“People can achieve so much more by having the confidence to work just a little bit harder” Geoffrey Potts
Geoffrey Potts knew that life was about margins and sacrifice. In 1974 Geoffrey raced in the lightweight single sculls at the World Championships in Lucerne. He came 4th by a margin of a foot and had the photo finish as a reminder. Most of us would be satisfied to be the 4th best in the world in any sport but Geoffrey told us he knew he could have trained harder, pushed harder and prepared better. He used this as a reminder to us all never to be complacent.
Geoffrey’s life was rich and full. Geoffrey and his wife had two sons and a grandson, with another on the way in December. Following a successful career in the shipping industry, Geoffrey spent time tending an allotment and kept a busy social life – more than enough for most us in our early 70’s! But rowing was a lifelong passion, fostered since his days at Durham school in the 1960’s. Here Geoffrey formed a group of tight-knit friends in a champion coxed four who reunited just last year to race as special guests at the Durham Regatta. He rowed with Durham University Boat Club between 1968 and 1970, and then moved to Tees Rowing Club, where he began his sculling career. His personal achievements as an athlete culminated in his 4th place finish at the 1974 World Championships. Geoffrey moved to London in 1978 and joined Quintin Boat Club, where he raced and coached on the Tideway for over 35 years, perfecting the art of sculling joyously through waves and launch wash. Geoffrey joined Mortlake Anglian and Alpha Boat Club two years ago to help develop the Women’s Squad along with his good friend Mervyn Lee.
Geoffrey’s role with the MAABC coaching team saw him out on the river every Saturday and Sunday morning throughout the year, in addition to taking groups of scullers out on weekday mornings – often in two shifts. In April this year, Geoffrey drove our boats to the south of France and spent a week coaching our training camp, as he had done so many times before, both at Mortlake and Quintin.
Geoffrey regularly coached from a launch, but when possible he most enjoyed doing so from his sculling boat, giving his athletes no choice but to scull faster simply because his bows were pressing relentlessly on their stern. Many of the squad at Mortlake know the feeling of finishing a session absolutely exhausted with a fresh-faced Geoffrey beaming at us from his single. He would deliver steering calls (“a little on the right”), and coaching calls (“light hands”) whilst easily outpacing us all.
As well as providing the technical input as a coach, Geoffrey’s sensitive and caring personality was invaluable to his athletes. No-nonsense but approachable, he helped many of us pick ourselves up and move forward, be it coming back from injury, childbirth, or just a bad day on the water. A wicked sense of humour, Geoffrey was often able to make us see a more light-hearted perspective – the only way was up.
Geoffrey was an excellent single sculler and technician. Despite having a pacemaker fitted at a young age, he was extremely fit, strong and fiercely competitive. A regular at head races, Geoffrey was enticed back into regatta racing in 2016, racing at Twickenham Regatta in May of that year. He promptly annihilated his competition (effortlessly) much to the delight of his many fans cheering from the bank.
The reach of Geoffrey’s impact across the Tideway can be felt far beyond the clubroom of Mortlake. It is commonly said that he ‘taught the world to scull’, with so many remembering how Geoffrey took the time to coach and mentor them in the beginning and to challenge them as they progressed. It has been a rite of passage at MAABC and Quintin Boat club to be taught (or re-taught!) to scull by Geoffrey Potts. Geoffrey had time for everyone, whether it was taking a nervous sculler out for a confidence boost, coaching from the bow of a double to improve technique, or preparing crews to compete at Women’s Henley. He saw potential in everyone, at every level, and worked tirelessly to unlock it. In return, the desire to please Geoffrey was what drove many of us on.
Geoffrey was a true gentleman and sportsman in every respect. He was gentle and kind but compliments were not given lightly, and athletes knew that they had to work hard for Geoffrey’s approval. Geoffrey used straightforward honesty to explain why the boat wasn’t moving (“you need to get fit!”) or some simple pre-race motivation (“enjoy it when it hurts”). When he wasn’t racing himself, Geoffrey typically positioned himself on the bank 2/3 of the way down the race course, and his roar could be heard above all others right when you needed it.
It is only since Geoffrey passed that we understand the full extent of his reach. Geoffrey’s generosity was given freely and without self-interest. Just recently when an athlete developed a medical condition that meant his crewmates no longer felt able to take him on the river, Geoffrey volunteered and has been arranging sessions so that someone less able can still enjoy the sport of rowing.
Some years ago, Geoffrey persuaded his old friend and double sculls partner, Tom Bishop, to take up rowing again after an absence of twenty years. Only last weekend, interviewed after winning the over-70s single sculls at the Head of the Charles, Tom explained “A friend of mine sent me a birthday card saying they play nice tunes on old violins, why don’t you come rowing again?” On seeing the article Geoffrey responded (to the ex-Olympian), “And the tunes keep coming! No sign of the violin wearing out yet. Just think how well you’ll play when you learn to scull properly!” This anecdote perfectly captures Geoffrey’s love of the sport, his wonderful sense of humour, competitive spirit and his constant quest for improvement.
Geoffrey Potts passed away on 28th October 2017 whilst coaching Fours Head crews on his beloved Tideway. We used to worry about Geoffrey’s heart condition, knowing how hard he pushed himself and how fiercely he competed, but we also knew that if his heart gave out on the river one day, he would go doing what he loved.
That day came, and words cannot describe how much he will be missed or how grateful we all are to have known him.
‘You should always be competing – if there is nothing on the river but a duck, race the duck’ Geoffrey Potts.