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australian rowers profiles and history

Islay R Lee

Lismore Rowing Club (NSW), Sydney University Boat Club, Glebe Rowing Club then Sydney Rowing Club (NSW)

When Sydney Rowing Club bestowed Life Membership on Islay in 1980, the Club aptly concluded that he is a great oarsman, a born leader, a true competitor, and a great Clubman. 

He has lived a very full rowing life being a superb oarsman, a club administrator, national selector, noted schoolboy coach and also President of Rowing Australia.

In addition to all this, Islay was a teacher, rowing master at a number of schools including 11 years at the Southport School in Queensland, deputy headmaster at The King’s School, Sydney, and finally headmaster at Rockhampton Grammar School - a very full and successful professional life.

Islay comes from Lismore and his early rowing was with the Lismore Rowing Club. It is clear to the author after speaking with Islay that his father was an enterprising man. When Isaly showed some promise, his father asked about to find out who was the best coach in the world. At that time, it was Karl Adam, the highly successful and innovative German coach. He wrote to Karl about assisting Islay and received a positive response. A training program was received and reviews of Super 8mm films followed. Many years later, Adam’s daughter visited Sydney after the 1978 World Championships and recalled how her father mentioned Islay often during that time.

Given that Islay’s father was a teacher, any competition in Sydney required school to finish on Friday before heading down the highway on the long trip to Sydney. Islay slept on a lilo in the back whilst his father drove. He won two second grade State Championships with this routine. 

However, this was not easy and induced his father to read the rules about the State Championships. He found a professional sculling style by-law enabling the champion to name the time and place of the championship defence. NSWRA was advised that Brushgrove on the Clarence River was the venue of the defence of the second grade sculling championship. The administrators of the day were not keen to see the championship moved so far north and insisted on a surveyed course, which was provided. Then a requirement for a coaching path down the full course was added (despite the Nepean River not having such a facility). Islay’s father advised that the farmers would put up temporary electric fencing to keep their livestock in place and would mow the river’s edge. NWSRA gave in and Islay’s 1967 second grade championship was raced on the Clarence. Not unexpectedly, this by-law was subsequently removed from the rule book.

At the Bushgrove championship defence, World Champion professional sculler George Cook, made himself known to Islay. Whilst George had never coached anyone before, he said to Islay that if he comes to Sydney, he would coach him at Glebe Rowing Club. George thought that he could More on this shortly.

Whilst Islay’s father was enterprising, it was also clear that he expected his son to fund his own university education to enter his chosen profession as a teacher. There was a good opportunity to obtain a bursary at Armidale NSW but that would be the end of his rowing career. The other opportunity was to gain one of 12 places at Sydney University which would require high academic scores together with excellent sporting prowess. The sport is fortunate that Islay performed well in year 12 despite maths not being a strong subject and gained one of these 12 places.

Islay initially raced unsuccessfully with Sydney University Boat Club until at one twilight regatta, Islay heard George Cook shout out to him “I told you to row at Glebe”. With that, George gave him directions to row around to Black Wattle Bay in the dark, without lights, and meet him there. Despite not knowing the way and nearly being written off by ferry, Islay may the trip to Glebe Rowing Club.

George was not a technician, but used all his professional sculling training and racing experience to coach Isaly. In Islay’s words, “he taught me how to race”. George understood the need for extensive training embracing Fairbairn’s view that miles make champions. He also used pace makers in the last month before a big race, in the same manner as professional scullers had done in the past. Over a 2000m course, George would use three to four scullers who would each race various parts of the race beside Islay. There was no where to hide nor any let off in such racing.

His move to Glebe in 1969 enabled him to win Glebe’s first NSW Championship for 36 years - the 1969 NSW Championship Second Grade Scull. In 1972, he became Glebe’s first National Champion with a win in the President’s Cup, the Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship. There was a hope of selection into the 1972 Olympic team, but this was not to be.

The move to Sydney Rowing Club in 1975 was to enhance his chances of selection in 1976 Olympic team. It worked, and he entered the most successful part of his rowing career. His leadership, together with his athletic and rowing abilities were used to great effect with many domestic successes and membership of two subsequent Olympic teams.

