Helen Glover on her Olympic return: ‘It’s like a lockdown project that’s gone too far’

“Everyone likes a daydream and something that’s just so ridiculous it excites you anyway,” Helen Glover says as she contemplates making history. The double Olympic rowing champion in the women’s pair then sinks back in her chair and rocks with amusement as she cracks a joke: “But I’ve sometimes felt like it’s this lockdown project that’s just gone too far …”

This is an Olympic story like no other, for Glover will try to defend her title in Tokyo while becoming the first mother to have been selected for the GB Olympic rowing team. Glover’s face lights up as she remembers the circumstances which led to her remarkable comeback after she had been retired for four years while giving birth to three children. The GB rowing coaches only knew she was serious about getting back into a boat last Christmas. After returning to competitive rowing this April, when she and Polly Swann became European champions as if she had never been away, Glover now dreams of a third successive gold medal.

She arrives in Tokyo on a long streak of winning her last 51 races, stretching over 10 years, but even that imposing legacy can’t compensate for everything she had to overcome in this story of motherhood and sporting supremacy.

“New Year’s Eve of an Olympic year is always amazing,” Glover says, as she begins her comeback story, “and I can remember my exact emotion on the stroke of midnight going into 2012, 2016 and 2020. In 2012 and 2016 I took a deep breath and thought: ‘My New Year’s resolution is to win the Olympics.’ As the clock struck midnight and we moved into 2020 I was 8½ months pregnant with twins. Sixteen days later they were brought into the world and I already had Logan, who was 17 months old. I was overwhelmed by the fact they were here and starting this whole new episode of my life.

“But the rumblings of Covid happened a few weeks later and the actuality of lockdown began when the twins were about eight weeks old. I started, a little tentatively, getting back to some exercise. The [2020] Olympics hadn’t been postponed at this point and, between the babies’ naps, I would do a little exercise because it’s always been my way of creating headspace and getting some energy back.

“When the Olympics were moved [to this summer] the twins must have been 11 weeks old. Any time I did this exercise, on a rowing machine in the house, I would daydream about the Olympics. Every time my scores were slightly better I would compare them to my old scores and think: ‘It’s not a million miles off.’ I would be thinking about [her comeback] on the rowing machine and the second I got off I would stop. But after a while I found myself thinking about it a little more the rest of the day. I thought: ‘There might be something in this.’”

It still seemed impossible and so Glover confided only in her husband Steve Backshall, the naturalist and television presenter. “I said to Steve: ‘It’s almost a year until the Olympics now they’ve been moved. I think I want to try a comeback.’ Even saying the words was ludicrous. I was breastfeeding both twins at the time so it was ridiculous. Covid was the only reason I thought it was possible because everyone was training at home. If I can keep training at home I can keep feeding and spending time with them. But if the system had carried on as normal I wouldn’t have wanted to leave them for training. So it was an opportunity to go: ‘If there’s any time to make it work, it could be now.’”

Glover was aware of her daunting task. “I imagined the challenge of having four years out and then can you prepare in a year? It’s basically unheard of – and that was before I factored in three children. But I enjoyed the fantasy and I always like to train with a goal. But when I decided to think about making it a reality I had no idea I would be the first [mother to row in a GB Olympic boat]. It was more me looking at my children thinking: ‘Imagine showing them how it is possible to achieve your goals.’

“Lots of people needed a goal and a sense of direction during lockdown. This was mine. Of course it’s hard having three young babies. Coming back at the same time made it harder, and more of a struggle, but in other ways it absolutely saved me. The physicality of it was really tough but it would have been tougher to not have this other small side of me.

“It never took over the babies, or the family, and I’m really proud of that. I understood I can’t be the Helen I was in 2012 and 2016. That Helen had no room for anything else. So I thought the moment that Helen emerges at home I stop. Yes, that Helen emerges at training, and during races, but I’ll leave her there. That’s the reason I’ve managed to keep it going.”

Even when her comeback became official at the start of 2021, she wanted to be a mother first. Glover turned down an invitation to attend a rowing camp in January as she didn’t want to leave her children and she only began training formally in February. “I had to go into Caversham to train. I would feed the babies, go into Caversham, do my session and I didn’t even change out of my kit. I was in the car, straight back home, feeding the babies straight bfgrtv45\away.

