Mississipi Million

The Great River Rowed

John Pritchard


Olympian John Pritchard gives us the insider story on his unique Mississippi Million marathon.

2320 miles down the Mississippi in a Victorian skiff doesn’t faze ex-Olympic rower John Pritchard, especially when it’s for a good cause. Flying carp aside he shares the compelling story of his work with Right To Play. Plus how one small boy in Africa triggered the start of the biggest self-dare we’ve ever heard of!

From racking up medals to presumably swatting mosquitoes, how has your career so far led to this admirable adventure?

I was chatting the other day with the founder of Right To Play, Johann Olav Kloss. He said that in his opinion people that are involved with charities have always been involved in charities, they don’t just come to a point where they are suddenly charitable. I don’t think he was far wrong. In one form or another I’ve always been vaguely involved in charities.

What was the trigger moment for Mississippi Million?

Well I’ve always fancied doing something rather daft and personal to raise money for Right To Play. Then four years ago my wife Julie, my son Charlie and myself were out visiting Ghana with Right To Play. The games we supply are educational but of course first and foremost the games are fun. That’s how we learn, by playing. So there are educationists in Toronto who have developed these games. Each of these games has an underlying message, whether it be how to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS, developing education about nutrition or sanitation, or of course life lessons such as integration into communities or leadership skills for example. Then each of these messages are delivered via fun games. So Julie my wife and Charlie my then 10 year-old son and I went to visit the programmes in Ghana. Whenever people go out to the projects it always forms a very significant sense of emotive connectivity to what you’re doing, as opposed to “Oh I think this is great and so here’s my £10”. Everything becomes much more emotionally connected.

So tell us about your trip. What were the schools like that you visited?

The first school we visited was a very big school and one of the initial  things Julie and I noticed was that not all of the kids could play because there weren’t enough coaches to go around. This is one of our philosophical issues at Right To Play, which is when we establish a programme at a school or a refugee camp do we try to go deeper or broader? So do we try and cover as many as possible schools to the minimum possible amount or do we try to cover the schools we are in totally? We’ve largely decided to follow the deep rather than broad approach.

What were your other impressions of this school and the ones you visited in Ghana?

The children have very rudimentary uniforms, which is still a big deal, they live in a subsistence farming society and these kids are walking six or seven miles to get to school each day through the bush. They are in classrooms with tin roofs, they have lessons without books as they can’t afford books, so they have to absorb everything. The level of teaching is quite extraordinary. Here’s the thing that strikes me about the kids, they’re all grinning like fools. As we know that’s not always the case in the UK!

What happened when you were there?

Well after a few days we visited a school called the Three Kings School in Battor, which is for children with learning disabilities. It was there we met Richmond and his story was the real emotional trigger point for Mississippi Million. To read about Richmond’s story click here.

But at the very first school we visited in Ghana we played lots of games with the kids and that was great. The kids christened me obrone, which means big white gorilla, because they don’t see too many people like me around and about. So by the end of this first session we have a get-together with all of the teachers in hierarchical order, culminating with the headmaster and he said “You know, what you’ve done for us is wonderful and transformative, but you should understand I’m Oliver Twist, I want more.”

So you were all ready to give more?

At  this point I thought he was going to ask for a hospital or a library or something. But he said what would make a real difference would be more cones, for the kids to run around. Of course balls would be fantastic, but lets keep our feet on the ground, you know some more cones would be absolutely all we would need. So I’m standing there thinking, when I go back to London I am going to send this guy so many cones, he’ll be able to build a hospital out of cones!

 That night I met with Dennis Bright who is an ex-senior diplomat for Sierra Leone, and he is now African Policy Director, he’s a very wise man. He made it very clear that he doesn’t need some wealthy white guy in London sending him a load of cones. What he needs is me to get £10 from you or £10 from me so that he can get out there and run the programmes. So that’s what I decided to do with this challenge!

Why the Mississippi?

My wife Julie is American. We got married on the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis. With my background as a rower,  I’ve always been fascinated by the Mississippi. It’s one of those extraordinary emotive features of the world. When you look at the USA this river almost bisects North to South.

True. Any other reasons?

The other reason why I’m particularly interested in the Mississippi is because I’m a foodie. I was a chef for a few years when I left school. I think about food from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about the States is that there’s this great phrase “bring me your poor, bring me your disenfranchised”. America, is an immigrant community. Yet what commonly happened when immigrants came to the States, regardless of the country of origin, was that they wanted their kids to be American. There’s a sense of homogeneity when it comes to food.

But one of the things I’ve always been interested in about the Mississippi is to see if I can scratch back to some of the root foods and menus that the immigrants would have brought with them. So up in Minnesota you’ve got the most extraordinary wild rice and game. Wisconsin is of course the dairy state. Iowa produces corn all the way down through Missouri to Tennessee to Louisiana. I’m planning on blogging about the local food produce as I go so you can follow my discoveries here.

So that was really why the Mississippi. And no-one has ever really rowed it in a Victorian Thames skiff…well not yet!