We first met Mari Akhurst when she approached DBF for a Bader Grant towards the cost of physical training to improve her core strength and benefit her para-dressage riding.
Mari has Cerebral Palsy affecting all limbs. As well as having a great affinity with horses and being a naturally gifted rider, she is also the most committed and determined athlete you could meet. We were honoured when she agreed to accept our invitation to become a DBF Ambassador. In the same spirit, as the symptoms of her CP had worsened, and having turned in some excellent times on the rowing machine she decided to take up rowing and discovered that she had a real aptitude for the sport.
DBF had also been approached by Marlow Rowing Club for a Bader Grant to enable them to buy an additional boat for their strong Adaptive and Para-rowing programme. Through some wonderful serendipity we were able to provide 2 boats, which were ceremoniously christened “Lady B” after Joan Bader, the late widow of Sir Douglas, and “Spitfire” for the plane that Sir Douglas, despite being a double amputee, piloted with such success in WW2. You can find out more about this via the link beneath this post.
Spitfire and Mari’s adventures had begun!
You can read more of Mari’s earlier rowing adventures by following the link at the bottom of this post but suffice it to say here that – again – Mari’s determination has paid dividends in the form of not just one but 2 Gold Medals as you will see from her article below.
We are so proud of what Mari has achieved and continues to achieve. She is a genuine inspiration with a wonderfully positive attitude to life that many could learn from.
She is happy to share that inspiration through her successful motivational speaking. If you’d like to arrange for her to speak at a venue or event, please contact Wendy McCleave (email link below), or comment at the bottom of this post and we’ll put you in touch with Mari.
Read on for Mari’s thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring blog about Spitfire and Mari’s adventure to Ireland…
Spitfire and Mari’s Adventure to Ireland for the Home International in Lough Rinn
Spitfire was due to be picked up from Marlow Rowing Club on Tuesday by Dez and loaded onto the Welsh trailer ready to catch the ferry to Ireland on Thursday morning. My Dad and I helped load Spitfire, my oars, rigor waved goodbye as Dez headed off to his next pick up. A huge thank you to Dez for transporting Spitfire.
It was time to pack as Dad and I were heading off to Ireland on Thursday morning. Last few training sessions on the rowing machine and we were good to go. I decorated Genie, my wheelchair, with the Welsh colours on her wheels.
The Welsh team were meeting at Henley to meet our coach. My friend Rebekah met us at our house and mum dropped us all off. It was a long coach drive to Holyhead; we had one stop and lots of traffic! But we made it in time to catch our ferry across to Dublin.
We had a smooth crossing and enjoyed dinner with the rest of the Welsh team. We arrived in Dublin at about 12pm so we were all really tired, found our Irish coach and then fell asleep! We had a 2 and a half hour journey to Carrick on Shannon which is where we would be staying for the duration. When we arrived, it was 3am so we found our accommodation and went straight to bed.
As we arrived so late, we were allowed to have a little lie in before breakfast at 8:30. Me and dad were staying in the Carrick Plaza Suites as the room was accessible and they were very excited to have the Welsh Rowing team staying. All of the team were staying in three separate places, so we all had breakfast and dinner in one place at the Bush Hotel which was central for everyone. It was a short push from where we were staying.
Quick breakfast and then back on the team coach to go to Lough Rinn which was about a 20-minute coach journey.
We arrived and found our team tent which is where the Welsh team would be situated alongside England, Ireland and Scotland, the other nations.
I found Spitfire and we re-rigged her ready to row, then Rebekah and I took the para boats to get acclimatised to the water. James and dad put Spitfire on the water; I put in all the necessities and then got in. As I am a PR1 James and dad came out on a safety launch with me. It was over 2k to row up the water to get to the start line, but the water was nice and flat. I arrived at the start line and turned onto the course ready to row 2k back, there was a slight wind which was blowing me to the left. I didn’t hit any buoys and did a mixture of steady state and race pace bursts. I got off the water feeling confident; Spitfire and I were ready to race tomorrow.
We had a packed lunch provided by Welsh Rowing. We had a chance to do a second water session if we wanted, the weather was rather wet and due to the extra pushing, I had been doing I decided not to. We watched the other Welsh rowers. Genie was fantastic and made it possible for me to push myself with dad’s help where I needed to go. She fitted perfectly onto the coach too. We then tied the boats down for the night; the team coach arrived, and we went back to our accommodation.
A quick change and then off to team dinner at the Bush Hotel; we had a lovely dinner, followed by the kit presentation. Then it was off to bed as we had an early start the next day.
Up early and off to breakfast before catching the team bus 15 minutes later. The weather forecast didn’t look great but thankfully there was no wind! We all arrived at the team tent and first up was group photos when it started drizzling.
