Gillian Carolan, Galway, Ireland

Age: 56
Club: Tribesmen Rowing Club, Galway, Ireland


Sculling or sweep?

I’m definitely a sweep oar more than a sculler; I can scull but I prefer sweeping.

At what age did you start?

16

How did you get into rowing?

I grew up in Coleraine, County Derry. We used to watch the lads from the boys’ school rowing underneath the bridge in the town. Some girls’ brothers rowed and some girls’ neighbours rowed and I wanted to do it.

In 1975 I asked the headmistress if we could start a rowing club in the school and she said no, absolutely not—it wasn’t ladylike.

So we went down to the local commercial rowing club, Bann Rowing Club, which was the only club in town, and two very kind but naïve men— Bobby Platt and Paddy Irwin—they took us in.

Bobby Platt was a seminal influence on my life. He was well into his 50s then, and many people would’ve scoffed at us but he didn’t. He died only this year [2015] in his mid-90s. They were great to encourage us.

And so we restarted women’s rowing in Bann Rowing Club for the first time since 1911.

We made the newspapers because we were two Catholic girls and two Protestant girls and it was a cross-religious ecumenical sport. It was irrelevant to us—we were just neighbours and schoolmates—but in 1975 in Northern Ireland it was a big deal.

The women’s program at Bann Rowing Club subsequently went from strength to strength.

What did you love about it?

I loved everything about rowing right from the start. I liked the style of it, everybody doing the same thing, the routine.

It was something I could get technically good at. I got it the first time I did it; it made sense.

I liked that nobody’s the glory seeker—it’s just everybody with one dedicated aim, together. You have to give yourself up to the greater good. And it doesn’t work unless everybody supports each other and everybody trusts each other. I got that right from the start.

The hardship of it appealed to me too, even in the miserable weather. It made some sort of masochistic sense to me.

I felt very at home on the river. I never was nervous. I was intrigued by it all. I wanted to learn more about it.

And I’d never trained before, so I found out I was a good runner. Discovering things I was good at was reassuring at a very important stage of my life. It was part of my growing up.

I felt part of the bigger picture too, because I really got the history of the place. The photos on the wall of the people who had come before us, and the people that helped us—they were so accommodating and helpful and welcoming, and that made a huge difference to me.

And then, in relative terms, I got good at it. Rowing was the only sport I had ever been good at. At school the choice was hockey or German. I tried hockey and didn’t like it so I chose German. How bad must I have been!

What coaching did you receive?

Bobby Platt was my first coach, back in 1975. He was a wonderful man, really encouraging and humble. He welcomed everybody who showed interest. He’s since coached both GB Olympians and Irish Olympians, and he’s been knighted by the Queen for his services to rowing. The Olympic torch came to Bann in 2012 to recognise the club’s achievements.

Gillian Carolan_coleraine_olympic_torch_2012-BBC
The Olympic torch is rowed down the Bann River in 2012 (Credit: BBC)

At the Irish Championships a few years ago, where Bann won their first ever junior men’s eights championship, Bobby was there, climbing up the scaffolding of the grandstand to try to get a view of the crew, tears in his eyes, thinking he was never going to live to see this. As passionate in his 90s as he was in his 50s. I am so pleased to have been there to witness it.

The greatest influence on my rowing—and probably one of the greatest influences on my life—was Andy Wells at Queen’s University Boat Club in Belfast. Andy was way ahead of his time; he still is. He was inspirational.

The reason I went to Queen’s was to row with the women who were paving the way for women’s rowing in Ireland. Mary and Berni Keown and Linda McNeill were blazing the trail and I wanted to be part of it. On Freshers Day, Andy came looking for us and within a week at Queen’s I was in boats with them.

Andy didn’t care where you came from, what your pedigree was. He didn’t say, you have to serve your time as novice or intermediate—we went straight in and ended up rowing with women who’d been rowing 5 or 6 years longer than us, and very successfully.

