Legendary rowing coaches Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly.
Legendary rowing coaches Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly.

GPS rowing: Zero victories doesn’t mean zero success

BRISBANE State High School has not won the Head of the River since the event went to eights in 1955, but no-one could ever say that the school's rowing program hasn't been a success.

In fact, some would argue it has been the most successful of all the GPS schools as it has achieved great results on and off the water at a fraction of the financial outlay of its competitors.

Unlike the privately funded GPS schools, State High has relied largely on the goodwill and hard work of volunteers to keep its rowing program afloat.

Legendary BSHS rowing coaches Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly.
Legendary BSHS rowing coaches Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly.

None more so than legendary coaches Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly who between them were involved with rowing at the school for over 120 years.

The State High rowing trophy cabinet may not be full of silverware but anyone questioning the value that the sport has brought to the school and its pupils had only to look at the crowd and the outpouring of love and affection at Bill Sole's funeral last year.

"It was huge," said former State High rower Ian Edmunds, one of three Olympic rowers, along with Tim Conrad and Bo Hanson, to have been influenced by Sole and Donnelly during their time at the school.

Both Sole and Donnelly had rowed for State High when they were pupils at the school and after they returned as teachers in the 1960s, they introduced hundreds of youngsters to the sport.

Donnelly was a teacher at State High for 34 years and Sole for 31 but both continued to coach as volunteers following their retirement.

Sole and Donnelly together in 2014.
Sole and Donnelly together in 2014.

In an interview with The Courier-Mail's Bernie Pramberg in 2014, Bill Sole, who coached the First VIII for 13 years, imparted his philosophy.

"Discipline is the most important thing that rowing teaches kids. Ask their parents,'' he said. "The fact we make them clean up around the shed, put the boats away and wipe everything down is all part of it.''

Donnelly added: "I played a lot of different sports, but the most satisfying thing is getting a rowing eight or a quality four going beautifully on the water. All the power, precision and timing is a fantastic feeling."

State High won five O'Connor Cups in fours, but have never had the chance to hold it aloft after winning the Head of the River in the eights.

However they have come close.

Between 1963 and 1978 State High recorded five seconds and four thirds.

"On a couple of occasions we were beaten by inches ..." Donnelly said.

One time it was even closer than that.

The schoolboys fight it out during the 1962 Head of the River.
The schoolboys fight it out during the 1962 Head of the River.

"I rowed in the crew that came second in 1978," Edmunds said. "Southport beat us by .3 of a second. That's the closest we ever came."

But regardless of the results no-one ever forgot being coached by Bill Sole and Denis Donnelly - or the life lessons they learned.

And what they might have been lacking in resources they made up for with ingenuity.

"We used to bribe them," Donnelly told Pramberg.

"The first time the beginners got around our sculls circuit three times without falling in the river they'd get a chocolate frog.

"Years later we'd get blokes in their 50s coming up to us and saying 'hey Sir, you still owe me a chocolate frog'.''

News Corp Australia


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