Interview - Team GB rowing coach Robin Williams

In an interview exclusive to TCS, Sports Co-Editor talks to GB rowing Coach Robin Williams

This summer has been rather a good one for career highlights. Ask any of Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ellie Simmonds, Andy Murray or Mo Farah, and they will tell you that the crowning moment of their career so far came just a few months ago. Among the many others who would add themselves to that list is Robin Williams, a man whose career honours include two world championship medals and seven Boat Race victories. But, for the Cambridge-turned-GB rowing coach, the most important moment came on the 1st August at Eton Dorney, as Helen Glover and Heather Stanning became the first ever British female rowers to win an Olympic medal.

Williams has been coaching the two women since 2010. Their gold in the women's pair was one of nine that the British Rowing team managed to accumulate over the course of the summer, exceeding their pre-Games target of six. The success is a tribute to the coaching excellence of which Williams is an integral part. And while he - unlike Glover, Stanning and their fellow athletes - may not have enjoyed the international recognition a gold medal deserves, he was, in Glover's words, "as much a part of our boat as the two of us".

For Williams it was not the euphoria of the moment which made the medal so memorable, but the long hard slog which preceded it.

"Whatever line of work you're in, you come across people who are inspiring and exceptional. Helen and Heather never complained, they worked very hard, were very open minded. The gold medal was the literal endorsement of it all, but the two year process was particularly satisfying."

More satisfying, even, than victory in The Boat Race. For despite the prestige of the event, says Williams, the university competition will always be divisive.

"Some people see it as an anachronism, some think it's wonderful. Some love it, some hate it. With the Olympics, you got the feeling that everyone appreciated just what the girls had achieved."

He's right. That kind of appreciation doesn't come with The Boat Race. Williams is, to all intents and purposes, one of the most important people in the recent history of Cambridge sport. Under his guidance, the Light Blues enjoyed their most successful run in decades. In his eleven years as coach of the Cambridge boat, Williams oversaw seven victories. And yet it is perhaps only that elite band of Blues boaties – and perhaps only a handful of those – who would know his name among the current student body.

But then, he could have gone to Oxford. When Williams took the job of coaching Cambridge in 1994, he had also applied for the Oxford job – and been offered it. The decision, he says, was easy.

"I felt more of a connection with Cambridge, and the people involved with the rowing. Cambridge had just started to turn things after a poor run when I joined, and judging by the success of the 90s, it was the right decision."

And even despite the Olympic success since, Williams still has more than fond memories of Cambridge. His tenure coincided not only with a shift in power in terms of sporting success, but also with a shift in the makeup of the Light and Dark Blue boats. The economic boom of the nineties saw a rise in the amount of foreign students at Oxbridge, while the previously undergraduate filled boats started to seat more and more older students.

"It became particularly popular with the American rowers," says Williams, "they can't come back to row as graduates, so for those who rowed Ivy League races as undergraduates, Oxbridge rowing holds a big appeal. They're tough guys, who are willing to train hard and to row hard, so they improve the quality of a boat."

The nineties were a golden era for The Boat Race. Williams remembers endless press visits, with journalists poring over the crews, their backgrounds and their abilities, desperately speculating on which boat would have the edge in the year's race. With the exception of the infamous Winklevoss twins a few years ago, the current rowers now enjoy a little less media attention. The Boat Race is strong, says Williams, but its status has diminished in the last ten years.

Last year, of course, saw that trend definitively bucked. The protest of Trenton Oldfield effectively ruined a race which eventually saw Cambridge take victory in controversial circumstances. Williams hopes it will prove to be an unfortunate anomaly.

"It was appalling when it happened. Everybody was incensed that this guy had ruined the race – and he did ruin it. And everything I read afterwards about who he was and why he did it made him look like even more of a disruptive idiot without a point. Oxford were in a pretty good position, they were two thirds of the way through the race, and had defended all the bends they had to defend. So things were looking good for them in theory. But when they finished the race and their bowman collapsed, perhaps it showed that physically they might have waned anyway. As it was we'll never know."

With the exception of Oldfield's antics, the focus in rowing has changed. Once upon a time, if you mentioned rowing, people would think of The Boat Race and The Boat Race alone. Now they are more likely to think of Steve Redgrave, and even the likes of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning.

"When Redgrave won a medal at Atlanta in 1996, his was the only British medal," recalls Williams, "that was the turning point, where the focus changed to international rowing. It now has a place in the public knowledge of sport, and, like cycling and sailing, is seen as a serious Olympic sport in the media."

It is little wonder, then, that Williams eventually found his way back into non-Oxbridge rowing. In 2005, he left Cambridge, and a short while later was snapped up by Team GB. From 2005 until 2009, he returned to his roots in lightweight rowing, coaching the men's lightweights.

"I quite liked the fact that the lightweight category had been in the Games since 1996 and Britain had never been in the final or got a medal in the Olympic events, and things were pretty much at a low ebb in the GB Team, and it was an exciting thing to see if I could go in and make a difference."

The biggest success with Team GB though, was to come with the women. After Williams tried and failed to take a gap year, he found himself, at the bidding of a British rowing team short of coaches, in charge of Glover and Stanning. The stage was set for an unprecedented rise to success for the two women.

"When I took over coaching the girls, they were still pretty far away from winning a medal. In 2010, they were ranked 16th and 17th in their particular group, and it's obviously quite difficult to get a medal out of people who are so far down when you're racing people at number one and two from the USA and elsewhere.

But they showed signs of rapid improvement and they got the silver medal at the World Championships in 2010. I suppose for some people that was the surprise result. They came from being in the middle of the international field in July to being on a podium in November. Having got that medal the 2011 season was about building on that. "

And build on it they did. In 2011, they repeated the feat, winning the silver medal again by 0.08 seconds - in Williams' words, "a gold medal performance without getting the gold medal".

The Olympic success was the proof in the pudding. And while his reputation as one of the country's best technical coaches was never in doubt, Williams says the psychological challenge of the home Olympics was a new experience.

"It's the same boat you've raced the same 2000 metre distance in all year. So if you look at it from a detached point of view, you can be rational. It can be hard to know how to deal with the excitement and the crowds, but we had a lot of discussion about that beforehand and as it was going on, and we were a taught a few mental techniques as well. That was the challenge. We knew we were fast, we'd done some impressive times, but when no British woman has won a medal before, the psychology is tough. There were certain things you couldn't prepare for in advance. You've got to deal with the moment that you're in. There are 240 odd strokes in a race. You can only deal with the one you are in, so if there's something causing a problem then you've got some time to deal with it. So we just went about it like that really, and on the day they were excited in a good way and produced probably their best race ever."

Glover having only started rowing in 2008, the pair's rise from the very bottom to the absolute pinnacle of their chosen sport was one of the greatest, if not the most well documented, stories of the Olympics.

"Usually," says Williams, "it takes a few years even to get into a GB squad, never mind winning any titles, so they're pretty exceptional."

He uses the word exceptional a lot. But it is justified. The success of Glover and Stanning was an exceptional event in an exceptional summer. And its orchestrator, we can now say beyond doubt, proved himself an exceptional coach.

Kit Holden

Article first published 10 October 2012

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