And that set the tone for the rest of my life—that you have to put people who are keen in with people who can row, and then you get the best of both. And you shouldn’t ever hold people back when they are more able; you should let them in and let them learn from each other.

And as we moved up the ranks, we were expected to do the same with the next bunch that came in. And that’s singularly the most important thing I’ve learnt from rowing, to bring people on.

I’ve only recently realised that that’s where I got my belief system, from my time in Bann and Queen’s and mostly from Andy Wells. It’s all about improving, it’s about bringing people on, it’s about being open to fresh ideas, to different ways to do things better.

In the summer, Andy used to find jobs for us in Belfast so that we could afford to stay in our digs and row during the college holidays. At weekends, he’d hitch his car to the trailer and send us off to regattas all over the country, to Waterford or Dungarvan, god only knows where. He didn’t always come with us because he didn’t have the holidays. He’d send us off, driving his car, towing the trailer, and we hadn’t a clue.

He sent us to the States and around Europe. We raced at Nottingham, at Marlowe. He sent us to watch Henley. I remember sitting on the blocks at Lucerne, beside the Russians, with no right to be there whatsoever. He had such vision. But he wasn’t there. That was the thing—it wasn’t about him.

And he’d fight your battles. He made sure we got access to the best boats and we’d get equal billing with the men, for both gym time and water time. He was absolutely egalitarian, and back in the late 70s that wasn’t always the case in college rowing clubs.
We try to treat everyone equally at Tribesmen now, give everyone a chance, regardless of age or experience. And when people ask where I got that sentiment from, well, that’s where I got it from.

One of Andy’s phrases is: “If you’re prepared to do your fair share, we don’t want you. We only want people who are prepared to do more than their fair share. Because that’s the only way things will improve.”

Another one is: “Always leave a place a little better than when you find it.”

Those sentiments can take you a long way. They’re all about the greater good. They’re about staying in the background and letting people off to perform the best they are able, whatever level they are at.

And that’s why he continues to coach the novice women at Queen’s, year after year, which in some people’s eyes can be a thankless task. He could take 2 people at senior level and maybe get some glory from it, but he can take 20 novices and change their lives forever, even if they only spend one year with him.

And whether they come first or fifth, it doesn’t matter to Andy. He takes them out for dinner after the championships and tells them they’re all wonderful. That’s hugely influential when you’re 18 or 19, to come across a good guy.

Getting into racing

My first competition would’ve been against a crew from Methody [Methodist College Belfast]. They used to beat us time and time again because they had started a couple of years before us, and were much better!

With every race, we got one place closer to them. I discovered a competitive edge I never knew I had.

Cathy Buchanan from that Methody crew has remained one of my closest friends.

Why do you row now?

Too many rowers I have known are no longer with us and some are with us but can’t row. So I’m damn lucky to be still able to. And part of me thinks if I stop something awful might happen :-).

Sometimes things have hurt—shoulders, knees—and I’ve taken breaks. But I haven’t not rowed for the last 20 years. The only times I didn’t row were when we lived in Papua New Guinea for 5 years and when I was having children, though I rowed pregnant several times. 

I’ve rowed in Coleraine, I’ve rowed in Belfast, I’ve rowed in Dublin, and now I row in Galway. I don’t know if I could live somewhere without a rowing club.

How often do you row and at what time?

In this past year, I’m rowing more than I ever did. I’ve done a bit of coaching over the past 5 years, helping to build the club up again, but it’s up and running and now I’m all about me. I’m being very selfish and I’m doing as much rowing as I can.

I was rowing 3 to 5 times a week this past summer and if I could fit it in every day I would. I’m working fulltime and I do a fair bit of coaching as well so it’s complicated to fit it in around that. I could be on the river 8–10 times a week but I mightn’t always be rowing.

