| Interview by Caroline Kowalski | Avril 2021 |
Team Keane was born of one ambition: to make rowing less selective and properly inclusive. 15 years and many sleepless nights later, mission accomplished. Surrounded with the most enthusiastic crew, Paul and Miranda have actively passed on the virus of rowing to hundreds of members who would swap this now well-shared “privilege” for nothing in the world.
What a year, Miranda! How did the club survive the roller coaster of restrictions, shut-downs and re-openings?
This year was unprecedented! In March, Paul organised online activities within a matter of days. The rowing equipments were given to the racing juniors but we managed to set up work out plans in which people could go on bikes, join in family sessions, etc. People were quite galvanized actually. In times of hardship, communities find a way of coming together and feel stronger. It has been phenomenal, really.
The second time round, we were in a better position to employ some coaches to run the online and physical activities (schools being allowed to remain open). We always had a sort of “full house”, everybody logging in.
It was particularly important for the junior members to see their crew mates… From a mental health point of view it helped them stay engaged, together – socialization being paramount at a younger age. I think that was a big driving force for people logging on. I could see with my kids how it brought family together…
What was the biggest challenge last year?
To be able to maintain the finances of the club. We lost the whole Spring term, which is the busiest term. That had a very damaging impact to the club. Operating in a small Summer window though saved the club. We were able – by the skin of our teeth – to launch our paddle sports and canoeing activities, providing a lot of employment for our coaches as well as a lot of activities to kids.
Restrictions allowed only single crew boats on the water… So, we offered a private coaching service to enable our coaches to actually earn some finances, even at cost.
Thinking outside the box, and being very adaptable really worked out in favour of the club. It was a proper Rubik’s Cube of scenarios, involving a lot of planning and energy. The constant changing in requirements and legislations meant that we had to release new guidances and protocols nearly every month… I just thank our members for being so patient!
We are not through the woods yet, but we are optimistic that with a vaccine we are going to be back on our feet.
Can you recount the genesis of Team Keane’s success story?
Leaving his art teacher’s role, Paul started a sort of coaching service with a handful of boats in Chiswick Boat House. His previous experiences as a coach gave him the bitter impression that rowing could only be practiced by a closed off community. Outsiders would be able to learn but there would be nothing for them to progress with, to take that into a recreational hobby or to pursue it at a competitive standard.
Paul’s driving force was to make rowing accessible to everyone, providing a teaching facility where people can decide what they want to do with it and benefit from the sport becoming part of their life style.
When did you decide to join in and where did you come from?
I was a technical lingerie designer in Mayfair… And Paul would work well into 3 am most nights (even with the tremendous support from certain rowers in the club). To the point that I was slightly jealous of Paul’s single scull because he spent more time with his boat than with me! So, when my rowing sessions at weekends became much more fulfilling than my normal job… I eventually dived in the business with Paul.
I was only a cox, which means I could tell someone how to row but at the time I couldn’t row. Even if I was desperate to, no one ever put me in a boat because I was only 5ft2. A lot of clubs would sadly view me as “she is never going to win in a single scull so she needs to sit in a coxswain seat”. To be honest, I love coxing! I think it is a fantastic role in a rowing boat, exhilarating even.
What is the cox’s role?
The cox is technically responsible for the boat. Their decisions mean failure or success for the whole crew. A poor cox puts the crew at risk. A bit like a car, the cox drives the boat, steers it and commands the crew from the stern of the boat. By using certain commands, they can make adjustments to the whole vessel’s behavior and get the best full speed out of the boat. They have to be navigational savvy, understand the river, know where the flow goes, where the stream is the strongest, etc.
To cox a boat, you have to be really determined. When I started at Putney Town Rowing Club, I remember being told by the crew, “you’ve got to tell us what to do, you have to make the decisions and if you have to shout at us, shout at us!”.
Maybe I enjoy coxing so much because it developed a large part of my personality and made me more confident as an adult. It had really supported my decision making processes and my ability to stand up for myself and what I believe in.
Was there a strong demand for another rowing club?
There are many clubs on the Thames but they are generally very selective. A lot of their resources are very much focused towards their squads for national events and highly regarded races, which require extremely high standard of rowing and fitness.
Inherently rowing has been a very elite sport because it is a very expensive sport to operate. Our top 4 boats cost £5000 each. A set of blades is £300 – and that’s at basic level. It has only been made available for private schools, universities and private clubs.
So, there is actually a demand for grass root clubs that are set up for the community, enabling the sport to be actually practiced by the general public.
Did you struggle to find coaches?
Because successful coaches get a lot of kudos, historically there has been a lot of volunteer coaches. As years go by, rowing coaches are becoming a very professionalized sector and standards are rising. It means that, once finished being an athlete, people are able to go into a sport they love and move into teaching what they are passionate about, surviving of what they do. Professionalization is a brilliant way forward, for any sport. It gives coaches more value and a framework on which to operate, be trained and deliver.
