He may have Olympic gold and silver medals to his name, but former international rower Mark Hunter MBE admits nothing gives him greater pride than giving back to the sport he so clearly adores.
Since retiring in 2013, Hunter – who became lightweight double sculls Olympic champion at Beijing 2008 alongside Zac Purchase, before winning silver four years later in the capital – is now programme director at London Youth Rowing.
Launched in 2004, the charity aims to develop young people through physical activity and open access to rowing for all, reducing the public school stereotype that traditionally surrounds the sport.
A former state school student himself, Hunter passionately advocates that the opportunity to row is one that is available to every child up and down the country, and alongside London Youth Rowing, hopes to produce the Olympians of the future to follow in his footsteps.
“I started rowing in the east end of London as a kid, it wasn’t the usual upbringing you would associate with the sport, and when I finished competing after London 2012, I wanted to give back to grassroots sport,” said the double World Champion, who was born in Forest Gate.
“London Youth Rowing is a charity that was started by an American who was at Henley Regatta watching all the private schools row down the course and wondered where all the state schools were.
“He started having this vision of kids from Newham and Hackney racing at Henley, so we started progressing on indoor rowing machines to progress onto water.
“It’s very important to diminish the reputation of rowing as a public school sport, because if you look into the sport, you have people from all different backgrounds.
“I didn’t go to a private school, I didn’t go to university, I went to a normal comprehensive school, did an apprenticeship but still had my dream of going to an Olympic Games and winning a gold medal.
“It shows that it really doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s up to you as an individual what effort and time you want to put into something and that’s what I’m really keen to instil in the kids.
“There is nothing better than seeing the smile and facial expressions of the kids when they go on the water for the first time and they realise they enjoy it, it’s something they have a natural talent for and it takes them on their own little journey and we’ll see how far they can get with it.”
Fourteen years on from its birth, London Youth Rowing now works with 130 secondary schools across the capital, with ambitions of spreading its reach up and down the country.
As part of their expansion, the charity has been involved with the first series of the Invesco Perpetual City Regatta, a spectacular new challenge where four-strong crews compete head to head in a series of fast and furious regatta-style knock-out races live on stage in four UK cities.
Throughout his career, Hunter competed for Leander Club, the world’s most successive rowing club with 111 Olympic medals and counting to its name, and admits he was impressed by the talent on show at the third City Regatta in Bristol.
“There are so many people from different backgrounds, men and women, all shapes and sizes, and it has been ferocious on the rowing machines,” he said.
“It has been really interesting for me to see everyone working together as a team, being competitive, and the camaraderie between the different groups of people has been great to watch.
“I think it’s really important that Invesco Perpetual have brought rowing to the city centre because not everyone gets the opportunity to go on the water, so to bring indoor rowing and the machines outside is great because it gives everyone the opportunity to participate.
“I rowed at Leander all my career, I’m a past captain, so I have a good link with Invesco Perpetual because they helped me when I was training at the club so it’s kind of full circle for me.
“Leander is a feeder club for the national team so we have lots of youngsters coming through. It is a very challenging sport with the amount of training you have to do, and Invesco Perpetual really helps them to progress on their Olympic journey.”
Invesco Perpetual’s innovative new ‘City Regatta’ event is a celebration of the achievements of Leander Club, the main feeder club to the GB team with 23 of its rowers headed for Rio, and aims to encourage more people across the UK to get involved in rowing.