Thanks to Camelot cash, pupils from outside traditional rowing elites will have the chance to emulate Steve Redgrave. Diane Spencer reports.
AS the British Olympic rowing teams celebrate their successes in Sydney, the next generation of medal winners is already taking to the waters up and down the country.
The sport has traditionally been the preserve of independent schools and the old universities, but that may be about to change.
Olympic star Steve Redgrave, who went to Great Marlow secondary modern, Buckinghamshire, broke the mould in l984 when he won the first of his five gold medals at the Los Angeles games. He was inspired by Francis Smith, his head of English and rowing master, who recognised his talents.
Redgrave left school, aged 16, to concentrate on his sport. His latest team partner, Matthew Pinsent, who has shared the last three Olympic and countless world championship medals with him, studied at Eton and Oxford.
Last year the Amateur Rowing Association started a national junior rowing programme to achieve a greater balance between the state and independent school sectors and to widen interest in the sport.
At the heart of the programme is the four-year Project Oarsome. Launched last November with pound;1.6 million from Sport England's lottery fund, it aims to bring the sport to 30,000 11 to 14-year-olds in 100 state schools.
Simon Dickie, the associations development officer for young people, said the project, which has links with 50 rowing clubs, was exceeding all expectations. So far 35 schools, new to rowing, have signed up giving 5,000 11-year-olds a "dry start" to rowing using indoor facilities. A significant number have also reached the water.
The lottery money has paid for coaches, volunteers and equipment.
Sport England has awarded about pound;17 million in lottery grants to rowing since 1997. Clubs are using the cash in a variety of ways. Hereford worked with its local sports development officer to link with the Bishop of Hereford's Bluecoat comprehenisve, a school that had strong sporting interests. Doncaster has added its grant to money from the 'priority areas' single regeneration budget. Evesham has successfully introduced rowing to two middle schools and one pupil has gone on to win a bronze medal in a national championship.
Novice rowers should take heart from Steve Redgrave who confessed to "skiving off" cross-country runs at school by cutting corners and hiding in hedges.
Tony Craig, a former teacher at Sir William Borlase's, the grammar school in Marlow, wrote to the Daily Telegraph this week wryly remarking that Steve would have more likely taken up rugby than rowing had he passed his 11-plus.
"It is unlikely that I would have persuaded him to row when I was rowing master at the school," he said.