DESPITE spending many years away from her home town of Dimboola, rower Pamela Westendorf always kept her home close to her.
While she was rowing in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she would wear her Dimboola Rowing Club colours. The Olympian first started rowing on the Wimmera River at Dimboola during high school.
“Some of the guys from the rowing club came up to school and offered to teach us to row – that was in 1974,” she said.
“It was a reasonably active club. It was filled with all generations and they were very good at bringing the young ones through from the school. It was a vibrant place to be.”
Racing season and training was mainly during the warmer months.
Westendorf said at first she wasn’t sure if she enjoyed rowing.
“The first time I went I didn’t like it and I rowed stroke side (the right-hand side of a rower facing backwards),” she said.
“I didn’t go down for another two weeks and when I went back I rowed on the bow side and I’ve been on that side ever since.”
Down to Melbourne
At the end of 1977 Westendorf went to Melbourne and soon after represented Victoria.
Westendorf represented Victoria at the Australian Rowing Championships in Perth in 1977. Her team of four rowers, a cox and a coach were all from Dimboola. The team wore their Dimboola colours.
“Our Dimboola crew was the Victorian crew back then,” she said.
“It was pretty amazing. There was a history of women’s rowing that we didn’t know about. There was a bit of politics and a lot of girls had moved to New South Wales. They were a bit short and because we were a successful junior crew, they put us in the open crew too.”
Alongside Westendorf in that team was Dimboola’s Leeanne Whitehouse, who would also go on to represent Australia in rowing.
“I am pretty competitive in the boat and that year in Perth we came third – from that I finished school and moved to train in Melbourne,” Westendorf said.
After finishing high school in 1978, Westendorf moved to Melbourne and worked in a bank. She made the senior Victorian team and competed at a number of Australian Rowing Championships.
From there, Westendorf worked her way into the fold for national representation.
Representing her country
She represented Australia in 1978 at the World Rowing Championships in New Zealand at Lake Karapiro.
“That was really the first team Australia had sent away and we were blown out of the water,” she said.
“It was a real eye opener to see all the other teams there. It was a reality check. The Eastern European teams like East Germany, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria were the strongest. The Australian program went up a notch after that. We employed a Romanian head coach and our training regime changed dramatically.”
With more training following the ‘78 championships, Westendorf rowed in a coxed four to a fifth place finish a year later at the world championships in Bled in Slovenia.
“Instead of rowing say 15 kilometres, we were rowing twice a day for 20 or 25 kilometres with the new coach, as well as doing weights and working as well,” she said.
“We trained before and after work and we didn’t have the luxury of scholarships then.
“In a lot of those early trips the Dimboola Rowing Club and the Wimmera really helped a lot. We had a rowathon one time and there was a collection at some point. So many people from the Wimmera donated some money. I spent a lot of time in Europe writing thank you letters.”
First and only Olympics
After those world championships, Australia sent its first women’s rowing team to the Olympics in 1980 in Moscow. Westendorf said it was an historical team to have been in.
“We were the first women’s crew that was sent to represent Australia – women’s Olympic rowing started in 1976 but Australia didn’t have a crew,” she said.
“It’s only now that you start to realise how much part of Australia’s sporting history that really is. It becomes more important the further you go away from it.”
There was international unrest in the lead-up to the 1980 Olympics as some nations boycotted the event in protest to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“A lot of the Western countries did boycott the Olympics so there was uncertainty over whether the Australian teams would go,” she said.
“For Australia, it was up to the individual sports to go. Rowing Australia decided that we would go and a lot of the training was hard because we didn’t know if we would go or not.”
Westendorf said it was hard to describe the feeling of representing Australia in the Olympics. The coxed four rowed to a fifth-placed finish at the event.
“It is pretty amazing to say you are an Olympian,” she said.
“I was fairly young, I turned 21 that year, so at the time for me it was another regatta. I don’t think I had ambitions to compete in the Olympics. Being young and naive it just all rolled along. I was with the right girls with the right coach and at the right time, and it all happened.”
The Australian team also competed in Amsterdam just prior to the Olympics against some of the teams that boycotted the event. In that competition, the team also finished fifth.
“We feel very confident had every country been there at the Olympics we still would have finished fifth – it was a very successful Olympics,” she said.
A lot of the team Westendorf rowed with in the Olympics retired after the event.
In Melbourne, Westendorf rowed with the Melbourne University Boat Club but continued to represent her home town.
“I was part of Melbourne University but I was always a member of Dimboola and always competed in their colours,” she said.
“I raced as Dimboola up until 1984 and I guess it was a loyalty thing. They had helped me a lot.”
Westendorf competed at world championships in 1981 and 1982 before having some time away from the national fold.
In 1990, she returned to represent Australia in the world championships at Lake Barrington in Tasmania where she claimed her only medal at a world championship event – a silver medal.
Westendorf switched to lightweight rowing and had to lose about 12 kilograms.
“I wanted one last go but it was pretty gruelling on the body – the crew had to average 57 kilograms,” she said.
“It was amazing to win a medal and it’s pretty hard to imagine how much better a gold medal could feel.”
Westendorf rowed with Victoria for a couple years after that before retiring. She went into coaching, and still coaches a year 10 rowing team at Geelong College and competes in masters events.
She now lives in Bellbrae and runs Bowside Cafe on the Great Ocean Road, named after the side of the boat she spent her career rowing in.