As she lined up for the final of the coxless pairs on Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon last August, you might have thought Helen Glover would be rather confident. After all, she and her partner Heather Stanning had not been beaten in 38 races, Glover’s own record stretched back to 50, she was the world’s No 1 rower at the time. In the minds of those watching, the defending champions from London were among the biggest odds-on certainties of the Olympics, the Usain Bolts of the rowing lake. That, though, was not how Glover was thinking.
“I thought we were going to lose,” she admits.
She has always thought that way, entered every race convinced this was to be the one where records came to an end, where invincibility crumbled, where disaster struck.
“No matter how much logic there may be telling us we’re the fastest in the world, unbeaten etc, I am always utterly convinced that we are not going to win,” she says. “I remember ringing my mum before the London final. We’d smashed the heats and yet I sat there explaining to her why we weren’t going to win it. I think in the end I managed to convince her that we were doomed.”
As history records, doomed she was not. Nothing like it. In Rio, as in London, Glover and Stanning fulfilled every expectation, swishing home to triumph, leaving the rest of the field panting in their wash. Six months on and Glover, 30, has just completed her first race since that triumphant day, skippering one of the crews in the Celebrity Boat Race. In a sporting first, BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management donated the title sponsorship rights of The University Boat Races to Cancer Research UK. The #PullTogether campaign was created to raise awareness and funds for the charity. The Celebrity Boat Race is at its heart. And in one boat was Glover, leading a crew including Jodie Kidd, Dan Snow, Dan Walker and the comedian Mark Watson.
“It’s odd to be back in a boat,” she says, sitting in the boathouse after the race, looking as relaxed as if she had just been for short stroll rather than hauling seven rowing ingénues over a couple of miles of choppy Thames. “I always knew after Rio I was going to take time out to decide whether to carry on.”
Her partner Stanning announced her retirement in the immediate aftermath of victory, returning from Rio to continue a career in the army. Glover has waited to make her decision about whether to defend their title in Tokyo. Though time off, she says, has not added clarity. Still she remains unsure.
“I was very clear after London I wanted to carry on. To me there was an obvious reason to go back to Rio: to prove it wasn’t a one-off. Thinking about a third, you’re going: so what are the reasons this time? Where I am now is really looking for those reasons. What else do I gain? That question has to be very easily answered to make you get up on a winter morning to go out and train on a frozen lake or when you’re halfway through a race and it hurts like hell. You need that answer to be staring you in the face. You can’t be searching for why you do it. And at the moment I am.”
Not that she has been idle in her time away from the rowing. She married the television wildlife expert Steve Backshall last September, went on honeymoon then undertook several filming and speaking tours with him. Plus they have been training as a pair for the Devizes to London Kayak challenge.
“Now that’s a complete nightmare,” she says of the 24-hour paddle round the south coast. “I spent eight years of my life trying to be best in world. Every time I trained I was trying to answer the question: would this win me the Olympics? Now I’m going out to see if I can complete the course. Twenty five per cent of entrants don’t finish. All we want is to cross the finish line, even if we’re last. Very different.”
Then, four days after her paddle, she is running the London Marathon as captain of The Telegraph team raising funds for the Brain and Spine Foundation.
“I was hoping to do it in under three hours,” she says of the run. “But then I fell over on some cobbles while out training, damaged my knee and I reckon I’ll now be lucky to do it in three and a half.” But in everything she has done since Rio, always at the back of her mind has been the thought of whether she returns to training.
“Some days I think I want to go back, some days I think I might retire, some days I change my mind three or four times. My deadline keeps extending. The latest one I’ve given myself is I’ll decide by Easter. But I’ll probably extend it.”
It is a tough choice. The victories in London and Rio were towering emotional highs. But they took their toll. Being on the treadmill for 10 years, sitting on the rowing machine for hours at a time, requires a substantial reservoir of determination. In the last Olympic cycle, for instance, she reckons she made four million strokes.
“That equates to 16,000 practice strokes for every one stroke of an Olympic final,” she says. “There are no short cuts.” For an intelligent, outgoing, inquisitive woman like Glover, such repetitive drudgery must become excruciating.
“It’s odd,” she says. “In the rest of my life I’m relaxed, free-spirited, messy, disorganised. I’ve managed to break both my Olympic medals. Step into a rowing boat and I demand perfection. I’m borderline obsessive. Every session is a chance to get a little bit better. Millions of strokes, but every stroke matters.”
She says embracing the relentless repetition with enthusiasm was what drove her and Stanning over the line. That and some imaginative input from their coach Robin Williams.
“He is so artistic in his language, he can create a scene for us. When we’re in Italy practising he can make us feel we’re on the start line in Rio. People passing may have thought we were on a tranquil Alpine lake, but when we were sitting there, Robin had put us mentally in downtown Rio, there was traffic noise, sirens, crowds. So when you do get there finally, you have done it so many times before. Everything is familiar.”
If she does make the decision to go back, however, it will be without the woman with whom she shared so much. “In 2013 Heather took a year out, while I carried on. That gave me every reason to believe I could be successful with someone else. But a massive reason why I have loved this journey has been the partnership with her. As much as I say it’s an individual decision, she has been such a huge part of my life the fact I won’t be with her has to come into my thinking.”
Whatever happens, though, the moments she shared with Stanning will always be in her mind.
“People ask me what was the best time I had in a boat. And I look back to the start line at London, two best of friends sat in a boat watched by our coach, who’s part of the family, the three of us feeling like we’re the luckiest people in the world. We looked at each other and thought we’re about to achieve a dream we’d had since we were tiny.
“That dream was so far beyond what I thought I could achieve. And there I was, moments away from achieving it. God, it sounds so cheesy, but that feeling will stay with me for a long, long time.”
- The Celebrity Boat Race will be on BBC 1 on Sunday April 2 ahead of The Cancer Research UK Boat Races. Pull Together to help beat cancer sooner and donate £3 by texting Pull3 to 70200