Dr Adair Ferguson OAM, ASM
Adair Ferguson OAM ASM – Athlete member of the Sport Australian Hall of Fame (1986)
Commercial Rowing Club (QLD) then Canberra Rowing Club (ACT) from 1992 and currently ANU Boat Club (ACT)
Apart from her many successes, athletic ability and incredible longevity in the sport, the interesting themes of her rowing career include demonstrated drive, courage and perseverance, that her full potential was impacted by adversity along the way and that she was a trailblazer in many ways and holds the impressive mantle of Australia’s first female world champion rower and first mother to row on the national team.
Adair’s rowing story is both fascinating and interesting, it would make a good book.
Before her rowing career commenced, Adair was a great all-round sports woman, representing Queensland in cross country running, winning a triathlon which in turn won her a trip to Hawaii, and enjoying soccer, to name just some activities. Being a science and human movement graduate from the University of Queensland, she was always going to analyse sports to best suit her highly developed aerobic capacity, stature and weight. Whatever sport she was going to pursue in earnest, it was bound to be to be a physically demanding sport.
A chat with one of her one of her fellow soccer players led her to try rowing at Commercial RC. Her first row in a pair arose when she arrived at the club when a long-distance regatta was to be held. Future partner Nigel Harding took her under his wing and taught her to row on the way to the start. She loved it despite her hands being torn to shreds in the process. She knew that this was her sport and she started in earnest in a sweep-oared group at Commercial Rowing Club, and later in a sculling group under coach Noel Langton.
Adair and Noel at Hazelwinkel in 1985
Of great interest is that she began rowing at the age of 27, an age when many have retired from the sport. Success was immediate with a Queensland pair-oared Championship in December 1983. This was followed in 1984 by a string of State Championships her first full year of rowing. But the best was to come in 1985, her first national title, followed by a win in the Interstate Women’s single scull (Nell Slatter Trophy), then her World Championship in the lightweight scull at Hazewinkel at the age of 29. It was a stellar rise.
As an aside, 1985 brought in significant changes for both lightweights and women at the international level with the distance for senior women increasing from 1000m to 2000m and lightweights gaining World Championship status. So Adair’s win was the inaugural World Championship for the women’s lightweight scull.
Adair’s World Championship win also made her Australia’s first female world champion rower. She won the Sport Australia Athlete of the Year award for 1985, as well as the award for the best single sporting performance of the year, beating out other sporting luminaries such as cricketer Allan Border and boxer Jeff Fenech. As a consequence she was automatically inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. This was followed in 1987 by an Order of Australia Medal.
As with all elite athletes, the journey is full of both many highs and lows. Her career has been a roller coaster.
The highs of course include her 1985 World Championship which gave her increased confidence and validation that hard work gets results.
And also her Commonwealth Games win in the following year where she contracted a virus overseas which put her in bed for a week in the lead-up to the Games in Scotland, and the subsequent Nottingham world championships. After leaving her sick bed to compete in the Games, she won gold in the lightweight sculls in a tight finish from New Zealand sculler, Philippa Baker. It was a courageous effort; Baker passed her with 800m to go and Ferguson summoned all her resources to get to the front again in the shadows of the post.
Always being focused on her performance, in Scotland Adair insisted upon staying close to the course and not with the team to avoid the long bus journeys to the course. This did not endear her to team officials and it was of course controversial. To Adair it was simple, athletes are judged on performance and this was assisting her performance.
Unlike her contemporaries of the day, she stood out by keeping active during travel and drank plenty of water - all standard practice now.
But there were also downs that year. Defending her title at the World Championships in Nottingham after the Commonwealth Games, Adair was still suffering from the effects of her illness and was unable to reproduce her best form. She did well to finish a very close fifth in the final, albeit in a very fast time of 7 minutes 36 seconds.
It was at this time that Adair became a trail blazer again. This time being both an elite athlete and a mother, with her eldest son, Angus, being born in 1987. It was very different in those days and unheard of to do so in almost all sports. It was therefore a matter of considerable discussion.
Her Nell Slatter Trophy wins as a mum 1988 and 1990 following her inaugural win in 1985 figure highly in her memory, as do many of her subsequent national titles in crewed sculling boats and podium appearances in sweep-oared events.
Her greatest disappointment was never making an Olympic team. She is convinced that the selectors got it wrong in 1988 by not trialling any women rowers, much less sending her and Gillian Campbell as a double. Adair was of the view that this crew, with the right preparation, was a definite chance to make the Olympic final and even to medal. She was disappointed that the selectors did not even try to find a potentially faster combination, whether for the double or other boats.
