20 September 2017

Brothers in Oars

When the Olympic Games get underway next month, two brothers from Coleraine are serious contenders for a medal. Richard and Peter Chambers are rowers and teammates in the Men’s lightweight four. At 27 Richard is the older of the brothers – Pete, who is 22, has followed a similar path into elite rowing.

Richard took up rowing at school, Coleraine Inst, in the first place, more from negative than positive reasons! “ I couldn’t throw or catch a ball so I wasn’t any good at cricket and I didn’t like running – to this day running is something I don’t enjoy – so I went to try rowing. I got in a boat – an old wooden one – and I loved it from the start. It is such an addictive sport.” He added that the tall muscular rowers were held in awe in the school and he thought, “it would be quite cool to be one of them”.

Richard joined Bann Rowing Club in Coleraine and that led Pete into the sport. Pete recalls, “Richard took me with him. I was about 11 or 12 and quite small so I started coxing. When I was older I started rowing and made my way up through the junior ranks of the Bann Rowing Club.”

The brothers retain a strong sense of belonging to where they grew up. As Richard puts it, “Coleraine is my home town, it is where I am from, where my family is from, where my friends are from. I am proud to be Northern Irish and to be from the Causeway coast. I might not ever go back to live there but I love going back home for visits.” Richard studied at Oxford Brookes University, which has a strong rowing tradition, producing a number of Olympians. Pete was to follow in his footsteps and will finish his degree at Brookes next year, having taken a year out to concentrate on rowing in the Olympic year.

For both brothers the initial breakthrough was selection for the GB Under 23 squad. In 2005, Richard picked up silver in the Lightweight Men’s Four and won gold the following year. Pete had three years in the Under 23s (2009-2011) taking successively bronze, silver and gold in the three different boats – Four, Single and Pair.

Richard rowed initially because he enjoyed it, with no real ambitions or expectations, “I never expected to be an international and never believed it until I sat in a boat at the start of my first Under 23 international race. From there I did not think too big but just took one step at a time. There was no one secret to being a successful rower. I have had to work very hard to get to where I am.” For Pete, seeing Richard gain selection for GB was both a motivation and encouragement that it could be done.

That Pete was in three different boats at Under 23 level is a good illustration of how elite rowing works. Being selected for the squad is just the beginning. It is dog eat dog as everyone competes against each other to establish their place in the pecking order and to get a seat in a particular boat. Selection is aided by endless tests and recordings of performance but is ultimately the decision of the coach.

In 2007 Richard was in the Men’s Lightweight Four which won the World Championship. They went to the Beijing Olympics as World Champions and arguably favourites. As Richard recalls it did not quite work out as planned: “As far as the racing went, we were massively disappointed to come away with fifth place, having gone in as world champions. But it was a big learning curve and I have taken so much from it over the past couple of years.”

Taking part in his first Olympics was an amazing experience: “I loved the culture; I loved the village; I loved going to the stadium, going round the city with friends and family who had come over to support me and experiencing the weird and wonderful food. And the Great Wall! I had seen pictures of it but to actually go and walk around it, takes your breath away.”

In one sense, the Olympics is just like any major regatta where GB rowers compete against the best rowers from other countries over a stretch of water. What makes it totally different is that the rowing is part of a multi-sport event.

The rowing venue for the 2008 Olympics at Shunyi was an hour out of Beijing. Rather than spending two hours a day travelling, Team GB decided to locate the rowers in a hotel by the lake. Thus the rowers could not attend the opening ceremony or experience the Olympic atmosphere until after they had competed.

After their competition they did move into the Olympic village, gaining Richard some unforgettable experiences: “For example the village food hall; it is the human zoo. You have rowers who are big and tall, gymnasts who are small, weightlifters who are wider than they are tall! People from all corners of the world coming together to compete. The biggest sports event in the world and everyone is watching it. To be part of it was incredible.”

Growing up in a Christian home and attending Coleraine Baptist Church has had a deep effect on Richard and Pete. Richard told me: “I grew up in a Christian home where my parents and grandparents were a massive influence in making me the person I am now. I cannot pinpoint a moment when I decided to follow Jesus – probably about 8 years old. But as I have grown older I have learned more about what He wants me to do and what it takes to be a follower. I wouldn’t say that I am your role model Christian – it is difficult in sport – but I still follow Him and try to be the best I can for Him.” While it may seem to be the case, sport at Olympic level doesn’t take up all of a man’s time. Richard says: “Of all the things I have done in my life I think becoming a dad is the most joyous – and also the most scary. Joshua is just over 6 months old and he smiles a lot. I could not imagine life without him”.

Pete adds, “The way we were taught growing up was to put your best effort into things. I think that is reflected in the way we train, to put 100% into our training. Also how we go about ourselves as well. To be honest I find my faith difficult some times. I still am a strong believer but I do find it difficult. I still attend church but I think it is my faith inside that is the most important thing.”

Two new Christian resources by Scripture Union, On your Marks and Team Talk include an interview with Richard, available from http://www.morethangoldresources. org.uk.

The 2011 World Cup race in Lucerne was a momentous day for the Chambers family. Richard and Pete competed together for the first time as team-mates in the GB senior team and they won. 2011 was an amazing year for Pete, taking gold in the Lightweight Double in both Under 23 and senior World Championships. He was modestly dismissive of his achievements when we spoke, “It was great to have so much success in the Men’s Pair and the Lightweight Four. I take it as good experience to use in the coming year ”.

Pete now seems to have grabbed a seat in the Four alongside Richard. He sees being brothers in oars totally positively: “It is awesome. There is that certain spark that no other crew can have. Other crews may not see it as an advantage but we see it as an advantage having us two there with complete trust in each other – not that we don’t trust the other guys. It is fantastic. We encourage each other and help each other out.”

The good news for the family is that Richard and Pete operate on opposite sides of the boat and are therefore not in direct competition with each other for the one place!

What would it mean to them to compete together in the London Olympics – “awesome” and “fantastic” are two of the words they used but they remain very level-headed. Richard: “London for us is awesome. First of all it is another Olympics and take away everything around it, it is another race – 0 to 2,000 metres across a stretch of water as fast as you can. To compete in London, to win in London would be incredible.”

Pete: “It is going to be great. London 2012 will be fantastic. But when we are there we can take it all in, take the atmosphere in. At the moment I am just concentrating on getting there. At the moment [April], I am looking forward to the first world cup and moving on from there, one step at a time.”

They have already taken a lot of steps to get there, a few more should get them to the start line on the morning of Thursday 2 August 2012.

Technical terms: Richard’s event is Men’s Lightweight Four. That means 4 men in a boat (no cox). It is rowing with one oar not sculling (two oars, one in each hand). Lightweight means “the single-rower maximum is 72.5kg, and the maximum crew member average shall not exceed 70kg. “

WORDS STUART WEIR