Born in London, having studied and rowed in France and the UK, Susannah Duncan is the multicultural product of a British family that settled in France to offer their children greater opportunities in life. Aged 25, Ms Duncan is the eldest daughter of Jonathan and Anita Duncan.
“We wanted to have a more interesting life than in the UK. We thought that growing up in a foreign country would give our children a better view of the world,” said Jonathan Duncan, when talking to us about his daughter’s trajectory.
Susannah is a gold-medal World Champion in rowing (in 2019 for Team GB), and competed at the 2022 World Rowing Championships at Račice in the Czech Republic for the French team, where she finished 15th because of a knee injury.
The Connexion spoke with her while she was training with France’s national team ahead of the World Cup.
You were born in London and have won a rowing competition for Britain. How did you become French?
My parents are British. They met in Chamonix while working for a company called Big Foot. They love the mountains and always wanted to move back to the Savoie region.
The plan was to open a bed and breakfast, as most British migrating to France do!
My father thought the fastest way to move to France was to be hired by an international company and be sent to France. The plan worked and he landed a job in Paris in 2002.
And there I was, five-year-old me with my little sister and brother moving to France. I joined the Bernard Deniau primary school in Feucherolles (Yvelines), with courses twice a week at the Lycée international in Saint-Germain-en-Laye to keep up our English language education.
It must have been a difficult experience in the classroom…
I was the only Brit in the classroom. I remember when I had to come to the blackboard, I was so ashamed.
I was struggling so much. It was really complicated.
Dictations until the brevet were a living hell. I always got zero. Accents such as é, è or -er, I could not understand anything. And you know better than I how the French marking system works.
‘18 is for the best student, 19 for the teacher, 20 for God’ as the saying goes…
But how does anyone manage to get a 20? You can’t actually. I understood my French childhood only very recently from reading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, where there is a whole chapter dedicated to children from foreign cultures, and which describes the struggle to adapt to French schools in particular.
My parents were very supportive and always helped me to keep my self-esteem and confidence.
But let’s return to your story…
My parents then moved around the Rhône-Alpes region. I remember that my mother had had a crush on this house at Aiguebelette, La clairière du Moulin, a house built in 1765 right in Chartreuse territory where my parents were renting a holiday cottage.
While driving back home to Paris, my mother mentioned the house to my father. From the explanation she gave, my brother, sister and I were wide-eyed with enthusiasm. It was off-budget, clearly, but from the look in our eyes, he said he had no choice then but to buy it.
I went to the George Sand high school, where the school opened a bilingual class section for the first time when I started in 6ème. With my sister and brother then joining in the years that followed, the school has maintained the class ever since.
This is around the time that you started rowing?
While in 5ème, yes. At that time, everything went really well. As I grew into the sport, I was confronted with a rule for rowers that jump from the youth to junior category.
This stated that a boat couldn’t have more than a quarter of its members from a foreign country competing.
As a British citizen competing alone or with another person, every time I got into a boat, I saw the number climb to 50 or 100%. And the Aiguebelette club was too small to have four rowers of the same level to fill the boats.
My trainer was starting to ask me about French citizenship.
At that stage I felt I had to move to a British club, since I knew I could not participate in French competitions as a British citizen, and I couldn’t acquire French citizenship fast enough to compete in France.
So you rowed in Britain while continuing to study in France?
Yes. I moved to the Tideway Scullers School in London, the closest club to where my grandparents lived. There I could participate in competitions and intensive training sessions while studying in France. It helped me create a closer bond with my grandparents.
I studied for my bac in France and took driving lessons, and went to the UK for rowing competitions. I still don’t understand how I was capable of doing this!
I got my bac and went to Exeter university to study for a BA in Mechanical Engineering. I pursued my rowing career in the U-23 team for Great Britain.
The only problem was that after Exeter, I could not find a postgraduate course and a rowing club good enough to keep doing both things in the same country. And Brexit made things harder for me.
I left for the Netherlands to be a Master’s student in sustainable energy technology at the Delft University of Technology. So I returned to my usual routine of rowing in the UK but studying in a completely different country.
As a person with dual nationality, have you noticed whether or not British rowers do things differently to rowers in France?
During my first training sessions in the UK, I was often placed at the very end of the boats. This position means that you are the one giving orders to your crew members.
However, I realised that at this stage I did not know any of the English words to command a team.
My coach went crazy because he did not get how I could not understand any of the orders he was giving me from the sidelines. Because of this, the UK was hard, to be honest. I even considered quitting rowing.
I spoke to your father and he was not too complimentary about how the British clubs treated you…
In Exeter, I had joined the British national U-23 team. And I won a gold medal in 2019. But when the Covid lockdown was ordered in the UK, I understood I was not where I was supposed to be.
I barely knew anyone there, while other rowers had friends. My boyfriend was in the Netherlands, my family in Savoie.
I decided to spend lockdown in France with my family. When I came back to the rowing club in France, it was like I had never left. I felt at home.
And you became a French citizen shortly after…
Yes! I officially became French on 30th April, 2021 and my passport was delivered on 28 August, 2021.
But you know my sister and I had made an official request in October 2018. And we weren’t given a meeting until June 2022! The process was accelerated because I was about to join France’s national team.
Do you still consider yourself British?
You know, I won’t stop putting milk in my tea. I am the product of two countries.