I’ve never been a big subscriber to the claim that “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part”. For someone as competitive as me, it’s always, always been about the winning. But heading out to the World Rowing Masters Regatta, for the first time ever, I really did feel that it was the taking part that mattered most. It was, after all, a miracle of sorts just to have got to the start line. It had been a tough summer, dealing with the last of my own cancer treatment, my dad’s current cancer treatment, my body’s resolute refusal to bounce back at the rate I was asking it to and the rigours of increased training. Frustrated with the progress I was making, I redoubled my efforts, cutting out alcohol and coffee, eating whole foods like a demented rabbit, doing daily physio, resting until I was bored to distraction and training as much as I could get away with. I left parties early (I know!!) I meditated, I planned ahead. But for all my effort and self-denial I was far from race fit. Still, I was the fittest I could be at that point and I had plenty of determination and fight to bring to the race. That would have to do. So yes. Taking part was pretty damned exciting. And as I explained before, if we could just manage not to come 82nd in our category then that would do me just fine.
I’d like to say that with all this perspective I arrived at Lake Velence for my first race (in the double) in a serene, philosophical frame of mind. Pffffft. Although I felt calmer than I’d expected, my stomach was churning and my legs felt like water.
It was hardly surprising, though. It wasn’t just the temperatures, which were soaring (and we were racing in the heat of the day). It was the whole environment. Oh, I know there are plenty of Worlds veterans who scoff and say it’s nothing that special since you don’t even have to qualify. But for a distinctly average club rower and Worlds first-timer, it’s pretty overwhelming. Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by impressive-looking rowers, some normal looking but many frankly Amazonian. You do your warm-up in a tent which is one of the most intimidating places I’ve ever been, with people old enough to be my parents casually knocking out splits that put my feeble efforts to shame.
That’s not all. At the start, the roll call isn’t a list of club names. Instead you’re called by the name of your country, as though you’re in the actual Olympics. For one brief moment, when they call out “Great Britain” and you know that means you, you feel like a rockstar. For one brief moment you can kid yourself that you’re actually in Team GB, that you’re Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley lining up in Rio.
Until, that is, you take your first stroke and the other crews leave you for dead, as you can see from the video (we’re in the lane second furthest away from the camera. Definitely not Katherine Grainger / Vicky Thornley).
We weren’t going to let a small thing like being left behind stop us from straining every sinew for the full 1,000 metres, though. We raced like we’d never raced before, until our lungs were bleeding and our glutes were burning and it felt like there just wasn’t enough oxygen in the world to keep us alive. We raced, on and on and on. It wasn’t pretty. There’s a lot I could say about my technique (and particularly about my posture). But what we didn’t do, at any moment, even though we knew we were lying in last place, was give up.
Which is just as well. Because with just 200 metres to go, I became aware that we were not in last place after all. There was another crew over on the other side which was most definitely behind us. If we could just keep going, if I could just manage not to do anything stupid like catch a crab, then we could come away with our goal achieved.
Which is, of course, when I caught a crab. Not just a mini crab. A full on, twist-the-blade-every-which-way-to-try-and-extricate-it-from-the-water kind of crab. “I AM NOT GOING TO LET THEM HAVE THIS!!” I roared (apparently out loud, though that wasn’t my intention). My blade came free and the final couple of hundred metres went past in a blur.
And somehow we’d done it. We crossed the line in seventh place, a healthy seven seconds ahead of the other crew. We were officially not the slowest in the world. In fact, as it transpired, our time was faster than 11 other crews which isn’t too shabby, all things considered. Our smiles said it all.
The fab four
The following day I had to get my coxing head on for the WD4+ – a whole new set of pressures. I was just as anxious about this race as I had been about the double, especially as it was only the fifth time I’d ever coxed at a regatta (most of my coxing has been at heads, and even those probably number in single figures). But if there is one thing I have learned from my limited coxing experience, it’s that you have to give at least the outward appearance of being in control, whatever is going on inside your head.
It didn’t help that there was a mix-up over the location of the cox box (entirely my fault – I ought to have double-checked beforehand – lesson learned) which didn’t set us up in the best frame of mind. I was also a bit thrown by the fact that there were a lot more crews heading up for the start than there had been the previous day. I hadn’t banked on the shameless queue-barging that meant we didn’t have as much time as I’d planned (I need to sharpen up my elbows – another lesson learned). It took all my self-control to keep my voice steady and my race plan in place.
