100-day Paralympics countdown: British rowers set sights on gold and world record in Tokyo

By Adam Millward
Buttrick Rakauskaite Stanhope Fox rowing

British para-rowers Ellen Buttrick, Giedrė Rakauskaitė (b. Lithuania), Oliver Stanhope, James Fox and coxswain (cox) Erin Kennedy already know what it feels like to be the best in the world.

Before taking gold in the finals of the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Austria, they smashed the world-best time for their class during the semi-finals, completing the fastest mixed coxed four (PR3) para-row in 6 min 49.240 sec. 

Their record still stands to this day.

Incredibly, for three members of this team – Giedrė, Oliver and James – this was the second time they had set this record. They managed to shave more than 20 sec off their previous world-best time of 7 min 9.360 sec from the 2017 World Rowing Championships, alongside Grace Clough and cox Anna Corderoy. 

As with all Paralympic disciplines, to ensure a level playing field para-rowers are divided into different classes based on their type of impairment. The International Paralympic Committee defines "PR3" as "rowers with residual function in the legs which allows them to slide the seat. This class also includes athletes with vision impairment". 

Since 2017, all competitive para-rows take place on a 2,000-m course – the same distance raced in non-disabled events.

Rowers Buttrick Rakauskaite Stanhope Fox and Kennedy with Guinness World Records Certificate

With 16 May marking 100 days before the start of the deferred 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, GWR spoke to the team about their ambitions and what it’s been like training while the world has been gripped by COVID-19. 

"Training during the pandemic has been challenging," reveals Erin Kennedy, who as cox is responsible not only for steering the boat but also coordinating and motivating the four rowers, both on and off the water. 

"We train in a team sport, so I think the hardest thing has been not being able to be together." Thankfully, that sanction was lifted in Sep 2020 thanks to the UK government’s elite sport dispensation, which allowed for pro athletes to train together.

"For me, one of the hardest things was, as my job is relationships with people… and trying to get the best out of them – that’s quite hard over the internet when everyone’s training in their kitchens!"

Ellen, Giedrė, James, Oliver and Erin celebrate after taking first place at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria, where they also set the world record

Ellen Buttrick from Leeds joined the crew in 2018. As the newest rower in the boat, she felt she had a point to prove to her more experienced team-mates that had already secured a world record.

After winning gold at the 2018 World Rowing Championships – her first major competition with Team GB – the following year Ellen decided to focus on trying to break the record. 

"I did feel the pressure… I knew I could win a medal. Now James, Giedrė and Ollie were all back in the boat and they had set this record before. [I thought if] we can really push it we can get this record and I can prove I am just as good as the previous people in the boat," Ellen said.

"When we went through in the semi-finals and actually broke the record, there are images of me… smiling so much. People were like 'Did you even try?' because I didn’t look tired at all… I was just so happy!"

Swimming Water Sports spread 2021 book

"My mum used to buy me the [GWR] book every year as a Christmas stocking filler and I’d go through it and try and find records I might be able to break… I never thought I’d be in it!" - Ellen Buttrick 

Ellen was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease in 2014, after progressively struggling to see the board during lectures at university. This inherited condition – predominantly found in children and young adults – causes deterioration of the retinas, reducing a person’s central vision. 

Ellen refused to let this get in the way of her rowing ambitions. 

"Straight away, I was like: how can I make this into a positive? The positive is I can classify for the Paralympic boat and go to Tokyo [2020] or Paris [2024]…," she said.

"I’m not able to drive any more, which is frustrating because I passed my test first time! But other than that it’s not been that bad for me. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have the worst version of this disease."

Ellen training in gym

Asked whether she thinks there persists a perception that rowing is for a certain demographic of society, Ellen said: "I think that perception is there, but that’s in a lot of elite sport. I think we’re doing a lot of things now, especially within British Rowing, to open up the sport.

"I'm trying to do that personally. I’m involved with our charitable foundation, Love Rowing, where we're aiming to get people from every part of society into boats and to understand what rowing can bring to their lives."

On 9–11 Apr 2021, the team competed in Varese, Italy, at the European Rowing Championships, where they earned another gold medal for their collection

The GB mixed coxed four team are already riding high this year, having taken gold in April at the 2021 European Rowing Championships. Clocking a time of 6 min 52.14 sec in the final, they are clearly in strong form, albeit about 3 sec shy of their world record.

The 2020 Paralympic Games are due to take place between 24 Aug and 5 Sep 2021. Already postponed by a year, if the event does go ahead, it will be far from "business as usual", with fewer spectators allowed and no supporters from outside countries allowed to enter Japan. Does the team think that will affect their chances?

Three-time world champion Oliver Stanhope doesn’t seem to think so, saying "It’s still the Paralympic Games… We’re excited just to go out there and race – we’ve all dreamt of this moment. So it doesn’t really matter if there are spectators there or not."

"We know that people will still be watching at home, getting up nice and early to watch us go down the track… hopefully!"

Images and video supplied by Isobelle Cooper/British Rowing