Clear blue water Queen's University Belfast (The Graduate) 12 November 2010
When Cambridge University’s second string (Goldie) rowers challenged Queen’s 1st VIII to a race the week before going head to head with Oxford, they probably didn’t expect to receive a thrashing at the hands of the Belfast crew. Thanks to Queen’s Coach of the Year, Mark Fangen-Hall, that’s exactly what happened as Alumni Officer, Gerry Power, found out when he spoke to him in August.
“I want to create something special at Queen’s. We are already being recognised both internationally and closer to home and yet we’ve only just started,” says the quietly spoken Londoner.
Queen’s may have recently seen off rivals Trinity College Dublin in the annual Ramada Hotel Shaw’s Bridge Boat Race and they might be justifiably proud to hold men’s and women’s Irish and British University titles in several disciplines, but Fangen-Hall views these as ‘minor battle victories’.
Mark comes from a strong line of oarsmen - his father was a former coach to the Great Britain team in the 1980 Olympics. He represented GB in a coxed four in the under 23 World Championships and has held senior positions at Kingston Grammar School and Great Britain Rowing. He was also assistant coach at Cambridge Boat Club, working with the crews who race Oxford in the annual Boat Race.
“After a few years as a ski instructor in France, I wanted to get back into UK rowing and in coming to Belfast I certainly fell on my feet! It’s a real challenge and, in rowing terms, Queen’s is definitely a sleeping giant,” said the former top flight rugby player.
Few universities in the UK have a full-time professional rowing coach. Oxford and Cambridge (of course) along with Durham and Reading make up the powerhouse of college rowing.
On arriving in Belfast, Fangen-Hall was immediately struck by the level of enthusiasm shown by the University’s oarsmen.
“Everything, except for that enthusiasm, needed changing! The last real winning team here was in 1963, so clearly the opportunities now are mind-blowing.”
Recognising this, Coach Fangen-Hall doubled the training load on students shortly after he arrived, a move that was quickly and willingly accepted.
Unlike other sports where participation at an early age is a prerequisite, rowing is one of the few where both men and women can start from scratch at 15 and reach the top.
“It is physically demanding and time-consuming and it requires both self and collective discipline,” says Mark. “With up to 12 training sessions each week (2-3 hours at a time) you need be passionate. But it is a discipline that transfers easily into other areas of life.”
It is argued, by Mark and others, that rowing is the ultimate team activity, with the best oarsmen often coming out tops academically.
And there is more to rowing than just competition and results, as Fangen-Hall was keen to point out.
“While others might not agree, I am not obsessed with results! Coaching is all about process and performance. Given that teams tend to lose more than they win, consistency and stability are every bit as important as the result.”
A typical day for Mark, and for the athletes he trains, starts around 5.45am, with an early morning training session in Queen’s Physical Education Centre (PEC).
“The PEC has some world-class land training and testing facilities - rowing machines, weight trainers and so on,” says Mark. “They are probably the best outside of the US and I am delighted that Queen’s Sport now embraces the idea of elite rowing,” he adds.
With carbon fibre boats costing £6-£10k for a single scull, £10k for a pair and £30k for an eight (excluding a set of oars which will set Queen’s Rowing Club back £3k) rowing certainly isn’t cheap! Funding the sport at a top class level is one of the toughest challenges being faced by the Club.
“You can’t go fast in an old boat!” says Mark. “While the University is now putting more money into the sport, most of the boats at Queen’s are older than the people in them! Several are in a bad state and have to be patched up every summer and they are easily damaged.
Last year, each member of the Senior 8 contributed £3,500 to represent Queen’s. We don’t really have enough new boats or funds and at best a new boat really only lasts 3 seasons,” he added.
Without a doubt Queen’s has established clear blue water between itself and many of its main rowing rivals. Fangen-Hall has made a major impact in the 20 or so months he has been in charge, underscoring the influential role of a fulltime coach. And with Queen’s students helping Ireland win bronze at the recent World University Rowing Championships in Szeged, Hungary, Mark’s guidance is already helping the University’s rowers to fulfil their potential.
So what next for the sport at Queen’s?
“I am hopeful that Queen’s Rowing will recruit 70 freshers this year – and with it still being regarded as a ‘new sport’ a good intake is important. I also want to push Queen’s up the national and international rowing league tables.
And of course, I’d like to increase the number of new boats in the fleet,” he concluded.
With such a demanding schedule it is no wonder that Mark has little time for hobbies. But with the University now attracting enquiries from prospective students with an interest in rowing because of its growing reputation in the sport, the future looks bright for Queen’s, its oarsmen and its rowing coach.
Anyone interested in making a donation to the Rowing Academy equipment fund should contact Shauna Hughes in the Development Office - 028 9097 3233 or by email - firstname.lastname@example.org