ROWING CHOSE ME; I DIDN’T CHOOSE IT
I started rowing through Sporting Giants – a national sports talent agency. At the time, I was on a gap year before going to university but in honesty that was only because didn’t know what I wanted to be. I kept reading newspaper articles and hearing radio advertisements about how Sporting Giants were searching for people to compete in the 2012 Olympics in rowing, handball and volleyball and wanted people of a certain height to apply. I’m just over 6ft 3 and love sport so it seemed perfect. Initially, I tested for volleyball - mainly because I knew you had to be tall for that - but they picked me to try for rowing. (I didn’t even realise you had to be tall for that!) It was surreal because that was the first time I’d ever been in a room full of people who were the same height as me - all reasonably eye level with me. It felt strange but amazing because, until then, sometimes it felt like I was the only tall girl in the world.
‘I wasn’t necessarily the strongest or fittest out of all of the girls but I think the coaches saw something in me… that I was able to push myself.’
ROWING: DEFINITELY NOT THE EASY OPTION
Rowing is an extremely physically and mentally demanding sport. Talent isn’t enough to succeed; you need a combination of physical strength as well as determination, grit and endurance. Plus, to compete professionally, in a similar way to basketball; you definitely benefit from having a specific body type. In rowing, being tall with long, robust levers [arms and legs] is a huge advantage. The longer your arms and legs are, the longer your stroke will be so, effectively, you’ll be able to push the boat further each stroke than someone shorter.
ROWING’S LIKE DATING. IT ATTRACTS PERSONALITY TYPES IT’S ATTRACTED TO.
I love being part of such a strong, dedicated team. It really inspires me. Rowing is very physically and mentally demanding so it attracts people who are incredibly driven with a fantastic work ethic - you can’t be successful in this sport without that. Being around people like that is very motivational. Everyday they try to improve and build positive foundations, to be the best they can be and it encourages you to have high expectations of yourself too. I don’t think you get that in many other walks of life and I really admire anyone who rows at the top level because I know how much it takes to get there.
‘People think that competitors are archenemies and don’t speak to each other off the water but it’s very much the opposite, which is nice. There’s a lot of mutual respect.’
ON GETTING TO THE OLYMPICS IN HALF THE TIME IT TAKES A NORMAL OLYMPIC ROWER
It surprised me how much it’s possible to learn within a short timeframe. I started rowing 9 years ago and have already competed in 2 Olympic games, which is unheard of. It usually takes 10 years to become an Olympian in a sport like rowing but, if you really immerse yourself in something, you can learn a lot in a short amount of time. I didn’t win a medal in London (it took me to Rio to do that) but I’d still been to an Olympics within 4 years 8 months of starting as a total novice. That’s testament to the coaches who helped me develop, especially my first coach, and to my attitude. Since a child, I’ve always been inquisitive and determined; I constantly wanted to learn to do anything and everything, and to do it to the best of my ability. Go hard or go home!
ROWING TRAINING: MONOTONOUS BUT EFFECTIVE
Rowing training is very sleek and regimented. It’s not complicated but it does require a lot of endurance, skill and technique. We do a lot of rowing on the water and on indoor rowing machines, plus weights; and we also attend a great cycling training camp in Mallorca. It really challenges our bodies because, leading up to the camp, we do very little cycling so when we arrive BAM! We spend 2 weeks solidly cycling (5-6 hours a day) followed by intense gym sessions. (You can imagine how sore we get.)
‘Being so tall and robust, it’s interesting (and surprising) that rowers are so good at cycling because the best cyclists are often tiny. We definitely surprise the locals because, suddenly, they have a big group of massive people cycling around the town. They get used to it but let’s just say it definitely builds body confidence haha.’
Rowing is predominantly a leg-based sport (i.e. 60% of your power comes from your legs and then the rest is from your back, body and arms). In that way, cycling is very similar so incorporating it into our training gives us a massive advantage; mainly because it’s possible to cycle for much longer than you can row. E.g. it’s difficult to row for more than 2hrs at a time but you can cycle for up to 6-7 hours so it’s a great way to increase endurance as well as developing power and endurance in the legs, and maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. During the camp, we cycle around Mallorca doing these ridiculous rides that even the most avid cyclists don’t attempt. One route includes one of the most infamous climbs in Mallorca: Sa Calobre. The cyclists are driven out there before doing a time trial up it to conserve their energy; however, as rowers, we cycle out to it, ascend and descend it twice at a time trial and then cycle home. They all say ‘Why would you do that? That’s insane!’ but that’s what our training programme is. Our usual training programme doesn’t include a lot of interval training so we like to shake it up every now and again with different cross-training and terrains to challenge our bodies and ensure we keep improving.
