How To Be An Olympian
By Harry Reardon
The inside story of two women, an Olympic rower and a Paralympic cyclist, going for Tokyo 2020 gold
Publication date: September 2021Support this project
The Champion (EARLY BIRD)
My Olympic Dream
The Gold Medal
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How to be an Olympian is about hope.
More prosaically perhaps, it’s about rower Jess Leyden and cyclist Hannah Dines, two women who represent Great Britain's Olympic and Paralympic present and future, and their journeys between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
It’s the Olympic story of Jess, an age-group world champion and senior world medallist. It’s about how she missed out on Rio by a matter of seconds, then got back in the same boat and dragged it through a season of turmoil to world championships bronze. It’s about training camps and cut-throat trials, and – for now at least, because it all depends on where the coaches want to put you – it’s about everything that comes with being four women in a boat.
It’s the Paralympic story of Hannah, who went to Rio three years after seeing her first racing trike and two years after seeing her second, and managed to pull her own round to a pair of fifth places in the time trial and the road race. It’s about how she was dropped by British Cycling, suffered health scares and self-doubt, scraped together funding from wherever she could, and battled her way back into contention on her own terms.
Training sessions and races, setbacks and breakthroughs, injuries and bust-ups, it’s all here, and don’t ask us how it’s all going to end, because we couldn’t tell you. But then, isn’t that the beauty of it? In a world in which the difference between success and failure can be as insubstantial as the tread of a tyre or the ebb of a bow ball, it’s about what you can’t control as much as what you can, and at any moment, it could all come crashing down. And that, as much as anything else, is why they do it.
And so How to be an Olympian isn’t really about winning, even when they do, and it isn’t really about glory, even if that comes. It’s about what it’s really like to dedicate the best years of your life to the uncertainty of a moment.
It’s a story about hope.
Harry Reardon got his midlife crisis in early.
A qualified lawyer, he watched the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics, and then a year or so after that, he watched an episode of Pointless where not a single person could remember that Katherine Grainger had just won gold. A year or so after that, at the age of 31, he chucked in the law completely to train as a sports journalist.
Not long after doing so, he realised a few things. Namely:
- a. He would now have to spend several years learning either three or possibly five things every time he went to the football, and asking a variety of people how happy they were to have won their match / race / novelty-sized cheque.
- b. What he really wanted to do was to write books.
- c. By almost entirely avoiding a. in pursuit of b., he was in imminent danger of ending up
- d. broke.
So now by day, he works in the civil service. By evening, he gets splashed by exuberantly bathing children (his own, let us be clear), and by night, he pesters Jess Leyden and Hannah Dines for training schedules, GoPro footage and gossip.
He lives in a small village outside Winchester with his wife, their young daughter and son, and a crippling sense of self-doubt.
If you ever find yourself booking a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Reading – and the Rough Guide to Berkshire this isn't, but one never knows when the urge may take hold – make sure you ask for one round the back.
This is important. Otherwise, when your alarm goes off too early of a morning, and you lever yourself out of bed, grumble your way to the kettle and then potter across to the window to open the curtains and take in the day, if you're lucky there's going to be a tree in your face. If not, reading from right to left, it's petrol station, greasy spoon, redbrick office, roundabout. A greasy spoon with a solid set of TripAdvisor reviews it may be, and doubtless plenty of the employees of the Reading branch of Peter Brett Associates are more than content with their life choices, but none of that changes the fact that this is not the view they advertise on the hotel website.
So drink your tea. Head downstairs, pick your way past the spreadsheet printouts and meal time notices pinned to the whiteboard in the foyer, and press on through the café, because once you make it out of the glass doors at the back and onto the terrace, suddenly there is late summer sunlight twinkling off the Thames. The birds are singing, the sky is an impudent blue, and it's a different world.
It's all so serene, so far removed from the hammering heart of built-up Britain that's beating no more than a hundred yards away, so gently perfect, that if this weren't August 2016, you'd expect Jess Leyden to be feeling pretty well-disposed towards it. But it is, and so she isn't.
She perches uncomfortably on a rickety metal chair, her knees hunched up to her chest. “You look at some of them,” she says. “And you say, well, why can't I do that?”
- 17th June 2019 Ten strokes towards Tokyo
Out on the water, you’ll often find yourself counting in tens. The big first ten strokes. Up the rate for ten more in the middle after you’ve settled into your rhythm, just to show the rest of the field who’s in control. Then when you’re trying to ramp it up towards the finish line, ten on a call to give it everything you’ve got left.
The first ten? It’s all about power off the line, setting down…
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