It took me a while to realise what was going on as I turned up for my usual Saturday morning row. The car park was full to bursting point and there were people in various approximations of rowing attire swarming everywhere. I glanced out at the river. It was like the M25 at rush hour. Flotillas of single sculls, some attached to the bank by ropes, stretched out across the water. What was going on? Was this an unscheduled regatta nobody had told me about? No. It was better than that: this was the Olympic legacy in action.
Since the first GB rowers triumphantly crossed the finish line at Eton Dorney last month, interest in rowing has soared. Where last year we had two or three juniors in the club, we now suddenly have a whole squad, all desperate to emulate their new sporting heroes. Our membership secretary, inundated with requests to join, has a faintly hunted look about her as she struggles to cope with demand. Even with the newcomers divided into two groups, split across the weekend, we’re bulging at the seams.
And it’s not just us. Over at British Rowing – our national rowing HQ – things have been going pretty crazy. On 1stAugust, the day Heather Stanning and Helen Glover secured Team GB’s first gold, hits on the British Rowing club-finder page – normally around 150 per day – were off the scale at just under 5,500. Leicester RC reported a ten-fold jump in traffic on their website; Tees RC has been “completely inundated”, as has Bristol RC, and so it goes on. “It’s been an incredible response”, says Pippa Randolph of British Rowing.
Now I don’t doubt that with all of this new blood around, a little of it will be spilt. Some of the ancient mariners might get a bit grumpy when they have to share their boats and their river with newcomers with dodgy navigational skills, and many clubs will have to make difficult decisions as they accommodate all of their new members.
But we need to grab the opportunity while we have it. If the message is getting out there that rowing is for everyone, we have to make sure that it really is. If that means there isn’t always an erg available on a Tuesday night because a keen youngster got there first, that’s fine by me (and hey, let’s face it, who wouldn’t be happy to give up the erg to someone more deserving?) If in even just a handful of clubs some unlikely-looking new stars-in-the-making are taking their first tentative strokes, it’ll be worth a bit of inconvenience when we cheer them on in 2016 or 2020. Just don’t ask me to be the new membership secretary.