Phoebe Horan of Junior Rowing News talks to Declan Gamble of Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association, winner of the Club Performance Coach of the Year category at the 2022 British Rowing Awards, about his – and the club’s – journey
A calculated Gamble
Declan began coaching during his second year of university after injury struck whilst rowing at Nottingham RC. “I took a placement year and was offered the chance to coach the club’s juniors,” he said. “I started on three days a week and absolutely loved it. It just expanded from there; four days, then five days then a full-time junior program.”
Approaching National Schools’ Regatta, Declan found himself doing just as much coaching as he was working during his placement. “I spoke to the university, explained the situation and they let me spread my final year over 24 months so I could continue coaching full-time” he explained.
From the ashes
Declan went on to play a key role in the rebirth of Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association (NCRA) in 2016 after a 10-year hibernation and is now the club’s Lead Coach. Since then he has progressed the program into a flourishing club for juniors, U23 and senior athletes; crews in bright green Lycra are once again an established feature of the competitive circuit. In 2022 the club’s women’s first eight won the Small Club pennant at the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race.
Coaching Olivia Bates
The lightweight sculler Olivia (Liv) Bates has been at the forefront of this success. Declan and Liv have worked together for several seasons, soon establishing her as one of the country’s fastest lightweights. “Liv was at the University of Nottingham when COVID hit and due to the fact they had more restrictions in place, she began training with us in the third lockdown,” said Declan.
“She had a great exponential improvement curve in 2021 – training at 90% of predicted gold medal speeds GMT, featuring as the fastest U23 lightweight at April trials, and racing at the Europeans – so we came into 2022 with really high hopes.” COVID then struck in March, which scuppered April trials, but the blue touchpaper was lit. “When she beat Imogen [Grant, the Tokyo 2020 Olympian] at BUCS Regatta to win the gold medal, I think a lot of people were quite surprised, but having seen what she was posting in training, we knew that was her speed,” explained Declan. Liv went on to break the Henley Women’s Regatta record before taking bronze at the European Under 23 Championships.
In the final lead-up to the U23 World Championships in Varese, Liv was posting faster-than-world-record times in training. “We’d had a good strong tailwind a few days before flying to Italy and she’d posted an incredible time,” said Declan. Everything was pointing towards a golden outcome. He reveals, “I never said this to her, but the coaching team and I were sort of thinking what colour is the medal going to be as opposed to will she get one at all.”
Fate works in cruel and mysterious ways though. After arriving in Italy as red-hot favourite for the world title, Liv was struck down by a chest infection. “I could see in the first 500m of her heat that the pace was just off,” said Declan. “She went on to win the repechage but only just and you could just sense something wasn’t right”.
Liv placed fourth in her semi-final and struggled on the landing stage with breathing problems for nearly an hour afterwards. The illness she’d picked up had put paid to any hope she had for medalling on the world stage. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish the scale of both her and Declan’s achievements. Taking an athlete from good club standard to potential World Champion in 18 months is remarkable and it was only rotten luck that conspired to stop us all witnessing the full potential of Liv Bates that year.
The next steps for Declan and NCRA
Moving ahead, Declan intends to keep coaching at NCRA and take athletes on similar journeys relative to their inherent skillset. “We’ve got a men’s eight this year, which stands in stark contrast to previous seasons where we’ve predominantly had female athletes,” he said. “2023 will be a project to boat a competitive crew at the men’s Head of the River before trying to qualify an NCRA Wyfold four for Henley.”
The key focus continues to be building on the new NCRA’s successful foundations, which have injected a sense of momentum into Declan’s program. “A lot of people ask me whether I am just trying to recreate the glory years for NCRA,” he said. “That has never been the plan. It was a different era and a different community. We’re just trying to develop and evolve the club through various avenues, including working with local schools to substantiate our junior program. We want to ensure Nottingham stays firmly on the map as a hotbed for competitive racing.”
Reconfiguring an academic pathway and choosing to submerge yourself into coaching full-time underlines Declan’s desire to support local people and grow his community. Rowing isn’t the defining factor for him. “The most rewarding element of coaching is watching people grow,” he commented. “You see talented people excel in all walks of life and that keeps me coming back for more.”
Photo credit (banner): All Mark One