As soon as I trialed for the British Team, aged 16, it was always my aim to make it to the Rio 2016 Olympics but I could never have imagined it would happen the way it did.
I’d thought to myself ‘Ok, well that’s around 6 years away. If I work hard, I can do that.’ I kept making great progress so, gradually, it became less of a dream and increasingly tangible. Things were going really well at Under 23 level so I was asked to join the Senior Team; then, 11 months before the Olympics, I experienced a massive injury. I’d collided with another boat and broken many bones in my spine. That was terrible. I genuinely thought ‘I’m never going to row again, let alone make it to the Olympics. No chance!’ I took a week out in Portugal to think. When I came home, the doctors said ‘OK, we think you’ll make a full recovery. There’s no reason why you won’t row competitively again’ but in my head I knew that it was going to be so tough that, unless I had a really big goal, there was no way I’d do it. I thought ‘That’s it, 11 months or not, I am going to make the Olympic team.’ I spent the next year focusing on extra rehabilitation and recovery training; anything to get myself together. I’d missed 4 months training and my teammates’ progress was soaring. Sometimes I felt like I was just down there twiddling along. It was so frustrating but I didn’t give up.
‘All I kept thinking was ‘If I do it all right, I’ll get to the Olympics. If I do it all right, I’ll get to the Olympics...’’
Then, the Olympic trials came and, despite all the hard work and actually catching up, initially, I didn’t make the team. To have that incredible recovery, suck it up and bring it back… I was completely gutted. I was still proud of my recovery and what I’d achieved but, at that time, it almost seemed pointless. That was hard.
‘One minute I was stuck at home, the next I was sitting on a plane next to Chris Froome and Andy Murray. It was happening…’
Due to the limited amount of accreditations the Olympics give, only a certain number of athletes are able to attend. That meant that, for rowing, only the confirmed teammates could travel to Rio. I was selected as a non-accredited spare, meaning that I had to stay at home and, in the case of injuries etc., I’d be flown out to cover but that almost never happens. In my head, I was thinking ‘No chance! They’ve all flown off to Brazil; you’re sitting here on your bed’ but I continued training anyway, if only to take my mind off it.
‘At that stage I was sort of over the fact they’d left. Rowing or not, I just wanted to be there with my team.’
That was on the 29th July 2016 but 2 days later, completely out of the blue, I received a phone call. It was Sir David Tanner CBE (Team GB Performance Director). I remember, it was a Sunday morning and he said ‘OK Jack. You’ve probably heard this but Graeme Thomas from the team has come down with a virus. We’re thinking about bringing you out to cover him incase he doesn’t recover.’ Well, you can imagine… I was sitting in my bedroom and I just thought ‘What? This can’t be true.’ My brain couldn’t process it. He said ‘Ok, I’ll call you back tomorrow lunchtime and let you know.’ I just sat there staring. Then, within 10 minutes, he called me back and basically said ‘We’re booking your flights now so you’ve got to be at Heathrow tomorrow. Your flight’s at 12:33… but you can’t tell anybody.’ He didn’t want the other teams knowing that we had a problem in our team. So the next day, I got on the flight. I told my dad even though I shouldn’t – well I had to get someone to take me to the airport and, being an Olympic rowing alumni himself, I thought it’d be ok. He was really, really excited.
‘I kept telling myself ‘I’m going to cover him, not to race. It’s just a precaution.’’
When I got on the plane, it was completely full of Team GB athletes. The first two people I saw were Andy Murray and Chris Froome sat in their seats. That’s when I thought ‘This is real.’ I wasn’t a selected athlete yet so I was just in my own clothes. That was the longest journey I think I’ll ever make. I sat down and, for the next 11 hours, my mind was constantly battling with itself. Half of me was thinking ‘I’m so gutted for Graeme. He’s my teammate and I know how much this means to him so I hope he gets better…’ Another part of me was thinking ‘Oh, well surely they wouldn’t have brought me out so quickly if I wasn’t going to be racing… This is something I’ve wanted for so long but I never wanted it to happen like this’ and then I also kept trying to rationalize things and tone them down because I knew that, if I didn’t get to race, I’d be disappointed. It was the biggest mental battle so I watched so many movies for that flight - anything to keep my mind occupied.
‘I didn’t want to get ahead of myself by thinking that I’d be racing, only to arrive and discover that I wasn't’
When I arrived at the hotel, they briefed me on what would be happening over the next few days. I was told ‘Graeme’s still not well and he’s not going to recover in time for the team’s race. You’re in.’ That night, I was shell-shocked. I remember sitting there at dinner and my hands were shaking so much. I couldn’t even use my knife and fork. I was hearing the news I’d always dreamed of… being selected to represent Team GB at the Olympics. It was huge. It was something I’d always wanted and, especially after the year I’d had, I couldn’t believe that I was even there. It was so surreal but, at the same time, it felt horrible. I knew that upstairs in that hotel, one of my best friends was sitting there having just been withdrawn and was going to be gutted. It was such a weird feeling to be torn between: I’d got what I wanted but did I really want it in this way? I wasn’t sure how to feel. As a spare, you want to get your opportunity to race but you also want to see your teammates do well so it’s a really weird situation. That night was really hard. I couldn’t sleep well. I was just so upset. I’d got to my hotel room and it was just me on my own that night so I called my Dad. Again, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone because there’d be a press release the following day but I was really upset so I called him anyway and woke him up. I think it was 6am UK time but he answered. I was in tears to him down the phone telling him about it all because, yes, I’d gotten what I wanted but, at the same time, it’s not the way anyone wants to be selected. You want to have your day where you’ve proven yourself and they’ve said ‘Ok, you’re the best person for the job’ and all that. Ok, I knew that I was the next best person and that was great but it was just very strange. The next day the coaches took me aside and said ‘Ok Jack. This may not be the way you wanted things to happen but there are three other people in that boat and they need you so you’ve got to just switch on to racing.’ That really helped me because it made me think ‘Right, suck it up. You know what to do. You know how to race and you’ve trained hard for this so just do it. You can think about the rest later.’ So, essentially, I never had time to process anything. Less than seven days before, I hadn’t made the team and I wasn’t going to the Olympics. Three days before, the team had left me to fly to Brazil. 36 hours before, I was still in London and potentially a reserve and by Monday night I’d arrived and was on the team. We started training on the Tuesday and our first race was four days later on the Saturday so it was a very quick turnaround.
'It’s very difficult because there aren’t many people who will ever go through that experience, let alone the one you went through.' I’m happy I had the opportunity but in all honestly the whole experience felt very surreal because with any other sports (e.g. football, hockey etc.) it’s normal to have a reserve. They switch players all the time and the substitute always travels with them – they’re essentially an interchangeable part of the team. With rowing it’s not like that. If we use a reserve, it’s because something bad has happened to a teammate and, as much as you want your chance, that’s not the way you want to achieve it. For me to be the other side of the world one minute, upset knowing that all my teammates had left me, to suddenly arriving in Rio and racing at the Olympics, all within 1 week… it was a complete rollercoaster.
We got there though and things are going from strength to strength. It’s an exciting time to be on Team GB but it just shows how much you can achieve if you put your mind to it and don’t give up – even if it’s hard!