Gillian Carolan coxing recreational crew
Gillian coxing a recreational crew on the Corrib

What I’m trying to do now is row in the boats that I’m coaching and teach somebody to steer or to stroke. I get a bit of extra rowing in that way. That’s in the tour boats, the recreational boats. If it’s a calm evening I might take someone out in a double to get them used to small boats.

On weekdays, it’s 7 am off the slip. Maybe 8 am on a Saturday, 9 am on a Sunday.

In winter it’s very different. If we are lucky with the weather we might get out, but only on weekends. Our river is very fast and can get too dangerous if there’s heavy rainfall.

Gillian Carolan southerly winds on the Corrib
The River Corrib in a southerly wind

Being coached as a masters rower

When I started rowing in Galway, there was nobody to row with in our club. The concept of masters rowing hadn’t really been explored, not by women anyway. I had to teach people in order to go rowing. So I’ve spent much of the past 20 years coaching from within the boat.

I’m now getting coached, so rowing is much more enjoyable. I didn’t appreciate what I was missing.

It’s interesting being coached by my husband. He taught me how to coach but he never helped me row before. He never had to and he was wise enough not to :-). But now that he’s in that coaching position, I just go with it. It’s nice, someone who knows what they are talking about telling me what to do.

Gillian Carolan in 6
Gillian in 6 seat, River Corrib

The coaching has knocked some of my bad habits out—habits that I had possibly always had and which maybe didn’t matter as much when I was fitter and younger and I could outweigh them with strength or fitness. But now I’ve got to be the best I can be, technically, to overcome the fact that I’m not as fit, not as strong, not as young as I used to be.

When you’re doing something that slows the boat down, or reduces your efficiency, to be able to get rid of that improves everything. Plus, a lot of bad habits impact negatively on your body. So if you can knock them out, posture wise, that’s good.

And I don’t dispute any of them. I’m just delighted that I’m able to fix them! It’s like going to a golf pro for a lesson, I imagine—you may think you know how to play golf until they tell you you’re not standing right, you’re not gripping right.

And they’re only 5–10% changes, but it makes the rowing so much more enjoyable. It doesn’t hurt as much, it’s not as hard and its adding to boat speed, so what’s not to like about it?

What technique changes have you seen over the years?

When we learnt to row in the 1970s, it was all about leaning back at the finish, more than 10 degrees off the vertical, which I reckon wrecked my back for ever.

Then we moved to reaching out at the finish and hunching over, and when you got to the front you’d look for even more.

Then we went onto the quick hands, the quick spin—you couldn’t be quick enough at the finish.

Different people told us what to do and we just did it but we didn’t know why.

Now, we go 5 degrees each way and we don’t look for more. There’s no point laying back beyond your core strength, beyond where your abdominals can support you—and the blades are already out of the water so what are you doing back there? And there’s no point looking for more at the front if it’s going to damage the balance or check the boat.

Now we draw the oar in and tap down, and we kind of take our time coming awayspeed in, speed out.

I used to enjoy snatching the hands out because it seemed to add to the overall speed but, when you look back on it, people were so keen to get out of the water that they weren’t worrying about getting through the water.

It’s only now all of that makes sense to me. You do as little as you can to affect the boat. The rest is just fashion.

It’ll be interesting in 10 years’ time to see if it changes again because it’s obvious to me that what we are doing now is the right thing, but maybe it’s not.

All the coaches on the River Corrib—from the schools, the college, from Tribesmen—they work well together. Once one coach starts to move to a certain style, if they’re respected you’ll find the others follow. It’s partly why the Corrib is so successful as a river.

But a lot of it is down to Rowing Ireland having proper coaching courses and teaching people the one way to coach. They are trying to level the playing field for everybody. So there’s a consistency in coaching now. It’s great to see schoolgirls and schoolboys from different schools all rowing the same. And they bring that to college and hopefully on to a later career.

And it’s been a pleasure to try and amend my rowing to match this style instead of saying, this is how I learnt to row in the 70s and I’m going to stick with it. I’m very open-minded about it as long as it makes sense. And it does.

