26 January 2022
Abby Johnston, who was promoted to Head of Rowing just before she set out at the end of last year, also attended the school as a pupil herself. Abby, Class of 2007, teamed up with fellow alumna Charlotte Irving, Class of 2008, and teammate Kat Cordiner, to take part in the world’s toughest row, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
The trio, who together make up Team ExtraOARdinary, completed the 3,000 mile crossing on Sunday (23 January) in just 42 days, seven hours and 17 minutes, knocking an astonishing seven days off the existing female trio world record.
As they stepped onto land for the first time in six weeks, they said they felt “wobbly, overwhelmed and happy”. Race organisers said they had shown the impossible was possible. The record-breaking bid has been widely reported across print and broadcast media, ranging from the Today programme on Radio 4 to Sky News, who came to LEH to film.
Kat Cordiner has secondary cervical cancer and is thought to be the first person to tackle this challenge as a cancer patient. The team is raising money for Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
Upper Sixth students in the LEH Rowing Squad followed Abby and Charlotte’s progress across the ocean. Rowing captain Maddy said: “It was great to see Abby going from just talking about the challenge to seeing her actually break the world record and by a week too. It’s definitely really inspiring.”
Vice-captain Danielle said: “We saw her do all that training and put in the work, so it’s really exciting as a rowing team to see the benefits and how it’s all paid off.” Fellow vice-captain Emily agreed: “Seeing her training with us and being part of her preparation made us feel really involved. Sometimes you question whether you can do it but seeing her determination to complete this record has made us that much more determined too.”
Katherine said: “You always hear about people doing these challenges and breaking these world records, but you never actually know the person that does them. To actually know Abby and to know that it’s possible – that’s really amazing.” Charlotte added: “Abby was doing the same kind of training as us, and to know that she then went on to row across the Atlantic is just so inspiring. It makes us want to train that much harder too.”
Kat, 42, Charlotte, 31, and Abby, 32, spent six weeks on their 23ft boat, called Dolly Parton, rowing two hours on and one hour off continuously and unsupported.
Rowing 3,000 miles across the world’s second largest ocean, from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean, is acknowledged as the ultimate endurance race. More people have summitted Mount Everest than have successfully rowed the Atlantic and fewer than 20% of ocean rowers are women.
During their epic trip they experienced scorching heat, enormous night-time waves, sleep deprivation, blisters and callouses on their hands, and sharks trailing their small boat.
Grinning from ear to ear to have completed the challenge in such record-breaking time, Abby said: “We can’t quite believe it! But it was hard work, we’re not going to lie. We’re all exhausted but it was worth it.”
She added: “No-one can appreciate dry land like we can right now. You push yourself to the limits and you realise what you are made of. I’m not saying I’ll do it again, but this feels pretty good.”
The trio got through with sheer determination and by making their own entertainment, marking high days and holidays with karaoke, Hawaiian shirts, face glitter and glow sticks.
Charlotte said: “I think when it’s a long challenge like this it’s important to have balance. We worked really hard, but we also played hard – well as much as you can on a 23-foot boat. You find joy when you can – having fun Fridays and making the most of New Year’s Eve and Kat’s birthday. You’ve got to celebrate the good times to get you through the bad. We had such fun out there and we have come back still fast friends, which was a huge objective for us. It wasn’t just about breaking the record but about enjoying the whole experience and we really did.”
Kat Cordiner said: “The doctors have told me I don’t have decades, I have years, so I really want to make the most of them. I don’t want to muck around doing stuff that doesn’t matter – I want to do things that are challenging and fun.”
Head Mistress Heather Hanbury said: “We are all in awe of Abby, Charlotte and Kat and send them huge congratulations. They are the true embodiment of our school motto – Hope Favours the Bold. Their record-breaking achievement is truly inspirational for our pupils, and we are looking forward to welcoming them back to school. We will be inviting them to give a special assembly so they can tell students all about their adventures.”
To donate to Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, head to the We Are ExtraOARdinary website: https://www.weareextraoardinary.com/donate or to their GoFundMe page: www.gofundme.com/Kathryn039s-campaign-for-cancer-research-uk