The only British woman to have competed and won medals at two different Olympics in two different disciplines, as well as becoming World Champion in both, talks to WatchFit about her life as an elite rower and then cyclist.
How did you get into rowing?
I’ve always been keen on sport but never really excelled in anything through my earlier years.
When we moved to Twickenham we had a river nearby, which gave me the opportunity to try out a new sport on the water and I joined Kingston rowing club. I had no real grounding in rowing and didn’t realise that I was walking into one of the best junior rowing clubs in the UK. I progressed quite quickly and within eight months – and with no grand plan – I was rowing at the junior World Championships.
What are your memories of your first Olympics, Athens 2004?
The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sporting achievement so to get selected and qualify for the boat was a massive achievement. We were going in as favourites and it was the most pressure I had ever felt. Even though they happen every four years, it felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As an experience it was amazing to be part of this huge, global event, but I see our performance as losing the gold medal, rather than winning the silver medal. We were absolutely good enough to win gold but it didn’t happen on that day at that moment. But the following year at the World Championships we were able to turn it round and beat the Germans who had beaten us in Athens. So it was an Olympic silver and World Champs gold. Not bad by any standards and I am not being ungrateful, but to this day I know that Olympic gold could have been ours too. Credit of course to the German crew though.
What was your training regime like?
There would usually be three sessions a day with a half-day rest mid-week and a day’s rest at the weekend. Sessions usually consisted of training on the water, weight training and abominator sessions – lots of endurance, strength training and intensity work. It was all about getting the hours in and surviving the training day in, day out.
Racing was fun – partly because we would taper training hours down, so that would be the one time when I would feel less wrecked. Winter training was like being in a permanent state of jet lag, fatigued the whole time.
Why did you stop rowing?
I had won a silver medal, the following year became World Champion and then carried on for another year, but I started to detect that I was struggling mentally and realised my motivation and enjoyment was declining. This is something that has to be recognised quickly and acted on in one way or another.
The big crunch came when I had a back injury and I was out for a few months. This gave me the opportunity to do some soul searching and I just knew that I didn’t care if I ever got into a boat again.
If I didn’t have 100% commitment then I had no right being there and being part of a team and keeping somebody else out who might have been really hungry.
How did the move into cycling occur?
I’ve always been keen on cycling and a friend of mine was involved in cycling and he knew the new women’s coach, so I went along and was tested.
It was really simple: lap tests, looking at my power production and throwing me in at the deep end and getting me to ride on a track. They knew that I had a lot of other elements that ticked the boxes due to my previous work, so they were willing to take me on and see what could be done.
Tell us about your first big competitive race.
My first competition six months into training was the National Championships.
I knew that people were looking at what kind of performance I could give and I wanted to justify the position I had been given in the team. This was a key moment and thankfully I won and from that point on I got the seal of approval.
My background in rowing and dealing with pressure definitely helped, but I think that if I hadn’t been there or thereabouts at the National Championships, then I don’t know if I would have lasted because I’m not sure if I’d have been looked at as a ‘longer term investment’. This was about performing at a high level at the earliest opportunities.
Did you target a gold medal in Beijing?
I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but yes. And this was partly becasue I found myself in the same position as when I was in Athens.
I’d won the World Championships five months before and I was number one in the world, going in as favourite, so it was like a rerun! I just wanted to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes and made sure that I put everything into it. I wanted to take the opportunity to put things right.
You are the first British women to perform in two different sports at the Olympics, let alone reach the podium twice and become a champion. How does this make you feel?
It never really featured in my mind that much but it was always there in the background because that was the unique aspect of the story. However much I dismissed this kind of thing on a personal level – at least until I was an old crock and talking to my grandchildren – the media would of course latch onto it which was fair enough I suppose. To become an Olympic champion is just the most magical thing anyway, but to have an impact on World and Olympic levels in another sport too, put myself in the record books and distinguish myself that little bit more from other gold medalists was quite special.
Read more about Olympian and Expert Rebecca Romero.