Introducing Ellen Buttrick, two-time world champion and our newest IMAS Ambassador!
Ellen Buttrick has recently joined the team of IMAS ambassadors, helping to spread the word about the benefits of Mixed Ability rowing. We caught up with Ellen to find out more about her rowing journey, and how the last 12 months has been for her…
How did you get into rowing?
I joined Leeds Rowing Club in 2012. I was actually on the waiting list for a year. I signed up because I lived near Roundhay park and that’s where they used to row, so I’d see them rowing up and down the lake and I thought it looked interesting and I might enjoy it. I also knew that a lot of rowers went to university. No one in my family had been to university so I thought maybe if I rowed, I could! I did a Learn to Row course in 2012 during the London Olympics, and then after the Olympics the waiting list got even longer than before, Leeds Rowing Club became really popular. A year later I went to University, and in 2014 I was diagnosed with my sight condition and that’s when I decided to move into Paralympic rowing. When I first started rowing during London 2012, they had been talking about athletes like Helen Glover who had only been rowing for around 4 years before they were on the podium, so I thought “that sounds like something I could potentially do”, even though it’s really hard! And then when I got my sight diagnosis I thought “well maybe I should go to the Paralympics instead” because when I’d watched the Paralympics in the past I had thought that the people participating were amazing and that if I had a disability I would want to do that – make the most of it.
I had to find the right club that would accept me for having my disability – I like the fact that IMAS provide training for how to work with different groups, because when I was first diagnosed with my sight impairment I went to a club that kept putting me in singles or in the steering seat on a busy river, and it made me walk away from the sport for a year. Eventually I came back to a different club (Leeds) and they were very accepting – they let everyone know about the barrier without making it a big thing. I’d like people to learn more about how they can make sport inclusive.
Did you take to rowing immediately when you started?
Well I have long limbs so I was naturally good and that made me want to keep at it, because I had finally found something that I was pretty good at, but I also liked that with rowing, if you put in the effort, you get better. I know that’s the case with a lot of things, but I had done a lot of hobbies as a child that I’d not excelled at, whereas with rowing I was putting in the effort and I was getting somewhere with it. So I had to put hard work in, but I did have natural height!
What do you like most about rowing and what attracted you to the sport?
I like being outside, but only in the summer! And I like the community. That’s what brings me in – being part of the team. When you’re in a boat and there’s four of you and you’re rowing together, that’s what keeps me there. When I went to university and when I moved back to Leeds afterwards, everything was changing, everything was different, but when I sat in the boat it felt comfortable, I can’t really explain it, but there’s a familiarity. That moment when I got in the boat, I had that feeling of “I can do this, I know what this is”, and that’s what brings me back, when you get on the water and you know you’re going to go somewhere and enjoy yourself.
Do you think that the fact that you have to be synchronised with your teammates when rowing helps you to also connect with them on an emotional level?
Maybe, yeah. At the moment we’re working on how we communicate in the boat. We’re working in pairs, and we literally have to talk constantly about how we’re feeling, so you are very well connected to one another. Things like “you need to tap down more”, “we need to slow down on the way up the drive”, “we need to get our catches in together” or “ we need to sit up at this point” – sometimes you talk so much about it that you just need to focus on one thing! But the way that I row is by thinking about everything.
And all of that’s happening while you’re still rowing?
Yes. And I steer the boat as well, even though I’m sight-impaired, so I’ll be saying “right, now we’re about to go onto a buoy, and we’re going to hit it!”
What is your most memorable experience of rowing?
I have two – one’s good, and one’s funny!
So the good one’s winning at the World Championships in 2018, which was my first international race. I’d been to the Caversham national training centre a year previously to get some information – I didn’t think they were going to invite me to row with them, I was just there to get some info! They said I had some of the traits they were looking for so they’d like me to be in the team. From January, I started going back to Caversham from Leeds every week to train, and when it got to April they told me that one of the rowers was injured and they’d like me to go in the boat. That same week, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t know what to do – it was a great opportunity, but I needed to be in Leeds to support my family. I was living at home at that point. My mum just wanted me to do it – it gave her something positive to focus on that wasn’t anything to do with cancer. So I decided to try – I continued to stay in Leeds and travel to Caversham for training so that I could still be with family at that time. I was only in the boat for about 3 months before the Worlds, and some of the others in the team had been racing for like 10 years internationally. It was so strange – a bit of a whirlwind! At one point I asked if they thought I would get a weights programme and they were like “of course you will, this is high performance sport, of course you’ll get a weights programme!” When we finally raced we actually won, which felt very weird!
