Still rowing after all these years

14 October 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

“Hang on….May, June, July, August, September, October……oh yes then, I must be 91 and a half,” counts Ralph Howard. “I forget sometimes,” he laughs. But what the diminutive 160cm man never forgets is what it takes to be an athlete. At the age of 91 and a half, Ralph is the oldest competitive rower in the world. “Funny isn’t it,” he says, “the young ones think I’m a bit mad.”

Ralph has been rowing for “70 or 75 years” and has already accumulated swag of awards from Australian championships, regional regattas and Masters Games. This week he is in Penrith, in western Sydney, for the 2009 World Masters Games where he’ll compete in the J8 and J4 team events in the 80 years + rowing category. 

Ralph and his rowing friends are part of an increasing phenomenon of golden oldies turning heads in competitive sport. And, as Ralph admits, many of ‘the olds’ are even leaving the youngsters in their wake. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know what is expected by now.”

“We win our events and we’re just as good. Sure, we’ve got a nice bunch of fellas and a lovely spot here in the city, but this is a competition,” Ralph assures me at  Banks Rowing Club on the Yarra River. “This is no joke, it’s very serious.” 

And serious it is. Sydney World Masters Games committee member Mark Worwood estimates that “the average age of competitors will be 50, with the eldest being Reg Terwin, an 101 year-old lawn bowler from Griffith, New South Wales.” A record 25,292 athletes from 95 countries will compete in 28 different sports. The Games will be the seventh of its kind, and has a proud history dating back to 1985 in Toronto, Canada.

“If you keep at it all the time [competitive sport], and your heart keeps on going, there’s no point stopping, is there? In fact, people that stop go down hill very quickly because they lose their competence and what not,” Ralph says.

Ralph is confident of snaring gold in Sydney. “We’ve got a great team, something’s gotta be wrong if we don’t win. You can’t just have eight old buggers in a boat, either. You need to have some talent.”

Ralph’s J8 team seems to have talent in droves. There’s the ‘stroke’ John Jopling, 79 and 1956 Olympic rowers Adrian Monger, 77, and cancer survivor Neville Howell, 80. Then there’s hip replacement survivor Burk Ketchan, 84, Derek Fern, 77, Bob Hemery, 77, Joe Romer, 75 and Ralph, who rounds out the team in the bow of the boat. “We’ve got some extremely good oarsmen, and they [the opposition] won’t be able to match our ex Olympians.”

Ralph explains that team rowing is a numbers game. “We need to have an average of 80 years between us. I give us the years – I’ve got 11 years on them so that means we’re able to include some younger, stronger ones in the team” to balance the years out.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Ralph. His ripe age, for one thing, has been the subject of controversy from fellow rowers and competitors. “When I came to Australia in 1985 I was sixty bloody six and the rowers here never had any regard for me. They thought I was too small. I’m pretty sure I was malnourished as a child. Those were tough times. But look at my arms now,” Ralph delights, proudly extending his 1.8m arm span out to his sides, “they’re my secret weapons”.

Short or tall, Ralph is also fortunate to boast a bill of good health coming into the Masters. “He isn’t even on one medication,” says envious fellow rower Don Christie. Don, 82, is disappointed that he’ll be out of the competition this year due to advice from his cardiologist. “My ticker was getting too irregular so I had to slow down. At least I can still row socially – rowing is good like that – it’s so meditative. But I really do miss it [competing].”

So what is it about competition that gets the old hearts racing so? Ralph admits he’d be bored stiff without his rowing. “All you have at home – you can put the kettle on, put the cat out, have a cuppa and see some television but that’s not enough. I’ve no reason to stop.”

When asked what gives him the edge over younger competitors, Ralph attributes his successes to his wealth of experiences. “Rowing is 60% mind and 40% muscles. So there’s no point putting a really strong fella in a boat with nothing up top – he wouldn’t be able to concentrate, he’d just be a mule in a boat.”

Acutely aware that it would be “too hard” to get back to his current level of fitness if he were to “slack off,” Ralph keeps everything in check by training at least twice a week. He has been a member of the Banks Rowing Club (est. 1866) on the Yarra River for over 20 years.  “I row much faster than the car goes on the freeway,” he jokes in reference to his regular drives to the club from his Doncaster home.

But if it weren’t for landmark decisions to extend the age divisions in recent years, perhaps Ralph would have just had to settle with cuppas and TV at home. Twenty years ago, the oldest rowing division was 65 years, but popular demand has seen the sport steadily grow to include 70+ divisions, then 75+, with 2008 being the first year of the 80+ kind. “Thank God for that,” Ralph and his crew echo.

Our conversation breaks as Ralph ducks into the club rooms to change into his blue and red rowing trunks, boat shoes and baseball cap before taking to the water for a one-hour training session with “the fellas.” With a sprightly spring in his step and an enviable display of confidence in his barely there wet-gear, rower Donald Gibb, 72, laughs that Ralph is, without doubt, “the sex symbol of the Yarra.”

With a spirit of camaraderie, the row of grey-haired octogenarians  heave their raft down into the Yarra and embark with their oars. In perfect unison, the men set about their paces quickly under the morning sun with Flinders Street Station, the Arts Centre and Federation Square looming in the background. “He’s a fine rower,” Donald offers fairly. “He may not be the strongest but he has perfect timing with his stroke. He never makes a mistake.”

Ralph’s long arms thrust forward and backward as he propels his body backward with an easy determination as the team glide under the Princes Bridge. Never underestimate a little guy at the back of a boat. A while later, Ralph returns to the shore with a satisfied smile plastered on his face, and he even looks to have plenty of energy left in his tank as he talks tactics with his fellas.

Then, it’s a sight to behold as the line of wrinkled men carefully hoist the raft onto their muscled shoulders and trek back up the slight hill to the Banks boat shed. The rowing clubs of Carey Grammar  and Melbourne Grammar flank either side of the Banks building. Clad in similar getups, the strapping, fit school boys give Ralph and his mates a respectful ‘G’day,’ and approving nods from the river bank. The boys don’t see a gathering of balding, wrinkly men in tight suits with knobby knees. They don’t see hip replacements and knee reconstructions. They don’t see a formerly malnourished World War 2 veteran in Ralph Howard either – all they see are veteran athletes. One day, that will be them.


Parts of this article were published in a story in the Sunday Age on 11 October 2009.

 Elise Moore is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.