Looking across the calm early morning water on Lake Burley Griffin, Paul Thompson says he remembers the day – 43 years ago – when he took his first tentative steps in rowing.
He was introduced to the sport as a 14-year-old at Telopea High School, and it has been a major part of his life ever since.
Paul became an Australian underage champion, won silver in the men’s eight at the World Rowing Under-23 Championship in 1985, and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul beckoned.
But it wasn’t to be after he came off a bike and broke his hand a year before the Games in South Korea and his Olympic dream as a rower was seemingly over.
Paul’s focus then turned to coaching, beginning as a scholarship coach at the Australian Institute of Sport.
It was to be the start of an incredible journey coaching crews to medals at seven Olympics for three different countries.
In 1996, Paul coached Megan Still and Kate Slatter to Australia’s first women’s rowing Olympic gold medal. Megan came into the sport having being talent identified while at high school in Queanbeyan.
Then after guiding the Australian women’s pairs to silver in Sydney, in 2000, Paul was headhunted to lead the British women’s rowing program. He remembers the time well.
“I felt as though I needed to challenge myself,” he says. “It was completely different to the AIS program.”
Paul coached British crews to medals at the next four Olympic Games, including a record three gold in 2012, in London, for which he was awarded an MBE.
His 18-year stint with British Rowing wasn’t without its challenges. In 2017, an investigation cleared him of a bullying complaint.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, held in 2021, Paul was the head coach of Chinese Rowing, leading the team to a record medal haul of one gold and two bronze.
“It wasn’t without its challenges,” he says. “I was coaching through a translator, but the support for rowing in China is incredible and it was a great experience.”
After the Tokyo Olympics, Paul says he had to make a tough decision.
“I had some family stuff going on in Canberra and I wanted to be back in Australia,” he says.
“I had just started at the NSW Institute of Sport when Rowing Australia’s high-performance director, Bernard Savage, secured the high-performance director role at Hockey Australia. Rowing Australia asked if I was interested in the position.”
Paul says it was a role he had long aspired to, and after a competitive process he was offered the position, which he accepted.
So now he returns to the city of his upbringing and on the lake where it all began.
Being back in Canberra presents an opportunity to return to jumping in the boat for an occasional row on Lake Burley Griffin.
“Canberra is such a fabulous city,” says Paul. “It’s great for rowing and I know I will get out and row a bit more.”
However, his focus in the immediate future is maintaining the momentum created by the Australian rowing team at the Tokyo Olympics.
“Australian rowing has a rich tradition and history, and it’s a privilege to lead its program,” says Paul.
“Australia had fantastic success in Tokyo, both in the Olympics and Paralympics. We have a set of dedicated and skilled coaches and support staff, as well as gifted and talented rowers.
“I look forward to playing my part in creating an environment and system where the rowers are reaching their potential when it counts, achieving their dreams and making Australia proud.”
At 57 years of age, Paul is a renowned hard taskmaster who knows how to get results. He says he has mellowed in recent times, but success often has that affect.