Following a term filled with impressive growth and success for British Rowing, Annamarie Phelps stepped down as the Chairman of the Board of British Rowing effective March 21, 2018, as a result of British Rowing's compliance with the new UK Code for Sports Governance, which instituted limits on the amount of time a single person could spend as an official with any given sport. With 16 years on the Board of British Rowing, Phelps, a former world champion for the GB in the lightweight women's four and a member of the GB Olympic Rowing team at Atlanta in 1996, was affected by the new code, and relinquished her position despite having just been re-elected to a second term as Chairman.
Phelps is perhaps one of the most visible "rowing people" in media; using Twitter as her platform, Phelps weighs in almost daily on topics across the spectrum of rowing and sport at large, from gender equality, to issues involving adaptive rowing, safeguarding athletes, and good old boosterism of the GB rowing national team. Voluble, passionate, and relentlessly positive, Phelps' voice stands out not merely from a rowing perspective, but from the standpoint of how rowing as a sport can (and maybe should) operate in the interconnected world of sport at large. In taking the position of rowing as a part of the larger web of sport, Phelps may be the first (and indeed, only) truly 21st-century rowing executive in the world.
row2k caught up with Phelps at the Men's Eastern Sprints in Worcester on May 13th, where she was cheering on her son, a member of Brown University's Men's Varsity Eight. Characteristically for Phelps, her trip to the US was business mixed with pleasure, as she not only found time to spend the day at Sprints, but took in a fundraiser at Boston's Community Rowing ("they are doing fantastic things there"), as well as her first meeting as a new board member of the Head of the Charles regatta. Modern and omnipresent indeed.
row2k: You have a very active persona on Twitter and otherwise, and when you tweet or when you communicate, you cover issues of gender equality, inclusion of differently-abled athletes, larger issues surrounding safeguarding athletes, and other issues in a way that I don't think I've ever seen from any other rowing executive. How did you arrive at that vision of your role in the sport or within British Rowing?
Phelps: I had spent a long time as an athlete; therefore, the high-performance bit was very much there in my background makeup and why I came into the sport. I had spent from '96 when I retired after Atlanta all the way through to 2013, when I was elected to the chair, doing lots of different roles. I was chairman of the Women's Commission, I worked as deputy chairman. My roles were athlete safeguarding, equality, anti-doping and things like Facilities Development Committee and everything else across British rowing. Having had that international experience way back as an athlete representative at the time I had a slightly international perspective, too. Throughout my 11 years as a deputy chairman, it was very much around 'how do I get ready to be the chairman of British rowing.' I've had a really broad breadth of it, including, when we became a Paralympic sport in 2004, . When were elected on the IPC [International Paralympic Committee, eds], I became the representative for rowing on our NPC. So, I had an Olympic background and I now had a 'first in the Paralympic door' and I had done a lot of domestic stuff around it. I was involved with my university boat club, and I have an open club which I sat on the committee of.
So, you see all of the different issues and if you've seen all those different things, you can see how easily they're all going to connect, it's a very positive circle. Everything has to be going in the right way. There's a high-performance system in the UK which I think is probably one of the best systems in the world if not the best system in the world. It is very much reliant on the fact that we've got a pathway where people are coming in through our universities and our schools and our clubs so making sure that they're healthy is important. Our Paralympic system has originally been slightly in a bubble and we're trying to connect that in to make it more sustainable.
You're trying to create something and make sure that you have a system that just keeps thriving and existing on itself, on its own, and doesn't need to be supported independently, and I guess having seen the breadth of all of those things you realize actually how important they all are, one supports the other. Nothing exists in isolation as a sport.
row2k: It's interesting because it seems like, at least in rowing, the NGB directors have historically been narrowly focused on the Olympic team or the national team or the high-performance part of it. When you reinterpreted or broadened your role within British Rowing, was that something that you had the freedom to do, or did it just evolve as part of you working within your position?