Favourite boat class

The pair used to be my favourite boat, because that’s what I rowed most often and that’s what I had most success in.

Now it’s the eight—I like the sense of speed and the ‘chumpiness’. Although I raced the 4+ this year at the Irish Championships and I really enjoyed that.

Favourite seat

My favourite seat has to be the stroke seat, though if the crew is younger I’m more than happy back in the 2 seat. I like to be in control. And I’ve been put in the stroke seat by coaches over the years so I assume I must have some rhythm. 

But whoever’s up there stroking it, respect it, follow it, don’t give out about it, just do it. Because that’s what I would expect of people behind me.

Gillian Carolan stroking recreational crew
Gillian in her favourite seat, River Corrib

Typical training session

At the moment it’s all about technique because we’re trying to bring everybody in the club to the same platform. So it’s exercises and maybe a 9–10 km round trip.

What are you working on in the boat now?

In sweep rowing, I’m working on keeping my inside arm straight. It’s not that I was taught otherwise; it’s just a habit that was never knocked out of me.

In sculling, I’m working on keeping my thumbs on the end of the oars because my hands gravitate down the loom and I have to continually correct myself.

Favourite drill

I like the pick drill because it’s a foundation. When I’m coaching, that’s how I explain it—these are building blocks and you can’t move on to the next one until you’ve got this one in place. And it doesn’t require too much cleverness; everybody can do it. 

And making sure I’ve established my full reach off the backstop, that’s been good for me because I’ve tended to have my knees come up too soon.

Returning to racing after 10 years

I hadn’t sat on the blocks in Ireland for 10 years until 2015, when I rowed in the Women’s Masters 4+ at the Irish Championships. It felt great. Nerve-wracking but great.
And I think I rowed better than I did 10 years ago, technically, and I got a real sense of comfort from that.

Plus, I was rowing with people I had rowed with ‘back in the day’. So there was great reassurance in that. We rowed well, to the highest level we were capable of doing, so I loved it.

We came a valiant second, rowed down by younger, fitter, better women. We had a 16-second headstart and we held it and held it but there was something terribly inevitable about watching them coming at us. But we kept the other younger crew behind us!

Champs 2015
Gillian strokes a valiant Women’s Masters 4+ to second place at the 2015 Irish Championships

I don’t believe the Women’s Masters 4+ event had been held in the previous 10 years. The last time it was held, I’d been in it. It really bothers me that that vacuum has opened up.

It’s partly because in the north of Ireland, where there’s more masters women’s rowing, the focus is on regattas in the UK, due to the lack of competition domestically. And partly because people like me stopped racing when we got into coaching. But it’s starting to get better support and next year we hope to get back on the domestic regatta circuit and encourage other clubs to do the same.

Career highlight

Without a shadow of a doubt, winning gold in the Senior Women’s 8+ at Nottingham Regatta in 1982, rowing for Commercial Rowing Club [Dublin].

We beat the late, great Dan Topolski’s under-23 GB squad.

I was in the stroke seat, Cathy Buchanan was in the bow seat. Liz Byrne and Susan O’Toole were also in the boat.

We had a mighty race. We just gave them the slip and got away. It was tactical rowing. I had never gone off at such a high rate. I had never held such a high rate. They weren’t expecting it and we just took it. It was like ‘he who dares wins’. We were really ballsy to do that.

At the end, I got a wink from Dan Topolski because he did not see that coming.

Being in the stroke seat, for me it was a big event. But it was knowing who was behind me and knowing they would be there, Cathy in particular.

Championships be damned—winning that gold medal was everything.

My coaching highlight was in 2005 during my time on the coaching panel at NUIG [National University of Ireland Galway]. I helped the women win the Intermediate Irish Championships in the 8+ and the 4+. They weren’t the biggest or strongest but they were technically proficient and we had them humming.