SHOCK HORROR: NOT STAND-OFFISH; NOT STUCK UP. WE ACTUALLY LIKE EACH OTHER
Before I became an athlete, I was like other people. I’d watch the TV and think that the competitors were very serious (constant game faces) and secretive; not talking to each other for fear that their competitors would steal their ‘secrets’ but the rowing community worldwide is very friendly, especially single skullers. I’ve only recently joined the category but they’re very sociable outside of racing. Obviously, when they’re competing against each other they want to win but the environment around the team tents is very friendly. That surprised me a lot.
PARTYING IN RIO. Rio has some incredible local places to party. ‘Lapa’ has an amazing array of bars, restaurants, everything. People party all the way down the street. One night after we’d competed, we went there and the Brazilian football team had just won the gold. Well, everybody knows how much the Brazilians love their football… We got out of the taxi and the whole place was going absolutely mental. One bus had even been forced to stop because everyone inside it was going crazy; they were so excited about winning and everybody in the street was literally jumping on top of it. I was with two of my male friends, wearing hot pants and, as I exited the taxi, dozens of men were running up and grabbing me saying ‘I want your babies.’ My friends were yelling ‘Right, we need to get you inside. This is getting out of hand.’ Everyone was just on such a high. It was scary but so funny at the same time. That night, I ended up twerking on a stage with a drag queen in this gay bar and, yes, Rio was literally mental.
SOUTH KOREAN CHIPS FOR BREAKFAST. South Korea is the craziest place I’ve ever visited; completely different from our western lifestyle. One year, we visited for the World Championships. It was really interesting, especially seeing other cultures perceptions of our culture. The hotel chefs tried to cook western foods to make us feel at home, which was very sweet but I don’t know where they’d been researching because they served us wedges and chips for breakfast – and for every other meal - together!
FAVOURITE PLACES TO ROW
LAKE VARESE, ITALY is absolutely stunning. The water is lovely and calm and, as you row, you can see the French Alps reaching out across an endless horizon. We stay in a lovely lakeside hotel with the Italian family who own it.
BLED, SLOVENIA is one of my favourite places. We competed there for the 2011 World Championships and it must be the most magnificent lake in the world. There’s a little island in the middle with a church on it and it’s just breath-taking… really green and beautiful.
LAKE LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND. Hailed ‘The Lake of the Gods’, it’s easy to see why. The lake itself is very small but it’s the most mesmerizing turquoise-blue colour. We row there annually for the World Cup and, as you row, you can hear the sounds of cowbells and people pottering around the surrounding villages. It’s just beautiful.
My first rowing coach told me ‘Do the basics well’ and it’s one of the most important pieces of advice. With any sport (and in life), if you concentrate on doing the basics well, then doing the smaller things around them will make a massive difference but if you haven’t invested time creating strong foundations, the little 1%ers wont make any difference – they could even make things worse. I still follow that now.
'Rowing is a lot more technical than it seems on TV. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect stroke.’ Different people have different techniques but still predominantly travel at the same speed so it’s an area that you are constantly trying to master… That’s why it’s so addictive; there’s always room to improve technically and then, endurance-wise, you get better with age.'
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER. THERE’S DEFINITELY MORE GENDER EQUALITY IN ROWING THAN OTHER SPORTS
My Rio 2016 doubles partner Katherine Grainger (DBE) was 40, as is Sir Steve Redgrave, so rowing is a very ageless sport. You can compete for much longer than you can in other sports, although it’s more unusual for women to do it than men, purely because they want to have babies and most women prefer not to train as intensely during pregnancy. A great example is Belarus’s Ekaterina Karsten. She’s competed in 7 Olympic games, is a 2-time Olympic Champion and, now aged 45, she’s looking forward to competing at Tokyo 2020. That’s phenomenal!
BEST TEAM TO PARTY WITH AT THE OLYMPICS: GOOOO JAMAICA!!
I love partying with Team GB but the Jamaican Team’s Puma party after London 2012 was amazing. Usain Bolt was DJ’ing and with their music and their way… they have such great rhythm and style; it was incredible. The Jamaican Olympic house is always a place you want to go but, when you consider how Usain Bolt's a part of it and how everybody’s crazy about him… They’re completely obsessed so when he wins… WOW!
‘We should encourage people to be whoever they want to be without pressurising them to look, train or act in a certain way in order to be good at sport or in life in general. The people who succeed don’t fit a stereotype; they lead and create.’
I’D LOVE TO COMPETE AGAINST VENUS WILLIAMS
Tennis is a very different sport to rowing but Venus is a similar stature to me and I just love the Williams sisters. They’re amazing. Not only have they achieved consistently incredible success in their sport but they’re also very feminine and great role models for women. The media’s perception of women in sport really annoys me. They pressurise women to feel inadequate if they don’t look certain way; essentially saying that if you’re well-sculpted and muscular and don’t have the exaggerated proportions of a reality star, you cannot be feminine. Serena and Venus completely defy this. Not only are they physically extremely strong and talented at their sport but they look feminine and sexy too.