What drew you into rowing at 17 years old?
It happened by chance really, my family moved near the Thames, and I looked in the Yellow Pages for a water sport to try. It was between canoeing and rowing and there happened to be a rowing club nearby. I’d always done other sports at school so it was an opportunity to try something new and I wanted to have something of my own away from family life.
Would you recommend rowing to any readers that want to try a new skill?
Absolutely, it’s a really good sport to take up because it’s challenging physically and you advance your skill base by developing your technique. You can do it individually or you can race and train with other people. It’s actually a relatively cheap sport in comparison to a gym membership – if you join a rowing club you get facilities there, boats to use, and it’s really social. Also the specified training times are ideal for people that find it hard to motivate themselves to get to the gym.
Were you surprised when they said you could be a brilliant rower?
Totally, when my coach said that to me I thought he was crazy! Up until then I’d never aspired to be anything beyond good, but rowing obviously suited me and he could see that I had the drive and determination. Looking back I guess I could have been good at something else before that, but I’d never really had that person there to guide me. Once he knew I had potential he put me on the pathway and it went from there, it’s crucial to have a mentor in the first few years of your career.
Did you ever imagine you would achieve the success you did?
No, I never thought it was possible. I’d always seen Olympic athletes as superhuman; something extremely special, and I didn’t see myself like that. I guess when you’re starting out as a complete novice you just think it’s too far to go, and I never really looked big, I just looked at taking each step at a time. Once I had initial success I knew I wanted to implement that further. It’s about understanding the potential you have and that it’s achievable, then it’s just aspiring to reach your goals.
How did you juggle training with your home and work life?
I was full-time rowing when I started my degree which was pretty hard, but I think if you want to do it then you can. It’s just having good time management and prioritising, and sacrificing other things – for me that was downtime and fun time – because you can’t fit everything into your day.
How did you feel about your silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens?
Well, it was my first senior medal and an Olympic medal that at the beginning of that year I thought I would never be able to get, which at 24 years old I know was a massive achievement. However, we’d gone into the final race as favourites, were well capable of winning, and we didn’t fulfill our potential. It was a gold medal lost, rather than a silver medal won.
What made you decide to retire from rowing?
I decided to retire from rowing because I had been to an Olympic Games, carried on for another year and won the World Championships, and I wasn’t enjoying the sport anymore. I didn’t feel it was something I wanted to carry on doing and sacrifice my life to for another three years until Beijing. I honestly thought I was closing the door on sport really, and I was happy with my decision when the time came.
Then you started cycling…what was the biggest challenge about swapping sports?
The space of time I had to do it in; I had two and a half years until the start of the Olympic Games. I had to change, adapt and develop, as well as learn all about a new sport in a completely different environment.
Were you nervous about cycling in a velodrome?
Initially, yes. The velodrome is 250 metres around, with two banks about five metres high and the banks are 45 degrees, so when you’re at the top and looking down you just think, ‘How am I supposed to ride down this, it’s not physically possible’, but that’s part of it I guess, the excitement and overcoming a fear.
What kind of speeds do you get up to?
You can be riding at up to 30mph, sometimes more.
You must have to be so focused to concentrate at that pace?
Definitely, but that’s what I really enjoy about the sport, it’s not just physical it’s the technical side and having to be spatially aware.
Your cycling coach Dan Hunt has described you as ‘the most driven athlete I have ever met’, where does that drive come from?
I don’t know really, I guess there are so few opportunities to perform in sport, with the World Championships once a year, and the Olympic Games every four years, that you feel you can’t just sit around and wait, you have to make it happen. If I’m going to do something, it’s all or nothing. I don’t want to finish an event and say I didn’t give it everything, how can you not if you’ve got the opportunity to go and be an Olympic champion? I’m open about how much I want to win which makes me sound like a very driven person, but in every other aspect of life I’m lazy and don’t do things properly. All of my resources are put into sport.
Do you ever miss being part of a team?
Sometimes I do, there are times when competing individually can be lonely, for example when you’re preparing to race and you’re by yourself. Being part of a team and doing it together can be highly rewarding, but I spent many years as part of a team and I’m quite happy now doing it as an individual.
What did your training for the Beijing Olympics involve?
