A Lifetime in Women’s Rowing by Fiona Dennis

(Image credit: Richard Dennis)

My father, who’d previously rowed, suggested I join the then recently formed women’s squad at Derby Rowing Club.  After two sessions in the club ‘gig’, the equivalent of a park boat with a sliding seat, I was hooked. I swapped the tight jeans for more appropriate kit and began a lifelong involvement in the sport.

In the early 1970s, rowing was very much male-dominated. Derby admitted women in 1972, however some clubs remained male-only until the late 1990s. Initially the men were sceptical, unsure what to make of female rowers. We were conscious of the need to prove ourselves, to show women could row! As our success increased, including winning several medals at the National Championships, we gradually earnt their respect.

When career and competing became incompatible, I was persuaded to take up umpiring. There were very few female volunteers in the 1980s. Initially I qualified as a national and subsequently international umpire in 2001. As it transpired, umpiring was key to opening up a diverse range of volunteering roles which continue today.

A number involved event organisation; from local regattas to national events, Henley Women’s Regatta, Chairman of the British Rowing Championships and others plus a number of international regattas, including the World Juniors, 2011 and 2012 Olympic Games. In addition, umpiring has given me the opportunity to officiate at British and international events in numerous countries where I’ve met an increasing number of female volunteers at all levels across the sport. Long gone are the days of being the only female umpire at an event!

Beyond competition, I’ve held a number of positions within British Rowing including being a Board member, Chair of National Committees, Child Protection Case Manager and currently as a Trustee at the River and Rowing Museum.

All my involvement, except for the latter has focused on those already engaged in the sport. The Museum seeks to engage a wider audience, introducing rowing and the river to those unfamiliar with either. Inspiring young people through the education programme, engaging them through stories and exhibitions is an important aspect of the museum’s work and particularly to me as a former Headteacher and Trustee.

Since I first picked up an oar, the sport has changed significantly; funding, governance, greater professionalisation, improving diversity and increased engagement.

Women’s rowing has seen a considerable increase in participation and standards within the UK and internationally. Whilst there is still work required to enable women to achieve equal recognition across the sport, there has been a considerable improvement throughout my involvement in the sport.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet people passionate about our sport and see rowers perform at their best. I had the privilege of umpiring at the 2012 Paralympic Games, being elected a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta and one of the first women to umpire at the Regatta. However, for me the key purpose of volunteering is to make a difference. If I can encourage, support and inspire others to engage and achieve then hopefully I will have made a difference.

Many in the sport talk of the ‘Rowing Family’. There is a bond between rowers that endures throughout life, long may it continue.

(Image credit: Tim Koch/Hear the Boat Sing)

Fiona Dennis is a Trustee of the River & Rowing Museum and this year (2021) was recipient of British Rowing’s prestigious Medal of Honour 2021. We would like to thank Fiona for her invaluable contribution to the River & Rowing Museum as our friend and Trustee.

Book now for this special upcoming ‘Women in Rowing’ online event:

Life Lessons from Women in Rowing
Thurs 22 April, 6pm – 7pm

How does rowing shape us as people? What does it teach us about success (and failure)?

This special online discussion with rowing champions and authors Frances Houghton and Cath Bishop, and motivational speaker Naomi Riches, will look at how rowing is a platform for life.

Hear from them on what rowing has taught them about relationships, change and perspective.

With thanks to the British Association of Rowing Journalists (BARJ).

(10% discount for Friends of the Museum)

Click here to book your tickets.

The River & Rowing Museum’s International Rowing Gallery includes a display dedicated to Women’s Rowing – including the iconic ‘Unbeaten Boat’ that took Helen Glover and Heather Stanning to the 2016 Olympics without losing a race. We look forward to welcoming you to the Museum as we reopen.

 All of the River & Rowing Museum’s Trustees are volunteers. The Museum is growing its invaluable team of volunteers on the ground too and welcomes new enquiries from those wanting to explore something new. Help us inspire even more people by introducing them to the sport of rowing and to the escape our river provides by joining of our team. We offer flexible volunteering opportunities; from giving a warm and friendly welcome to visitors to behind-the-scenes projects. Find out more

In celebration of International Women’s Day, listen to the inspirational words from some of our incredible women featured in our Women in Rowing Display: –