Phelps: Well, I wouldn't take credit for inventing it or bringing it into British rowing. It was my predecessor, Di Ellis, who was chairman for 24 years before me. She had the same sort of breadth, to be honest, but she was much more low key than I am. She was quite a bit older than me and she'd been in the role for a long time and she really did set the tone for British Rowing and I was really influenced by her. She was the person who asked me to stand for deputy chairman, she pushed me to do things that I was really uncomfortable with and I didn't know about. I had no idea of what disability sport was like and how it would work and I ended up as deputy chairman of the National Paralympic Committee, learning a huge amount and really seeing the value to everybody, for community, for high performance sport, of being truly inclusive.
I think I've probably just been lucky to be at that point where rowing has had a high enough profile where there are things like social media that you can take advantage of. We realize, particularly in the UK, that actually rowing's global future is important to our national future as well.
My interest in the international side of us being a strong Paralympic sport is not just for British rowing's perspective but for rowing's perspective. It's really important because if we don't stay a Paralympic sport and if we don't expand into other multiple multi-sport games environments and if we don't keep things like indoor rowing going then it will be hard to be inclusive across other communities.
As a sport, we've just become too niche. We want to be track and field.
row2k: We're having this conversation on the tail end of a couple of years where rowing has truly felt the pinch of modernity in terms of its place within the Olympic movement. There have been changes to adaptive rowing, and we've seen the shrinkage of international men's lightweight rowing. Is adopting a very modern and a very inclusive approach a model that more rowing NGBs should follow?
Phelps: Absolutely. We have had some really successful governing bodies and really successful national federations around the world that exist purely on the high-performance programs so they don't have that base underneath them, and as performance programs you'll get cut if you end up with less medals, and then your high-performance programs shrink in size. I don't know where the line is for when that becomes sustainable on its own, either from government funding, which a lot of them require, or just in terms of having the number of athletes that it takes to produce a high-level crew because you've got to have competitions. You have to have enough people to be pressurizing the team from outside. So, I think it is really important.
row2k: Is that a new view to rowing? Because this idea that rowing has to grow in its breadth was certainly not something that a lot of people around the world in rowing at a high level seemed to take very seriously.
Phelps: Most sports, certainly in the UK, and I think increasingly across Europe receive government funding (US is the exception). So a lot of high performance sport relies on government funding. A lot of high performance sport relies on government funding and increasingly you have to justify what you're doing it for, why are you getting this money. Even commercial sponsors want to know why they're investing their money and they're not investing money to let a few people go out there and zoom up and down a 2000 meter lake. They're doing it because of the inspiration that they give to other youngsters and because it reaches the audiences they want to reach, and because it delivers messages. So, we're increasingly looking at the 'why' and not just the 'what' we're doing. Why are we doing this? What difference is that making to people? It's not just about winning Olympic medals, though those are important because those are the ultimate inspiration for people.
Whether it's modernization or not, I think the sport doesn't live in a bubble anymore. The increasing economic pressures mean we have to be really agile, we need to respond, we need to be looking at all things, we need to be making sure that we know where we're justifying the funding. It's not cheap to row, and we want to be really reaching out and being a sport people want to be part of.
Photo credit: British Rowing / Simon Way
row2k: In a lot of the explanations you just gave, you sounded almost more like an economist instead of a rowing governing person. Is that also more of a reality now?
Phelps: Totally. It's costing a lot. Everything we do needs to be done within a budget, needs to be done efficiently. It's reliant on partnerships. I don't know about here in the U.S. but certainly in the U.K., everything we do has some sort of partner organization involved whether it's our government funding partner, U.K. sport, or whether it's The English Institute of Sport to helping to deliver strength and conditioning or data analysis. We have a data insights partner, commercial partner. We have nutrition partnerships. You're always looking at those things and they all have a relationship with the sport that, to some extent, they're not necessarily making a profit out of it, they're doing it for a reason they may want to make a profit out of it from other customers and clients. That relationship with a governing body has to be, there's a business case behind it.
Most sports, most big sports are entertainment, they're entertainment business. Look at NFL or the NBA or whatever else, people like to think of them as sport but ultimately, they're businesses and they're entertainment and increasingly that's coming down to the less professional sports, and the Olympic sports are being forced to work in a very similar way, much smaller scale.
row2k: In your work, you reach out and integrate and interact with other sports and other sports movements. How important is it for rowing to reach out and find its place or play with others?
