MARK LEES, the international rowing coach, was paid his greatest compliment by a cartoon which appeared in an early issue of Regatta magazine. It was of a Nottinghamshire County crew carrying their boat out to race with the caption 'Really professor, you say you cloned them all from one molecule of green Lycra.'
Lees was not a professor but he was the creator of a remarkable rowing phenomenon which gathered speed, and honours, through the Eighties. The Notts County crews - followed by his London University and then Cambridge University Boat Race crews - were distinctive in the elastic efficiency with which the boat was moved; and Lees's style, even when carried on by others, was as recognisable as his signature.
Mark Lees was born in 1956, and after following his father round the world in various naval posts, he arrived via St Edward's School, Oxford, at Exeter University where, as part of the Physical Education course, he was given a thorough grounding in biomechanics and physiology. This understanding of the tools of sport enabled him to develop a way for the oarsman or sculler to move within the boat to cause the least disruption to its forward flow and to use up the least energy.
Within two seasons of going to Notts County in 1981 Lees had established a strong squad which won a silver medal at the 1983 World Championships in the lightweight coxless fours. His methods were most quickly adopted by lightweights, who had less spare strength to throw about, and Notts County became the second great centre of British rowing, after the London Tideway.
In 1986 Lees moved to London University, where he showed that his methods applied equally to bigger oarsmen and from there he became the first professional coach to be given overall charge of the Boat Race preparations at Cambridge. His first aim at Cambridge was to establish an organisation that would survive the three years he had given himself to win the Boat Race after a record period of Cambridge defeats. In his first attempt in 1989 he produced a crew that looked and rowed better than Oxford but simply didn't have the horsepower to overturn history. A year later they got closer, but in 1991, when things looked most hopeful for his crew, his health collapsed a month before the race and he had to watch from hospital as the prize slipped away again.
He then left Cambridge after completing the three years originally offered. But when the light blues did eventually turn the tide in 1993 and 1994 it was with coaches who had followed Lees at Nottingham and using the system he had left in place.
Lees took over as International Performance Director in late 1991 to select and take the British team to the Barcelona Olympics. There his team won two of the five gold medals won by Britain and he was able to retire to face his increasing illness with the same courage he had so often taught his crews.
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