It was Debbie Mason who said to me not long ago that each year Wests takes a new step (or two) forward. A new idea, or new strategy, is introduced and it changes everything from our day-to-day operations to our future direction as an organisation.
Each new idea drive us away from being a loosely held-together rabble of alcoholics with a rowing problem, toward becoming a sophisticated, effective and efficient organisation.
For example, introducing the run-sheet for States in 2004 was one step. As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention and prior to 2004, to head to a regatta we simply loaded every piece of equipment we had in the club onto the trailer, and that was it.
At that time, Wests had started to grow. We had a bit more gear, and we discovered logistics had become a bit of a problem. It wasn't unusual for us to turn up at Canning to discover we’d left a few riggers behind.
It now amuses me that our run-sheet that was first designed a decade ago has since been adopted by at least one other clubs.
Over the past 10 years, we've amassed a swag of other ideas: “squad” training rather than crew training, deck scrubbing, setting sessions ahead of time, mircos and macros, weekends away, electronic newsletters, social networking, LABA sessions, cleaning vinegar, new “lolly-pops”, strength-and-conditioning, and an annual nationals campaign program.
Through all these changes, there are common names that appear as the revolutionaries, the drivers of the new ideas: Andrew Taylor, Alex Jolly and Marie Limb. More recently, Michael Jones, Nick Wakeford, Dean Neal.
One of the names that quite often comes up is also that of Dr Susanne Guy. In 2007, Su was elected the first woman captain WARC had in its almost 140 years of rowing. But she was much, much more than just a blip on the equality radar.
It was in 2006 – the year before Su would become captain a set Wests on a dramatically different path - that Su gave me a call and asked, hypothetically speaking, if Wests had a new women’s eight, what it would be named.
I, of course, said "Octopussy" – eight women in a boat. I can’t claim the joke, I think I stole if from Caine.
I was soon to discover this wasn't a hypothetical at all. Su had struck a deal with Sykes in Geelong and had bought the women of Wests an eight. It became the club’s only dedicated women’s boat, and for almost the whole following season, that boat didn't lose a single race.
It bonded the women’s squad together in a way that hadn't been done before. We’d been labelled virtually uncoachable at that point, if you’d given us a collective noun it would have been “an attitude.” But the Maali – which means "Black Swan" in Ngoongar – was what we needed to give the women something to work for. At the close of the 2006 season, the women’s squad was awarded a collective "best oarsmen” award, something that hadn't been done before.
We are still all mates, the original girls of the Maali (and Rowan Ellis). Leanne, Lee, Marie, Su, Kel, Jules, various Colbys, Bobbins, Tenille, JD...half of us have kids now.
When Su took over as Captain in 2007, she faced a hostile State administrative board. Wests hadn't been great in its representation or contribution to rowing as a sport on the State level in recent years, and we were not well thought-of outside the club.
Hers was a monumental exercise in public relations and stakeholder management. She built relationships with the State and National boards, and kept the peace in a sometimes fraught and stressful club environment.
It was a tough task and despite being uncompromising in her drive to better Wests, Su was also a well-loved leader: After a trip to her home in the UK, Su was greeted at Perth’s international airport by a crew of Wests men all dressed in zoot suits, carrying a sign which read “Welcome home Su Guy, international rowing champion.”
People in the arrivals hall stood, stared and clapped, never knowing this was little more than a (pretty awesome) practical joke.
She also kept committee meetings on track. Many who have sat on the Club’s board in the past would know it wasn't unusual to sit until 10pm or 11pm, arguing the minutia of rowing operations. Su all but obliterated this self-indulgence and talk-fest, bringing structure and discipline to the top of the Wests hierarchy.
Despite the club growing at a rate that was problematic to accommodate, and pressure on the club, coaches, volunteers and equipment was building, Su kept us ticking over, brokered peace between our occasionally volatile (but most excellent) head coach and pretty much everyone, and made sure we all kept turning up to training.
Under Su’s watch, Wests was named Club of the Year by Rowing WA. It was a mammoth achievement and turn-around, and was largely possible because Su was a competent hand at the tiller of the Good Ship Wests.