But kudos to my crew. Despite all the pre-race shenanigans, they got on to the stake boat on their first attempt and went on to deliver a stonking performance in the race. For most of the 1,000m we were in the middle of the pack. I could see that a third place was possible and urged them on.
Then suddenly out of nowhere, somewhere around the 750 mark, the crew ahead of us crossed into our lane. I had to make a split second decision. I could hold us up, but this would relegate us to last place, even if the offending crew was disqualified. I could cross over into the next lane, but that crew was hard on our heels and we’d almost certainly impede them. Or I could steer to as close to the edge of our lane as I could and hope for the best.
So I took a deep breath. “Watch your blades on stroke side”, I bellowed, taking us to the edge of our lane and at the same time raising my hand in anticipation of the crash that I still thought was fairly inevitable (and no, for the last time, I WAS NOT WAVING 🙂 ). Somehow I got away with it and miraculously we crossed the line in second place.
I was so proud of my girls. They’d kept their cool and stuck to the plan and richly deserved their result.
Curiouser and curiouser
Next up was the WD8+. At this point in the regatta something curious happened. Having smashed my own target in the double and steered the four to a second place, I was no longer content with simply not coming last. So when we placed fourth I felt a bit disheartened – ridiculous, perhaps, for a small provincial club, but a sure sign that the Worlds were doing something magical – making us believe that we really could do better than we thought.
An even more curious and equally magical thing happened after the race had ended. When it came to the team photo, a couple of the crew were nowhere to be seen. It wouldn’t do at all, we agreed, to have a picture of an 8+without eight rowers and a cox, so we decided to double up (and no, before you ask, we did not recourse to photoshop). And if you don’t believe me when I say that I can be in two places at once, take a look at the Monmouth crew line-up in the results.
A mixed bag
The last day saw the mixed races. I was in an 8+ in the bow seat. This race had the most thrilling start for me, with Matthew Pinsent himself starting our race with the full, country-by-country roll call (every other race had been a quick start which isn’t quite so much fun). Pure Worlds magic.
I don’t know what we rated coming down (higher than I was used to), but at the end of the race I could barely crawl out of the boat. For a good couple of hours afterwards I felt weird – tearful, dizzy and out of sorts. If that weren’t bad enough, all my insecurities about my rowing suddenly came rushing to the fore. I was acutely aware that I’d only had a place in the eights because our women’s captain, one of our strongest rowers, was injured and I spent much of the rest of the day beating myself up. I wondered again and again if I was personally responsible for the six seconds in the women’s 8 and the one second in the mixed 8 that stood between us and the crew ahead of us. I even had a bit of a cry in the loos (and to put this in perspective, I’m not prone to weeping – I never cried once over my cancer).
All was explained later on when I spotted that my resting heart rate was way higher than usual – a sure sign that I’m under the weather – and simultaneously discovered I had a cold coming on. Still, at least it had had the good grace to wait until the final day to make an appearance.
So what next?
Since the regatta came to an end I’ve had a complete and much-needed break from rowing. We spent a glorious few days exploring Budapest (highly recommended) and then it was straight off to visit my parents, so rowing has been low on the agenda. I’m not planning to compete this autumn as there’s a lot going on on the personal front, but I do intend to spend time on the erg and in the gym, when time permits.
As for next year, we’ll see. I can say without hesitation that I most definitely do want to go to the Worlds again – if not next year then another year for sure. The Worlds worked their unique magic on me and I’m eager for more. I can honestly say it was a wonderful, if incredibly emotional and intense, experience – a fabulous, gigantic international rowing festival with the chance to pit ourselves against the very best in the world in our age group. I have a strong sense of unfinished business – I know we can do much, much better in the double (especially since we were considerably faster earlier in the season). We’re going to experiment with swapping seats to see how it runs with me in the bow, and I have a whole lot of fitness to catch up on.
And there’s something else. At a time when everyone in the country seems permanently angry, and Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world are increasingly strained, that week at the Worlds felt like a brilliant antidote to Brexit-fuelled toxicity. Everywhere I went, people showed us nothing but goodwill and openness. During the week I happily chatted to rowers from all over the world, switching from French and Spanish (reasonably fluent) to Italian (dodgy) and even Hungarian (almost non-existent but enthusiastic). It was glorious.
So what about you? Are you an old hand who goes every year? Or a Worlds virgin tempted to have a go? Let me know. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll see you in Linz next year.