When I gave them the pre-race talk before the eights final, being aware that they certainly weren’t favourites, I drew on my experience in Nottingham all those years before, and I like to think I helped inspire them to just go out there and dare to win.

That race was the most nerve-wracking time of my life, which made me realise I’m probably not cut out for competitive coaching! But the last 100 metres made it all worthwhile as they stormed home.

Favourite place to row

I have 2 favourites.

Boston—I feel I may have lived there in in a former life, I feel so completely at home there. As soon as I saw the Charles I thought, I know this. I love it, I love it, I love it.

I’ve raced the Head of the Charles 5 times. I’ve rowed on the Charles, socially, probably another half a dozen times. I just adore it. I love the shape of the river, I love the bridges, I love the history, I love the boathouses. I love that you’re down in the city with all the high-rises and the gold-domed senate building. And then you take yourself right up almost into the country to places like Watertown where it’s tree-lined and much narrower.

Lake Bled is my absolute favourite. I’ve never raced on it, though I have rowed on the lake on 2 occasions. Once on my birthday; we went there as a family and Sean and I borrowed a double. Another time we went as a group, hillwalking, and we borrowed the same double, taking it in turns.

It’s beautiful. And it’s where I met my husband, Sean, so it’s very important to me.

I would love to race there at the 2017 World Masters – Bled. That’d be a huge thing for me.

Favourite rower of all time

Iztok Cop [Slovenia].

He’s a phenomenal athlete from a very small country with very few rowers and very few rowing clubs. He has boxed way above his weight, but he’s very humble. I met him briefly at a Rowing Ireland conference last year; he was a guest speaker.

And he’s from Bled. Cop is my man.

Gillian-and-Cop
Gillian meets her rowing hero, Olympic gold medallist Iztok Cop

How important is the social side of rowing?

Huge. It is possibly the most important side. I see the social aspect of rowing as understated and underappreciated, and I don’t just mean parties and barbecues.
Friends I made back in my early rowing life have remained my friends. Through all the social occasions in my life—big-ticket birthdays, family events—they’ve always been there.

Our championship crew from 1980 are getting together next May to do a long-distance race in Lyons, France, just because we can.

Gillian Carolan reunion of 1980 champs crew .jpg
Recent reunion of the 1980 Championship crew. Gillian in bow.

And I would’ve thought that I’d had enough friends, but I’ve met so many people over the last number of years, with the rebuilding of our club membership, that I realise you can have more friends! It’s not limited.

When I ask people what they like about our club and why they stay involved with rowing, they say they feel they belong. When they walk in, somebody smiles at them, somebody calls them by their first name, and they feel comfortable. I think that’s hugely underappreciated in society—how much people feel they need to belong, outside of their immediate family situation or their work—to have somewhere else they can go where people know them and accept them for who they are. Connecting is a basic human need.

The social rowing we’re doing now at Tribesmen is also very important. People need a sense of belonging and connection that’s not necessarily to do with competitive, traditional racing.

Gillian Carolan recreational racing
Recreational racing on the Corrib

And rowing equalises people, because once they’re in a boat they’re all the same. Many of our members come from high pressure jobs but when they go on the river its first names only. And they may be outside their comfort zone but there’s a comfort in it because they’re all the same. That’s a great relief for people and it makes them even more sociable.

And it’s not about alcohol-fuelled parties; it’s about people getting together and being comfortable in each other’s company and getting to know each other. People from all different backgrounds and professions and stages of life. I’m quite passionate about that side of it.

And they just figure out a way of interacting with each other, because there’s nobody judging them on anything other than how they behave when they’re rowing. And that’s a great release to people. It doesn’t matter what car you drove in in, what salary you’re on, whether you work or not, nor does it matter what troubles you’re leaving behind you. You walk in the gate and you’re entirely you. And if you choose to be private, that’s fine too – nobody minds.

We encourage the social side hugely, with different events throughout the year and going away on tours, because if you’re away for 36 or 48 hours with people, that’s how you get to know each other. You don’t really get to know people properly on a river for an hour.