The selectors had in fact told elite female rowers the previous year that no women’s crews were of the required standard for those Games, but women rowers refused to believe this. Had she got sufficient support from other rowers, Adair would have mounted a legal challenge. Eventually, Rowing Australia permitted her double to undertake their own tour to the Lucerne International Regatta to prove their worth. In order to undertake this trip, they gained sponsorship from Nestle who saw the opportunity for some ambush marketing given that Rowing Australia’s principal sponsor was Cadbury. Again, rowing officials were not amused. Enquiries by the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner added to the mix.
For Adair, the pressure on her double was further exacerbated by moving to Sydney with her young child to train with Gillian Campbell. It was a tough time, with her 6 month old baby, Angus a very poor sleeper, in a cot next to her bed. Mark Campbell assisting with childminding activities.
Sadly, the crew missed the final at Lucerne by half a length after Adair came off her seat during their qualifying race. Their efforts for Olympic team membership were thwarted.
In 1989, Adair in the lightweight scull was Australia’s top ranked boat for the World Championships. Again misfortune arose when the pin on her stroke side rigger broke and loosened during the semi-final and she was relegated to final B, which she won comfortably in a time equivalent to the winning time set in final A, which was the next race. As her team manager at that time, I recall the torment of this situation.
I also recall her unusual rig. She placed herself well through the work with a much wider span and longer blades than her competitors. This was particularly unusual for lightweight women who don’t have the power of larger rowers. Coach Noel Langton and Adair had worked empirically with different rigs to find which produced the best speed for her unusual body type. The resulting rig emphasised a steep catch angle resulting in very efficient boat run through the catch, maximum acceleration around the square-off position, and a shallow finish angle for cleaner extraction.
A trip to the world championships in Lake Barrington in 1990 resulted in another fifth placing after several problems with a new boat that was delivered to Adair at that event, as well as a succession of race delays.
In her endeavours to gain Olympic selection in 1992, Adair moved to Canberra and the AIS in 1991, where she gave birth to her second child in August 1991 before embarking on her Olympic campaign. She has remained in Canberra to this day. The aim was to put together a medal winning quad. In the end Adair’s performance was not optimal in her new environment and only a double was selected.
In the following years (1993, !994) Adair again represented Australia in the lightweight single scull at the world championships, placing fifth and sixth in the A final respectively.
Adair on her way to victory at 1994 National Championships
In 1995, at the age of 39, Adair was selected as the emergency in the Women’s heavyweight quad scull for the World Championships in Finland. She was substituted into the final crew while overseas and raced at those championships.
In trials for the Olympic team in 1996, Adair commented that the heavyweight quad and double combinations were not given sufficient opportunity to be tested. In the end she again missed her opportunity to race in the Olympic Games and was again selected for the lightweight single scull, this time at the 1996 non-Olympic world championships in Scotland.
But tragedy struck. Adair suffered a significant fall in a cycling race in which her back was badly broken. She tried valiantly to make it with stationary bike and ergo training, and miraculously made the required 2000m ergo standard with days to go before the team departed for Scotland. However, yet another misfortune occurred when she contracted pneumonia overseas and had to be withdrawn from the championships. Ironically just before she fractured her spine and scapula she had also been offered a position on the Olympic Team as reserve for the quad scull.
Ferguson continued to compete throughout the late 1990s and onwards, winning an open national rowing title at the age of 45 in 2001 and representing the ACT as recently as 2021.
Her masters racing career is also significant and no attempt is made to cover this part of her story in this short profile.
In true Adair style, she commenced a medical degree at the age of 50 and has never looked back. She approached her studying program as a training program. Her rowing skills and disciplines were all thoroughly used to create a structured and detailed approach. The persistence, patience and focus of sport were all called upon. Given that she struggles to sit for more than an hour, these rowing disciplines were amply used.
She is now a content Canberra GP who cycles everywhere to see her patients and continues to train both on and off the water.
Her personal life has also travelled different paths with many highs as well as a few lows. She has three sons and a fulfilling family life. She does admit that her sons have picked up some of her over-active traits. Her youngest, Hamish, made the national team in 2022. Her medical student years were tough being a single mother at that time.
A recent challenge for her was a fight against breast cancer. In true Adair fashion, she continued to train through chemotherapy and says that it kept her going. She continued to ride to appointments and refused to feel like a victim. It was the right thing to do for her and it helped her to stay positive through the gruelling treatment. She was grateful for Australia’s public health system. She reflects on her ability to deal with this ailment with the comment, “There is so much value in sport”.
