Sometime fifty years ago this summer (quite likely fifty years ago sometime last week), a young British woman of 19 or 20 with some rather odd luggage stood arguing with American border guards at Checkpoint Charlie. Yes, she knew what she was doing, she was expected in East Berlin, she had a formal invitation. After several hours of arguing, they let her (and her luggage) through. The people waiting for her on the other side of the border had given up on her coming and gone. She had to take a taxi to where she was going, and got there with only an hour to spare before her first race.
The young woman's name was Penny Chuter and, by all available accounts, she was the best British woman rower of her generation. On 19 August 1962, she won the silver medal in single sculls at the Women's European Rowing Championships, which were being held that year at Grünau, in the suburbs of East Berlin. The "odd luggage" was her sculls, though she borrowed an East German boat.
Compared with this year's three British Olympic medals in women's rowing, this probably seems minor, particularly as the women's championship distance then was only 1000 metres rather than today's 2000. However, in several ways, I suspect that Chuter's achievement was greater. So far as I can establish, Chuter's silver was the only medal, of any type, won by a British woman at an international rowing championships between 1954 and 1981. At this time, there was effectively no nationally-organised rowing training in Britain, and very little funding available for British rowers competing in international regattas (and any there was will almost entirely have gone to men's rowing, which was almost entirely separately organised from that for women). Chuter had had effectively to be her own team manager. Even at that time, this will almost certainly have contrasted with the situation for the Czech sculler who won the gold medal in Chuter's race and the Soviet sculler who won bronze.
And one of the people responsible for the differences between 1962 and today was Penny Chuter. In 1964, at the age of 22, she decided that she had had enough of spending as much time arranging for her participation in international regattas as well as actually training for or rowing in them, dropped out of international competition and gone to train as a teacher. However, by 1973, the situation in British rowing was starting to change. The men's and women's halves of the sport had come together, the Amateur Rowing Association had appointed a Czech Olympic medallist, Bob Janousek, as national coach in 1969, and Janousek now convinced the ARA that it needed not only a national rowing squad for Olympic and international competition but also a team of national coaches, both to coach the national squad and to encourage a higher standard of training around Great Britain. And a PE teacher called Penny Chuter was appointed as national coach for women.
In one position or another, Chuter worked with the ARA for around 20 years - as women's coach, then as junior men's coach, then senior men's coach, then as Director of Coaching, then as Director of International Rowing. Janousek resigned as national coach after the 1976 Olympics (the first to include women's rowing, and the first British Olympics rowing medals since 1948 - two silvers, both in men's events), and for most of the 1980s, whatever her exact position, Chuter was more or less the dominant figure in the ARA's coaching hierarchy. Not that she could ever be certain of getting her way without a struggle - her expertise about rowing and coaching techniques was generally acknowledged, but the determination she needed to be heard in a largely male environment was all too easily be seen by at least some men as abrasiveness and arouse their hostility. For instance, the original decision that Steve Redgrave should row in the coxed fours at the 1984 Olympics, in which he got his first gold medal, was Chuter's - but it seems to have been Mike Spracklen, the coach of the coxed four, who talked Redgrave into agreeing to do so. For the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Chuter and Redgrave saw more eye-to-eye - but they never got on well together.
During the 1980s, Chuter also became involved with the International Rowing Federation (or FISA - an abbreviation of its French title), being for many years on its Women's Rowing Commission and its Competitive Rowing Commission. Even in the Olympics, women were still rowing 1000 metres to the men's 2000 - until Chuter and others convinced FISA to change this. After 1985, women as well as men rowed 2000 metres in international and Olympic competitions.
While it is easy to concentrate on Chuter's involvement with Britain's international and Olympic rowers, she was also trying to improve the standard of rowing at club level, taking part in and organising regular programmes local and national training days and weekends, involving rowers of all standards from beginners to top club crews.
However, by around 1990, departures and arrivals at the ARA were weakening Chuter's position there. After a difference of opinions with Chuter in 1989, Spracklen resigned - but a number of the national squad made it clear their sympathies were with Spracklen. This was actually the beginning of a distinctly international career for Spracklen - this year, he was still coaching the Canadian Olympic rowing team. Then, with the unification of Germany, a number of former East German coaches found themselves without jobs - and the ARA took the opportunity to recruit a certain Jurgen Grobler - who, of course, was still coaching the British team this year. In 1995, Chuter stepped down from her position at the ARA and accepted an offer from Oxford University to coach its boat race team. Unfortunately, this only lasted a couple of years, as results were disappointing. After a few years with Sport England, Chuter officially retired in 2002 or 2003.
Not that that seems to have stopped Penny Chuter. Her involvement with FISA continued well after she had left the ARA - she finally stepped down from the Competitive Rowing Commission in 2006, getting the FISA Distinguished Service to Rowing Award for that year, and she is still apparently taking part in FISA coaching initiatives to encourage rowing in countries without strong traditions in international rowing. And in Cornwall, where she now lives, a Google search indicates that she is still competing and coaching in coastal rowing, using gigs.
But otherwise she seems to have been half forgotten. Her days with the ARA still occasionally get remembered anecdotally by old rowers, but she seems to have been overshadowed not only by her effective successor, Jurgen Grobler, and (to a lesser extent) her predecessor, Bob Janousek, but also by Steve Redgrave as the great emerging talent of her years as national coach.
And by now, very few seem aware that she was perhaps the most talented British rower in an admittedly weak period for British rowing.