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Annie drops rugby to row into starlight

Annie Morrison is a natural on water and within months of starting rowing was winning medals. Her Olympic ambitions can be only a few strokes away, writes Roddy Mackenzie.

It may have taken Annie Morrison a circuitous route to find where her innate sporting talent lies, but it should have come as no surprise that it is in rowing. Her great grandfather, Willie Morrison, was a co-founder of the Eastern Amateur Rowing Club in Portobello, Edinburgh, in the late 19th century.

The club is now defunct but still benefits top-class rowers.

When it was wound up some 10 years ago, surplus funds were put towards the indoor Portobello Tank at the National Rowing Academy, which opened at Strathclyde Park last year.

Eighteen-year-old Annie, who is head girl at Portobello High, was a late starter in rowing in spite of her family background. She did not take it up until two-and-a-half years ago.

She used to play girls' rugby but had to join the boys for training when she was 14 and 15 as there was no junior girls' team in the Edinburgh area at that time. She enjoyed the competitive edge the game offered and trained with Edinburgh University and Musselburgh before trying her hand at rowing.

"I think my interest came from watching Steve Redgrave on television." she says.

Annie, who is a fraction over six feet tall, found she was immediately embraced by the rowing fraternity. "I hate being tall and people used to always comment on my height but when I went along to rowing first of all, everyone commented favourably," she explains.

Within a few months, Annie was starting to make waves in the sport. In her first competitive outing - the British Schools Championships in Nottingham last year - she surprised herself by winning a bronze medal in the single sculls. It was not something she had anticipated and it propelled her towards making even more of a mark in the Scottish Championships a fortnight later.

"My coach said there was no pressure and I should aim just to reach the finals in Nottingham, so getting a medal was not expected," she says.

"Then I rowed in the Scottish Championships and won the Scottish Schools Single Sculls Under-16 title.

"But when I went to the British National Championships I didn't finish the race; I took ill in the boat. A speedboat had to come and get me. I think it was just too much for me.

"Most rowers had been racing from the age of 11 and built up to the championships but I didn't have the race experience to cope. It all just hit me.

"I vowed then I would never row again but that lasted about two-and-a-half weeks."

When she was tempted back into the water, it was not in the single sculls but in fours. Indeed, it was not until a couple of months ago that she was back in a boat by herself.

As the only pupil in her school who rows, Annie has been forced to look elsewhere for sporting companions and has joined the crew at George Watson's College.

"George Heriot's and George Watson's both wanted me to go there," she says, "but I liked Portobello High, even though I was the only one who rowed. My friends were all there and I was happy. Watson's then kindly said that I could join their team."

It is an open rowing club, so she can row for them in competitions. She trains with the Great Britain junior international rower Kirsty Myles, who is a pupil at George Watson's College, and there is a chance they will be the top junior double sculls pair in Britain this season.

Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Annie is on the water within an hour of finishing at school and she spends two hours in the gym on Wednesdays. There is racing most weekends.

Even at home Annie can still be found rowing. Her parents bought her a top-of-the-range rowing machine as a reward for passing her Higher exams.

(She has passes in maths, English, physics, chemistry and biology and wants to study civil engineering at Glasgow University.) "Depending on my school commitments, I will sometimes be up at 6.15am to use the rowing machine at home for 40 minutes before getting ready for school.

"I spend most weekdays on the water after school, but I still have a social life as I can be back in the house every evening by 6pm, and that is important to me," says Annie.

Financial support has been limited. She has an Edinburgh Leisure pass to use their sports centres at a discounted price and has recently received a pound;1,000 grant from the Birnie Trust, a charitable body set up to help home-grown sporting talent between the ages of 13 and 18. The funds will help her with competition and training expenses.

With boats costing pound;4,500 and the regular trips to England to test herself against the best in her age-group, rowing can be an expensive pursuit, especially with little financial aid from the Scottish Amateur Rowing Association. However, Annie is determined to give it her best shot and her goal is to compete at the Olympic Games.

"The great thing for me is that I really enjoy rowing and all the training involved," she says. "It would be nice to think I'll get to the Olympics one day, but as long as I keep enjoying it I'll keep rowing as long as I can."

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