The funny story was when I was doing the training at Caversham I was rowing in pair with one of my friends who was also on the programme. We set of and were talking about how well it was all going, rowing past all the top-level coaches! We took a stroke and my friend hadn’t put her blade in properly, so we capsized, in the middle of the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in front of all the Olympic, the Olympic team and the Paralympic coaches! We had to run up the tow path!
How has the pandemic affected you and your team?
So the Tokyo Games were postponed, and I think that was good because it wouldn’t have been fair with some countries not being able to train at various times. It meant that we didn’t have anything to focus on, so we had to make sure we had activities to do. We had Zoom ergos twice every week and created challenges for ourselves. We did lots of Zoom sessions on weights with the Paralympic squad, and lots of women from the Paralympic team joined a WhatsApp group called Para Queens and we trained together doing things like cycling and swimming which was inspirational and made we want to train harder!
Now we’re back and we’re able to train because we have special dispensation from the government, and we might be racing in April, so fingers crossed for that!
How is your training for Tokyo going and what are you most looking forward to about it?
It’s going well. I had an injury last year – a stress fracture in my pelvis – so I had to go back to the beginning really. I couldn’t walk or anything, I just had to sit in my house for a month. It upset me because during the first lockdown I was really motivated to get stronger and faster and better, I was training so hard, and I think I just trained too hard which led to the injury. When I was able to start training again in September I had to start from the beginning. I’m now at the point where I’m beating my PBs from before, so I’m in a really good place at the moment. I’m looking forward to competing and finally going to Tokyo, but I think it will be very different. I just hope we’ll be able to go and do what we’ve been trying to do for four years now.
Apart from rowing, what sports do you enjoy? Is there anything that you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to?
I’ve been doing a lot of cycling because of lockdown – I started that about this time last year. I had a bike before, but because of my sight I was always scared to go out. I’m not allowed to drive, and I have to be really careful because of course I don’t want to crash into anyone! But this year I’ve really built up my confidence with it – initially my housemate would come out with me and ride in front, and tell me if there were pot holes and things, but now I’ve worked out some routes from my house where I know where everything is and know that there won’t be too much traffic, so I’ve really enjoyed cycling. And I actually got a paddle board as well over the summer – I can walk about 200m down my street to the Thames and get on the water. And I’ve also done some surfing – I’d like to do a bit more of that!
You’ve recently become an ambassador for IMAS – what was your motivation for this?
I learned about IMAS a few years ago now, it was when I was joining the GB rowing team. I liked that it was opening up the sport to people who wouldn’t usually get involved. I want rowing to be able to help other people to join the community – it really helped me to get to new levels in my career. The people I met through rowing helped me to get to university and to get different jobs – not directly, but helped me to build the confidence and feel like I could do things. I want other people to have that opportunity.
What would you like to see more of in the landscape of rowing and how do you think this can be achieved?
I’d like to see greater diversity. It’s well-known that the more diverse the people in charge are, the better the decisions are made. I’ve just become a trustee for Love Rowing, and I think if we can have diverse voices in the sport we will be able to reach more people. Rowing is quite narrow at the moment, but it is widening and there is appetite within the community to help that happen, but a lot of rowing is volunteer-led, so it’s hard to make big changes. In the south, a lot of rowing coaches are paid, but in the north everything relies on volunteering, so I think we need to invest more in people’s time and that’s what will make a difference. I’m happy that British Rowing are doing a Diversity and Inclusion study at the moment and they’re going to try and change the policies, but also invest in that change.
Ellen will be joining us for the IMAS Virtual Rowing Festival 2021! Open to all rowers, rowing clubs and those interested in getting involved, the Festival will include keynote speech from Annamarie Phelps, a virtual regatta and a Top Tips workshop. Drop-in sessions will also be available to clubs and coaches wanting to find out more about getting started with Mixed Ability.
Register for your free ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/141972007095
Keynote and regatta launch: Tuesday 20 April, 17.00 – 18.30 via Zoom.
Keynote speech by Annamarie Phelps
Top Tips Workshop and regatta results: Thursday 22 April, 17.00 – 18.30 via Zoom.
Drop-in sessions for clubs and coaches available throughout the festival
Gain advice and support for setting up a sustainable Mixed Ability session, including safeguarding requirements, get to understand the multiple benefits of hosting a Mixed Ability squad, and learn about the pathways available either as a club or as an individual coach.
Click here to book a drop-in session.