and seeing my progress each time I competed was quite unbelievable.

And trying to beat somebody that had beaten me was a nice goal to have.

I raced in the single and in quads and doubles from the beginning.

After the single, the double was my next favourite boat. I had a good partner, Rachel Mecham, and the two of us really gelled. We didn’t have to talk in the boat. If one started to pull around, you just felt the swing of the boat and you’d go with it.

I stopped competing last year (2014).

Career highlight

Without a doubt, competing at the 2008 Australian Masters Rowing Championships at Nagambie in Victoria [Australia].

I had been chosen after time trials to represent Queensland in the state titles in a D quad and we won.

Queensland had never won before or since. It was exciting. We won by about a length. I was in 3 seat.

Racing habits

In my single, I would always go out a good half hour before my race. I would disassociate myself from anything that was happening on the bank, and disappear right up past the start.
I would be very quiet within myself and visualise the race.

I never liked to be around any negativity. When someone on the bank says, ‘Oh, I’m not looking forward to this race’ or ‘This is going to kill me; I’ve just done 2 other races’ or ‘Mary Jane is going to be alongside me and she’s going to be fast’—I never wanted to hear any of that.

Racing – top 3 tips

  1. When you’re sitting on the start line, never ever think that you’re under pressure. Relax completely. Imagine you are on your home ground.
  2. Row your own race. Keep your head in your boat. Don’t look to the side.
  3. At the half-way mark where you feel like you’re going to die—and everyone feels that pain—you have to go to a pinnacle that perhaps you haven’t reached before. You’ve got to get past that. Say to yourself, ‘I’m going home now’ and give it everything you’ve got. Push through the pain one stroke at a time, even if you have 60 strokes to go. If you can do that and do it well, you’ll be fine. That’s my motto in life now—one day at a time.

A race to remember

If I go touring and I happen to find a rowing club, I’d always ask for a row.

I was in Tasmania recently visiting friends and I walked in to the Buckingham Rowing Club and before I knew it I was on the water rowing with the folk there. So it’s a fantastic sport to think you can travel around with it.

Then I ended up at the skiff races in Franklin, Tasmania. I was helping people get in their boats. One of the competitors didn’t arrive and my friend suggested I jump in. I thought, why not? So, fully dressed, without any rowing gear, I hopped in the boat.

There were no sliding seats and you had one oar that was almost tied in with an elastic band.

The crew must’ve been around age 55. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll come last’, they said. That wasn’t good enough for me. I had to have a first.

With all my years of experience motivating people along in a race situation, I couldn’t keep my mouth closed. I had to encourage everybody along. The poor girls couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

We came in 2nd place. They were ecstatic. They could not believe that they had the ability to achieve this. It just goes to prove that with the right mental attitude you can do what you want to do. One girl had to have ambulance attention because she was totally exhausted. So that was one to remember.

What has made you such a great rower?

Everything that I’ve done in my life, I’ve had to do to the best of my ability.

Every day, I’ve got to do it well and the next day I’ve got to do it better. It’s an obsession. Years ago I was a model and I had to be successful at that. I had to be successful at every job I’ve ever had. It’s just the way I am—I have to try hard.

And it’s not to beat everybody. I know I can do it only if I work hard at it.

Coaching style

I like coaching. I think I’ve got a really good eye for it. I can’t help seeing things and thinking, ‘Oh, if only he kept his chin up, he’d be right’.

I’ve learnt about using the ‘shit sandwich’ where you say something nice first, then tell them what they need to work on, then something nice again. But I get so excited I blurt out what I see. I guess that’s also why I’m called Madam Lash.

Karen Turnbull

The hardest part about coaching can be putting it into words to help somebody.

For most people, moving slowly up the slide seems to be the hardest thing. And travelling with the blade in the square for those last few moments is a hard thing for people to grasp.

And placing the blade in the water and allowing it to settle before bringing on the power. You’ve got to feel it; you can’t teach it. I think people have to discover that before they understand it.

Favourite place in world to row

Sydney Harbour was quite exciting. That was in February 2015. We raced before sunrise in an open-water boat from Sydney Harbour Bridge to Manly and it took us past open water where we had 3 metre swells. It was pretty challenging with fishing lanes and big cruise boats.

Lake Macdonald is my favourite though. It’s the birdlife; it’s arriving at dawn and seeing Cooroy Mountain silhouetted in the water.


Early in the morning it’s perfect rowing water. We don’t have jetskis, houseboats, markers, all those things you get on a riverway. It’s just us and the occasional fishing boat powered by electric motor.

We’ve got a 2 km stretch and to circumnavigate the lake is about 8 km.

Favourite rower of all time

Hannah Every-Hall. She’s my idol—personality-wise, her rowing, her courage and her work ethic. To think that she’s got 2 children and she’s still out there trying hard [for Olympic qualification].

She’s a dynamo; an incredible rower.

She sits in between lightweight and heavyweight so that’s not an easy category to be in. She’s not tall enough to be a heavyweight and she has to lose a lot of weight to be a lightweight.

She taught me to love rowing. When she coaches, you just want to try harder and harder and harder. You never offer her excuses—she’ll tell you to ‘toughen up, princess’.

Nutrition tips

Eat well. I can’t stress that enough. Give away the junk food and have as much raw food as you can. Build yourself up with good food.

What exercise do you do other than rowing?

I’ve taken up golf this year at the tender age of 69, which is a big challenge.

Last year, at 68, I started mountain-biking. I haven’t had a bad spill yet but, because I also play the piano and golf, I don’t want to injure my hands. I still ride but I don’t do the crazy things I used to.

I do a stretch class once a week and I try to do a few stretches each day.

How important is the social side of rowing?

I love my rowing ‘family’. They all come from different walks of life, different backgrounds, but they’ve all got the same desire to be the best that they can. Rowers are a special breed.

'Kevie' boat-naming 2015
Club members making sure that Karen’s late husband, Kevin, an avid sculler himself, will never be forgotten. Boat-naming, 2015.

Best thing about rowing

It’s therapeutic. It’s like meditation. You’re in your own little world and you don’t think about anything else. When you’ve mastered it to a degree, you feel good. You just can’t get enough.

Worst thing about rowing

When you try to help someone and you suggest something and you get excuses back—that annoys me and it wards me off trying with that person again.

I like to think that if you give someone advice that they will try it. I love when they talk back to me about what I’ve suggested.

When will you stop rowing?

I’m taking it day by day. But I have no intention of stopping for a long time yet.

Karen Turnbull


Advice for aspiring masters rowers

Don’t sit by and wait for it to happen to you. Get out there and make it happen yourself. Make friends with people on the bank at regattas. Introduce yourself to people and before you know it you’ll be invited into crews.

Train hard. Set yourself a program and follow it.

New rowers just want to get out on the water and row as far as they can and as fast as they can. Big mistake. They need to do fairly low rating, don’t think about beating everyone else, and listen to the coach. And don’t just do a drill once—each time you go out, practise it over and over.

Always listen. Even when you talk to other people casually, it can remind you of things you need to work on next time you’re on the water. Be willing to listen and to learn. The way someone says something one day, you may never have heard it said in those words and it might explain it better to you than you’ve ever heard before.

The main thing is to get out there and row.

3 words that describe rowing for you

It’s a lifestyle, it’s therapeutic and it keeps me healthy.

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