During the last few months leading up to the Games I was a lot more focused, I spent a lot more time in the velodrome, going on training camps and having long stints away to focus entirely on training, recovery, away from distractions and all the hype. We closely monitor our training programme and how we’re developing. You do years and years of training and you’ve got one specific day to give the best performance of your life so it’s all about everything coming together – it can be quite scary.
How did it feel when you stepped on the podium as the gold medalist?
Immense relief really. It’s quite an odd sensation because beforehand you’ve run through the different scenarios in your head and how it would feel – as motivation you use the image and your perceived feelings of what it would be like to receive the gold medal then to actually be there in that moment, having it happen for real was just amazing. I remember standing there thinking, ‘just take it in and remember this feeling’. I almost wish I could go back and do it again or have a longer break between racing and having a medal ceremony though, because you finish the race exhausted, and then the media pull you one way, drug testers another and suddenly it’s the ceremony and you’re trying to take everything in, but you feel like collapsing.
The British cycling team was hugely successful in Beijing, how did it feel to be part of it?
To be an Olympic champion is one thing, but to be part of an Olympic team with so many other winners makes it even better. When Team GB won the first few gold medals, we knew our athletes were on form and that our preparation was spot on; we were going to live up to expectations. You feel that you don’t want to let the side down and you have to get that gold medal, it’s that extra push to contribute to the team. You live the win of everybody’s medals again and again, which is brilliant.
Do you think there was a new mentality in the British Olympic camp, a feeling that coming second wasn’t good enough?
I think that attitude of it’s gold or nothing was definitely put in place a few years ago, and the results and rewards of that became obvious at the World Championships in xx and then in Beijing. We went into the Games knowing it was all about winning gold, and nobody accepted that silver or bronze was good enough.
Do you have your sight set on London 2012 – Olympic success in front of a home crowd?
Yes I think so, though I’m taking it a year at a time. One of the disappointments for me at the Beijing Olympics was the atmosphere, it was pretty deadpan and that kind of took the edge off the performance and my memories of the Games. So to perform in front of a home crowd would make it extra special and be a great finish to my career. I think the fact that the next Olympics Games is in London is a deciding factor for many athletes to carry on until then; it’s going to be such a memorable occasion. London has an opportunity to make a fantastic Games, but the general public needs to realise how important they are in that. They might not think they’re playing a part, that they’re just there to watch, but believe me they’ll make the atmosphere, and make the Games what they are. For me as an athlete the overriding experience of the Olympics was not winning the gold medal, but what it was like to be there.
After Beijing you were thrust into the media spotlight more than ever, how did you find that attention?
That was one of the hardest things in the whole of my sporting career – learning to deal with the success, what that means and who you have to become after that. Suddenly the media were delving into me as a person, not just as an athlete, and I was being bombarded with expectations and demands from every angle. People put you on a pedestal and that was pretty hard to deal with, just knowing that all of a sudden you’ve become an inspiration. You live a simple, regimented life as an athlete and for your lifestyle to suddenly change so much is quite overwhelming.
Do you think schools in the UK do enough to encourage children into sports?
There have been a lot of developments with sport in schools and at grass roots level. A lot of governing bodies of different sports have set up schemes to get children involved in sport, but I just feel that a lot more could be done. Sports teaches so many good life skills and not everything can be taught through classroom education, sometimes you need a different stimulus to inspire that skill or personal development. We should really give kids a good balance in life; I may have never found my sport if it hadn’t been for that coach.
Do you think being a professional sportsperson is about mentality and talent?
It’s equally mentality and talent. You’ve got to have the mentality to be disciplined and work hard at it, to push yourself and to deal with the pressure, stress and obstacles that come along. Success comes from being able to deal with this. Of course there are times when you question why you’re doing it, sometimes in training sessions or when you’re really exhausted you just think, ‘I could just stop this now, I don’t have to do this, why am I doing it?’ But then you’ve got that end goal, and if you want it enough you’ll carry on doing it.
Do you feel successful?
Incredibly successful for sure but I still think I can have more success in sport, having been in cycling for a short amount of time I know that there’s more that I can do and I’m looking forward to exploring that. I believe there are more medals for me to win. The next phase is moving to London to win gold in front of a home crowd, and it would be nice to see if I could go for winning more than one gold there with maybe another discipline within cycling. But we’ll see, one step at a time.