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Rowing for Gold

Molesey Boat Club member Ollie Stanhope won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games which finally took place in late 2021. The Court Circular met Ollie upon his return at Eight on the River to discuss his journey through the local community of schools and rowing clubs to Paralympic gold in Japan.

Words | Victoria Lazarevic

As you stroll along the towpath and hear rowers rhythmically gliding by this winter, you may just be a boat length away from an Olympic or Paralympic athlete. One of them may be 23 year-old Tokyo 2020 Paralympic gold medal winner, Ollie Stanhope.

When Ollie and I meet at Eight on the River, he explains that his Paralympic journey began unceremoniously after breaking his nose playing rugby at Halliford School and when his form tutor seized on the opportunity to encourage him to row. “He sees people that like to work hard, and I think that’s very much what I’m about,” Ollie says, sharing that he credits his parents, both Olympians, for this work ethic and perseverance.

According to his tutor, Ollie possesses “a dogged determination to succeed at whatever he does. School rugby, school rowing and now the full international ticket. He never sees a mountain that he will not climb”.

As a consequence of his tutor’s encouragement, Ollie’s rowing journey began at Walton Rowing Club before he moved to Molesey Boat Club when he was 14. He continued to row at Hampton Sixth Form then at Oxford Brookes University, where he’s currently studying Real Estate Management. Keen to point out that mountain wasn’t always easy to climb, Ollie shares that he was dropped from the university rowing team, because “My ergo (rowing machine) time wasn’t very good.”

Prior to university, Ollie had raced in the Princess Elizabeth Cup at Henley Royal Regatta in 2016 and then in the Thames Cup for Molesey Boat Club in 2017. Knowing Ollie’s talent was too good to be shelved British Rowing’s Chief Coach for U23s and Juniors, Peter Sheppard suggested he might classify for the Paralympics and supported him through the classification process. “I was born with cerebral palsy, so my right side isn’t as mobile as my left side,” Ollie explains, sharing that his classification, PR3, focuses on ankle mobility.

“Knowing whatever happens in the world there’d be a race for me to compete in at the end of it was a real driving force.”

He was selected for the PR3 4+ mixed coxed four and with his crew won three World Championship gold medals, supported throughout by his fellow club members.

However, when the pandemic hit Ollie had to make adjustments to his competing and rowing practices. He continued to train in the only place he could – at home. His life-long dogged determination and ability to commit to training served him well. “Once you’ve done it one day, it’s easier to do it the next day and during the pandemic it gave me structure and a reason to wake up. I had something to aim for. Knowing whatever happens in the world there’d be a race for me to compete in at the end of it was a real driving force.

Ollie was subsequently selected for Team GB and made it to Tokyo, yet upon arrival he remained uncertain as to whether the team would race in light of the remaining issues around the pandemic. “I had a covid test the evening before the final and only when I got the result back negative, I thought – I’ll be doing this!”

So what was Ollie’s Olympic experience like? “At the start line I was just thinking about getting the job done,” he says .“And at the finish line?” I ask enthusiastically. Ollie chuckles, amused by the rise in my voice anticipating a jubilant reply. “I felt mostly relieved,“ he responds calmly. “We knew we were the favourites, but what was going through my head was making sure we didn’t do anything to stop us winning.”

“There are very few sports where you need to work together to succeed so I see most of the guys I’ve trained with as brothers.”

The experience of being at the Olympics made as much of an impression on Ollie as the race did. It was, he shares, “Like nothing I have ever experienced before, an extraordinary mix of cultures in one place. Everybody we met was so excited to be hosting the games and working to make the experience the best it possibly could be.”

Winning gold in Tokyo was a lifetime achievement for Ollie and returning back to the place he trained for success in Molesey was just as momentous. “It was like coming home,” he says. “It was nice to see the people who I’d trained with at the start of my career again. They played a key role in me getting into the sport – having fun with the guys is the main reason I row. There are very few sports where you need to work together to succeed so I see most of the guys I’ve trained with as brothers.”

In return, Molesey Boat Club celebrated Ollie’s success, as well as the equally amazing achievements of fellow MBC athletes Mohamed Sbihi and Rebecca Muzerie, upon their return to the UK with a boat naming ceremony to immortalise their wins in Tokyo.

This gesture and the long-standing work of the club has earned Ollie’s complete loyalty. “I admire the club’s values in terms of the way it really looks after people. When I’ve finished rowing, I plan to join the committee. I started rowing with a lot of volunteer coaches, so I look forward to being able to coach myself one day. I want to help people get into the sport because it’s a great sport to get into and it has a great community as well.”

And until then? “The last five years have been quite tough,” Ollie says honestly. “So it’s nice to take a little bit of a break now and do stuff for fun again instead of constantly having to win. The club does a great job of supporting people whatever they want to do, rowing full time or rowing for fun.”


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