The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The XXI Club celebrate their 84th year in style

84 years on, and the XXI Club is still a strong club with some of the best athletes at the university and in the country


The XXI Club held a dinner last week to celebrate their 84th year since formation, in which they celebrated the sporting careers of old and newer members of the club.

The club was formed in 1932 to promote sporting excellence at the University of Manchester. Members of the club include Olympians, World Champions, and World record holders in a range of sports, such as karate, rugby, netball and squash.

President Rowena Birch is an Olympic judo player, who won gold in the 1994 Olympics, and she succeeded Olympic swimmer James Hickman who featured in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games. As you can tell, the Club includes some of the greatest athletes in the country.

The Club works with the Athletics Union at the university to provide support for the University Excellence programmes. Members of the club are then encouraged to continue to contribute to sport at the university, as many of the club coach and help other university sportspeople.

Each year the Club selects up to 21 of the highest performing athletes and 21 sports clubs’ officials to be members of the Club, which happened yet again this year at the autumn dinner at the Chancellor’s Hotel in Fallowfield.

Students from the university were initiated into the club by following in the tradition that has been set for years before; they would stand on their chair as their name was read and met by an applause. For someone like me (5’8”) this would be no problem, but the basketballers in the room didn’t look particular happy stood on their chairs! New members received either a tie if they were a male, or an XXI pin if they were female for joining the Club.

There was a real sense of community and respect in the room, as athletes over the age of 80 met with athletes in their very early 20s to talk about something they all had in common: their love of sport. Awards were handed out all night to members who have had particularly good years, including two special elections to Ian Braid CEO, and Steve Pullen MBE.

Steve is an Olympic and Paralympic Judo coach, who had been a coach to President Rowena Birch throughout her career in Manchester when she was a student. She spoke proudly about Steve to a crowded room of people, and she obviously owed a lot to the man who looked quite humbled as she spoke about him. By the sounds of it he was a tough man to please, but very effective as she reached the heights.

President Rowena Birch spoke of her pride at being the President of the club, and also went on to tell a tale about the necklace she was wearing. As President, Rowena was given a necklace that looked to be a silver chain with a piece of wood on the end, with a key also attached. Despite how everybody was wearing very extravagant suits and ties (even I dusted down the old job interview shoes), and long fancy dresses, Rowena went on to explain that the necklace was in fact a chain from a toilet. The chain was yanked down from the ceiling of a toilet 84 years ago to be fashioned into a necklace to differentiate the President from the others. I’m not one to judge, but I did prefer her earrings to her necklace.

Other awards were handed out in the night, until at the end of event when Natalia Cohen gave a speech to the crowd. Natalia was a member of the Pacific Ocean Row Team; she had rowed from San Francisco America all the way to Cairns, Australia with five other women in a little over nine months. That’s a whopping 8,446 miles across the Pacific. Three women would alternate throughout the journey, so there were only ever four on the boat at all times; Natalia however spent the whole journey on the boat Doris.

Natalia spoke of the determination that it took for her and her team to get through, and also of some of the amazing sea animals and views she saw on her trip across the great Ocean in her 30ft long boat called Doris. The women raised thousands for the charities Walking with the Wounded and Breast Cancer Care. In a room, full of athletes, and an extraordinary woman like Natalia, it was difficult to not be inspired.

David Brierley has been a recent addition to the Club, due to his exploits with Karate. To read more about David’s journey, you can read his article from last week with The Mancunion, where he spoke about his travels in Mexico competing.

Click here to read more about the XXI Club.