TP TALKS TO... Annamarie Phelps (CBE)

by Travelling Peach

I started rowing during my second year at university. At the time, very few girls rowed so it was a very new sport to us, but exciting. Nowadays, at our clubs alone, 44% of our membership are female, with a female-male ratio of more than 50% in the 19-24 age group, which is incredible. 

University was a major turning point for me sport-wise; it’s when I really started to enjoy it. I’d participated in some sports at school, not many, but having arrived at university, I realized that almost every student was sporty. Most of the girls played county level hockey, netball, lacrosse etc. If I wanted to get involved, I’d have to start too but I wanted something I could compete in at the same level as them. Rowing was perfect - it was one of the few sports that everybody was starting at the same time. 

But actually... I tried most sports, mainly because there were still very few girls in my college (perhaps 40 out of 100s). Women had only been initiated three years prior, before that it was all all-male college, so when you deducted the students who preferred art, drama, music etc., in order to have enough players for all of the sports to run, the remaining girls were encouraged to sign up for everything. We were the football team, rowing team, athletics team in the summer, netball team, and anyone who could hit a ball played tennis for the college. You just had to get stuck in and get on with it. 

‘No dreams are impossible if you put your mind to them and are brave enough to go for them but, when they actually happen, it happens so fast, it’s almost magical.’

Seeing hard work pay off and the possibilities it generates in life. I remember qualifying for the World Championships in my first year on the British Team (1991) and thinking ‘This is it. It’s amazing.’ Then we sailed through the heats to the final and I thought ‘Oh my god! That’s amazing! I’m in the final.’ As we went off, I realized that, actually, it really didn’t matter where I finished because to rank 6th in the world during my first year on the National Team was an achievement in itself. I was ecstatic with that. Then, with 500m to go in our 2km race, the steerswoman said ‘Right, we’re in silver medal position. Let’s go for gold.’ As I pushed, I thought ‘Oh my God! Bronze would do. I’m happy with bronze at this point’ haha. In the end, we finished second to the Chinese and won silver but it was a real shock: going from being a club rower to suddenly being selected and becoming a World Silver Medalist. Nothing happens overnight (it takes years of hard work preparing) but when those changes happen, the turning point happens so quickly. It’s the strangest feeling.

‘I’ll always love rowing. Even watching it is incredibly beautiful. When done well, the movements are so beautifully poised and effortless, almost like ballet or gymnastics. It’s difficult to appreciate how technically challenging it is unless you know what to look for, but the skill and restraint required to achieve that effect, particularly in the larger boats, is staggering.’

We often discuss the benefits of teamwork in sport, how it helps you to develop as a person, but rowing in particular has a really unique teamwork element, which isn’t always showcased properly. Rowers, more than any other sport, really do rely on their teammates. They wake extremely early and row down to the river for long periods of time, whatever the weather; and they can’t train unless everybody shows up. If one or two people don’t turn up for a football match, you can play 9-a-side but with rowing it’s impossible. If there are only 5 people, the other teammates can’t take an 8 boat out because it won’t go straight so you really rely on each other. That trust extends further than turning up. Every single stroke must be performed completely in time and synchronized – the teammates have to ‘share the stroke’, moving as one to push the boat. However, one of the most special things about rowing is that, unlike other sports, there’s no ‘star’. If one person is out of sync, the whole boat will be so you have to work together; nobody is better or worse than anybody else, or can make you win or lose the race. There’s no striker like in football or goal shooter like in netball. You all win together or you all lose together. That mentality is extremely rare is sport and really very special.

‘My biggest inspiration? Wanting to do something useful; something that makes a difference and changes people’s lives for the better. That’s what I’m trying to do with the Olympics and rowing.’

DID YOU KNOW… Annamarie was recently named one of the 20 most influential women in sport?

I love the Olympics; it’s a fantastic event. Not only does it unite the world, but it really showcases the wide variety of sports available and boosts the nation’s motivation to get active. That’s the great thing about sport: there’s a sport for every body type and a sport for everybody out there. One of my outstanding memories is of wandering around the Olympic Village and seeing all of the athletes wearing their national kits... British, Australian, German… all with extremely different body types. It was like one of the bar scenes from Star Wars. You get dozens of different races of people walking around in matching uniforms. You don’t know all of them, even if they’re in the same uniform as you, but they walk around in gaggles. On one side of you, there’ll be a gaggle of petite girls (all very short, thin and wiry) – they’re the gymnasts; then nearby, a group of men who are all over 6ft tall, probably the rowers or basketball players; and they all hang out together. Their body types are so different – visually weird and wonderful contrasts - but they’re capable of doing amazing things. Plus, they don’t all have stereotypically beautiful Olympic bodies. You get weightlifters, wrestlers, sprinters, figure skaters, swimmers etc., whose bodies are so incredibly different to each other but healthy and perfectly suited to their individual sports. That’s the great thing about sport: it’s brilliant for body confidence and making people ‘fit in.’

