Women now the golden wonders

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The Independent Online

Britain's outstanding run of gold medals at the Olympic rowing regattas since 1984 has rested with the men's teams, but this time around, it is the women's crews who have the greater chance of glory.

Britain's outstanding run of gold medals at the Olympic rowing regattas since 1984 has rested with the men's teams, but this time around, it is the women's crews who have the greater chance of glory.

At Sydney 2000, Miriam and Guin Batten, Gillian Lindsay and Katherine Grainger became the first British women to strike metal since women's rowing events were introduced in 1976, taking silver in the quadruple sculls.

After winning their heat last Sunday, the current quad of Alison Mowbray, Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton and Rebecca Romero are poised for hitting the gold standard eight days later. After their first race since winning at Henley on 4 July, the reaction of the four here was relief that they could still row fast.

They are part of a small, flexible team which includes Sarah Winckless and Elise Laverick in the double scull, and Grainger - the only surviving Sydney medallist - and Cath Bishop in the coxless pair. The pair are the current world champions but were left smarting after losing to Belarus in the opening round, but it is the quad who are making the running at Athens.

While the men's team have been beset with illness, injury and selection upsets, the women's team have been quietly pulled together by the national women's high performance coach, Paul Thompson, aided by Leander's Mark Banks and Thames's Miles Forbes-Thomas.

The quadruple scullers put their marker on the gold medal by winning the World Cup in a hailstorm at Lucerne in June. Mowbray finished 10th in the single sculls in Sydney, while the others are first-time Olympians with impressive records in national junior and Under-23 crews before sculling in the senior team.

Houghton, who stands at 6ft 4in and weighs 12st 13lb, was introduced to rowing at her prep, the Dragon School in Oxford, and was a junior international at 15 when at King's School, Canterbury. She did Hispanic studies at King's College, London, including a stint in Seville where the women's team often train.

Flood, from Leeds, was a British junior judo international and a county level runner before taking up rowing in Bradford, and she is now at Reading University.

Mowbray, also from Yorkshire, is a part-time science teacher who began rowing at Liverpool University and won the women's boat race while studying for a PhD at Cambridge.

Romero began rowing at Kingston and has also studied sports science at St Mary's, Twickenham.

Their base is Leander Club at Henley, where the facilities include a state-of-the-art gym and medical centre.

The double scullers came second in their heat in Athens to the outstanding New Zealanders Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell, whose names are pencilled in on the gold medal. But the British women, both veterans of the Sydney team, are strong contenders for the other medals.

Winckless is a Cambridge graduate who combines consultancy in marketing with rowing, while Laverick is a master of the double bass as well as the double scull, having studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The versatility of the crews was shown at the Munich round of the World Cup when Winckless substituted for Houghton in the quad as well as doing her own event, and won silver medals in both.

The coaches have honed good technique with strong motivation. "We always knew it was in all our interests to bring our single sculling technique as close to the crew boats as we could," Winckless says. "We had three camps in Seville without single boats, so we all rowed with everyone, and that's something that's come very much from the top and has been very much pushed."

Laverick says: "In a double it's got to be under the water that you feel it, and if that's slightly off then it pulls apart very quickly.

"We spend a lot of time trying to feel what's going on under the boat." She finds many comparisons with music. "For a concert, especially for a solo, you can't just read the music and expect it to come out right, and I think that's the same in rowing. So I think they've really helped each other. You need spirit and passion about what you are doing."

Passion has fused these individual spirits into a formidable force in a sport where they have previously been also-rans. If they find the run of their boats for the rest of the week at the Schinias Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Centre, there will be no stopping them.

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