Fairlop RC, located in Fairlop Waters Country Park in East London, was founded in 2013. They won the British Rowing Project of the Year 2021 for getting women from the Muslimah Sports Association and other ethnic backgrounds involved in rowing. Rose Crawford sat down with head coach CJ White to talk about all things Fairlop RC, how to increase diversity in rowing, and his future goals for the club
Rose: How did you get into rowing?
CJ: It was completely by accident. Growing up, I was very inactive and didn’t do any sport, but then one day in PE, I sat on a rowing machine. I had no idea what I was doing but I broke the year group record. The gym instructor was a rowing coach at Lea RC and told me that I should keep rowing. The next week, I competed in my borough’s indoor rowing competition, came fourth and was devastated. From then on in though, I was just hooked and have never looked back.
Rose: Can you tell me a little bit more about Fairlop RC?
CJ: At the moment, we have around 50 members – 35 juniors and 15 adults. Where we row is only 400m from bank to bank, so we’re really good at turning! As you can imagine, getting ready for the head season is always interesting. As a result, we do the majority of the technical work on the water and then use ergos for fitness.
We’ll be celebrating our 10-year anniversary in 2023 and how we started is quite an interesting story. The local sports development officer needed a sport to run in the borough and he picked rowing despite never having rowed before. He knew me from when I used to represent my borough and offered me a coahcing job, even though I had no experience. But I just went along with it, learned as much as I could from the other coaches in the area, and did my Level 2 Coaching Qualification. The head coach at the time then left and they offered me the role.
Our seniors train twice a week, sometimes three, although the sessions are more social. Our juniors train three times a week. Prior to COVID, we had a really strong squad so it’s a bit upsetting to see a lot of that time wasted. We’re rebuilding our junior program right now, which as you can imagine is quite a slow process, but we’re getting there and we’re doing a lot of outreach with the public.
Rose: Speaking of outreach with the public, can you tell me about your work with the Muslimah Sports Association?
CJ: So, I work with women from the Muslim community who have never done sports before for various different reasons. We did a six-week learn to row course and stuck them all in rowing boats; it was the most beautiful, chaotic thing I’ve ever seen!
The passion they had for it was incredible, but at the same time it was just crazy. But it was absolutely amazing to watch and they loved it and I loved coaching them. I’ve been coaching for 10 or 11 years now and I’ve never coached a group of people that just got so stuck in! They capsized and didn’t care, they got blown into the bank and slipped over in the mud and then slipped over again and they still didn’t care. And in the final week, we did some side-by-side racing and they got so competitive, which has led to some of them continuing competitively in the sport
Rose: So obviously you’re doing great things to improve diversity in rowing, but what more can we do to increase it further?
CJ: I think for me, rowing changed my life but when you look at other sports, a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds see sport as a way out of poverty. If I was to become a top league football player, I would be earning millions of pounds every year. Whereas, if I became a top-level rower, I would hopefully be able to say I went to the Olympics and got gold, which I know is amazing but won’t set me up financially for life. I think that’s one factor we have to think about and it’s not something we are going to bridge the gap in (just yet).
So, we need to think about other ways to make rowing more open so people an get involved. We need to get kids at younger ages and explain that, although rowing has traditionally been a middle-class sport, you don’t need to be afraid of that. I think one thing that really does put people off is seeing other rowers with singles that they personally own. Another thing I would love to see is if we offered kids scholarships for university so they can get an education as well.
Rose: Moving on to the British Rowing Awards – how did it feel when Fairlop RC won Project of the Year in 2021?
CJ: It was absolutely amazing to win that – I didn’t expect it because usually you get a call beforehand in preparation. I didn’t get that so I’d gone out to dinner with my family. My girlfriend suggested we put the livestream on just to see who won and it was us – it was incredible! It’s been a long road but I’m so pleased that everyone’s efforts have been recognised and rewarded on a national stage.
Rose: What are your long-term goals for the club?
CJ: In my opinion, it’s not about winning at Henley or creating National Champions. It’s about getting people involved in the sport who may not have had exposure or opportunity before. It’s about seeing the kid who is scared of the water get in a single for the first time. Or the kid who was always too shy and awkward to talk to anyone and is now captain of the club. It’s those moments that really define what I want to achieve and I would really love to look at expanding what we do in terms of boats and coaches and community outreach.
We’re in Redbridge, which has quite a high level of poverty, so bettering our own small bit of society is a great start. If we can then branch out and help other communities do the same sort of thing, that’s another incredible goal to have.
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