Phelps: I think it's really important. Certainly within the UK we're one of the top performing sports, we're up there with cycling. We're delivering more national medals and national pride as it were and we're one of the top funded sports. So, we punch above our weight in that way. In most traditional rowing countries, rowing punches above its weight for the size of it. For me, it's really important, because we can learn a lot from those other sports.
We can also teach those sports a lot about being successful. So, we just had Phil Neville [English women's national team soccer coach, eds], who reached out to Jurgen Grobler [head coach of British Men's Rowing, eds].
We can help other English sports to develop their winning tactics and gain that respect and the more we get respect and the more we are recognized for the great things we do, even as a small sport, the more likely we are to be able to form great commercial partnerships, to be able to inspire kids to come across from other sports to come and work with us.
It's been really important for me, for people to see rowing as a mainstream sport, to see rowing as something that everybody can have a go at so that everybody understands and knows that it's not just something that Oxford and Cambridge do on the Thames once every year. The Boat Race is a great event but people need to understand what rowing really is day to day.
row2k: What do you think are the most urgent issues that rowing will need to confront, both at the micro level high performance sport but also the macro level of the growth and continued existence?
Phelps: I think there are some really exciting opportunities for rowing at an international level. I try not to think about the negatives but to think about the opportunities that are there. Things like coastal rowing are a massive opportunity for us.
I'm the Commonwealth Liaison for FISA. The Commonwealth, that is, the old British Empire bit of Commonwealth has a Commonwealth Rowing Association a bit like the Pan American Rowing Association, and we meet every year at the world championships for a meeting. We have a Commonwealth Championships every four years in Commonwealth Games year and this year we're trying to host a coastal Commonwealth beach sprint event for the first time. Rather than doing 2000 meter racing, we're going to do a coastal event, which is something we've been discussing with the Commonwealth Games Federation. Of the 73 or so Commonwealth countries, over half of them are island nations that don't have rivers and lakes that they can train on. So, here's an opportunity for us as Commonwealth to reach out to 36 island nations and say, 'we are going to do something for you that you can be included in.' And if we can make this work, it's exciting, it'll be a different format of rowing, and it would be, for the first time, a federation-led rather than a club led-coastal championships. It should give us some great imagery, boats crashing through the waves, sprinting up and down the beach, and it'll be a great party atmosphere. We're hoping to involve a lot of the countries from the Caribbean, from Africa, and from all the islands around the Oceania sort of region. It will bring in lots of different countries, so there's a fantastic opportunity if we can keep our minds open.
If we think of this as actually part of our rowing family, not only 2000-meter rowing. 2000-meter rowing is fantastic, it's our Olympic tradition, and it's unique in terms of the physiology required. There are other bits of rowing that are just as exciting and important. You look at what the Winter Olympics have done and what skiing, snowboarding have done by bringing in new disciplines. It's really exciting and we can do the same in our sport and we can spread that. When you think about the number of countries that do the Winter Olympics and how few countries really have the right facilities and the right natural environment for that, why would we not try and do that? Ultimately, could it be an Olympic discipline? I don't see why not. I think it would be really exciting for us to do that.
When they had the Asian Beach Games and did a beach sprint rowing event, it was really interesting. You have to run the beach, you have to jump in your boat, you have to slalom up and sprint back. It's not the biggest, strongest people who win, it's the smaller, more agile, more careful people. If lightweight rowing ends up not working, here's a real opportunity for us to reach out to countries that have people of smaller stature and bring them in to keep them in the rowing family, keep them doing something exciting, and be a fantastic new event for us.
row2k: One of the things that really comes across in your online presence is how relentlessly positive you are about the sport and about the people who do it.
“Rowing isn't dying, it's thriving.”
Phelps: Well, don't get me wrong, there are things that we could do better and there are people who, think that parts of our sport are dying. I was lightweight world champion in '93 when that decision was not to take lightweight women's fours to the Olympic games, and that was kind of devastating for me at the time. There are some really negative things that have happened and there are really negative people in the sport. You can follow any number of them on Twitter if you like and read how terrible it is, how club rowing in the UK is dying, and whatever. I look around and I don't see that, I see some really positive people doing amazing things. I was down at CRI yesterday, they are doing amazing stuff. They have such a broad range of people. Our clubs in the UK and our regattas are oversubscribed, we've never had more people registered to row. The sport isn't dying, it's thriving. Certain bits of it may not be as healthy but let's look at how we learn from the bits that are thriving, and what are you doing wrong in the bits are not.