“The sleep deprivation was hardest. I was feeding the twins through the night, and Logan doesn’t sleep through the night, so I was getting just a few hours of sleep. Most new parents know what that feels like. When I went through that with Logan I found it really hard and I wouldn’t have been able to imagine doing a full-time rowing programme as well. But this time I had no choice. I got up and did a training session whether I’d had one hour or three hours of sleep.

“It’s phenomenal what the body can do. I realised I had been such a princess in 2012 and 2016. Back then if I got seven hours’ sleep I would put that down as a really bad night’s sleep. Then I spent the next three years dreaming of that kind of sleep.”

Glover laughs but there were other difficulties as she also struggled with mastitis. “When the twins got to 14 months [this April] they just decided that they love food. Cornish babies always love food so they decided they didn’t want breast milk anymore. I’d been trying to wean them while preparing for the European Championships because I was going away for four days. So I had a couple of bouts of mastitis which was awful. I guess with twins you’re producing twice as much milk so, physically, it was horrible.”

Was she apprehensive when she arrived in Italy to race in the Europeans after last competing in a boat in 2016 at the Rio Olympics? “Yeah. Racing is incredibly tough and I genuinely felt at the start: ‘How am I going to make it?’ Your logical brain tells you of course you will but you’ve not raced for so long and you can’t replicate in training what you need to do in actuality. But the bottom line is I’m back and I’m racing. Now the exciting part begins because we see how fast we can get.”

Glover won her two Olympic titles in partnership with Heather Stanning. She is now racing with Polly Swann with whom she is close friends. She and Swann became world champions in 2013 when Stanning was on a military tour of duty in Afghanistan. Glover believes they have both benefitted from being out of the rowing hothouse – as Swann spenthjmnuy67 last year working as a doctor. “It’s been a massive help. We have a perspective we’d never had before and that really strengthens things. There’s a lightness and enjoyment to the rowing which we wouldn’t have had eight years ago.

“Polly’s a phenomenal athlete and she has enriched her life with all the work she’s gone through during a pandemic when the rest of the team were training at home. She was also training at home but then going into work in a hospital. She’s seen people at their lowest and it’s given us this perspective of how really lucky we are to be doing this. It can be fun and still fast.”

Glover and Swann were faster than anyone else and became European champions in style three months ago. Does Glover’s long unbeaten run in world rowing give her a mental edge over her rivals? “There’re positives but if you look at from the other side I’ve had so long out and other people have won in that time. Other countries have pushed the standard further. So I’m under no illusions about the challenge. But having won so often with Polly strengthens our armour.”

Their most imposing rivals lurk elsewhere. “It’s all the boats we haven’t raced. Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. Three different crews have won the last three world championships. They’re all incredibly competitive, established and talented.”

Glover and Stanning won GB’s first gold medal at London 2012 but even that overwhelming experience could not match the sustained pride of retaining their Olympic title in Rio. A third successive gold medal, following three children and over four years of retirement, would be Glover’s greatest sporting achievement. But she stresses her deeper satisfaction in having inspired so many mothers with her comeback.

“Hugely,” the 35-year-old says. “That’s so important for me and it’s something I never anticipated. My motivation had always been quite internal and then getting this amazing surge of support lifted me up. I experienced that when I first made the announcement about the comeback. Soon after that we took the children to this farm and we were looking at cows over the fence and chatting to a couple beside me. They said: ‘We watched you at Dorney [where she won in 2012] and I said: ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’ We chatted some more and then it was time for them to go.

“As they left they turned around and said: ‘Oh, and thank you.’ I thought: ‘What for?’ They pointed at their two-year-old girl in a pram. They said: ‘It’s people like you we want her to see.’ It hit me quite hard because I was there with my little girl. I was thinking: ‘That’s everything I want for you – to see people who make you think there are no barriers for you.’”

Glover looks visibly moved and it explains why, despite everything she has overcome to reach this point, she can now say: “I definitely feel less stressed compared to other Olympics. I’m really enjoying the training and I feel less pressure now because the pressure of selection was huge this time round. But I made it and I am back with Polly – where I feel such freeness in the boat. There’re a lot of unknowns ahead but I find that quite exciting. I feel happy to be back.”

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