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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Rowing in the right direction
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Children from the Ebony Horse Club, Brixton, rowing
Most of the children have never considered rowing as a hobby
Think of rowing and what comes to mind?

The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, the Eton Boating Song, or perhaps the Henley Regatta?

Despite Britain's recent Olympic success, it is still a sport with a privileged - even snobbish - image.

But a project in London's East End is doing its best to change that.

Groups of children from youth clubs in some of the city's more deprived parts are spending their summer holidays learning the basics of rowing, going from nervous novices to enthusiastic racers in a week.

Olympic future

Professional coaches work on their fitness and technique at the London Regatta Centre, using its multi-million pound gym and indoor simulator tank, the only one of its kind in Britain.

The objective is to improve the children's confidence and teamwork skills, but in the longer term more is planned.

Simon Goodey, a coach from the Royal Docks Rowing Club, said: "There are a couple of youngsters coming here who are 17 or 18 and have shown a bit of talent. They will be about 25 years old in 2012.

Simon Goodey, rowing coach
At school, the most many can hope for is two hours of PE a week. They are quite exhausted when they finish here for the day, and that only lasts from 11 till three
Simon Goodey, coach

"It would be wonderful if London won the right to host the Olympic Games in that year and they were competing for Great Britain, in front of their home crowd.

"It can be done. Just look at Steve Redgrave. He went to a comprehensive school and he has dyslexia, and he has won five Olympic golds.

"He only got into rowing because a teacher told him he had the right build for it. We need to find talented youngsters like him from all areas."

The children taking part in the London Youth Rowing Project start by training on the regatta centre's many exercise machines, followed by an acclimatisation session in its simulation tank.

Clash of blades

A group from Camden thrashes its oars around as the water jets swish by the side of their fixed-position boat.

The clash of blades sounds like a sword-fight by a waterfall.

Meanwhile, coaches not much older than the 11 to 18 year olds on the course, shout above the din to pass on their knowledge.

Out on the neighbouring Royal Albert Dock - fringed by Canary Wharf and London City Airport - a more experienced group takes to the water.

Rowers from Camden training in an indoor tank
Coaches teach the basics of the sport in an indoor tank

Their techniques smoothed a little, things are more serene than in the tank, though the crew of eight is dwarfed by the Tate & Lyle factory in the background and the sheer expanse of the dock.

Whereas junior rowers with more experience could expect to row 25km in a session, the inner-city beginners are introduced more gently.

Mr Goodey said: "They usually do about 1,000 to 1,500 metres. The fitness levels are not as high because a lot of kids don't do much exercise.

"At school, the most many can hope for is two hours of PE a week. They are quite exhausted when they finish here for the day, and that only lasts from 11 till three."

Trepidation

Rowing is not a sport which tolerates unfitness. It is hard to think of anything more removed from the couch-potato lifestyle blamed for rising rates of obesity in children.

Jo Hobbs, a team leader with London Youth, the charity organising the courses, said: "When some of the children, especially the girls, get here, they don't want to go out on the water, as it is quite daunting at first.

Meshach, aged 17
Meshach thinks rowing could help his career as a fitness trainer

"But just getting out and doing it raises their confidence and self-esteem, just making the boat move.

"What you do notice is that most of the children don't have a preconception about rowing and the type of person who does it. Their world is so far removed from it that it's totally new.

"It's especially good for the children who aren't good at other popular sports, like football. In rowing, they all have to work as a team, so one person can't stand out."

The children - who arrive in groups of 70 a week - go out alone and in pairs, fours and eights. The Man Group, an international investment firm, has donated 250,000.

'Scary'

Meshach, 17, from Brixton, said: "It's great. I'd never really thought about rowing before. I've learned how to use the equipment and the technique.

"I want to be a fitness trainer eventually and any experience like this has to help that."

After his first session out on the dock, David, 13, from Barking and Dagenham, felt more confident.

David, 13
It's good but the boat kept tipping and I was feeling a bit scared. But the coach made us laugh and it was OK
David, 13

He said: "It's good but the boat kept tipping and I was feeling a bit scared. But the coach made us laugh and it was OK.

"I used to play rugby and then I tried football but rowing is something I might take up."

At the end of the week, the different youth clubs compete in a regatta of their own.

So, while Great Britain's rowers, mainly privately educated and having grown up around the sport, are doing their best to bring home gold from Athens, it is not impossible to imagine a former inner-city comprehensive pupil doing the same at the London Olympics of 2012.

Mr Goodey said: "Where we are, in the borough of Newham, is one of the two or three most deprived areas in the country.

"But we tend to forget there are facilities here for rowing, sailing, canoeing and dragon-boating. People often have no idea what is available on their doorstep."


SEE ALSO:
Schools 'must spot' Olympic stars
17 Aug 04  |  Education
PE scheme 'helping school sport'
01 Jul 04  |  Education
Call for 1940s-style PE drills
22 Apr 04  |  Education


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