Thriving Watson's crew stick their oar in to make waves in rowing

ON the school sports scene in Edinburgh, it's difficult to earn the kudos enjoyed by both football and rugby players but a group of George Watson's College students have established themselves as a potent force in British rowing.

Murray Wilkojc, 16, from Morningside, admits that "at Watson's it's rugby - rowing keeps quite a low profile," but, along with fellow Edinburgh students Sean Dixon, 16, and Jonny Rankin, 15, he recently triumphed in the Anglo-French competition as part of the Great Britain team at under-16 level.

"We just don't have the respect," complains Wilkojc. "Yes," adds Dixon, "and most of the rugby guys just think 'oh, they're the sissy rowing boys' or whatever."

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Wilkojc and Dixon then went on to achieve silver medal success at the National Championships of Great Britain and, a week later, the group who were victorious with Britain raced for Scotland in the Under-18 Home International Regatta.

In what was quite literally a stroke of bad luck, the team suffered a snapped blade and had to retire from the race.

That incident, however, did not detract greatly from a superb summer performance by the Watson's crew, whose success all started with an impressive showing at trials for Great Britain.

Wilkojc says: "We were against all the English schools and clubs. It was hard. There were three in our group and a cox. We had a different cox, a guy from Dumfries, because our usual crew member [from Sri Lanka] doesn't have a British passport and you need that for Great Britain."

The crew were then paired with another four guys from the Thames valley to form a crew of eight which carried the Union Jack to the Anglo-French encounter.

"We were put together with another four to form the GB Eight," says Dixon, "and that was another four from Walton. We went to France and we trained for two days. And the GB team won the boys' race, the girls' race, and the overall title." Following the success of their French sojourn, Wilkojc and Dixon teamed up in a double boat to compete in the National Championships, with a changed rowing technique having a similar impact in competition.

"There are two types of rowing," Wilkojc explains, "one is with one oar, called sweep rowing, and one with two, called sculling.

"So after France, we went back to [the latter] and it was Sean and me in a double. We got silver, but were quite disappointed after we'd beaten the winners previously. I think a lot of GB people were just tired after France."

Competition didn't stop there for Wilkojc and the other three from the GB crew. "The next week," he says, "the four of us who had raced for Britain were selected for Scotland at under-18 level racing against Wales, Ireland and England. We were doing quite well in our race but we snapped a blade and had to stop.

"But we were selected, and that was the main thing. It was, though, a bit of a disappointing way to end the season. But we can't complain too much."

Instead of being caught up in their considerable success, Dixon and Wilkojc paid special tribute to Jonny Rankin, the third member of the core of their crew who is currently enjoying a watersports holiday in Greece. So is he still training during his well-earned break? "Oh, it wouldn't surprise me," says Wilkojc.

"Knowing Jonny he'll be training in the hot weather. He's about 6ft 5in, a big guy, and he's only about 15 but he takes it just as seriously as we do."

As the cox in the team, the official job of Jack Freedman, 13, from Edinburgh and also a Watson's student, is to issue instructions to his crew.

On the water, however, it's a different story as Freedman applies his musical talents to keep them all entertained. Murray explains: "In our boat, where there's a cox, there is a microphone and speakers all the way down the boat, so during the race the cox can make demands and everyone can hear him.

"Then every now and again," says Dixon, "we'd have to stop while our coach talked to other coaches and he'd just start singing songs down the microphone.

"We'd ask him to sing, and he'd sing songs for us and then he'd start singing songs about other boats as they rowed past!"

The Watson's crew have most certainly been on song over the summer.