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

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?”

 

Jess has been watching a lot of telly recently. Team mates, room mates, former crew mates, friends and rivals have been out in Rio de Janeiro over the last couple of weeks, competing at an Olympic Games. They’ve been breaking records and they’ve been winning medals, and she could have been there too.

She's got the talent. Everyone at British Rowing knows that, and has done for a few years now, since she won the country's first ever international gold medal in the women's single scull[1], at the 2013 World Junior Championships out in Lithuania. But the quadruple scull she's been in for her two seasons in the senior squad missed out on Olympic qualification, and so here she is. Everyone else, it seems, is over in Brazil, and she's sitting outside a hotel in the Home Counties and reliving the moment, three months earlier at the final qualification regatta, when a crew made up of her, Holly Nixon, Ro Bradbury and Tina Stiller finished behind China, Ukraine and New Zealand and fell five seconds short of Rio.

“After we missed out, I didn't know what to do,” she says. “I knew we would have to do something quite special at that regatta, but in that moment I really believed we could. We had a good platform, we knew the way we were going to get faster, and it was slowly getting there. But if you're a crew like we were, who were really fighting for the places, you're affected more. You change your tactics more than an established crew would. Maybe that's wrong.”

There was one thing for certain – she wasn't going to leave the sport. She might still be so new to the national team set-up that she doesn't even think of herself as a rower – “I don't really feel like I've grown up. I feel like I'm still doing my hobby” – and she might only have turned down a place at Newcastle University two years ago because she'd just made it into the Great Britain senior squad, and it's easier for an international rower to become an engineer than it is for an engineer to become a rower. But unlike in 2012, when Jess was still splashing about in the junior ranks and the team that dominated at Dorney was becoming the stuff of legend – now, she knows she's good enough. She's got the numbers on the rowing machines, and she's proving herself on the water. Now, she needs to keep sharpening up her technique, she needs to stay fit, and she needs to find the boat that will take her to Tokyo, because she's not going to miss out again.

 

First up, a hop over the North Sea to Rotterdam, and the under-23 World Championships. Since the quad missed out on Rio, the coaches have been lining Jess up for a double with the other stand-out sculling prospect in the British women's squad, Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne. It's a boat, though, that has no history and very possibly no future, however well they perform. It's not nothing, of course – it'll keep them in shape, it might well earn them a medal. But it's been cobbled together at short notice essentially to give them both something to do, and age-group racing in the September of an Olympic year is not why either of them got into the sport.

For Jess and Mathilda, what the next few months are really about is getting in the best possible shape for trials – the series of head-to-head races, time trials and rowing machine tests which runs between November and April each year, punctuating the punishing winter-to-spring training programme. It's a gruelling experience, which will officially form the basis for crew selections for next season and in practice quite probably beyond; in fact, it's fair to say that what happens at the upcoming final assessment, in April next year, could end up defining the whole Olympic cycle. Which makes it important, obviously, even if you can't think of it like that.

“Sometimes people –” begins Jess, and she names no names, but that's not the point, this could be anyone, any sport, any cycle, any country – “sometimes people get really caught up in trials, and trying to be the best person in the country. Whereas actually, day-to-day training as a team, you should be thinking about beating the world. That's the team I want to be part of, a strong team that wants to beat the world and not just each other, that shouts to each other to get better, but that supports each other, and doesn't tear each other down. Because you'd rather miss out on a team that's winning a gold medal than be in a team that comes last.”

Team dynamics. At the very top level, a huge amount of sport is about how to get people working together, and it's a tricky business. For one thing, assuming Jess makes it into a boat this time around, it's going to be completely different to the one that missed out on Rio, not least because over the next few weeks, half of the old crew will quit the squad – Ro to try her hand at cycling, Tina to turn her back on professional sport entirely and join Deloitte. So if there is going to be a return to the quad, and Jess admits to a feeling of unfinished business, there will need to be new team mates, new relationships. The only one left from the Rio cycle that she could be racing alongside is Holly Nixon, and the two of them haven't always seen eye-to-eye.

“When we first came onto the team together, we didn't really trust each other,” says Jess. “I think Holly had a few issues outside of training that she was trying to work through, but she was quite closed about those, and so came across to me as weak-minded. And with my personality, I'm a bit of a bull in a china shop.” But then British Rowing brought in someone from one of those companies that do team insight profiles, the upshot of which was everyone on the squad being assigned colours to represent their personalities. Holly came out as Earth Green, Jess was a Fiery Red, and just like that, it started to make a bit more sense. So now when Jess blurts out something critical, Holly knows that she's not doing it to upset her, and when Holly is acting all sensitive and over-thinking things, it's not because she wants to piss Jess off. It's anyone's guess how that will play out in the long term if they end up back in a boat together, but for now it's great, it's lovely, it's the end of Cool Runnings and it's Junior and Yul and 'This doesn't mean that I like you.' Holly helps Jess rein herself in, and if Jess really believes in what she's saying, she'll explain why and they'll talk it through, and now Holly's one of the closest friends Jess has got.

 

The double with Mathilda takes the gold medal with something to spare, which if practically inconsequential is still pretty sweet. It comes at the cost of injuries to Jess's rib and back, though, so when the squad's annual three-week break comes around in October, she decides that she really needs to make the most of it. She had planned to go on a walking holiday, but the injuries put paid to that, so it becomes a chance to go home, see her mother and catch up with friends for a bit. Then it's straight back to the team's base in Caversham, just upriver from the Crowne Plaza, and back into the grind.

It starts as a six day week. From Monday to Wednesday, the team gets switched around between crew boats, eights and quads mainly, and then from Thursday to Saturday, they're in their singles. Jess, who's been spending a lot of time in the quad, has been going out for Sunday morning bike rides as well, which she shouldn't really be doing – but then it would be rude not to, she says, the weather's been so pleasant. Then, as the weeks go on and trials get closer, there'll be more and more singles work, and the mileage will start to ratchet up.

She'll also be competing in a four-way invitational exhibition race on the Thames called the Wingfield Sculls. In itself, it's meaningless. It's not part of the training programme, and times posted and victories achieved will count for nothing four years down the line. But since the women's version of the race was revived in 2007 following a 30-odd year hiatus, London 2012 gold medallists Anna Watkins and Sophie Hosking have both won it; so has double Olympian Beth Rodford, and so too Rio silver medallist Melanie Wilson and double Olympic bronze medallist Elise Laverick. Barcelona gold medallist Greg Searle has won the men's race, and so has London bronze medallist Alan Campbell, so too double Olympic gold medallist Mahe Drysdale, and back in the 1980s, there were five wins in a row for that fella who paddled with Pinsent. The bottom line is that it's a serious honour even to be asked to compete, and when Jess wins, against GB team mate Georgia Francis and former squad members Amelia Carlton and Pippa Whittaker, she's suddenly got a lot to live up to.

And so she keeps on pushing, in the gym and on the water. She's pushing so hard, in fact, that she makes herself ill, and misses the first round of trials in November. She's ill in December too, when the next round comes along, but she won't admit it to the team doctor, and so she drags herself up the course a couple of times and somehow finishes second, behind Mathilda.

And autumn gives way to winter.

[1]There are two types of rowing, sculling and sweep, with the difference being, in essence, that scullers get two oars each. Jess has always been a sculler, mainly because when she first took up the sport, at Hollingworth Lake Rowing Club on the outskirts of Rochdale, no-one ever stuck around long enough for her to row with them. Given that you only have one oar if you're doing sweep, if it's just you in the boat then either you're going to end up going round in circles, or it's going to be a canoe.

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