The world’s preeminent sporting competitions, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, are taking place this summer in Tokyo, after a year's postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While Imperial College London is famed for its scientific acumen, including 14 Nobel prize winners, outside of the labs our students past and present have made their mark in the world of sport. Join us as we look back at the College’s longstanding links with the Olympic and Paralympic games.
Record-breaking medical student
Arguably Imperial’s most renowned athlete is Sir Roger Bannister, who is famous for running the first sub four-minute mile. He trained for the feat while he was a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School (now part of Imperial College London) from 1951-54. Before this, at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Sir Roger finished fourth in the 1500m race, setting a British record of 3:46.30 (3:46.0) in the process. He then set his sights on a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes – which he achieved on 6th May 1954 in Oxford.
After retiring from athletics in 1954, Sir Roger spent the next forty years practising medicine in the field of neurology, including many years at St Mary’s Hospital.
He chaired the St Mary’s Development Trust from 1993-2004, contributing greatly to the refurbishment of the St Mary’s Medical School building following the creation of the Imperial College School of Medicine in 1997. The culmination of this refurbishment, in 2004, was to invite Sir Roger to open the new Roger Bannister Lecture Theatre, embellished by a portrait, the photograph of his record-breaking mile and, in its own secure cabinet, one of the stopwatches used in the iconic event.
It was recently announced that Sir Roger will be commemorated with a memorial at Westminster Abbey in September 2021.
Rowing to victory
The breeding ground of many of Imperial’s Olympic champions is Imperial College Boat Club. The club, one of the foremost university rowing associations in the UK, was founded by Imperial students on 12 December 1919. Located on the Putney Embankment by the River Thames, the club’s Boathouse was opened in 1938. Largely funded by students past and present, it symbolises the pride of the Boat Club as a world-class base ‘built for students by students.’
Since its inception, the Boat Club has been hugely successful. Prominent names in the Boat Club’s history include alumni Louis Attrill, Simon Dennis, Luka Grubor and Steve Trapmore, who went on to become members of the British men’s eight that brought home gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The crew was coached by Martin McElroy, another Boat Club alumnus.
Simon Dennis joined the College in 1994 to undertake a BSc in Zoology, graduating in 1997. Looking back at his time at the College, where his rowing “really took off,” Simon said: “I loved the Boat Club, they really made you feel at home. They had a level of expectation that they were of a high standard, and they were the best, and if we weren’t performing at the very highest level, we were letting ourselves down. That level of expectation was really impressive and led to a really productive attitude and set of results.”
Simon was coached at Imperial by Bill Mason, one of the College’s most revered coaches who also served as Chief Coach of the Great Britain women's rowing team for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, 1996. Simon recalls: “Bill would make you feel like you were the most important rower in the world. It didn’t matter what level you were at the club, if you were brand new like I was once, or you were an Olympic champion, or a novice – he was inspirational. […] He always pushed us to be our best and to not set any limit to what we could achieve.”
Sixty-seven years after Sir Roger Bannister ran the first sub four-minute mile, another Imperial student is hoping to create his own historical moment – Daniel Rowden. The Mechanical Engineering student, who is currently the British Champion, will be representing Team GB in the 800 metres race at at this year’s delayed Tokyo games.
At the British Championships in Manchester in September 2020, Daniel won the British 800m gold medal with a stadium record of 1:45.94. Having equalled Olympian Steve Ovett’s PB of 1:44.09, the 23-year-old is already the ninth fastest 800m runner in British history.
At Tokyo 2020, Imperial alumni and past and present members of Imperial College Boat Club will also be representing Team GB.
Henry Fieldman, who graduated with a BSc in Zoology from Imperial in 2011, will cox the men's eight in this summer’s games. As cox, he will be responsible for the crew on the water, keeping a good lookout, steering the boat and issuing commands to the crew.
I try to take a little bit of that problem solving mentality to the issues we face in the boat, and it has really helped me in my sport [...] I think a scientific approach is definitely still with me.
Henry started rowing while at school, deciding during his final years that he wanted to take rowing further forward as he started his studies at the College. He knew that Imperial had a successful rowing team - Imperial College Boat Club - and that they were coached by Steve Trapmore MBE, who had himself won Olympic gold as part of the men’s eight in Sydney in 2000. Henry joined the team, hoping to learn as much as possible from him.
When Henry moved to the University of Cambridge for postgraduate studies, Steve had also moved to Chief Coach of Cambridge University Boat Club and continues to coach Henry as High-Performance Coach within the Great Britain Olympic Rowing programme.
Talking about how his academic studies help his rowing, Henry said: “I try to take a little bit of that problem solving mentality to the issues we face in the boat, and it has really helped me in my sport. It helps me be as meticulous as possible – maybe one thing looks like the answer, but is it really the answer? Let's dig in a little bit deeper. And is there a bias in this assumption of mine, or whoever I'm talking to? I think a scientific approach is definitely still with me."
While many members of the Boat Club past and present are Imperial students, the club is also open to students from other universities. Former Imperial College Boat Club rowers Sara Parfett and Rebecca Shorten will be competing in the Women’s Eights and Women’s Fours at Tokyo 2020 respectively.
Rio 2016: Imperial triumphs
In 2016, Imperial alumnus Melanie Wilson and fellow Boat Club rower Zoe Lee won silver in a memorable race in the women’s eight event at the Rio Olympics. It was Team GB’s first ever medal in this event.
You can't sit on the start line of an Olympic final and worry about 10,000 things, you just have to think about the next few strokes that you're going to take. And that's exactly the same thing in medicine.
Mel, who is now training to be a GP, studied graduate entry medicine at Imperial and made her GB Rowing Team debut in the same year she started at the College in 2009. Talking about the influence rowing has on her career now, she said: “Rowing has helped me as a doctor now, in terms of dealing with people, primarily in stressful situations, coping when you’re tired and focusing on the job at hand.
“You can't sit on the start line of an Olympic final and worry about 10,000 things, you just have to think about the next few strokes that you're going to take. And that's exactly the same thing in medicine – in A&E if you think about all the possible outcomes, it’s not very helpful. You just have to concentrate on doing your job very well.”
Another Imperial triumph in 2016 was Dave Henson MBE who won a bronze medal in the T42 200m at the Paralympic Games and secured a personal best time of 24.74 seconds.
Dave completed an MSc and a PhD at the College researching amputee biomechanics and continues to work in the College’s Department of Bioengineering. Before joining the College, Dave served in the British Army with the 22 Engineer Regiment. As well as competing at the Paralympics, in 2014 Dave also competed for Team GB at the inaugural Invictus Games, an international sporting event for injured service personnel and veterans, founded by Prince Harry.
Alexandra Rickman, who graduated from an MSc in Environmental Policy in 2006, also won bronze at both the 2012 Paralympic games in London and 2016 in Rio as part of the British sailing team.
It wasn’t just Imperial’s sporting prowess that was on display at the 2016 Paralympic games, but its innovative research too. British Paralympic swimmer Andrew Mullen won a silver and two bronze medals in Rio using a starting block aid developed by Imperial students. Prior to the games, he had worked with the students for a number of years to develop several innovative devices to help him in competition, training and with general getting around.
From a campus on the site of an Olympic stadium and a record-breaking medical student, to students today balancing their studies at the College with an athletics career, Imperial’s community is well represented in the Olympic and Paralympic games.
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