Rowers and rivers; Imogen Grant gives an athlete’s perspective on freshwater health

The Rivers Trust Ambassador, GB rower and Olympian Imogen Grant, shares her take on why sportspeople care about our rivers.

Emma Brisdion



Rivers have played a vital part in human history; from sources of drinking water to easy ways to transport goods, they have been places to gather around for millennia. Almost every single significant city in the world has a river running through it, and for good reason; rivers brought prosperity, clean water, trade, and irrigation. Nowadays these rivers are hubs of physical activity – running, walking, and cycling along the towpaths, paddleboarding or canoeing, wild swimming, sailing, rowing, the list goes on. They are destinations to sit on a bench and watch the wildlife, as well as an easy place to journey along without getting lost. There are often parks next to the river, greenspace, trees, and wildlife. Proximity to greenspaces has crucial links to improved mental wellbeing. And yet, we’re not doing a good enough job of looking after them.

Most rowing in the UK takes place on rivers and canals, and every rower is acutely aware of anything that could affect the river..

I am a rower. My days revolve around water. I train once or twice a day on the water, then a further one or two sessions on land, often looking at the water and wishing I was out there instead! Most rowing in the UK takes place on rivers and canals, with a small fraction taking place on purpose-built lakes. Every rower is acutely aware of anything that could affect the river – rain, wind, floods, stream. All these things have a significant effect on how easy or hard a session can be. A windy session could mean struggling for minutes longer into a headwind than if the same stretch of river was quiet and flat. What’s more, one of the joys of being a rower is being able to enjoy our rivers at their best. We often train early in the day, so have the privilege of seeing the sun rise over the rivers. We see cygnets, and ducklings in the spring. We watch the trees and plants change over the seasons from brown to lush green to gorgeous autumn colours. I even once rowed alongside a seal for a few minutes on the Thames! But all these incredible benefits are also tempered by the downsides of the huge amount of pollution and poor maintenance of our rivers. It isn’t uncommon for rowers to get sick after water splashes over their water bottles or into their mouths. I have had to dodge a fridge that was floating down the river, and often have to avoid logs that have been washed into the river that could damage the boat or cause me to capsize. Weed growth that chokes rivers also catches on blades and rudders. Excessive wash not only makes rowing hard, but we see it eroding the banks and destroying nests of swans and ducks. Floating oil on the water from launches and cruisers coats our boats and makes them dirty.

We often train early in the day, so have the privilege of seeing the sun rise over the rivers.

The times are changing, and even in the nine years that I have rowed, I have seen the landscape change along our rivers. Flooding is more common, high winds, high rain, sewage entering water streams. In just the last week Storm Ciaran has ravaged the country and broken rainfall records, leaving rivers bursting their banks, houses without power, and rowers unable to train due to unsafe streams. The specific things that affect us as rowers reflect the wider problems that are affecting rivers nationwide. There is a commonality with other river users in how these problems detract from our experience of the natural environment. Fishermen care if there are clean fish in the river, bird watchers care that nests aren’t disturbed, wild swimmers care that water is safe to swim in. The Rivers Trust is a place where all of this can come together, and this huge community of people who care about our rivers can make a difference. Those of us who use the rivers daily are going to be more connected to them emotionally and so are the perfect people to do something about it.

For me, as a sportsperson, I am really excited at the potential of bringing about massive change. People who follow sports or compete in sports already understand the story of a sporting campaign and love the story of an underdog. We understand how to work towards a long-term goal in small achievable steps, staying motivated by encouraging each other and finding joy in the journey we take. All of this can be directly taken and applied to the goal of improving our rivers. I hope that by working with the Rivers Trust, we can begin to address sustainability in our back yard, so to speak. Acting in line with our values gives us purpose, and makes things feel achievable that didn’t before, and as river user we will be the first to see those changes. I am working within British Rowing to start improving our river quality at and around our rowing clubs, and I am excited to see how this develops. If any of this has rung a chord, I urge you to take the first step! Is there something that you can do locally to you that would make a difference? Reporting pollution, fundraising for the charity, litter picking along your stretch of river, it doesn’t have to be big, but the first step leads to the next, and momentum is how we all win this campaign.

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