We recently appointed a head of our junior rowing program, Peter Hayning, who’s got more medals under his belt than I can count. We’ve also hired a fantastic international coach, Phil Bourguignon, and a new junior coordinator, Lachlan Chapman, coming over from high performance squad in Australia, to name a few.
Looking back, the expansion of the club has been quite phenomenal… It’s crazy. There were hardly any coaches at the beginning. Now we are counting up to twelve national paid coaches working with us, and that’s not including the four paddle sports coaches. We are looking to expand that program in the local community. It is something we feel very passionate about and our schools program is constantly growing. In total we count about 240 adult members, and we boat about 500 juniors a week.
Team Keane’s program include: (1) teaching adults and juniors to row, (2) supporting squads in competition, (3) managing paddle sports…
We offer learning in studio sports, a recreational facility, a pathway to competitive national level rowing if people want to train on a regular basis and compete. Our performance squad is 40 strong and 50 in the development program for the juniors.
The squad itself has grown very quickly and it is very exciting, because these are kids who would never had got to compete at a rowing national level if it wasn’t for a club like Team Keane. It is extremely exciting to see them progress and we are hoping to send them to some sort of high level at Henley and get a recognition for the program.
The coaches are putting a huge amount of work into this and our juniors are competing against children who have a rowing program built into their school curriculum! They come down to train from 6.15 am Monday to Thursday, then run home, change and run to school in their uniforms (Paul and I have written our fair share of apology letters to headteachers for that commitment). They also train after school and every weekend. These kids deserve so much for the energy they put in! It isn’t forced on them. They are the ones that get themselves out of bed and many cycles down to the boathouse. I have to say I do admire their tenacity!
What sort of qualities are required from a sculler? And which one will they acquire over time if they keep practicing?
Some people say there are physical pre-requisites: long arms, long legs… Actually, anyone can learn as long as they can get themselves to a boat house. There should be nothing stopping them to do it. But rowing is a really technical sport. I used to think it looked easy, then I gave it a go and quickly found out how difficult it was – ending up in the water about 5 times. It takes a certain amount of tenacity and resilience to pick yourself up and keep going.
Don’t forget we are subject to the weather. If you start rowing in the Winter you will have a much harder experience than in Summer. A lot of kids arrive without that grit and come off the water moaning the first time… But with time and practice they soon develop the skills to be able to enjoy it.
How are relationships with the other clubs on the Thames?
Obviously, all the clubs compete, and compete for members. Sadly, we do suffer a lot from having our more competent members being pitched by some of the more elite clubs. Our top juniors tend to migrate. As we become stronger and our success levels increase, we are hoping people will less and less look for the grass to be greener elsewhere…
All in all, we are from the same community, we all row, we all share the river and 99% of the time we have good relationships. Sadly, there are some rowers who don’t believe rowing should be open. And that is not what community is about.
How do you explain this?
Because it has always been an elite sport, the older generation of rowers can be far less tolerant of new people being on the water, particularly children… Which I think is really sad. Young people are the next generation and the ones we should be reaching out to be active. When clubs like us (and Fulham Reach) are bringing more people on the water, we are changing the whole mentality about this sport and accessibility to the sport. It takes resilience to be a good rower and we are proud to keep bringing newcomers to the river, even if we haven’t been completely welcome.The fact we became so successful shows that this new vision was actually needed.
Have you noticed any changes in the state of the Thames and its surroundings with the warmer weather?
The thing is the river is always changing. It is very encouraging to see much more wildlife in the river – possibly a result of people being a little bit more conscious about the river as an environment we have to protect, from seals to harbour porpoises, or cranes… The amount of birds around the river has dramatically increased in my ten years on water. I like to think the Thames is becoming cleaner as we are becoming more conscious. Long may that continue.
January 2021. Third Lockdown. How do you look at this new challenging time?
It is a great challenge indeed but one we hope will be over before too long. We are trying to use this time wisely to re-evaluate how we can work best for the club to have the biggest impact on our community. It’s rare in modern life to be afforded time and peace to focus on the bigger picture and this I see as the silver lining. And this time we can spend as a family is more than I have probably cumulatively spent with them for all the years preceding Covid! A simple uninterrupted walk together became a real blessing!
What plans do you have in store for the club?
We want to develop the paddle sports program to offer a wider variety of activities to schools and the local community. The juniors work so hard for every achievement – no matter how big or small – we want to be able to give them every opportunity to succeed!
Our club is now one of the largest providers of Junior Rowing in the UK, and all this is still just provided from a single boat bay and a few external boat racks. So the big mission now is to find a piece of land or property along the river that we can turn into a water sports facility, a totally open club within which we can reach our full potential.
This is likely to be our biggest challenge yet as we are not a funded program with big developers backing us or benefactors. There is so much we can still do! The energy is so positive and the community is already benefiting so much from what we have done so far.
Interview by Caroline Kowalski
For more information about recreational or competitive rowing, visit teamkeane.com