How the Thames Valley overtook Yorkshire as Team GB's medal factory

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Tom Dean is one of several successful athletes to come from the Thames Valley - SHUTTERSTOCK
Tom Dean is one of several successful athletes to come from the Thames Valley - SHUTTERSTOCK

Forget Yorkshire, it’s the Thames Valley that is the new homeland of British Olympic medals. From Tom Dean’s two freestyle golds in the pool to Jack Beaumont’s silver in the quadruple sculls and Mallory Franklin’s silver in the slalom canoe, such is the region’s dominance that individual schools are now vying for a place on the Olympic medal table.

On Wednesday, a table published on the My Marlow website placed Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School – a venerable Buckinghamshire institution attended by both Dean and Beaumont – in a phenomenal 12th place, equal with Hungary and just above Germany.

Having spent decades in the sporting shadow of Great Marlow School – the comprehensive alma mater of Britain’s greatest Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave – this 397-year old grammar school is delighted with its newfound success. “It’s already been an extraordinary week,” said Craig Robertson, SWBGS’s head of sport. “And we will be watching Morgan Lake tomorrow in the high jump, because she was with us for a couple of years as well.

“Tom and Jack have achieved incredible things,” added Robertson, “but it’s asking a lot to catch up with GMS. Redgrave has stood at the heart of British sport for years.” And at the heart of Marlow too, thanks to the eight-foot statue – gigantic oar clutched in its right hand – which looms over the town park.

But this story extends beyond Marlow, that picturesque 18th-Century town of 14,000 souls. Franklin hails from nearby Windsor, while three-quarters of the bronze-medal winning women’s gymnastics team are also based in the area: 16-year-old sensations Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova in Aylesbury, and their team-mate Amelie Morgan in Slough.

Mallory Franklin won silver in the slalom canoe - PA
Mallory Franklin won silver in the slalom canoe - PA

Dean’s mother Jacquie Hughes certainly lifted the profile of the region on Tuesday, when a video of her family’s Olympic viewing party went viral. But what makes the area so ripe for sporting success?

“We are in a sweet spot here, educationally and geographically,” said Hughes. “We live on the banks of the River Thames, and every day it’s different. I swam in the river this morning, and you just think ‘Wow’.”

A former documentary-maker for World In Action, Hughes moved out of London just over a decade ago to avoid “educational apartheid” – which is how she describes the capital’s public school/state school divide. Instead she found an area in which you can still take the 11 Plus, and both grammar schools and comprehensives have first-rate facilities of their own. Despite the proximity of leading private schools such as Eton College, the only privately educated athlete to be mentioned in this article is Lake (who left SWBGS on a sports scholarship to Berkshire’s Wellington College).

“The nicest thing about Maidenhead is the new pool at Braywick Leisure Centre, which Tom opened last year,” said Hughes. “Otherwise, it’s a place you go through on the way to other places. This is a good news story for the town and they should be trying to build on it.”

Jacquie Hughes celebrates her son Tom Dean's second gold with a 2km swim in the Thames - JACQUIE HUGHES
Jacquie Hughes celebrates her son Tom Dean's second gold with a 2km swim in the Thames - JACQUIE HUGHES

It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority of Olympic medals in the region have come from aquatic sports, as the river stands at the heart of the local sporting scene. The prestigious Leander Club stages the Henley Royal Regatta every summer, while crews can switch to man-made facilities such as Dorney Lake or the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake for lane-racing. Separated by the Thames, the twin counties of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire might have delivered even stronger results but for Jurgen Grobler’s controversial departure as Great Britain’s head rowing coach last summer.

Hockey, too, has a presence here. Both British squads train at Bisham Abbey, the English Institute of Sport site which stands only a mile from Marlow Bridge. Meanwhile the Marlow Sports Club – where former England cricket captain Andrew Strauss can often be found on a Satruday afternoon – turns out numerous tigerish teams in the local leagues.

This is a leafy and charming part of the world. Windsor, Marlow and Henley are all associated with Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows stories, as well as Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat.

“The Thames Valley is an affluent area,” said Robertson “You don’t necessarily need a private school if you have a strong network around you. There are a lot of rowers and swimmers at SWBGS and they do sometimes look a little tired after all those early-morning training sessions. Overall, though, it’s incredibly healthy for their development. And while Yorkshire used to be the hub of British success, we’re now seeing a kick-back from the south-east.”

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