Women on the water
With Henley Women’s and Royal Regattas on the horizon Henley Life’s Cindy Burrowes brings you three perspectives from women rowers including our cover girl, Olympian Polly Swann.
Joy Skipper is a Master rower who began her rowing journey at 38, and Olivia Carnegie-Brown is an Olympian who retired at 26.
Olivia Carnegie Brown was picked out of her school lunch queue by rowing scouts because she towered above her friends at 15. The coaches were scouting for girls with the right ratio of height to arm span as part of GB Rowing’s Start programme to identify natural rowing talent. If the measurements are right and the teenager has ‘long levers’ then they are put to the test of their aerobic fitness and interviewed for the programme. Olivia ticked all the boxes and after consulting her friends at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, she took to the water.
“Although I had a sports scholarship at school it was all about my friends,” said Olivia, 28. “My friends being really behind me made me want to do it. It was quite a commitment.” And from there she spent the rest of her school days committed to early morning training through Reading Rowing Club, which resulted in world championship medals.
So would she advise the GB Rowing route to a schoolgirl in the same position today? “100 per cent - otherwise you wouldn’t know what you would be good at. Having the guts to go for it and to not be scared and failing, at least you then know, and you can leave it or not. Otherwise you could have spent a lot of life saying what if? I have had many failures, but I have learned from all of these.” Olivia is frank about her struggle in certain patches to be picked for the GB Squad, and seeking the help of a sports psychologist to master glitches in her thinking while on the water. She also feels she has balanced her life between rowing, and not rowing.
She had a gap year and then got back into the boat as part of the Oxford Brookes squad where she was studying physiotherapy. However, she decided that she was serious about rowing and wanted to rejoin team GB again so paired up with a previous rowing companion Caragh McMurtry. The pair won a silver at the 2012 World Rowing championships, and suddenly they were in the spotlight. Olivia was then invited into the GB Squad for the next Olympiad (running up to Rio 2016) but in order to accept she had to swap her degree course to a less time demanding one, Sports Coaching and Physical Education. There followed two gruelling, but successful years, managing her rowing training, with her university course, followed by a year of struggling which she describes as a ‘bad’ year. However, Olivia rowed her way back into the squad, in fine fettle so that by the time the stress of 2016 loomed, she was in her best shape, physically and mentally.
“My expectations were to be in it, but because of previous challenges you never know so you just hold on to it with all your strength,” she said. She then describes the traditional, gruelling, and some would say cruel, process of obtaining your ‘seat’ in a GB boat. The athletes are tested on Ergos (rowing machines), then there are boat trials, trials in pairs, rankings from those trials, then often rowers are swapped around between boats in a series of ‘seat races’ where the coach attempts to find the fastest combination of rowers for each boat. And because of the cohesive intensity of the training camps and schedules for a British rower, these atheletes bond over weeks at a time, become friends, and then have to fight each other for the ultimate goal of a seat in the boat. But finally, at an unusually late point, just before the Games in Rio, the Women’s Eight was confirmed.
“We all decided we would be disappointed if we came third so we were going for gold, but would be ecstatic with silver,” said Olivia. Which, in case anyone missed it, is exactly what this band of women achieved – for the first time in history the GB Women’s Eight medalled in the Olympics. Olivia re-grouped after the 2016 Olympics, and considered aiming for another Olympics, but many of her boat were retiring.
“For me this was enough. It didn’t feel like a lifetime, but it felt like a real commitment and that I had missed out on a lot of things,” said Olivia. “And I was just ready for the next chapter and to move on.” The next chapter came in the form of a six month internship with professional services firm Ernst & Young. This came from the programme they launched at the Rio Games to find female athletes who had competed in the Olympics because they recognise that athletes have a lot of transferable skills. Olivia’s commitment to her six month internship proved this theory right and she was offered a permanent role within her team as a management consultant with clients in the oil and gas industry. So now Olivia has swapped her oars and tough training programme for a three hour daily commute to London. She has chosen to live in Henley because she sees it as the best of both worlds, and many of her rowing and Uni friends are still here. So how does she manage the fierce competitive spirit, and elite athleticism within her now?
“It is dangerous – because it comes out now in all parts of my life because I do look for it and my nature is very competitive. I set up my training, manage it , challenge myself and always take the chance to push myself, to get the endorphins from it.” Physically she does this by cycling, running, and workouts in the gym and she feels she needs to aim for a half Iron Man next.
“Every now and then I start to get that buzz from work if it has been exciting, or super cool, or it is adding value,” she said adding that she also lives with a born competitor in the form of the Australian team oarsman Scotty Laidler, her partner.
“I have to be careful it doesn’t get competitive, we train together now which can be dangerous,” said Olivia describing moments when one of them has beaten the other on their daily step counts.