On an idyllic summer afternoon in the beautiful town of Henley-on-Thames, a tall, powerful, man in a single scull boat glides in harmony with the sublime and peaceful river Thames. Propelled by immaculate strokes that mask a technical mastery, he cuts a lean line through the glass-like water. This is the man we are here to meet.
Polite and reserved, with a refined sense of style, Will Satch MBE is an Olympic champion rower. Having taken the men’s eight to a memorable gold medal victory in Rio 2016 and previously winning bronze in London 2012, Will is a legend of British Rowing. Off the water and into the Leander Club’s library, Will recounted the key moments that led him to become an Olympic champion.
Born in Oxfordshire, Will spent the early years of his life on the rugby pitch. His success would earn him a scholarship at Shiplake College, near Henley-on-Thames, where he would meet one of his strongest influences, Shane O’Brien. Shane is a former rower from New Zealand who won the Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
It was inevitable that Will would follow a sporting path in life, surrounded by athletically gifted parents. His stepdad, a rugby coach and his mum, Sally, a former elite swimmer. But the water was never far away. As well as swimming, Will’s mum would skiff at Wraysbury Skiff and Punting Club, where a one-year-old Will would sit quietly in his basket at the bottom of the boat, watching his mum row. Will’s admiration for his mother is palpable. Having had no contact with his father from the age of 11, right up until the London Olympics in 2012, Sally would play both roles in Will’s life. “It’s very cliché to say, but mum was good enough to be both, father and mother, she’d make it work”.
Will was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. He tells a tale of being sent to run laps around the rugby pitch in pre-school before being allowed to engage with the rest of his class. For Will, his athleticism and dedication to physical exercise became an outlet for the pressure he felt internally. Will’s mother did not want him to engage with any medicinal pathways relating to his condition, and as time went on, it became apparent that the perfect drug for Will, was sport. In later life, the importance of being out on the water would provide much more than his Olympic victories. Rowing provided tranquillity, comradery, discipline, and the motivation to strive for elite recognition. “What I love about rowing, is that it’s really pure, it’s really simple, everything’s stripped back. There’s not a lot of financial gain in it, it’s the discipline it gives you.” This isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. Training at the elite level consists of day-in, day-out training. He was rowing up to 240km each week, with no days off. Considering Will’s character, this brutal regime would ultimately play to his strengths, allowing him to channel his inner aggression into something that would later propel him to victory. “It’s a cruel mistress sport, it really is. It teaches you so many lessons.”
It was at 17 when Will would make the move from rugby to rowing – regardless of his stepdad’s aspirations for his sporting career. A volunteer at Will’s rugby club was also a member of the Upper Thames Rowing Club and invited him to try sculling. From there, Will’s abilities took a sharp upward trajectory. Will attributes much of his success to his genetics, as well as what he describes as his “fire”, which ultimately translated into speed. Will was supported from a young age by the prestigious Leander Club, where he rode as a junior, prior to the junior system being implemented. This afforded Will the perfect opportunity to be taken seriously as a rower. At the young age of 23, Will got the call to row alongside his best friend, George Nash, in the coxless pair at London 2012.
Will and George would go on to take the bronze medal. “Before I knew it, I’m sat on the start line of an Olympic final with my best mate. It was very special, that one of the moments I’ll always remember.” This would be his first taste of elite success, on a global platform. From that moment on, it was all about the next challenge. In May 2016, his dreams would become reality, when he stroked the British men’s eight to the gold medal at the Rio Summer Olympics. In the run-up to the competition, the 2016 season had not yielded a top spot finish at any of the International Regattas. But, on the day, Will would deliver the performance of a lifetime, right under the nose of Christ the Redeemer – much to the delight of his family, and the entire nation. This moment would see Will go on to be awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2017 New Year Honours list for services to rowing.
Despite all the accolades awarded during his illustrious rowing career, when we asked Will to tell us his proudest moment, he reminisced about proposing to his fiancé, Dr Zara Milne. It’s clear to see the dedication and commitment it takes to achieve what Will has during his rowing career, but in this heartfelt moment, we saw a glimpse of a softer side to the man, who holds his family in far higher regard than any finish line.
Now that Will has hung up the oars, he continues to find the release and routine he needs in the form of exercise. These days, Will spends his time giving back to the rowing community by coaching, having just returned from New Zealand. Will wants to continue as a role model and advocate for young sports people.