MERCANTILE Rowing Club is as much a part of Melbourne’s history as John Batman, the MCG and W-Class trams. It was formed in 1880 at the Young & Jackson pub on Flinders Street as the Junior Warehouseman’s Rowing Club.
The club’s name was changed a year later to the Mercantile Rowing Club to reflect the founders’ associations with mercantile warehouses established in the area at the time.
In the 132 years since, its name has become synonymous with elite rowing. More than 30 members have competed at the Olympics, including all four of the famous Oarsome Foursome, who won two Olympic gold medals as well as four world championship gold medals. Of that crew, Nick Green is now the chef de mission of the current Australian Olympic team, while James Tomkins is vice-president of the Mercantile club.
At the London Olympics, the club is represented by eight members – Drew Ginn, Joshua Dunkley-Smith, David Crawshay, Tom Swann, Sarah Tait, Kate Hornsey, Robyn Selby-Smith and Pauline Frasca.
Mal Batten, club president and rower, says the club’s success can be attributed to a strong culture. “One thing that differentiates our club from other clubs is that we really value the individual,” he says.
“We recognise and value individuality in people and performance and that allows us to foster athletes who want to perform.”
The club, despite its size and riches in terms of elite international performers, remains incredibly tight-knit. Members gather every Olympics at their boat shed, on Boathouse Drive next to the Yarra near Princes Bridge, to watch their clubmates row for glory.
“One of the highlights in my time was watching the gold medal-winning performances; getting our first gold in 1992,” says Batten of the Barcelona Games. “I remember everyone at the club was watching the racing. It was very exhilarating.”
Also very important is appreciating success, particularly after experiencing the bad times.
“Going back when I was rowing there were no crews who had won those Olympic races,” he says.
“These days we have multiple gold medal-winning crews at the club. It’s been a pretty amazing transformation.”
Batten also attributes Australia’s rowing success in the past 20 years to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where Australia finished 32nd in the medal count, failing to win any gold. That embarrassment led to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport.
“Over the years that followed it began the modern development of rowing in Australia,” Batten says.
This year, the club’s members are meeting during the London Games at their club rooms to watch the rowing, as has become customary since 1992.
“They know we’re watching,” Batten says. “We are proud that Australians can win on an Olympic stage and proud to say we know the guys and girls in the boats.”