Helen Rowbotham, British Rowing, Director of Community

26 May

Over my years in adaptive/pararowing, I have confronted many myth-conceptions about the sport. One of the most prominent is that British Rowing (BR) isn’t doing much to support it. Relative to the number of participants (dozens of adaptives versus thousands of non-adaptives) and financial resources (the big international competitions like Henley and the Olympics/Paralympics attract the big sponsorship cheques), BR investment is quite heavy in adaptive relative to the participation. It may seem like resources are especially scarce in recent times, but that it not due to special neglect of adaptive rowing side of the sport, but to the fact that all of the sport of rowing (in fact, all amateur sport) is challenged in recent years with financial pressures (donor fatigue, shifting marketing focus away from sponsorship to digital media, pandemic).

One major initiative was launched to provide an extra boost to adaptive rowing (and other segments of the sport that are under-represented) – the LoveRowing Foundation. A major player behind that initiative is also one of the most prominent individuals in the UK adaptive community – Helen Rowbotham. As her title of “Director of Rowing Community & Strategy” implies, she is a prominent fixture in the adaptive community. She attends adaptive racing events, contributes to social media and is a regular member of the Coaches Advisory Group. Helen is presently hard at work on LoveRowing’s first grassroots fundraiser: The Big Row (so if you want to help her build the adaptive community, check it out and join in).

Adaptive Rowing UK sat down with her to delve more deeply into her work on adaptive rowing and her aspirations for it:

What is your potted history of your experience with rowing? Despite doing every sport available to me at school, completing a sports management degree at Loughborough University and working in sport for 20 years, the first time I set foot in a boat house was a month before starting my role as Director of Innovation at British Rowing in 2016. My next door neighbour happens to be a rowing coach and when I told him about my new job he decided a 6am winter outing in his coach launch was a critical part of my induction! A few months later I got a group of colleagues who were also newbies to on-water rowing to join me for a Learn to Row Course, under the tutelage of Steve O’Connor at Fulham Reach. I had in fact been a gym rower for 20 years but had never connected that to the wider sport of rowing – hence why I’m now so passionate about developing indoor rowing as a key discipline of the sport. I’m not currently a club member but am hoping my kids take up the sport and am keen to try some single sculling.

What was your first introduction to adaptive/para sport? I worked in sports management consulting before joining British Rowing and worked extensively with the International Paralympic Committee, leading a major review of the Paralympic Games in 2012, working on the development of Agitos Foundation and organising a IPC Members Gathering in Athens in 2014. I was also a mentor on a Paralympic Women’s Mentoring Programme and met some amazing, inspirational women through that process. When I joined British Rowing I was keen to understand how we could better support adaptive rowing and initiated our first Adaptive Rowing research project which resulted in a series of recommendations to guide our support for adaptive rowing. During this time, I continued to be involved in international para-sport and in 2018 I was elected as a Non-Executive Director and Trustee of the British Paralympic Association.

Describe your current role in British Rowing? In February 2020, shortly before the pandemic, I took on the role of Director of Rowing Community & Strategy at British Rowing which means I’m now responsible for our learning, education and development activity; community/ club support; competition support; facilities support; indoor rowing; as well as insight and strategy. I have a fantastic team that specialise in each of these areas and my role is to provide strategic oversight, leadership and direction to ensure we are effectively supporting the rowing community and achieving our strategic objectives. I am also the British Rowing Director responsible for Love Rowing, British Rowing’s new Charitable Foundation and am passionate about the development of rowing as an accessible and inclusive sport for all.

What are some of the misconceptions about British Rowing’s work to support adaptive and pararowing? There has been a perception in the past that British Rowing is focused on para-rowing and less interested in supporting grassroots adaptive rowing but this is not the case. We are fully committed to supporting all forms of adaptive rowing but the nature of our funding and resource limitations do make this challenging at times.  We are also conscious that the high profile of para-rowing and our national team can sometimes overshadow the fantastic work being done to support grass-roots adaptive rowing. Ongoing work to implement the Adaptive Strategy recommendations aims to address these issues. We are working hard to raise the profile of all strands of adaptive rowing activity and the new Adaptive Guide and training offer will support this process. Jo Atkinson is now the community team lead for on-water adaptive rowing and Clare Holman leads our indoor adaptive activity, including working with the Invictus Games Team. The new strategy will also help us to access additional funding for adaptive rowing in the future and Love Rowing has established an adaptive rowing programme.

What has been some of the adverse impacts of the pandemic on adaptive rowing? The adverse impacts have been wide ranging for the entire rowing community including adaptive rowers. Clubs closed, training moved online but only for those lucky enough to have rowing machines at home and we all had to get used to creating Covid secure environments as and when the sport was able to open up again. Whilst there was dispensation for disability sport at key stages, in reality this wasn’t practical for a lot of clubs and many people, particularly those with multiple health conditions, remain cautious. It is for these reasons that we are committed to doing everything we can to help the return of the adaptive rowing community as restrictions are eased.

What are your aspirations for adaptive rowing in the coming year? The launch of our Adaptive Club Guide is an important milestone for the adaptive rowing working group and we thank everyone that has supported its development. We now want to use this guide to raise awareness of the benefits of adaptive rowing for individuals, clubs, coaches and volunteers and encourage more people to get involved. To support this process we have developed a new Introduction to Adaptive Rowing training course for community clubs. This training is going to be rolled out across the regions over the next year, at no cost, thanks to support from Love Rowing and their adaptive rowing programme supporter, Howdens.

What sort of issues are you best positioned to assist with if people contact you? Jo Atkinson is now our community team lead on adaptive rowing and is best positioned to help with questions on how to get into adaptive rowing or how to grow your club’s adaptive programme. If you have any questions on our adaptive strategy or want to discuss partnership opportunities/ programmes, I would love to hear from you.

How can we contact you? – the best way is to email is adaptive@britishrowing.org or helen.rowbotham@britishrowing.org.

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