13 May 2012

Will Satch; Henley's New Rowing Hero

Will Satch with Silver in Belgrade

With a silver medal from the first World Cup Regatta of the season around his neck there is a new confidence in the stride of young Henley athlete Will Satch. Still only 22, this is his first year on the Men's Senior GB RowingTeam. Though quiet and unassuming he is an imposing figure, at 6ft 5inches and 100kg with a shock of copper hair he dominates any room not already filled with rowers. Currently rowing with partner George Nash of Cambridge University in the technically challenging coxless pair, the duo have quickly made an impression on the international rowing scene, raising expectations for the remainder of the season and with the hint of an Olympic medal in their sights.

But Will doesn't share his partner's Oxbridge background; brought up in a small house in Hurley he came to the sport because his best friend had started with Henley's Upper Thames Rowing Club. He is remembered there at the age of 12 as a little round ball of ginger energy, even then with a racers unrelenting desire to win. Former chairman of Upper Thames Steve Dance, recalls,

"He was small for his age, and seemed to be on the chubby side, but he won his first race for us almost exactly 10 years ago in under 13 double sculls and hasn't really looked back. It has been amazing watching his transformation over the years, as the puppy fat has been replaced with height and muscle, and he just keeps on winning."

Will as a junior at Upper Thames
Continuing his rowing at Shiplake College where he gained a rugby scholarship, having been something of a tear-away at his first school, he rowed in the First Eight under inspirational coach Athol Hundermark, while out of school he continued to perform for Upper Thames. My own memory of him at that age is of sitting in the seven seat while he was at stroke in a scratch crew for the Eight's Head of the River Race, when he was just 16. I was amazed at his strength and the relentless metronomic rates he produced over the 4 1/4 miles. Clearly the boy had talent.

As we share a coffee just down the street from his small flat, shared with three other rowers in Henley, I ask Will to reflect on his transformation from promising junior to potential Olympic medal winner.

"It's been very hard work with a lot of highs and some real lows, but it's not that long ago I was catching crabs in junior 14 octuples. I didn't go to the Junior World Championships so for me the step up has been very demanding; a lot of people have helped me on the way, particularly at Leander Club, where Arnie Zarach got me to scull properly, Brian Armstrong was a great coach and Mark Banks still supports me with help and advice. It's very much my club now, being local it means a lot to me and I love being there."

His modesty hides what is a a clear determination to win at the Olympic's, nurtured since his early teens. But it was his success at Henley Royal Regatta winning the Thames Cup when still only 18 that gave him the belief that he could do something special.

"We won the Thames and the following year came close in the Ladies Plate, it was then I started to believe that I could make it as an athlete. I gave up the chance to go to university to pursue my dream and while it's a huge sacrifice, I feel as though it's worked in my favour."

Amongst the many people who have helped Will on his way he gives a lot of credit to his mum Sally and step-dad Martin a lecturer at Henley College, who have supported him through thick and thin. Sally a teacher at Shiplake College explains her admiration for her son's mental strength;

Stroking the Shiplkae VIII at Henley Regatta
"I am of course proud of Will, but I'm his mum I've been proud of every step he's taken. The huge thing I feel is the most tremendous respect every day for a boy that is able to dig so deep into seemingly fathomless resources, physically, but more mentally and emotionally, to do this again and again and again. He is one of the most mentally tough people I know. Awesome." 

Progressing in to the GB team that went to the Youth Olympic Festival in Australia in 2007 and then the under 23 team at the age of 19, Will mentions former partner Will Laughton as the rower who taught him how to row a coxless pair, a lesson that remains with him to this day. Staying in the under 23's for 3 seasons gave him invaluable international experience and two World Bronze medals in the VIII.

It's obvious that Will has matured from the tear-away of his early teenage years, in fact he spent 3 years while training at Leander coaching youngsters at his old club Upper Thames, an experience he describes as "very fulfilling." He now talks of rowing as a sport that is all about setting small goals and making incremental progress, the language of the international athlete. But he is aware that he is privileged to be in the position he now occupies having seen many of his former colleagues drop out.

"The training is incredibly hard, we do three sessions a day normally involving a weights session, followed by two sessions of 20 plus kilometres on the water or the ergo (rowing machine). During the course of an average week we'll row over 200 kilometres, though we try not to think of it like that. It's undoubtedly hard and it's easy to pick up an injury, but I've been lucky so far."

His favourite part of the day is the breakfast back at Leander Club in Henley, between the early morning weights session at Bisham Abbey and the rowing and ergo sessions at The Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Caversham. But even Leander's fabled breakfast can't make up for the time away from home,

"We have a number of overseas training camps plus all the international regattas away, so we don't get to see our friends, family or girlfriends very much, or have much of a normal life at all. Right now though with London 2012 looming, everyone in the team is happy to make the sacrifice."

Racing for GB with George Nash in Belgrade
As far as the relentless training is concerned, Will embraces the challenge,

"It is Jurgen's programme (Jurgen Groebler GB Head Coach) that gives the GB men's team the edge, every stroke we row, every weight we lift brings us closer to the Olympic final and the chance of a medal. I have real belief in Jurgen and the other coaches, and huge respect for his achievements." 

It was Rio 2016 that Will originally set his sights, so his current success is unexpected. He puts it down to the way he has worked his way up through the team, working hard and taking nothing for granted. Indeed others speak of his positive attitude and perseverance, uncomplainingly doing everything that's asked of him. Now after the first World Cup Regatta of the season, where he and George rowed a mature race to win Silver in Belgrade the rowing world is starting to pay attention.

The GB Men's 2- George Nash & Will Satch
"We know there are other crews to come into the mix, the Kiwi's and Italians weren't in Belgrade so we know it will be harder as the season goes on, we have to perform in Lucerne and Munich, but from not even expecting to be in the team for London 2012 we really believe we can win Gold for Britain, we're the underdogs and that works for us."

Indeed the crew of Will and George is going faster and faster and with a specially built new boat and the confidence of youth, Henley's newest Olympic medalist could well be Will Satch.