Recreational rowing and touring

About half of our masters rowers are recreational rowers, and some of our younger members have no intentions of racing—they might go on tours so we need to get them competent for that. Some want to progress into shells and some never want to leave the tour boats and that’s fine too.

The tour boats are coxed quads. We usually keep one rigged as sweep because the guys like the sense of power. The other 3 are rigged as sculling, which the women prefer.

puddles in Moissac
Tour rowing in Moissac, France, 2014

This weekend [September 2015] half the club are off on tour, some in Ireland, some in France. We have people in their 30s and people in their 70s; we’ve single people, married people, divorced people; professional people, tradesmen—all manner of people. And the one thing that brings them together is rowing.

This is all very new; there’s no blueprint for this here in Ireland. We’re making it up as we go along and learning from our mistakes, I hope.

Gillian Carolan tour rowing in Cahors
Tour rowing in Cahors, France (Gillian in bow)

Best thing about rowing

The best thing I got from rowing is my husband, Sean. Because that’s how I met him and, apart from our children, rowing is our common bond.

The best thing about rowing is that we’ve got the most beautiful river in the country, without a doubt. The Corrib is underexplored, underappreciated, underutilised, and I feel so lucky that it’s right on our doorstep and accessible for most of the year. I get a great kick out of sharing it with other people.

Worst thing about rowing

The politics.

And it frustrates me when people do an exercise perfectly well but when they go to continuous rowing they throw it out. That wrecks my head.

When will you stop rowing?

I want to keep rowing until I actually can’t.

Advice for aspiring masters rowers

It’s never too late—that’s what I’ve seen, that’s what I’ve learnt. Especially in the States and maybe in Australia, people come to it in their 50s, an age when you think you couldn’t possibly have a competitive career ahead of you, and yet they do—it’s wonderful. We don’t have that built up enough in Ireland yet.

There are no dedicated masters regattas in Ireland, though there are masters events at regattas and heads. Masters rowing reached a dearth a few years ago. It was the recession, I think, where nobody travelled. They’re coming back now and we’ve had some success at the Worlds in Hazewinkel this year. But these crews don’t compete in Ireland; I don’t know why. They either go to the UK or Europe, or don’t race.

At Tribesmen, we’re hoping to rectify that in 2016 and hold some kind of masters and juniors regatta.

3 words that describe rowing for you

Consistency, trust, perfection.

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9 thoughts on “Gillian Carolan, Galway, Ireland

  1. Just to say you were 40 years too early with rowing !
    Coleraine Grammar (new name for CHS and CAI) started girls rowing last September and are trying to get an eight together.
    Your brother in law Richard came across this recently so thought I’d let you know.
    Enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gillian

    Enjoyed reading your blog!! Didn’t hear about it until today when Donal McAuley mentioned it at lagan scullers head….. hopefully see you at Lagan or Erne or Vesta? It would be great to have some regatta races in Ireland…….. last year the only races I did were at the champs. Training is good…sometimes… but racing is the fun(@ scary) part… are you planning foŕ Copenhagen ? Xo

    Rosey

    Like

  3. A few people had mentioned your blog and I am so glad I read it. It was great. I too started my rowing career at Bann, in 1982 after my sister Louise rowed there and still have fond memories of going to regattas with Bobby, Pat, Paddy McFeely and Brian Mullan. I still get in a boat when time allows and can’t see myself ever giving it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant piece Gillian. Makes me feel so nostalgic. I’ve missed rowing many times in my life and would love to take it up again (sadly, doesn’t seem to be anywhere near to me) but the best thing is that my old crew of Una Purdy (nee Byrne); Michele Doherty (nee MacNeill) and Joanne Best (nee Hodgson) are all still best of mates despite living in different countries, arrival of kids (& not) and all that life throws at you….. And I know that Jane Friel is a crazy runner now too…

    Like

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