With the support of a grant from the Freemasons, Joshua Tonnar is rowing his way into Olympic contention as he subjects himself to a gruelling regime on the Thames, finds Miranda Thompson
The calm of a crisp January morning on the banks of the Thames is shattered by the hollering of eight sixty-somethings from a rowing boat looking for assistance. Luckily, there's an oar on hand to drag them back to shore. A twist of the Thames away from Hampton Court Palace, Molesey Boat Club welcomes rowing veterans onto the water. It's also home to the next generation of British rowers. Joshua Tonnar is a 21-year-old who is pursuing his Olympic dream with the help of funding from the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys' (RMTGB) TalentAid scheme.
At six foot six inches, Joshua was originally a rugby fanatic. However, his Freemason grandfather Len Howard spotted the potential for his height after his wife Charlotte read about the Sporting Giants campaign. In 2007, Steve Redgrave spearheaded this initiative to find those who fitted the tall, athletic physical requirements for rowing.
'I went to a meeting at Stonemarket and Ray Collings, the fundraising manager at the RMTGB, was there,' remembers Len. 'I asked him whether they still supported Freemasons' grandsons and I put Josh's name forward. The money has been invaluable.'
Joshua has just completed a ferocious fifteen-minute testing session and is about to devour a gigantic plate of beans on toast – his exercise regime means he's got to consume six thousand calories a day. He recalls how he got started: 'I was talent tested in a national search for potential Olympian talent. According to the scores, you were categorised into the sports you were suited to.' Joshua was a natural, smashing three records on his first day and his first ever ergometer test on a rowing machine saw him finish just eight seconds behind a record set by Matthew Pinsent.
FUNDING POTENTIAL OLYMPIANS
In 2008, Joshua was taken on by the Sporting Giants scheme, which quickly propelled him into the GB Rowing Team Start Programme. His coach, Team GB Start's Neasa Folan, explains her role: 'We identify, recruit and develop potential Olympians. We try to develop them as athletes, so we look at their physical capacities and technical rowing skills.'
With the rowing season running from September to June/July, the months are packed with assessments and trials testing, before invitations to join a squad are issued. This year, the focus is on making the Under 23 World Championships squad. '2016 would be his Olympics,' says Neasa. 'I think he's got reasonable prospects – he's certainly got a lot of the physical characteristics and potential.'
Studying sports sciences at St Mary's in Twickenham, Joshua relishes the opportunity he has been given. 'I want to win gold at 2016 and the two after that,' he says. 'I'm here for 7am. We train until 9.30 or 10am at the first session, have breakfast and then we're back at 11. In the afternoon I go to university, but I'm back here in the evening.'
The amount of work Joshua has to do makes the funding from the RMTGB even more crucial, as Neasa says, 'The athletes might be part of the Team GB rowing programme but they're not funded.'
'Everything about rowing is expensive. I can't live off my student loan and sponsorship, I need constant funding and that's where the Freemasons are helping me. Without the RMTGB's support, I probably wouldn't be able to train full time. I'm very grateful,' says Joshua, hoisting his boat onto colossal shoulders before making his way to the banks of the Thames.
Founded in the eighteenth century, the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB), supports children and young people who have been affected by poverty, and aims to help improve their potential in life. TalentAid is just one of the schemes run by the charity and aims to ensure that those with exceptional talent pursue their dreams of becoming a professional in their field by providing grants to cover some of the costs associated with the talent. All TalentAid beneficiaries are required to have a masonic connection via their father, grandfather or guardian and all applications are subject to a financial test.
Since TalentAid’s launch in 2001, over two hundred and fifty exceptionally gifted young people have been supported by the RMTGB at a cost of around £3 million. Other TalentAid successes include rising stars in British swimming, kayaking and women’s football. Chief Executive Les Hutchinson explains, ‘These are the people with the highest level of talent, and quite often this talent represents their main opportunity to make a success of their lives. It’s vital they have support for it.’
Les is positive regarding the scheme’s support for Joshua. ‘It was obvious from the outset that he was participating in a very competitive training programme as well as being a holder of several records for his age. His desire to succeed and make a success in his chosen field was quite clear – and his potential ability to compete in the Olympics is very exciting. It really doesn’t come much more high profile than that.’
Letters to the Editor - FreemasonryToday No.18 - SUMMER 2012
Following your coverage of the RMTGB’s assistance to talented young people, I was prompted to let you know about another such case. Freemason Carlton Johnson was a massive influence on Beehive Lodge, No. 6265, and a masonic mentor for so many. Despite his ailments he was determined to participate in Freemasonry to his utmost, notably as a charity steward. Following a long battle with Motor Neurone Disease, he died in March 1996 in his mid-fifties.
Stephen Rolley is the grandson of the late Carlton Johnson. Now in the final year of his diploma at Italia Conti, Stephen has been helped by the TalentAid scheme through the RMTGB. The purpose of his course is to further equip him with the skills required to enable him to work in a very competitive industry.
That Freemasonry has been able to help Stephen is but a tiny repayment of the debt owed to Carlton for the support he was able to offer others. Stephen is clearly showing many of the qualities that characterised his grandfather, such as resilience, focus, resolve, determination, an ability to relate to people and a great natural talent.