I had hung up my ice hockey skates and rugby boots and had just finished my 6th year at school. My last year at school largely had no direction as I was content with an offer to a university, and didn’t see the need to do anymore than the bare minimum to get by. Having my weekends back due to no commitments to ice hockey or rugby games, I filled them with going out with friends.
Spending about 12 months in this lifestyle, while I enjoyed it, there was a lack of satisfaction and purpose growing larger inside of me. Slowly, I started to feel the competitive itch return in me that wasn’t being scratched by playing Search and Destroy on Call of Duty and doing bicep curls in the gym. Before I started my first year at Strathclyde University, the London Olympics were held. Playing many sports as a kid, I had always thought the idea of being a professional athlete would be amazing. Watching the Women’s Pairs Olympic final, I heard that Helen Glover had just won Gold after having picked up an oar only 4 years prior. I googled “rowing” and so began my obsession.
As with all SUBC Novices, my first rowing experience was in the boat “Lady Valerie”, the first boat owned by SUBC, from the Sixites. The hoppy smell from the Chivas Regal Distillery was in the air. While the club was extremely welcoming and friendly, the novices only trained a few times a week, as they were coached by volunteers who were also balancing training and studying. From my extensive googling of rowing, I learned that rowers “trained real hard”, “miles make champions” and “more is more” etc. For what I was interested in, a few sessions a week would not get me where I wanted.
I looked into the GB Rowing Start Programme and learned there was a centre based in Glasgow. I felt I roughly met some of the requirements to get tested, except for the 188cm minimum height requirement. I am 187cm, but spines shrink as the day goes on, so in order to get myself as close as possible to 188cm when tested, on the day of testing I spent my morning horizontal and reclined my car seat to the max as my dad drove me to the test. Apart from measuring in at 187.5cm, I met all the standards they wanted.
Joining the Start programme, I was extremely keen to get stuck in. Through the monthly testing that is done on the Start programme, where all centres meet up and are assessed, I quickly started to move up through the ranks. After about 6 months I was showing a promising trajectory and for the next season, U23 possibilities were on the horizon.
Inured Back and Discipline
After about 9 months, I started to get a tingling sensation in my foot. As lots of rowers will know, this is a sign of Sciatica, where one (or more) of your discs in your back starts to swell due to excessive loading – pressing on your nerves giving a tingling or painful sensation somewhere in your legs. My coach at the time was unsure how to handle it and so we continued training and racing for the next few months hoping it would subside. After another few months or my back getting worse, and a few physio appointments, I was told to stop rowing and fix my back.
I was grateful to have been accepted onto the Scottish Institute of Sport after showing good potential in my brief stint in the sport. Through stopping rowing, work in the gym and weekly physio appointments, we started to try and fix my back. Despite not rowing, my back continued to deteriorate, and it was getting to the point where walking for 5 minutes would trigger pain and discomfort in my back and or legs. Those who have suffered an injury will know how demoralising it can be and how hopeless it can leave you feeling. Months started to pass and there were few positives I could take away from it.
I read an article by Alex Gregory and his path to being one of the best rowers in the country. He talked about how he targeted his weakness, strength. After being selected as a spare for Beijing he decided to spend 3 months with no rowing, solely focussing on getting stronger. It worked and he quickly rose to the top of the sport. Inspired by this, I decided to apply the same concept with my back. I was no longer a rower, but a back fixer. I logged everything I did in my day and counted how many times a day I felt pain or tingling. Through this I was able to correlate activities and exercises that were causing my pain. I intensified my stretching, literally to the point where if I wasn’t moving, I was stretching. I stretched while sitting in lectures, watching TV, or making porridge.
After about 18 months of rehab I was able to go rowing again. My return was gradual, and something that helped me recover from my back was hindering me in training. Any time when I was recovering, if I felt pain or discomfort, I would stop what I was doing. When you become hyper aware of anything it can be very difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not. For example, think about what you are feeling in your left pinky. If you spend your day like this, it is easy to misinterpret any sensation that you are getting. So, any time I had the slightest hint of tightness, tingling, stiffness etc in my back or leg I would stop rowing. It was at this point I started to justify not rowing by anything I was feeling (or not) in my back, laziness and complacency set in. I was able to come back and do a percentage of a programme and get back racing. Not surprisingly, I was miles off where I was before I had gotten injured. Spending 18 months away from competition, I gradually cemented in the idea that as I showed good potential after about a year in a sport, my dreams of making the olympics would be easily achieved if I could just do a couple more years. Obviously, this was the wrong mindset. For about 2 years I continued half-heartedly training like this, justifying not completing sessions due to my injury when deep down it was a lack of commitment. I was dropped by my coach at the time and the Scottish Insitute of Sport, and rightly so.
Through a friend, I was introduced to Richard “Ricky” Walsh, a well known figure on the Clyde who had coached people to GB vests and another to an Olympic Silver Medal. His reputation preceded him, a hard man with a hard training programme. At this point, I was aware of my lack of commitment and softness that had developed over the last couple years and thought that if he would give me a chance it could be exactly what I needed. I had just graduated University and thought I would give my goals one last proper go, with the support of my Dad and moral support and understanding of my girlfriend, I trained full time from home. After my first session, I could confirm that he was in fact hard and his programme was hard. A couple weeks into the programme, despite improving from my prior complacency to training, I was still missing the odd sessions. Ricky quickly pulled me aside and said “You won’t achieve what you want to achieve if you continue like this, the programme I’ve set is designed for your goals, so if you’re not doing the programme, then you won’t achieve the goals, so we need to change your goals”. Having it simply set out for me like this, made it clear that responsibility was completely my own. Something Ricky always says, and something that stuck with me is, ask yourself what you want to achieve, figure out what you have to do to achieve it, if you don’t want to do what it takes to achieve it, then you don’t want it. My mindset completely changed and through being coached by Ricky and holding myself accountable I was able to reach the level I had been at before and surpass it.
Where I am now
I was then at the point where I felt what I needed was external competition to keep pushing myself in the boat, and from there I spoke with Ricky and he agreed. It is difficult for me to describe the appreciation that I have for that man. He believed in me, even when I didn’t.
In 2018 I spoke with Colin Williamson at Edinburgh University and he let me join their programme despite not being a student. There, I was able to train with others who had the same ambitions as myself, and started to chase those who were faster than me. I continued to show improvement, and more importantly, enjoy what I was doing. The programme at EUBC and the competition within it gave me what I missed having no one to push off before. I continued to make improvements every year.
The 2019/20 season has been my best so far, showing good performances throughout winter assessments gaining me an invitation to the Olympic Trials. I missed the A/B Semis by 0.04 seconds in a field where 1st and 15th were separated by 10 seconds. I came away from this disappointed but also more motivated than ever. No one knows what the future will hold in these turbulent times. At the moment, all I am doing is taking it day by day and getting ready for the possibility of trials, for the possibility of the 2021 Olympics.
How I can help you
I have gone from novice rower to competing at an elite national and international level and overcame injury and discipline problems between that. I have learned a lot about myself throughout the experience and I feel I have useful information to pass on to those who would like it.