Sarah Winckless – Kingston’s Unsung Heroine.

Greg Baker 14 7 2005 I have a fond memory of seeing Sarah Winckless about 12 years ago one beery night in the now deceased Flamingo and Firkin pub on London Road. She had a burly biker dangling by the collar in each hand and was politely lecturing them not to start a fight again in ‘her’ pub. The two young gentlemen looked rather shocked to be accosted by a 6’ 4” blonde but having been ushered out of the pub in this manner loped off tails firmly tucked between legs. It’s a sight I don’t think I will ever forget. I meet Sarah this time in a nice little restaurant in Windsor called Bel and the Dragon. She’s looking stunningly healthy, fit (which is hardly surprising with her being an Olympic bronze medallist) and is beaming a warm smile. She hugs me, apologises for being late but apparently the boats needed to be scrubbed down and proceeds to plonk herself down and, sighing slightly, orders a lemonade. “I’m afraid my drinking days are over she smiles, well at least until I retire then I’m not so sure I’ll either go right overboard or remain as sober as I’m forced to be these days, we shall see”. Not even when injured at Henley did she manage a few Pimms? “Not a chance the rest of the girls were all there and it just wouldn’t do to have me injured and squiffy while they couldn’t race, I did manage to snaffle a couple of champagnes though” she grins, Sarah’s

grin is infectious and manages somehow to belie her potentially intimidating stature with its mischievousness and warmth. In the time between these two meetings Sarah has been rather busy. Racking up a bronze medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004 for the double sculls and, having snatched Gold in Eton and silver in Lucerne, looks set on a world cup gold in Japan in late August. What makes all this achievement even more impressive is the fact that as a teenager (year needed) Sarah’s mother was suddenly struck down by the horrendous, debilitating condition called Huntington’s disease. The genetic nature of this condition meant that Sarah had a 50/50 chance of having the gene that could lead to a similar affliction later in life. Sarah being Sarah had to go and find the truth. And the truth was she wasn’t one of the lucky 50%. “Has it changed me?” she muses “ possibly sport has always been important to me and it’s very good for helping deal with the risk of disease, so I guess I’m lucky sport has always been such an important part of my life. It’s also handy that goals are very short term in sport which rather suits my situation”. Athens 2004 was especially special for Sarah with her mum being there to witness her bringing home a bronze live. “Everyone worked so hard to get mum out there, it was a massive privilege having her out there not because she had Huntington’s but because she’s mum and I could run up and give her a big hug”. How did it feel winning the medal? When you ask a question like this you tend to feel a bit of an idiot when pressing for the normal required enthusiastic response ‘Oh it was

wonderful – amazing etcetera’. Sarah neatly manages to dodge this: “We were very aware of the opportunity we had. When we had about 50 strokes to go I suddenly stopped being able to see I remember being told about breaking through the darkness and thought wow I’ve got there but of course it didn’t go away. I had never pushed myself that far before and when I realised I had gone over the line my first thought was: ‘only third!’ then it dawned on me it was a medal winning position and maybe I should congratulate Elise [Laverick]”. Since her diagnosis Sarah has campaigned tirelessly for recognition of the disease and to help those people and families effected by it. She recently gave a speech at a discussion in the Houses of Parliament for the launch of Sue Ryder Care’s We Care: who Pays? Campaign. “They are brilliant, people just don’t understand how much it costs caring for someone” she said. Sarah was quite moved by the experience by the speeches of those fighting the tragedy of the affliction but when it was her turn to speak and she introduced herself and her achievements she could see people wondering why is this celebrity here spouting off. “When I told them that I had the gene for Huntington’s I felt the room warm”. So what does the future hold for Sarah? Beijing 2008 she muses: “I keep saying I am going to retire but then it’s so tempting I really do want a shinier medal”. Sarah will be 39 in time for London 2012, not an impossibility in rowing. “It was funny I remember when I was starting out and the Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester I thought ‘what a shame I’m not travelling’ but it’s so different now, what a huge experience it would be competing in my own country”.

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