By Sam Colvine
There was an air of uncertainty the last time HSC talked to Ollie Stanhope OH (2016). The Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to tighten its grip on everyday life, with cancellations punctuating the sporting calendar, including, most notably for the rower, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. In those precarious days, Stanhope could not have envisioned the culmination of the next two years: a Gold medal round his neck and the letters MBE at the end of his name.
Despite heralding from a rowing background, with his father, Richard, securing a Silver medal at the 1980 Olympic Games, Stanhope’s road to success began in triathlon, eventually transitioning to the boat on the advice of a form tutor from Halliford School, which he attended until the completion of his GCSEs. In 2014, rowing coach Mr Neil Double recruited him to Hampton School for the Sixth Form.
Stanhope’s two years at the School were vital for his career and he attributes much of his technical and mental progression to the coaching and culture at the Boat House: “The system at Hampton is up there with the national team. Everybody gets involved and everybody helps out.”
Attaining several accolades with the Second VIII, such as qualification for the Temple Challenge Cup in 2015, Stanhope entered the rowing programme at Oxford Brookes University after leaving Hampton. Up to this point, his career had been accented by one smooth transition after another. However, at university, this continuous progress was stymied – his rowing machine scores were insufficient, and he was cut.
Despite being born with mild cerebral palsy, Stanhope had competed in able-bodied rowing until this abrupt setback and a return to the competitive side of the sport appeared inconceivable. However, when a call came from Peter Sheppard, then GB Rowing’s Chief Coach for U23 and Juniors, he was told that he could classify as a disabled athlete – a second chance. Naturally, Stanhope was hesitant, pondering the extent of his disability: “I’m not really as disabled as what you see at the top end of Paralympic sport.” In the end, his doubts were assuaged as he was double over the level necessary to qualify.
With his career rapidly resuscitated, Stanhope’s passion for rowing, sustained by his involvement at Molesey Boat Club, ensured that he accepted the opportunity. “I love the sport. Rowing has a really good community – it’s a smaller sport and everyone looks after each other. Most of the time, coaches are volunteers, especially at clubs, so you get a certain community feel around it.”
Success in abundance followed this portentous decision, with Stanhope largely competing in the PR3 Mix4+ category. Gold medals ensued as he climbed onto the top step of the podium at a trio of World Rowing events in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Indeed, Stanhope dubs the latter as their “best year as a crew” reaching the zenith of collective performance – Paralympic glory surely beckoned in 2020. Yet, with the Tokyo Games just months away, a chance to reach the uppermost echelon of para rowing was snatched from his crew as the pandemic arrived, and the competition was moved to 2021.
In the year that followed, Stanhope made individual gains, sticking to a disciplined schedule of indoor training. However, the lack of collective practice detracted from the crew’s performance, with injuries plaguing his teammates. “You need to build in to rowing more because you build the crew momentum, the technique, how you move; you build that through the cycle so, when you don’t sit in a boat for six months, you lose that feel.” By the spring of 2021, the pandemic had waned sufficiently for the games to go ahead, albeit a year behind schedule.
“It was like living in a kettle.” This was Stanhope’s typically incisive assessment of the Covid games. Unsurprisingly, the rigours of the testing regime, sometimes at 4am before training, and social distancing stipulations had repercussions for performance, with the fear of the dreaded second red line adding “stress to the crew.” Nonetheless, the competitors dealt resolutely with the many challenges that faced them and the pre-tournament preparation ascribed to the crew was fruitful: “the team as a whole did a really good job building round [the pandemic]. We had really good facilities as well as a pre-camp at a university in Keio which was really nice.”
Finally, Stanhope’s time arrived, again competing in the PR3 Mix4+. After a routine heat, the crews faced a strong head wind in the final, reducing the affair to a gruelling race of attrition. Despite a poor start, the GB outfit moved past the Americans at the 1km mark and, when they were length clear, he began to think: “now I can relax.” In the end, it was a dominant victory for the crew, securing gold by over ten seconds – Stanhope had reached the very top.
“The main emotion was relief. It was a dream of mine to even race for Team GB and I thought I might get a year or two if I was lucky. Most of the hard stuff we do as para rowers is behind the scenes; we do a silly amount of mileage, so we don’t need to worry about racing.”
As if his year could not get any better, an MBE followed his golden glory, awarded for services to rowing. The permanence of the accolade was what particularly struck him: “it stays with you for life while you’re only a Paralympic champion for four years. Everybody understands what it takes and what it means.” However, the familiar spectre of Covid shadows Stanhope even here – the backlog engendered by the pandemic has prevented him from collecting the honour.
Stanhope is part of a long line of Hampton rowing heritage: it is three decades since the Searle brothers won gold at the 1992 Olympic Games, while five Old Hamptonians were involved in the University Boat Race this year. So, what does he believe is the root of this success? A culture conducive to achievement is certainly a factor: “we all look after each other.” Stanhope also emphasises the importance of high-quality coaching at the School: “Neil [Double], Helen [Taylor] and Colin [Greenaway] do a really good job of instilling strong technical foundations into the boys.” When these elements are combined with ardent dedication, it is clear to see why so many Hamptonians go on to enjoy success at the pinnacle of the sport.
Although Stanhope has triumphed at the highest level of para rowing, he has more gold in his sights, aspiring to win in both the pair and the four in the next instalment of the World Rowing event.
“Ultimately, I’m just trying to enjoy it. You only get so many strokes out of your body so I’m trying to make the most of them.” Having emerged from 2021 as a Paralympic champion and with an MBE to his name, no one can doubt that he did.