The opposites pulling in the same direction

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have won just about everything a women’s rowing pair can win. This weekend they look to retain their European crowns in Germany before setting out on the defence of their Olympic title. Laura Winter hears what makes their partnership tick

Opposites attract, so the saying goes. And in the case of Olympic rowing champions Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, opposites can also be unbeatable. Both readily admit they are chalk and cheese: Glover is an animator, an energiser and a “cheerleader”; Stanning is a calming influence, an introvert who keeps them focused. It could be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, the gold medal-winning partnership is unbeaten since 2012 – winning international race No 31 together on Friday in their heat of the coxless pairs at the European Championships – either side of Captain Stanning’s deployment with the 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. In her absence, during 2013 and 2014, Glover teamed up with Polly Swann to win world and European titles, and has now won 42 international races in succession.

Stanning and Glover reunited two years ago and won successive world titles. This weekend they have their sights on even more European success at Brandenburg, Germany, and further ahead to retaining their Olympic title in Rio this summer.

So how do two women at the opposite ends on a personality scale gel so easily in a rowing boat? “It works because we draw closer to the centre when rowing together,” said Glover. “We draw from each other’s personalities. Heather is quite happy for me to be a motivator and I’m happy for Heather to be calm and on task. It’s quite sad but we spend lots of time together off the water. I think that helps because then we don’t talk too much about rowing. It strengthens the things you know about each other.”

For Stanning, at 31 some 18 months older than Glover, it is all about realising something different isn’t necessarily a barrier to improvement. “What works really well with us is we’ve both got a cracking sense of humour,” she laughed. “We get on really well, we like joking around, we appreciate that we are different and that brings different things to the party.

“Putting us together in the boat means you get a much better outcome. Our coach Robin Williams often talks about having a clone of yourself and asks, ‘Would you be better?’ I’d say, ‘No, I wouldn’t want two of me because you’ve also got double the amount of bad things I do as well! Helen brings out the best in me, and I bring out the best in her, so we work really well together.”

At the risk of it all sounding too good to be true, the national, world, European, World Cup and Olympic champions admit there are moments of tension, as you would expect in the pressure-cooker environment of an Olympic cycle. But by both diffusing those flashpoints quickly, and learning not to take criticism personally, the boat is on course for further success this summer.

Glover, who fell into the sport while studying to become a PE teacher at Plymouth University through the GB Rowing Start scheme, continued: “There are moments of tension that we are quite good at diffusing. Sometimes that feels horrible, it doesn’t feel good to go through nerves before a race, and it doesn’t feel good to go through uncertainty. But that can be what brings the best out in us.

“Recognising that is a learning process and you work hard on your relationships in that sense, but we are also fortunate that neither of us would ever look for an argument. “We are both argument-avoidance types, which definitely helps. It keep us on mission.”

Stanning, who is also a graduate of the Start programme, added: “We are very different personality-wise. I’m a lot more introverted; I don’t talk about the fact I’m nervous! But Helen knows me so well now that she’ll know when I’m nervous and how to deal with it.

“First and foremost you have to remember it’s about performance. We appreciate if someone is saying something, we are very open in our discussions about training and how we are rowing. I appreciate if Helen is saying something to me – she’s not saying it to be mean, she’s saying it because she wants us to be better. It’s not a personal thing, it’s about making sure the boat goes as fast as possible.”

Coach Williams is the third wheel to their relationships, and also a crucial communication link and an invaluable member of the team. For Glover, Williams stops the pair becoming too intense; for Stanning, he is very good at depersonalising feedback to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Whether their personalities match or not, the most important thing is how fast the boat goes. And with Stanning and Glover on the oars, it goes pretty swiftly: they hold the world and Olympic records, and won the GB Rowing Olympic trials by 10 seconds.

When you are that dominant does winning get boring? Is there a tendency to get complacent? Not for Glover and Stanning. They are on their toes as the rest of the world, including hot rivals New Zealand and the United States, put together new combinations to try to beat them.

Helen and Heather“Winning never gets boring,” says Truro-born Glover. “Part of the reason we have managed to keep our record is because of our personalities. We don’t just enjoy the winning side, but are also motivated by the fear of failure. What gets you out of the bed can be that breath down your neck of people trying to chase you down. It’s a different excitement and a different focus when you’re trying to beat people.”

Stanning, a University of Bath graduate, chipped in: “The expectation is for us to always go out and win, but we can’t think about that. We have to prepare in the way we always have. We have our own standards and we race to them. Yes, we want to go out and win, but we also want to row well and do the best race we are capable of. Racing to our own and Robin’s standards is almost the harder thing to achieve sometimes!”

At Brandenburg this weekend, the British pair are very much there to be shot at. But rewind four years, and the duo were very much flying under the radar. They hadn’t raced internationally together before 2010, and had finished second to New Zealand at the 2011 World Championships. Now, they are marked women and the pressure is on.

“The difference is more external, in expectation from others and from media interest.” Glover reassured. ‘However different that becomes this season, the feeling in the boat is the same – the ambition, the intent, the intention, the relationship is very similar, and probably a little more mature.”

Stanning agreed, and added that no matter the outside expectation, the objective – to race from A to B as quickly as possible – remains as simple as ever. “This is our second cycle and compared to London where we were going as Olympic newbies, now we are defending champions. It’s all very different, but at the same time it’s a two-kilometre race, it’s on water and it’s in our boat. So those elements are exactly the same. It’s just about beating our competitors. We just have to make sure we do the small things right and get down that course as quickly as possible.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.

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