Adair says that she appreciates rowing more now than ever before. She is not driven by the need to race and appreciates it for the beauty of the movement and the privilege of being on the water in the mornings at sunrise. And, now in her late sixties, she also appreciates being able to continue doing it well.
And still on the National Championships podium winning the quad in 2001 with Nigel Harding coaching
Known significant rowing record and awards (excludes masters rowing)
1983 - Queensland Championships, Senior Pair, bow – First
1984 – Queensland Championships, Lightweight Scull – First
1984 – Queensland Championships, Senior Double Scull, stroke – First
1984 – Queensland Championships, Lightweight Double Scull, stroke – First
1984 – Queensland Championships, Senior Eight, three seat – First
1985 – Queensland Championships, Senior Scull – First
1985 – Queensland Championships, Senior Eight, three seat – First
1985 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow - Second
1985 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat - Second
1985 – National Championships, Lightweight Scull – First
1985 – Interstate Championships, Nell Slatter Trophy - First
1985 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull – Gold
1985 – Sport Australia Athlete of the Year, Best Single Sporting Performance of the Year
1986 – Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
1986 - Queensland Championships, Senior Pair, bow – First
1986 – Queensland Championships, Senior Double Scull, bow – First
1986 – Queensland Championships, Senior Eight, five seat – First
1986 – National Championships, Scull – First
1986 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow - First
1986 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat - Second
1986 – Commonwealth Games – Lightweight Scull – First
1986 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull - Fifth
1987 – Queensland Championships, Senior Scull – Third
1987 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow – Second
1987 – National Championships, Eight, two seat – Second
1987 – Awarded Order of Australia Medal
1988 – National Championships, Scull – Second
1988 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow - First
1988 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat - First
1988 – Interstate Championships, Nell Slatter Trophy - First
1989 – Queensland Championships, Senior Scull – First
1989 – Queensland Championships, Senior Double Scull, stroke – First
1989 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow – race not conducted due to cyclone
1989 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat - race not conducted due to cyclone
1989 – National Championships, Lightweight Scull – First
1989 – Interstate Championships, Nell Slatter Trophy - race not conducted due to cyclone
1989 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull - Seventh
1990 – Queensland Championships, Senior Double Scull, bow – First
1990 – Queensland Championships, Senior Quad Scull, three seat – First
1990 – Queensland Championships, Senior Eight, seven seat – First
1990 – National Championships, Scull – Second
1990 – National Championships, Double Scull, stroke - Second
1990 – National Championships, Quad Scull, bow - First
1990 – Interstate Championships, Nell Slatter Trophy - First
1990 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull - Fifth
1991 - Queensland Championships, Senior Pair, bow – First
1991 – Queensland Championships, Senior Quad Scull, stroke – First
1991 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow - Third
1991 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat - Second
1992 – Queensland Championships, Senior Scull – First
1992 - Queensland Championships, Senior Pair, bow – First
1992 – Queensland Championships, Senior Double Scull, bow – First
1992 – Queensland Championships, Senior Eight, five seat – First
1992 – National Championships, Double Scull, stroke - Third
1992 – National Championships, Quad Scull, bow - First
1993 – National Championships, Double Scull, bow - Second
1993 – National Championships, Quad Scull, three seat – First
1993 – National Championships, Lightweight Scull - First
1993 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull - Fifth
1994 – National Championships, Lightweight Scull - First
1994 – Queensland Championships, Senior Scull – Second
1994 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull – Sixth
1995 – World Championships, Quad Scull, bow – Thirteenth
1996 – National Championships, Lightweight Scull - Third
1996 – National Championships, Lightweight Double Scull, stroke - Third
1996 – World Championships, Lightweight Scull – selected but did not compete
1997 - National Championships, Quad Scull, bow – Second
1998 – National Championships, Quad Scull, bow - Third
1998 – National Championships, Eight, two seat – Fifth
2001 - National Championships, Quad Scull, bow – First
2001 – National Championships, Coxless Four, bow - Second
2020 - National Championships, Quad Scull, bow – race not conducted due to pandemic
2020- – Interstate Championships, Victoria Cup, bow – race not conducted due to pandemic
2021 – Interstate Championships, Victoria Cup, bow - Sixth
Then a very successful masters rowing career to this date.
- Author’s records including this site
- Adair Ferguson | Sport Australia Hall of Fame (sahof.org.au) extracted 28 October 2023
- Interview with Adair Ferguson October 2023