Working with the Olympic and Paralympic Associations was a natural transition. I’ve been involved with the British Paralympic Association since rowing became a Paralympic sport (in 2005), and officially joined the board after Beijing 2008. British Paralympic Association regulations only allow you to serve 9 years but, as my time to step down approached, the opportunity to stand for Vice Chairman of the British Olympic Association arose. It was perfect timing.

‘Paralympic sport is brilliant for making people focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t. It radiates a glass half-full attitude towards life, and is all about looking at the positives, treating people with respect, dignity and as people. It’s one of the great things that sport brings to society.’

I love what the Paralympics and disability sport does to challenge society’s views of disability, especially London 2012. It made people re-think what’s achievable and what disability means. For many, it made them feel inspired and proud, for others it increased their confidence and made them see the possibilities in life; that they can achieve great things too. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people taking up disability sports, which is brilliant. Tom Aggar, a single sculler who retired last year is a fantastic example. He’d weight-train alongside the men’s Olympic rowing team and despite being unable to use his legs, during his upper-body circuits, he’d bench press as much, if not more, than any of them. 

‘I’m naturally very passionate about change and being proactively involved in it. As an Olympian, the challenge of being involved at the highest level and seeing what I could do to support- and make a difference to- how we deliver our team to The Games was exciting.’


There are so many changes I’d love to see take place in sport but, for now, some of the most important ones are that sport becomes increasingly athlete-focused and continues to evolve. Fitness levels, body types, the levels of competition and more – even the sports available – are constantly evolving so it’s vital that we listen to the athletes on the ground to listen to their experiences and see what’s occurring from an insiders perspective (e.g. how our decisions as committees effect them, discover what’s working well and what could be improved) and also to encourage them to become involved with the decision making and committees, both whilst they’re competing and after they retire. That’s vital. I wouldn’t like to see the Olympic Games cast in stone. It needs to evolve with the times and, unfortunately, sometimes the people in power aren’t necessarily the best people to do that; they don’t always listen to the athletes. By more athletes interacting and having more of an invested interest in the decision-making, it could make the world of difference.

‘Rowers, sailors and cyclists in particular seem quite proactive in undertaking sporting governmental roles. Why do you think this is?’ Rowing and cycling in particular are very athlete- and rule-focused sports. Not only do the athletes have a strong sense of respect for their sports (placing a high importance on the rules and preferring everything to be black and white); but, historically, their boards and coaches have always encouraged them to be proactively involved in the decisions affecting them, and to stay involved after they retire.


When I was rowing, I had a lovely coach called Roger. He’s 80 soon and, at the time, he’d gotten some new teeth. He was so proud of them. As we rowed down the river, he was following us on his bike when, suddenly, he went over a bump and disappeared. We were calling after him to check that he was ok and as we stopped and looked over onto the land, there was Roger crawling around in the grass. As he’d gone over the bump, his new dentures had gone flying so he’d gone to search for them. It still makes me laugh thinking about him.

Thinking of coaches on bikes, another funny memory happened at my first World Championship in Vienna, where I won my first silver. One of the sports scientists who looked after us was one of those slightly dodgy men (the type who you wouldn’t want to be locked in a dark room with). One day, we were training and as we rowed he was cycling along with our other coach when out of nowhere came this enormous splash. We all stopped to look and there he was, in the water with his bike. It was so funny because when we looked up we realized that right next to the start of the course was a nudist beach. He’d clearly been in caught, not looking at us but taking a good old gawk and cycled into the water, literally taking a dip in the Danube. It serves him right haha.

I’m quite competitive so I love competing, especially against people who I can’t beat too easily because it eradicates any pressure and I can really go for it. That’s always more fun. These days, I don’t get to row as much as I’d like to but I’m always very happy to go out rowing with anyone who will have me. I have a kitbag permanently semi-packed so whenever any of the teams need a sub for their boat, I love getting involved. 

Rowing with my former teammates is great fun too. No matter how long it’s been, we have an invisible bond that clicks back in. We might not be as powerful anymore but everything looks and feels exactly the same as it did back then, and we can still give the younger rowers a run for their money.

Annamarie Phelps is the Vice President of the British Olympic Association (BOA) and Paralympic Association and Chairman of the National Federation of British Rowing.

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