Four Men in a Boat

It was birthday cake all round as four men from York City Rowing Club celebrated their birthdays. Stuart Gill (85), Dick Gradley (85), Philip Stubley (77), and John Sparrow (70) did what they love doing most – sculling on the River Ouse.


STUART GILL was born into rowing. He started coxing aged 14, and sculling aged 16. He was a successful competitor and when he bought a gift shop in York in 1969, he just got up earlier, so that he could scull before work. His rowing came to a halt in 1987, but in 2014 he was invited to join the relatively new Leisure and Progression Group, the brainchild of John Sparrow – designed to offer the joys of rowing to people of any age or ability.

On returning to the sport, Stuart found himself able to only row 10-15 strokes before needing a rest and needed to be helped in and out of the boat. Today, at 85, this sparkly eyed octogenarian regularly sculls 50km a week, and is an enthusiastic participant in both the social and competitive activities of the club, competing in the Bradford War of Roses and the Bradford Regatta in 2016. Last Sunday he competed in the Yorkshire Head, a race he first did in 1968 – a mere 49 years ago.

DICK GRADLEY is a truly remarkable, all round athlete. His sporting career has encompassed boxing, gymnastics where he represented Great Britain in the 1960 Olympics and cycling, before he started sculling aged 65. Now 85, he is still to be found on the Ouse in his signature pink boat. He also still works as a fitness instructor 5 days a week, and this year celebrates his 66th wedding anniversary.

PHILIP STUBLEY only started sculling 8 years ago aged 69. He started running in the mid 80s, joining Harrogate athletic club, and running with them for 15 years doing road, cross country and fell races. He has a drawer full of tee shirts and medals but the sub 3 hour time for the flying fox veteran marathon aged 53 was his best distance running achievement.

Injuries in his late 50s led him to a rowing machine and he rowed competitively for 10-12 years. He can’t remember how many gold medals he has won, but he broke 7 minutes for 2000m British record in 2002 and won 2 Gold medals in the Boston World Championships.

Since beginning his sculling career at 69, he has won two gold medals at British Championships in a quad in 2011 and a double in 2012. This year he is off to Bled for the World Rowing Masters Regatta to race in a quad in the over 75 age group.

JOHN SPARROW started coxing aged 14 because he was no good at cricket and his eyesight not good enough for rugby! He started rowing at 15 – crews had to stop at alternate landing stages to empty the boats because they were so old. He won his first event on the Tyne in 1964, an event he remembers vividly; conditions were so rough that two of the four crews sank!

He spent many years coaching and sculling at York City Rowing Club until 2010 when he retired and started the Leisure and Progression Group at YCRC, giving people of all ages and abilities an opportunity to experience the many benefits of rowing. It is a testament to his dedication and skill as a coach who really understands how to get the best out of people, that a group which started as one or two members on Saturday mornings now numbers 50+ enthusiastic members.

Not only enthusiastic, but with his help, talented. The group won two golds at the National Masters at Nottingham in 2015 within half an hour of each other – Paula Widdowson and Hilary Howe in the Women’s section, and Nick Wilson and Hudson Aschmann for the men. He also coached Martin Walsh who won single gold at Nottingham Masters.

John’s many years of selfless commitment were rewarded this year and he was awarded Yorkshire region volunteer of the year award presented at Henley by Dame Katherine Grainger.

As the saying goes ‘It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years’. These four men at York City Rowing Club prove just that.

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