As the countdown to this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio continues apace, Laura Winter hears that allegations of discrimination and bullying are not confined to the GB Cycling squad, but can be found affecting the equally successful women’s rowing team as well. Here is her report exclusive to The Mixed Zone
While an independent review into alleged bullying and discrimination within British Cycling continues, a former athlete from another sport has claimed that she experienced a similar culture during her six years with the GB women’s rowing squad.
Emily Taylor, who was a spare at the London 2012 Olympic Games after being dropped from the women’s eight just weeks before the regatta, has revealed exclusively to The Mixed Zone that there was what she describes as a “culture of fear” within the women’s squad which rocked the medal factory just weeks before a home Olympic Games.
Taylor cites as a main problem the man-management of the women’s chief coach, Paul Thompson, 52, who was awarded an MBE after the London 2012 Olympic Games, when the women’s squad won three gold medals. A former Australian squad rower, Thompson was the coach responsible for Australia’s first rowing gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and joined British Rowing in 2001 where, among others, he coached Katherine Grainger to great success.
But Taylor’s experience was less positive. “Thomo was a massive bully and no one stood up to him,” the 29-year old revealed. “He could get away with it. He surrounded himself with yes-men and everyone was scared of him. He shouted at the coaches and the athletes and treated them like second-class citizens. He was so inconsistent and so unfair. He often favoured past rowing experience over current results, and those rowers selected were seemingly invincible. Unless you were one of them you didn’t want to be anywhere near him.
“When I found out he was getting an MBE, I was so angry. It made my blood boil, I was enraged for the whole day. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it less than him. He would regularly call the girls ‘fat’. It makes me so angry when people think Paul Thompson is a good coach.
“He is fantastic technically, but in terms of people-management, his skills are non-existent. I’ve gone into the world of work, in financial services and got a good career. A lot of that is down to learning how not to do things from the rowing team.
“Some of the things he did and the way he treated people – there is no way he’d get away with it in the real world. In a normal job you can move to a different company. I unfortunately wasn’t able to move to a different country, but if I could have, I would have changed nationality.”
Despite finishing third pair at the Olympic trials in 2012, which meant she was, on paper, the second-best strokesider in the boat, Taylor was told she was out of the Olympic boat just days before she was due to travel to Breisach with the squad on a training camp.
The memories for Taylor are still raw.
“I was called back to training by [assistant coach] Nick Strange and told Thomo wanted to speak to me. He took me to a tiny office, with no windows and locked the door so no one could come in, before telling me, ‘I’ve decided you’re not going to be in the Olympic eight’. I asked why and was told because Annie Vernon, who hadn’t done any trials and had moved over from the sculling squad, was back to her best on the 18-kilometre rowing machine sessions, she would be in the boat instead of me.
“I didn’t get any proper answers from him and he wouldn’t let me leave until I was pretty much hysterical. I drove home, but was in such a bad way I was probably a danger on the road. It was absolutely horrendous and no one checked how I was.
“I hadn’t been beaten by anyone in seat-racing. It was a horrible day. I felt sick, it was awful. To know that only one person had actually beaten me all season was absolutely sickening. I had only raced against one of the girls for that seat in the eight.
“I told him I wanted to complain, but he said, ‘If you complain now, you will ruin the boat’s chances at the Olympics and create so much tension in the squad’. I was basically told, ‘Don’t say anything, you won’t be heard’.
“I had to pick myself up and I told myself, ‘I am going to be the most amazing spare that’s ever been’. But there was no support. We all felt what we said in a medical context was common knowledge – nothing was kept secret.
“You wouldn’t want to pour your heart out to anyone involved at GB Rowing.”
Despite illness and injury, which saw Taylor train in the women’s eight for much of the training camp in Germany, she claims she never got a race for her seat or a chance to win it back. At the Olympics, she had to watch as the women’s eight finished fifth in the final, knowing they had beaten the bronze medallists from Holland when she had been in the boat six weeks before.
“Athletes in that boat were not fit enough to be in it. Everyone knew about it, but no one said anything because of Thomo’s culture of fear and because Nick Strange had no backbone. It was falling apart.
“After that final the girls were miserable. It was horrible and I knew I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. I wanted them to do well, but when they didn’t I was quite happy to know I could have made the boat go faster. I felt like I was getting stronger every single day.
“I knew I would be good enough to make Rio if I’d carried on. But that was enough for me and was one of the reasons I was able to move away so easily. No one can take that away from me.”
But it wasn’t just the pressure of a home Olympics which turned things sour for Taylor. She said she noticed warning signs long before 2012.
“I broke into the squad quite quickly after rowing at Durham University, and 18 months later I won bronze at the 2007 World Under-23 Championships. But it was after that it hit home how unfair the sport was. I was put on funding while two of my crew members weren’t. They were always told they didn’t have potential even though to that point they’d had a more successful career than I had.
“We won the Under-23 World Championships in 2009, one of the only British women’s crews in history to beat the Americans, and of that boat only Vicky Thornley is left rowing.
That shows there was absolutely no support in place for anyone.
“There was no development of athletes. Coming up to 2012, the outlook was so short-term, there was no thought to the future. That’s a telling stat to look at. I rowed with a lot of people. The GB team brings you into the squad and then breaks you. They tell you, ‘We’ll try to be more individual for people’, but they’re so rigid in training. You either do the full programme or you’re out.
“I’ve seen so many amazing athletes broken, with their funding cut, who had to leave the sport. You get sucked in and then kicked back out. They make it so difficult for new people in the squad and there are no support mechanisms in place.”
Though Taylor has passionately recalled the “horrible atmosphere” she trained and competed in, she insists she is not motivated by revenge or bitterness in telling her story. She recalls her decision to retire after London 2012 was a massive weight off her shoulders and now she wants to help others.
She decided to speak out having witnessed the stories about the break-up and then restitution of the Rio-bound double scull, featuring Grainger and Thornley.
“I am happy to share everything I can think of, and when I saw the story about Vicky and Katherine in the Daily Mail I was so happy it was coming to light,” she said.
“I have relived it with The Mixed Zone, but I have never been happier, and I am not sitting here every day thinking about it and letting it rule my life. But this isn’t new. This has been going on ever since Thompson took over, and even before my time. So many people have suffered, but because rowing is not high-profile enough, I’ve always thought, ‘What’s the point in saying anything?’
“The women’s rowing system is fundamentally flawed. If I can tell my story and help it get better for anyone else I am happy to do that. I have always said if I am ever given the opportunity to tell my story I would.
“Maybe this is the opportunity to get something to change.”
British Rowing have responded to Taylor’s allegations, and in a statement say: “Selection in sport is always intense and pressurised and coaches have to make difficult decisions. Passions can run high, especially in an Olympic year, and Emily has expressed some strong opinions.
“However, British Rowing is confident that the processes we have in place and follow are appropriate. There are a number of routes available to all rowers should they wish to appeal selection. In addition, we have complaints and disciplinary procedures which every rower can access. Every year, we assess and review the outcomes of the season to establish if there are any lessons to be learned, and where we can improve, and we will be doing the same after Rio. We continue to work hard to deliver success for the nation at the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.