Soon after the racing started the first race was won by one of the juniors representing Wales. Time seemed to fly and before long it was time for me to boat. I boated 30 minutes early to give me plenty of time to have a gentle paddle up to the start line. Spitfire and I were ready to race! Having only raced once before the stake boat starts can go either way! Thankfully this time having had experience I managed to line myself up first time. But we did have to paddle for about 7 minutes before I got attached. There was a slight wind at the top of the course and my boat kept going left, as the starter said go, my boat drifted left so, I didn’t have the best start. I was racing a PR2 who is up a classification to me, so they had to wait for 40 seconds; to make the race fair. I powered away and just kept strong and long and realised near the 500-metre mark that I was going to win. As I crossed the line and heard Wales being shouted very loudly, I couldn’t quite believe that I had won and by a big margin. My time was a racing PB and with more to come I was happy. Spitfire had won his first International 2k race! It was time to de-boat and watch my friend Rebekah’s whose race was after ours; she came 2nd and did fantastically in her first ever 2k.
We were very lucky with the weather and although we had no sun we also hadn’t got wet at this point. All winners had to report to the prize giving. It was quite far away and not suitable for my wheelchair to get to so we had a car ride over there. So, Genie, me and the Welsh flag made our way over there. It was incredible I got my medal, and the Welsh dragon was raised and then I had the Welsh National anthem; I was smiling like a Cheshire cat. It was incredible and lovely to have the Welsh supporters singing along. Short car journey back to the Welsh tent and it was time for lunch.
Suddenly it was very humid, and it was time to boat again for the 500 metres; this time I boated 15 minutes early as we were going to be racing from the 500-metre mark on the 2k course. Which was fantastic as that’s where the grandstand was and so all the supporters could see and cheer even louder, which massively helped.
I started rowing up and just as I got to the 1k mark the sky went pitch dark; the heavens opened and I found out that there was a delay with starting the races as they had a problem with the stake boats. It turned into a 30 minute delay and I have never been so wet or cold. By the time we started racing it had stopped raining, but I had so much water in my boat and was very cold. The PR2 only had to wait 7 seconds this time; I had a good start and powered off. Unfortunately, my boat was really going over on one side and I momentarily had to stop as I caught my blade however I made it to the end of the race and I had won again; delighted with that result.
I was absolutely knackered and when Spitfire was turned upside down when I had got out there was lots of water flooding out! Rebekha’s race was due to be next but due to a very long delay; she didn’t race for another 30 minutes! The car park was under water; Spitfire was derigged and put on the trailer ready to leave Ireland tomorrow. Rebekah’s race finally started and again she finished 2nd which was a good result as she was so wet and cold due to the extra delay she had!
Unfortunately, the heavens then opened and so it wasn’t possible to make the second prize giving, so James kindly picked up my medal. We sheltered under the tent cheering on the last few Welsh rowers before catching the coach back to the hotel; we were all soaking wet. We headed for a dinner held by the Irish in a local town hall we had a nice Indian and then headed back to our accommodation to get dry!
It was then decided that the Senior Welsh Rowing team would go out for an Indian to celebrate our results. The only problem was the steps, but they said they had a plan, and they did! Two guys lifted me and Genie up two flights of stairs and then four more steps and then down again at the end; we should have videoed it.
We had a lovely meal and then headed to bed as I was absolutely knackered.
The next day we were going home but not until 3:30 so we had the morning free. We had breakfast and then did some sightseeing; we went for a walk one way but then ended up just doing a figure of 8! Spitfire left on the Welsh trailer and made her way towards the ferry. We then chilled out before getting onto the team bus and heading to Dublin ready to catch our evening ferry.
We had dinner on the ferry again, but it was very rough, and I didn’t feel too good! I went for a wander but couldn’t even wheel straight and we went outside which was nice to have some fresh air although it was very windy and wet! We saw a lot of rain while we were in Ireland! The ferry seemed to take forever but finally we were on still land and found our coach. We then had a long driver from Holyhead to Henley it was 12pm. Thankfully it was very comfortable, and we were able to have some sleep; we arrived back at Henley at 6am.
I was exhausted and felt rough so went straight to bed.
Dez dropped Spitfire the winning boat back at Marlow on Monday morning; thanks, Dez. Spitfire has now had a rest and I am excited to get back in her to do some more rowing soon.
A huge thank you to Welsh Rowing; James for all his coaching and support, Dan and everyone else. We had the loudest supporters; I had an amazing time in Ireland with the team and Spitfire. It felt amazing coming home with two gold medals.
Links (will open in new tabs):
- Bader Grants helped Para Rowing at Marlow Rowing Club
- Adaptive and Para Rowing at Marlow Rowing Club
- Previous posts about Mari on the DBF Website
- Contact Wendy McCleave for more information about Mari’s Motivational Speaking: