On a grey afternoon in Reading, Helen Glover orders a large mug of hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows, and reflects on her extraordinary life. From novice to Olympic champion in four years. The 28-year-old’s tale is, quite frankly, the stuff of which movies are made. An ordinary girl from Cornwall whose parents ran an ice cream shop, who just happened to try out at a talent identification day – and ended up being one of the most iconic faces at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
It sounds simple, but the coxless pairs Olympic, World Cup, European and world champion speaks openly as she reveals the struggle that preceded the glory – dark days when, dwarfed by the herculean specimens around her, she would stuff herself with chips in an effort to beef up her body and compensate for her tiny frame.
At 5ft 9in, with a small body that makes you marvel at the power and speed she generates on the water, most people would not identify Glover as a natural candidate for the Sporting Giants programme that earmarked her for Olympic greatness (even if she did stand on tiptoe to make the grade).
All the titles came easily compared to when she was trying to survive in the abrasive environment of an elite group all vying for a place on the British squad. “I got told by my training group virtually every day that I was too small, or too short, and I wouldn’t make it,” she says. “We’d all got onto the scheme through Sporting Giants so they were much taller than me. It was a competitive environment. Sometimes in sport if someone feels threatened they’ll want to belittle someone else. I really, really hated it at the time.
“I remember my dad came to visit me and I said: ‘I’m just not going to be able to do it, I’m not big enough.’ Because I was training so much I kept losing weight. I remember being sat there trying to eat chips, trying to get bigger. I definitely questioned myself then, I could have all the technique in the world, but would I ever be able to get into the physical shape that I needed to?”
The nagging questions, and sniping comments, went on for two years. That she survived it, and went on to achieve extraordinary success – the first British rower to simultaneously hold five major titles – is testimony to Glover’s grit and indicative of the extremely competitive streak that runs through her core. She smiles. “I thought: ‘Right, if I’m not taller than you I’ll be stronger than you, and if I’m not heavier than you then I’ll row better than you.’ It’s led to how I row now. I was pushed in that direction because of the way my training group was.”
Outside of rowing, few knew the path that Glover was taking. Most thought she was studying to be a teacher. “I left uni and I had never rowed, I’d never even sat in a boat. I didn’t tell all my uni friends what I was doing and then the next time they saw me I was sat in an Olympic final. They rang me up and said: ‘You row?’”
If Sporting Giants hadn’t happened, says Glover, who started out as a keen cross-country runner, she probably would have spent the rest of her life wondering whether she could have made it as an athlete but never quite daring to give it a go. “You just don’t think it could be you. I remember in assembly them saying: ‘What do you want to do when you’re older?’ I sat there I thought: ‘Win Olympic gold,’ but I think I put my hand up and said: ‘Vet,’” she recalls, laughing.
Fast forward to 2012, and the night before the Olympic final. Sitting in her hotel room, Glover wondered about the morning ahead. With their coach, Robin Williams, Glover and rowing partner Heather Stanning had discussed every eventuality for the big day, bar one: what if they were in a position to win Britain’s first Olympic gold of the Games? After Mark Cavendish faded in the road race, one by one Britain’s other potential champions dropped out of the running. Unexpectedly, the nation was looking to the women’s coxless pair to deliver the goods.
“The night before the final I was playing on my laptop. I clicked on a link that said: ‘Who will win Britain’s first gold?’I thought: ‘Ooh, I wonder who that could be?’ I clicked on the link and this picture of Heather and I came up on the screen and I just slammed my laptop shut.” Glover both laughs and shudders at the memory. The next morning the question was all over the front of the newspapers. “It was all ‘missing gold medal’; ‘is this going to be the Games with no gold?’; ‘tune into the rowing …’. From spending two months in a cocoon being protected from it to suddenly eating breakfast with this staring us in the face.” As it turned out, they were perfection on the water. Glover and Stanning rowed to a memorable victory, smiling in the final lengths they pulled clear ahead of old foes in the New Zealand boat to be immortalised as Team GB’s first Olympic gold and the first for British women’s rowing.
Naive to the frenzy that would follow, the pair had arranged to meet their families in a pub for dinner at 6pm. They were still doing interviews at 4am. Even now the achievement is still hard to fathom, she admits. “I went from: ‘I wonder if I can win a medal?’ to: ‘I think I can win a medal’ to: ‘I’d be gutted if I didn’t win a medal,’ in three years. By 2011 I knew I’d be devastated if I didn’t win gold. It’s been such a big change. And I think that’s why it’s been so hard to come to terms with. Which makes it sound like a bereavement, like a tragedy, ‘oh it’s so hard to come to terms with it …’. But just four years before I had only just started rowing. Then I’m sat on the start line. How do you …” She shakes her head, unable to finish.
It was 2013, though, that proved mentally tough. Stanning had gone back to the army, and Glover was alone, the only returning female gold medallist in the British camp. “With Heather gone, I felt lonely.” Glover had never dealt with the pressure of expectation before. In Polly Swann there was also a new rowing partner to get used to. But if she felt low, it was not to last. The new partnership flourished and the pair secured the world title in South Korea that summer. “That is one of my proudest achievements. To win with someone else gave me a lot of confidence because I always attribute a huge amount of my success to Heather – and rightly so. I almost felt like a passenger sometimes because I rate her so highly. So it was good when I did that myself.”
This year Glover and Stanning were reunited – bar a gold medal-winning performance at the European Championships with Swann – and the old friends swept the board with two World Cup victories, another world title, and this time a world record. “World records are broken very rarely in rowing, it was 12 years since the last pairs record. Going into the race it was always unspoken that we both knew we were going for that. Out of everything I’ve done this year it makes it finish on a super high.”
As Britain’s most successful female athlete in 2014, Glover should be in the running for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. “It’s three seasons unbeaten now, including Olympic Games and a world championships. I can’t really believe I’ve won all those titles,” she notes. But the platform for women’s sport, as Glover acknowledges, remains unequal – “I still find it frustrating when you open a newspaper and there’s not one single women’s sport story when I personally know athletes who have done something incredible that week” – unfairly many of her achievements will have gone unnoticed by much of the population.
Glover’s focus now is already firmly on Rio 2016, where rowing will – for once – be located at the heart of the Olympic action, centre stage on the lagoon, overlooked by the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Glover grins as she describes it. Nothing matters except Rio now, she says, not even the unbeaten streak.
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