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NEWS > Sport > The Loreto Normanhurst Father and Daughter Who Started an Enduring Girls Rowing Legacy in NSW

The Loreto Normanhurst Father and Daughter Who Started an Enduring Girls Rowing Legacy in NSW

Former rowing coach, Michael Rowan, and his daughter Katrina Rowan pioneered the first girls’ rowing program in NSW, igniting a thriving and popular passion for the sport in the state.
20 Oct 2023
Australia
Sport
Michael Rowan with his daughter Katrina Rowan.
Michael Rowan with his daughter Katrina Rowan.

This week as the rowing season commences for students across New South Wales (NSW), Loreto Normanhurst, one of Sydney’s leading independent Catholic girls’ schools, is celebrating 34 years since it established the first girls’ rowing program in the state. The heartwarming story of the inception of Loreto Normanhurst rowing showcases one family’s dedication to the sport, passionately led by Michael Rowan and his daughter, Katrina.

From the fledgling program that began at Loreto Normanhurst back in 1989, today the school boasts an 80 girl-strong team with an influx of student interest in the program growing year on year. This trend of popularity in the sport amongst schoolgirls can be seen across NSW and was recently evidenced when more girls than boys competed in the final Head of the River Regatta in 2023.

Before Loreto Normanhurst formed the first girls’ rowing crew in NSW informally in 1989 and formally in the 1990-91 season, it was exclusively boys who were participating in the sport across the state. This stood in stark contrast to Victoria where rowing was already a popular sport among schoolgirls.

“In the late 1980s, the Head of the River in Victoria had about 2000 girls participating. It was fantastic! When my family and I relocated to Sydney, it was a real surprise to find that there were no schoolgirl rowing races,” said Michael.

Michael’s three daughters had always been exposed to the sport, but it was only once the family settled in Sydney with the girls enrolled at Loreto Normanhurst that they expressed interest in actively participating in rowing. It was the piqued interest and curiosity of Michael’s eldest daughter, Katrina, a Year 11 student at Loreto Normanhurst in 1989, that served as a catalyst for the inception of girls rowing in NSW. ​

Wondering why there wasn’t an option for girls to row at her school led to a simple question from Katrina that would ignite a passion for the sport among girls in NSW.

“I think my question to dad was, ‘why can’t girls row too?’” Katrina recalls asking her father at the time.

Having witnessed girls’ passion for rowing while coaching in Victoria, Michael knew there was potential for a girls’ rowing program in NSW. He agreed to start coaching girls if Katrina rounded up a group of students at Loreto Normanhurst. Katrina garnered interest from enough girls to form an initial crew and was given the honour of becoming captain of the first girls’ rowing crew.

The rowing program started out informally with Michael coaching the girls every Sunday, the only day the boat sheds were free at St Joseph’s College, where he was a coach. The coaching tapered off at the end of 1989 when Katrina and other team members were preparing to enter Year 12 and chose to focus on their final year of high school. ​

In mid-1990, a group of girls at Loreto Normanhurst consulted Margaret, Michael’s wife who was working in the school’s library to see if there was a rowing program they could sign up to that year. The increased interest and enthusiasm reaffirmed Michael’s brewing idea to establish a formal rowing program at the school.

“It was then that we decided to get something going. We had the support of the school, but the girls needed some early races,” said Michael. As a Director of New South Wales Rowing, he consulted with fellow members to introduce formal rowing races for girls.

It became just as obvious to the Board of Rowing NSW that the state needed to be more proactive for schoolgirls rowing and a small sub committee of Dr Graham Jones, who rowed in the Oxford boat and who was also a Director of Rowing NSW, along with the Association Secretary, Terry Maher began to develop an infrastructure to support a full-time program integrated into the NSW Rowing Schedule. The first regatta was held at Davidson Park under the Roseville Bridge using volunteer officials led by the late John Burford.

This led to the first eight-oared race for schoolgirls in NSW being held as part of the Riverview Gold Cup Regatta in 1990 where Loreto Normanhurst competed against Sydney Girls’ High School, Loreto Kirribilli and North Sydney Girls’ High School and won this first historic race. At this time two other parents of girls at the school, Ken Macrae and Graham Miller were actively involved with coaching and organising.

The Schoolgirls Head of the River slowly became established with Sydney Girls High, Ascham, Pymble Ladies' College and Wenona also boating crews. Canberra Girls Grammar entered races as did other country Girls Schools. More than 25 girls’ schools competed in the 2022/23 rowing competition in NSW.

Michael’s youngest daughter, Christine, also a student at Loreto Normanhurst, competed in the National Rowing Championships in 1994, and in 1996 the school hosted and won its first official Schoolgirls’ Head of the River Regatta.

“I remember dad having meetings around our dining room table late into the night with other Loreto Normanhurst parents and coaches to decide on a location to build a shed and secure funding for equipment,” recalls Katrina.

Years on, and the rowing legacy Michael created continues in schools across NSW and has been passed down to his grandchildren, with six out of 10 girls and boys participating in the sport.

Commenting on Michael’s pioneering role in girls’ rowing, Thomas Parker, Head Rowing Coach at Loreto Normanhurst, said:

“It is a tremendous honour to continue Michael’s legacy. His tireless dedication and passion for the sport is ever-present at Loreto Normanhurst, where the robust girls’ rowing program is building camaraderie and perseverance.”


Thomas Parker, Head Rowing Coach, and Georgia Boric, Rowing Sports Administrator at Loreto Normanhust.

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