1976 Olympics
Left to right: Ian Shaw, Stuart Carter and Islay Lee after their win in the heat

Islay receiving the King's Cup in 1978

1980 National Championship winning coxed pair
Left to right: Islay Lee, Ian Club, Alan Grover

And a comfortable win in the coxed four at 1980 National Championships - Islay stroking

After the 1976 Olympics, Islay realized that to get medals in international competition, the fixation with the eight needed to stop. If we have four good rowers who make a four go fast, then select a four. Islay had another great four in 1978 which was many lengths faster than the coxed four sent to 1978 World Championships. However, again his four was selected in the eight which finished fourth. Another opportunity was lost. Not deterred, he imported a Stampfli four and started training in that boat. In addition to the four, Steve Handley and Islay combined in an excellent coxed pair in 1979 and 1980, creating again opportunities for the Australian selectors to focus on boats other than the eight.

Sadly, the endeavor failed, with families, Clubs, State selectors and national selectors diluting the dream with their focus on the eight oared boat. For example, he and Steve Handley were “taught a lesson” in 1979 by pursuing smaller boats and left out of the State eight despite being two of best rowers in the State. In 1980, the focus was on the eight again. Steve and Islay were again pulled into the Olympic eight and not given the opportunity to race in a pair.

When asked about disappointments in his rowing career, Islay points immediately to this period. The inability to race internationally in a fast boat other than the eight was the low point of his career.

Despite this disappointment, Islay’s rowing career was stellar and his standing in the sport was such that he was elected Captain of Sydney Rowing Club when it was at its peak. Then again in the mid-1990s, Isaly was elected President of Rowing Australia. 

As a teacher, he was highly sought after and his professional life called upon his leadership abilities to great effect. He reached the pinnacle of his profession. 

Whilst pursuing his career, his rowing skills were not lost with many successful schoolboy crews coached by him, specifically at the Southport School in Queensland, The King’s School in Sydney, and at Rockhampton Grammar School. Victories in the respective GPS Head of Rivers in Queensland and NSW resulted. Also of note was the significant resurgence of rowing at Rockhampton Grammar School during his time at that school.

Islay on the left with his victorious Southport School crew in 1985

Islay is now retired from teaching and is a farmer in northern NSW.

Some rowing details:

1966 – NSW Champion Second Grade Scull – First

1967 – NSW Champion Second Grade Scull – First

1968 – NSW Champion Second Grade Scull – First

1968 – National Championships, Men’s Double Scull, bow - Second

1968 – Australian University Championships, Men’s Scull - Second

1969 – NSW Champion Second Grade Scull – First

1971 – NSW Championship Scull - First

1971– Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship – Third

1971 – Australian University Championships, Men’s Scull - Second

1972 – NSW Championship Scull – First

1972 – NSW Championship Double Scull – First

1972 – National Championships, Men’s Double Scull, stroke - First

1972 – Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship – First

1973 – NSW Championship Scull - First

1973 – Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship – Fourth

1973 – Australian University Championships, Men’s Scull - First

1976 – NSW Championship Men’s Eight, stroke – First

1976 - NSW Championship Quad Scull, bow - First

1976 – National Championship Men’s Quad Scull, bow - First

1976 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Four, stroke - First

1976 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship stroke - First

1976 – Olympic Games – Men’s Eight stroke – Fifth

1976-80 – Captain, Sydney Rowing Club

1977 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Four, stroke - First

1977 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship stroke – First

1977 – World Championships – Men’s Eight stroke – Eleventh

1978 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Pair, stroke - First

1978 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Four, stroke - First

1978 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship stroke – First

1978 – World Championships – Men’s Eight stroke - Fourth

1979 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Pair, stroke - First

1979 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Four, stroke - First

1980 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Pair, stroke - First

1980 – National Championship Men’s Coxed Four, stroke - First

1980 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championship stroke - Second

1980 – Olympic Games – Men’s Eight three seat – Fifth

1980 – Honorary Life Membership, Sydney Rowing Club

1981 – World Championships – selector

1982 – World Championships - selector

1994-96 - President of Rowing Australia

Andrew Guerin
January 2024


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