Over the years one of the greatest pleasures of my work has been meeting some wonderfully talented and engaging sports people. And one of those was very definitely Rebecca Romero whose Olympic and World Championship achievements are unique in international sport.
Those who encountered Rebecca Romero on a bike probably didn’t see her for very long as she blasted her way to the very pinnacle of her sport. But meeting her away from a bike is a thoroughly relaxed, pleasant and refreshing experience.
There is literally no evidence of the cold hearted, steely eyed, self-absorbed focus associated with great champions. The desire and indeed necessity to put a foot on your opponents throat when they are down is hard to imagine in this mild mannered and utterly self-effacing lady who doesn’t find it easy to explain her sporting success. Far from being arrogant about scooping the very highest sporting honours, she often sounds more bewildered by it.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
And when asked about her sporting prowess at school she simply recounts tales of failing to get into county sides for tennis and netball, “because I was a bit too rubbish!” Yet only a few years later this same person was openly disappointed with an Olympic silver medal, taking the view that “you don’t win a silver you lose a gold”.
So the drive and desire to train, compete and succeed must burn brighter within Rebecca than most for she is one of Britain’s greatest ever sportswomen and a uniquely successful Olympian.
Already a World Champion in rowing, She went on to pick up her quadruple skulls silver medal at the Athens Olympics before avenging the Olympic ‘defeat’ by taking gold at the rowing World Championships again. But that is barely the start of the Rebecca Romero story. She switched sports entirely in 2006 and became a cyclist. And remarkably she even transcended her rowing exploits by becoming a cycling double World Champion then claiming the ultimate prize when she secured a famous 3,000m Individual Pursuit cycling gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
To put this in perspective – no female Olympian had ever medalled in two different sports (let alone achieved a gold). Two men have achieved the feat but they did so in Water Polo and Swimming which, even to the uninitiated, can be regarded as closely related!
Rightly feted for this extraordinary achievement of becoming the only British Olympic cross-sport medallist, Rebecca became an authentic national sports star and press column inches, plaudits, awards, personal appearances and TV and radio commitments soon stacked up. Not to mention an MBE from The Palace.
Like many athletes Rebecca is not a natural exhibitionist and finds press and public attention often uncomfortable – even when it is almost always well intentioned. I suspect that she might have been happiest to win her Olympic gold medal but for only her family and friends to have known.
She was certainly not ungrateful and did her best to keep everyone happy, but being back in the saddle was where she wanted to be and training and competing with renewed focus and direction should have meant a return to normal life for an elite international athlete. But Rebecca is a cyclist and things are not quite that straightforward in the world of two-wheeled pedal power. In fact the years since her Beijing triumph were the hardest of her sporting life.
She explained, “As an Olympic and World gold medallist most people understandably think you are well set and looked after to some degree by your sport, but it just wasn’t the case. In my particular situation things began to unravel almost the moment I left the winner’s podium at Beijing. Nobody should be given an easy ride (forgive the pun) whatever they’ve won and we must always fight for our places on the national team and to improve our performances. Since Beijing I expected nothing less than having to train harder and compete better to stay at the top. But I also expected to have something to compete in! I did not anticipate that my sport would change its composition so drastically that I’d be left with nothing to defend and almost nothing to contend for”.
It might sound drastic but this is exactly the situation she found herself in. In 2009 she was browsing a cycling website when she discovered the powers that be were proposing to axe her event from the from the 2012 programme. The bad news eventually became a reality.
“If you look at most sports you know the parameters in which you are competing and what your event and discipline is. A rugby prop forward isn’t going to become a winger, a fast bowler is unlikely to become a great leg spin bowler and a 100m sprinter can be sure of not being asked to run the 1,500m metres, but this is the kind of scenario I was faced with if I wished to carry on.”
The difficulties run deeper than an athlete having to re-tune to a different discipline – after all nobody knows more about that than Rebecca. After seriously considering javelin, canoeing or speed skating she decided to return to the saddle but candidly explained, “Suddenly the proposition I faced was having to ride in an entirely different event just to keep any kind of cycling career alive – an event in which I would be less suited and surrounded by better practitioners. So just standing still professionally was going to be a mountain to climb in itself.”
And these facts were not lost on others within the cycling community. As a proven winner, reigning Olympic Champion and a remarkable sportswoman she could not even secure the attentions of a top coach. Against this backdrop Rebecca had to stay focussed, dedicated and motivated whilst also contending with injury, a house move and on-going Masters Degree studies. It is no wonder that she seriously considered her future in the sport. She’d reached the pinnacle and the prospect of flogging herself within ever decreasing circles held little appeal.
“I didn’t want anything on a plate and expected no preferential treatment, but starting all over again in the latter part of my competitive life with little apparent enthusiasm for my prospects in some quarters was not what I’d envisaged!
“I looked long and deep inside myself to see if the relentless, drive, desire and commitment was still there to keep me performing anywhere near the highest level in my sport.”
Rebecca adopted the Time Trial which takes place on the road over a distance of around 16 miles – a far cry from the velodrome based 3,000m metres in which she beat the world. The requirements and training demands are so completely different, in effect this really was almost a third Olympic event for Rebecca.
Read more about Rebecca in the upcoming installment of the interview.