The world has changed. We're not living in the 19th century anymore and people's lives have changed, the demographics have changed, the social pressures on people and their families have changed. Sports and the coaches and the programs need to adapt and work for the people. Clubs are there to serve their members; members are not there to deliver something to the club. We've got things slightly upside down sometimes. So, I don't see any point in being a negative because I see so many positives out there and what we have to do is to try and open people's eyes to how they can make it positive, too, how can we make it better.
row2k: Now that you are stepping away from being chairman, is there anything in particular that you will that miss?
Phelps: I'm not going to leave rowing, obviously. I've stepped back from British rowing. I will be the Commonwealth liaison for FISA for as long as they need me to. I was elected onto the European Rowing Management board last year and I'll carry on doing that. This is my first season on the management board and one of the reasons I'm here actually is I just joined the board of the Head of the Charles. My first board meeting is on Monday so I'll have a U.S. connection.
Phelps cheers on her son racing at the 2018 Eastern Sprints
Obviously, my son Thomas is here racing for Brown so that'll be another connection to U.S. rowing. I'll keep my international hat on.
It is funny not to be going into Hammersmith to our offices on a regular basis, I've been going in and out of that building since 1990 on a regular basis.
I had a couple of calls from some people who said, do you want to do a podcast for us and tell us all the things you couldn't tell us when you were chairman of British Rowing and I said I wouldn't say anything different now than I would then. It's not that we've got any secrets that we were trying to keep away or anybody I'd like to dish the dirt on. It is what it is, you know, where there's nothing there. In that respect, I don't feel different. I feel slightly liberated by not having day to day responsibilities and I'm really excited by the opportunity to focus on some of the other things that I couldn't do as chairman.
As the chair, you don't do much. You do a lot of guiding, do a lot of talking to people, do a lot of advocating, you don't 'do' things. When I was Deputy Chairman, I 'did' a lot of doing and, I'm quite looking forward to the opportunity to do a bit more doing and see what we can deliver and do to support other people.
row2k: You were chairman during a period of almost unprecedented growth and success for British rowing. What are one or two of your fondest memories from your time in charge?
Phelps: One has got to be the first time the men won the World Championships in the eight [Worlds Chungju, 2013 - eds]. That was a fantastic moment. Rio was fantastic for me and particularly the Paralympic team. For us to have won four medals, three golds and a bronze was unprecedented, but simply fabulous to see all of our athletes come back with a medal. I've been trying to advocate for the Paralympics to be televised and be televised live since 2012, when there was just no footage. So, at the very last minute, 24 hours before, BBC Channel 4 agreed to do that. They agreed to televise it live but they had no commentators so they asked if I could commentate on it. I was like, 'oh, no!' but I did it and it was great.
Bizarrely, one of the other great moments for me was just recently when we've had to go through a lot of forced changes in governance because of our funding. As part of that, we were looking not just to do what the government's code asked us to do, but actually try to do what was best for British rowing. It really along the lines of 'yes, we've got to meet this but let's not stop at just ticking the box and changing it around, let's try and think from first principles what we have to do.' One of the things we did was decided to do was to dissolve the British Rowing executive council. Now we'll have an annual general meeting where people come in and vote to represent the membership, but we don't have a leadership council as in the old fashioned sense.
In that last council meeting we had, somebody came along, a more elderly gentleman and said something about how he thought the British Rowing was going down the wrong path having all these different sort of people in the sport and all this coastal and indoor rowing and how it wasn't a part of proper rowing and whatever. What was really gratifying for me was the backlash from all the other council members who had said 'we want to move forward and have a really open structure so let's dissolve the council,' but also said 'actually you're totally wrong, you are somebody from the past. That's not what we're about anymore. The sport has got to move on and we do want to be inclusive and we do want people from different backgrounds.' That was a big turnaround over five years previous to have influential people geographically from across the country who truly believe that we need to be inclusive and we will be inclusive.