Taking rowing to a different class; Hannah Davies speaks to one of the world's top athletes on why rowing has brought him a new life and opportunities.
UNTIL we start to get people from all walks of life interested in rowing we will have problems achieving success at an international level.
"The UK is the only country which seems to regard rowing as an elitist sport and that situation has got to change."
So speaks Durham University rowing coach Wade Hall-Craggs who has trained a west end Newcastle lad to be the best in the world at his level of rowing.
Wade, although undoubtedly on the posh side himself, is fighting against the idea of rowing as a "Toffs" sport.
This view isn't helped by the most prominent rowing event in the country, the university boat race.
But Wade and Kieren Emery, 17, of Denton Burn, who is now a world championship gold medal winner, are pushing to rid the sport of its upper crust image.
Most children who grow up on the region's city streets play football.
But what happens if you love sport but don't like kicking a ball around?
Kieren doesn't like it, he quite liked swimming but got bored with it.
Then, one day when he was only 10 a chance encounter gave Kieren the bug for rowing.
"I was on a bike ride at Newburn and I saw people out on the river.
"It just looked good and I wondered if I could have a go."
Kieren asked his parents if he could try rowing out. They were happy to give him the go-ahead so the following week he simply turned up outside the Tyne Rowing Club and waited for the doors to open.
"I'd gone off swimming a bit," he explains, "and I thought it looked like fun."
There were only six other young members at the club when he joined. But he was determined to give it a go, despite initially finding it hard going.
Kieren adds: "The first year really was really tiring.
"But after about a year I started making progress and finding it really good fun.
"After that I just wanted to keep on at it and started getting more and more into it." Kieren's enthusiasm took his parents a little unaware. Although dad Neil, an operations manager and former Royal Artillery Staff Sergeant, and mum Carolyn, who works in insurance for Northern Rock, are active - his dad plays football and his mum goes to the gym - they had never shown any interest in rowing.
His younger sister Shannon, 14, also showed no inclination for the sport.
"It was quite surprising really," says Carolyn, "We thought it would just be a phase like his swimming was and then he'd move on to something else."
But it was quite the opposite. Kieren discovered he had a real talent and more importantly thoroughly enjoyed the sport. And he was taken under the wing of Wade, the senior rowing coach at Durham Unive rsity.
Wade was at the time the only professional coach in the North-East, although matters have improved since.
By the age of 15 Kieren was rowing and training as often as he could. Trials for the under 16s followed. He rowed for Great Britain's under-16 team and then set his eyes on the world championship squad.
"It's always been my ambition really to get into the world rowing squad," he states simply. "When I didn't make it the first time I just kept up with my training to make sure I had a chance in the under 17s."
Qualification events began in October last year and at an event in Nottingham Kieren found out he had qualified for the coxless four squad at the World Junior Championships.
Training six days a week followed until a training camp in Cheshire which he followed a strict dietary regime with 6am starts and early nights. Then, earlier this month the squad; Kieren and teammates Matthew Rossiter of Abingdon School, George Nash of Winchester College and Jack Morrissey of Latymer School, London, were ready for the championships in China.
Kieren recalls: "It was so hot and humid. That was really hard to cope with. In fact the heat was the hardest thing.
"I panicked a bit because I'd never raced at that level before but the other guys helped me keep it together."
Kieren and his teammates managed to get through to the final without losing a single race. "I'd managed to get my focus by the final," Kieren adds, "I was full of energy, jumping around. The other lads had to tell me to calm down.
"We thought our main opposition was the Chinese. "They were used to the conditions and they were an unknown quantity as they hadn't raced last year."
The GB rowing team had failed to win a medal in any other event so all hopes were placed on the lads heads.
Kieren remembers: "We tried to stay as cool as possible before we set off.
"I can't remember that much about the actual race. Because of where I was sat I couldn't see the competition clearly, the angle I had meant I thought Germany were right on our tails.
"When I realised we had won it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. I still don't think it's sunk in properly."
The team had in fact a length lead by 1000m and just powered on to win.
The win meant Kieren became the third successful "stroke" to come out of the Durham University coaching system.
James Clarke currently rows with the GB senior lightweight men's four and Stephen Rowbotham with the GB senior men's double scull.
International success has meant a few interested parties have been keeping an eye on Kieren, including an Ivy League university in the United States. It's a fantastic result for a boy who by his own admission has never been particularly academic and who has been diagnosed with dyslexia.
Sport has opened up a myriad of opportunities.
Kieren says if he wasn't rowing he would be "probably doing nothing really."
He added: "None of the people I grew up with are up to much, they just hang around."
Kieren went to Walbottle Campus Technology College in Newcastle where from year nine he entered into an 'own-it' scheme at the school which allowed him to spend one afternoon a week doing work experience as a rowing coach with the Durham University Rowing Club.
This September Kieren is going to began a rowing coach apprenticeship with his coach Wade, at the university.
And it doesn't stop there. Since his international success US Ivy League university Browns are interested in getting Kieren to the college on a full scholarship.
It's exciting stuff for the Denton Burn lad.
"I'd never have thought I'd be doing everything I'm doing," he explains. "There is nothing else which would offer me these opportunities."
As the only person at his training camp not from private school, Kieren could have felt alienated. "It used to bother me a bit at first but I'm used to it, it doesn't bother me.
"I've got a lot of new friends through rowing, I'm so busy with it now that I don't really see anyone outside of it any more."
Kieren's family have been incredibly supportive, from his parents supporting him in China and ferrying him around the country to his uncle Paul and aunt Karen taking on transport duties when his parents have been working.
Kieren now has his sights set on repeating his international success next year, and on getting into the squad for the 2012 London Olympics.
Rowing coach Wade adds:"Kieren is an example of the kind of person we need to attract into rowing.
"It is an elitist sport at the moment, mainly because it is specifically encouraged in private schools and because it is very based in the South-East of England.
"It is much harder for our athletes to get to events which is why it is so important for us to have the investment in the region."
Through this investment by the likes of One NorthEast there have been a lot more professionals attracted to the region. Consequently Durham University Rowing Club now has a number of professional rowing coaches who are teaching the Kierens of the future.
Kieren himself has attracted a large number of youngsters into the sport, Wade says he can account for 60 people directly influenced by Kieren's success.
With a gold medal under his belt, Kieren and Wade are hoping his success will encourage yet more people to take up rowing.
Wade adds: "A lot of people object to juniors rowing which is ridiculous. In any sport people do the best when they begin young.
"No one was telling David Beckham he was too young to join the Manchester United Youth Club."
For more information on rowing in the region visit www.nerowing.com
If you would like to sponsor Kieren, with advertising on the side of his boat, call (0191) 243-4728.
ROWING is a sport for all ages and whether you want to go it alone, on land or water, or as part of a team, there is an aspect of the sport that appeals to most people.
As a low impact form of exercise (there is very little stress and strain on your joints) it uses more muscles than any other sport and is a proven way to improve your health and fitness.
Rowing in England is done in schools, gyms, on inland waterways and on the coast.
Clubs will provide you with the equipment and the instruction you need to start and most major towns and cities support at least one rowing club that will welcome beginners and numerous opportunities to enjoy rowing.
If you know where your local club is try dropping by on a weekend, but bear in mind most activity happens in the morning.
For more information visit: www.ara-rowing.org
It is an elitist sport at the moment, mainly because it is specifically encouraged in private schools