A second Olympic gold medal and a new husband: what more could a girl want? The Mixed Zone’s Catherine Smith asks the questions of Helen Glover, for whom 2016 has been a truly memorable year
For an athlete who has had a year filled with ‘greatest moments’ it may be a bit cruel to ask Helen Glover to pick just one. A second Olympic gold rowing medal in Rio, a wedding, an undefeated four years on the water? The list seems endless. But her answer was surprising. “I guess it must have been when Heather [Stanning] and her boyfriend stayed over for New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day we went for a bike ride. We got to the top of this hill and stopped and looked out, and I remember thinking this is the first day of 2016. Olympic year, something we’d waited on for four years, finally felt real. We were still so far away from Rio, from the win and the podium, but we were so set on our mission. And I guess now looking back on it, thinking it was our last one together, makes that moment even more special.”
Clearly Helen Glover is an athlete who loves the Olympic journey as much as the victory. And what a journey it has been since New Year’s Day 2016. First and foremost, in a sporting sense, she defended the Olympic pairs title alongside her stroke-woman, the aforementioned Heather Stanning. She then hurried home for her wedding to naturalist and wildlife television presenter Steve Backshall, whose uncontrollable tears as Helen and Heather stormed to victory in Rio had the nation a little shiny-eyed.
However, Helen’s whirlwind few months was tempered by the news that her long-time partner had decided to retire from rowing to continue her career in the Army. After so many years of mutual suffering on their gruelling training schedule, it was like the break-up of a special relationship. “It was sad losing Heather,” Glover admitted. “There was a sort of finality to it because I knew it meant that we’d never race together again, except perhaps in fun races, but never on the big stage at the Olympics. So it was sad in that respect. But I also have so many good memories. We knew we hadn’t carried on too long and that was a good feeling.”
It is not the first time the couple have split up, and Glover is aware of that when she considers a future without Stanning. She explained: “When Heather had a break from the sport after London 2012, the pair I had with Polly Swann was very successful. I actually won my first world championship gold with Polly, so I guess I have a certain clarity that I know I can row with other people. Heather was obviously a massive part of my rowing career, but I still feel quite in control that I can find other partners if I decide to continue.”
Glover is also aware of the problems Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley faced when their pairing in the double scull failed to click straight away. “They [Grainger and Thornley] are an example of how important it is to get it right,” the 30-year-old admits. “But also for me it’s not just simply a matter of results but the journey you have, too. I still think sometimes that Heather was too good to be true, and even if we had met in different circumstances we would have been friends anyway.”
As to whether she plans to continue rowing, her answer is an ambiguous “still undecided”. One option is to go solo. “I’ve done well in the single scull at [GB] trials so it’s definitely something I’d be interested in trying out,” she says. “I think I’d be suited to the double scull, too. It would be refreshing to try something else.”
So it is fair to say that if she decides to row on, there are plenty of possibilities awaiting her.
The sneaking suspicion is that she will. Despite those long hours spent in the gym and on the freezing early-morning training sessions, like Steve Redgrave and Katherine Grainger before her, she has that all too familiar itch to set out on another Olympic mission. Another four-year project where the exhausting journey is as crucial and rewarding as the destination.
While she ponders her sporting future, Glover is also adjusting to married life. “It’s been really lovely actually, it gives you a wider perspective on everything. Big events ground you and remind you that there’s so much more out there. If you end up retiring young, you still have the majority of your life left to live. So it’s really important to keep everything ticking behind the scenes and have something there when you leave.”
The newly-weds share a love of the great outdoors and adventure, which is just as well considering Steve’s passion for wildlife. He must surely have got Helen into some terrifying situations, say, with snakes or charging hippos? No, says Mrs Backshall, “there’s been nothing too bad really. We really love all the same stuff! I guess there was the time he told me to jump out of the kayak on our honeymoon when there was a 10ft whale shark swimming towards me” – Steve, in the background, corrects her to five metres! “Whatever,” she replies. “I know they’re pretty harmless, but it was still a bit scary!”
The partnership of Glover and Stanning will be reunited at the BT Sports Action Woman of the Year awards on December 12 where they have been nominated for the Team of the Year prize. “In a way it’s a shame we [female athletes] need to have a separate event,” Glover concedes, “but the truth is we do need it! I don’t understand it when people say that means sportsmen should have their own separate awards ceremony, too. The day women don’t need their own awards will be fantastic, but right now it’s necessary. Rugby, for example, is such a mainstream sport in the UK, and yet the women who are achieving so much in the sport get neglected. If awards like this can showcase them and give people the opportunity to learn about what they’ve accomplished then that’s brilliant.”
However, Glover does believe her own sport is challenging gender inequality. In the last few years the Women’s Boat Race has been run on the same course and day as the men’s, while a junior women’s quad event (The Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup) has been included at Henley Royal Regatta. Glover admits: “I’m not sure they would have happened without awards like this. They encourage positive change.”
Glover is a wonderful example of a female athlete who pushes the boundaries and questions inequality through continuous hard work and outstanding sporting performance. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words, and two Olympic gold medals certainly speak for themselves.
So as the days become shorter and darker, the weather increasingly frosty, and the relentless winter rowing season looms, Helen is excited about her first Christmas as a married woman. “We’re actually just getting ready for an adventure in Japan,” she excitedly reveals, “but the plan is to go to my family in Cornwall for Christmas. I can’t wait. It’ll be lovely.”
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Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.