July 2021

Kate O'Sullivan: A passion born in Leeds

Kate O'Sullivan, Deputy Chair of British Rowing

Deputy Chair of British Rowing Kate O’Sullivan (Mineral Engineering 1985) first stepped into a boat in Roundhay Park in 1982. 

After contributing to the sport and the fortunes of rowers at all levels, from Olympians to first-timers, Kate has been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in recognition of her work.

In our latest podcast episode, we caught up with Kate to discuss her time rowing at Leeds, her love of the sport, and British prospects ahead of Tokyo 2020.

The morning after receiving her BEM, Kate was up at 5.30am to take 25 crews to Durham regatta: “I clocked up 32,500 steps moving boats around. We had some cakes and things to celebrate – well the juniors did – so it was great.”

It is safe to say that with or without the recognition, Kate will continue to dedicate her time to the sport she loves.

Rowing wasn’t always the plan. Kate has had a full-time career spanning engineering, research, organisational development and, more recently, as an executive coach and programme facilitator. Involvement in the sport alongside her career means time is short, and after graduating from Leeds, Kate had decided she would part ways with the pass time.

But a trip to Tees Rowing Club to put pay the idea. “There was just something about the people. Rowing really does provide a lovely family community.

“I'm just really proud of seeing people achieve things they didn't think that they could achieve.”

“It’s about helping people find a confidence in themselves that they maybe didn't have.”

Kate O'Sullivan (Mineral Engineering 1985)
Deputy Chair of British Rowing

On and in Waterloo Lake

“We used to wait outside the Parkinson Building for a mini bus on a Wednesday afternoon, which would then take us to Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park.

“I spent a lot of my time on Waterloo Lake. A lot of my time in it, as well!”

Kate became involved with the Leeds University Boat Club (LUBC) after a thumb injury left her with time to spare. “Some people in my halls of residence came up and told me they needed a cox for the women’s eight, so I gave it a go. I loved it. I still remember my first race in the pouring rain at Trent Head.”

After continuing as cox at Tees Rowing Club, Kate soon became the club captain, and her focus shifted to the coaching side of the sport. Positions as Tees Rowing Club President and within British Rowing followed, before she was appointed Deputy Chair of British Rowing in 2017.

And it is her work outside of the boat that has brought Kate most pleasure. “For me, it’s more about the community and helping people find a confidence in themselves that they maybe didn't have.”

Kate has come a long way since her first row at Roundhay Park, and so has the LUBC. We speak from Stourton Boathouse, a top-level facility opened in 2014, and built as a collaboration between the University, Leeds Rowing Club, British Rowing and Leeds University Union.

In recognition of all Kate has done for the sport and LUBC, the club recently named a boat in her honour.

LUBC name a boat in Kate's honour

Ones to watch

With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, it’s an exciting time for Kate and her British Rowing colleagues.

But are there any Leeds rowers we need to look out for?

“For Paris 2024, Matt Brigham is the one to watch.” Matt graduated in medicine in 2021, after balancing his degree alongside rowing commitments. “He's already got a phenomenal reputation, and he's a complete role model for the juniors and the students. In addition, Helen Brown is developing a great reputation as a coach working on the British Rowing World Class Start Programme with potential Olympians of the future."

Having supported Kat Copeland, Olympic gold medal winner at London 2012, and Laurence Whiteley, Paralympic gold medal winner at Rio, we ask Kate if there’s something she looks for in an athlete heading to the highest level: “Apart from the obvious such as size, athletic ability and a big engine, anyone who is going to make it to the very pinnacle of their career has to have the emotional and mental resilience to deal with the pressures that come with operating at the highest level.

"I think there's a path somewhere for everyone, so I'm also looking at who are the great organizers, who are the ones that really look out for the youngsters, who might be the physios of the future? I don't judge it necessarily just by performance on the water.”

It is fitting, as it Kate’s contributions on land that have helped so many over the years.

Tune into the full episode to hear more from Kate. If you are interested in getting involved in the LUBC alumni group, email here.

Listen to more podcasts from the Alumni Team at the University of Leeds below and subscribe.