On this National Girls and Women in Sports Day, we join in on recognizing student-athletes, champion athletes, coaches, administrators and lawmakers committed to providing equitable access to sports for all girls and women. We would like to highlight one of our Team JL ambassadors, Rachel Smillie, who is currently training to row across the Atlantic Ocean with two other women athletes. 

"We’re conscious that endurance sport and adventure hasn’t historically been seen as a space for women and we want to do our bit to change that view and help girls and women take on their own challenges." -Rachel

Not only is this trio of women training to complete the row, but they are also aiming to break the women's trio world record! We sat down with Rachel to learn more about the training for a challenge like this, and what inspired her to enter into the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.



JL Racing: Tell me a little bit about your background with rowing. How did you get into the sport?

Team JL's Rachel: I started rowing about seven years ago at Southsea Rowing Club in Portsmouth. At that point I was a keen trail and distance runner but had a niggling injury in my foot so needed to find a way to keep my fitness up while giving my foot a rest from marathon training! It was January so a miserable time of year to start rowing, especially somewhere where you have to wade into the sea to get into the boat! Despite this I completely fell in love with the sport and it more or less took over my life! I completed my British Rowing Club Coach qualification in 2019 and was Captain of Eton Excelsior Rowing Club (where I still row) from 2018-2021. 


JL: When did you start considering rowing across the Atlantic? How did that idea turn into an actual plan to do the row?

Rachel: I’ve always pushed myself and been interested in the limits of what I can achieve physically and mentally. I think the challenges I’ve taken on have just escalated over the years! I’ve done other endurance things like long-distance fell and trail races in the dark, the Midnight Sun race in Tromso, Norway, and I’m taking on the UK 3 peaks challenge and rowing Loch Ness this year. Doing something like the Atlantic has always been in the back of my mind and I think it was inevitable that I’d end up doing something on this scale. In 2020 I coached a solo Atlantic rower, Rob Hamilton, and helped him with his campaign. I think working with Rob really gave space for Caroline and I (one of my crewmates for 2023) to voice how much we’d like to do the row ourselves and it also let us see from start to finish what the challenge might entail. The more we talked about it the more determined and excited we got and by the time Rob had landed in Antigua we’d signed up to the challenge with our third crewmate Nicki Kelly.


JL: Tell me a little bit about the group that you will be rowing across the Atlantic with. Why these specific people?

Rachel: Caroline, Nicki and I have all always had a shared interest in adventure. For a challenge like this the crew dynamic is crucial and the team really need to be on the same page and have the same goals. Nicki and I used to race together and Caroline and Nicki have also raced together, so we all know what each of us is capable of and the levels of commitment and dedication that we bring to rowing. We’re conscious that endurance sport and adventure hasn’t historically been seen as a space for women and we want to do our bit to change that view and help girls and women take on their own challenges. I’m continually inspired by my amazing crewmates and I can’t think of any two people I’d rather spend 40+ days in a 24ft space with!


JL: What training is involved in preparing for something like this?

Rachel: With just under two years to go training is well underway. At the moment we’re focused on injury prevention – so a lot of mobility work and general strength and endurance training to ensure that our bodies will stand up to the kind of punishment that they will take at sea. We need to spend as much time in our boat as possible, making sure we know exactly how she (and we!) perform in different conditions, how all our equipment works, drilling our routines on board and honing our dynamic as a crew. This will include meeting the minimum number of hours training we have to do in the boat to be able to undertake the crossing, including night rows and multiple days at sea. In February we’ll be completing our essential RYA courses for the row, including Essential Navigation and Seamanship, First Aid at Sea, Sea Survival and VHF Radio.

It’s also well-known among ocean rowers that the challenge is as much, if not more, mental than physical. Part of our physical training is also contributing to our mental resilience – it’s incredibly boring to sit on a static bike or rowing machine for two or three hours but this is incredibly useful mental prep. As a crew, we’ll also be doing a lot of pre-mortems, thinking about what could go wrong on the crossing and how we might problem-solve in those situations. It’s also important to think about how we will perform and work together as a crew, so that’s a big part of our mental preparation too. All of this is necessary to help us appreciate the scale of the challenge we’re taking on. It’s known as ‘The World’s Toughest Row’, and there’s a reason more people climb Everest every year than have ever rowed the Atlantic! 


JL: What do you hope to accomplish by completing this rowing journey?

Rachel: For a challenge on this scale, it’s important to have more than one goal. Goal number one – don’t die! We’ll be completely at the mercy of the conditions, so while we have another goal for the crossing – to complete it as quickly as possible and break the women’s trio record – we’re fully aware that if the weather is against us that may have to change!

We’re raising money for two amazing charities – Thames Hospice and The DASH Charity (Domestic Abuse Stops Here). Thames Hospice is the local charity providing expert care for people living with life-limiting illnesses in East Berkshire and South Buckinghamshire. A vital part of their work is also supporting their families and carers. It costs £12 million every year to keep the Hospice running. They rely on the community for over 50% of the funds they have to raise annually to provide services free of charge, 365 days a year, to the people who need them. DASH provides specialist support to adults and children experiencing mental health issues, modern slavery, immigration, trafficking, homelessness and complex needs associated with Domestic Abuse, empowering them to live a life beyond crisis and ensuring their voices are heard. We’re inspired by the incredible work they do in the community and hope to contribute to the impact they can have.

At the same time, we want to inspire girls and women to reap the benefits of being involved in sport at any age, and feel that sport and adventure are spaces for everyone. As a crew, it’s really important for us to feel that we’ve done the very best we can and had a ‘good’ crossing. We want to cross the line feeling that we’ve given everything we can to it and still feeling like a team. On a personal level, I’m really excited about seeing what I’m capable of in such an extreme environment. 


JL: What are the details of the row? 

Rachel: We depart from San Sebastian, La Gomera, Canary Islands in December 2023 and row 3000 miles unsupported to Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbor, Antigua and Barbuda. ‘Unsupported’ means exactly that - we have to take all our food, equipment, including medical kit with us for the duration of the crossing. As we’re aiming for a world record we hope to complete the challenge in 41 days or less, but it could take much longer, around 60 days if the weather isn’t with us.

Photos source: Atlantic Campaigns/@atlanticcampaigns


JL: You mentioned you will be doing a 24 hour row in March. What is the inspiration behind this?

Rachel: One of the big challenges with rowing an ocean is getting the support and finances together that you need to even get to the start line! We hope with the 24 hour row to raise awareness about our challenge and our two incredible charities – Thames Hospice and The DASH Charity. This will be a grueling challenge in itself and is excellent mental preparation for the Atlantic. It’s also an opportunity to get people talking about women in endurance sport – which is why we’re doing it as part of International Women’s Day 2022. We hope to break the record for the furthest distance rowed in 24 hours by a team of women. Watch this space!


JL: Is there anything else you would like the rowing community and public to know about this challenge?

Rachel: It would be incredible if people could support our challenge and follow our journey. We’re on Instagram and Facebook @teamexcelsioar, and here is our fundraising page.

There are some cool ocean rowing stats which might be of interest: On the way we’ll contend with sea-sickness, dehydration, extreme heat, hallucinations, sleep-deprivation, 20ft waves, salt-sores, blisters and sharks, not to mention the grueling rowing routine! It’s estimated we’ll row in excess of 1.5 million strokes in the race and burn in excess of 5000 calories per day.


Rachel and her team are looking for individuals and businesses to help support the crossing. Visit their fundraising page to learn more, and follow their social media for updates! 

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