June 9, 2023

Helen Glover gets back in the boat again: ‘I truly think I can be better than ever’ | Rowing

Helen Glover, the double Olympic rowing champion, has announced her surprise comeback with the aim of making history at the Paris Games next year. If she achieves her ambition Glover, who won gold at London 2012 and in Rio four years later, would be the first British mother of three children to reach an Olympic podium.

The 36-year-old, who has a son aged five and boy and girl twins who are three, told the Guardian: “I want to be an elite athlete and a mum, not an elite athlete despite being a mum. I want to be able to do the two absolutely to the same ability as everybody else, without my being a mum being seen as a negative or leaving an asterisk beside my name. I want to be the very best and I truly think I can be better than ever.”

Glover is also driven by her wider aim to prove that mothers of young children can be as successful in their careers as fathers. While paying tribute to the support of her husband, Steve Backshall, the naturalist and television presenter, Glover says: “There definitely is a wall for women in comparison to men. Women tend to be the primary care-giver, whether they’re working or not, and that’s the case for me. I’m really lucky I have Steve’s support and often he will take time off work to have the children. But it’s definitely different for men and women. I’m not taking anything away from men or claiming they don’t have to juggle emotionally and physically to be successful in work and good dads as well.

“But the more women I speak to, whether it’s in business or other fields, the more everyone says the same thing. Somebody has to do it first. I’m happy to be the first person to have tried this [in an Olympic context] and to be almost frustrated by the lessons we didn’t learn last time. I’m OK to be frustrated by that, but I do want to see changes made by the time I leave.”

In 2021, in a venture that she described at the time as “a lockdown project that’s gone too far,” Glover made an astonishing return to the GB team when she rowed at the Tokyo Olympics after only six months of serious training following four years of retirement. Glover became the first mother to row for GB at the Olympics and, after she and Polly Swann finished fourth in the final of the pair, she announced her second retirement. Stressing that “this really is it”, Glover said: “But I’m going to look back in a few years and think ‘How the fuck did I do that?’”

Helen Glover pictured with her two sons, Logan (right) and Kit, and daughter, Willow (left).
Helen Glover with her two sons, Logan (right) and Kit, and daughter, Willow (left).

Glover laughs when reminded of her quote but she believes this latest comeback is much more realistic. “I’m more ready for it this time. Tokyo was very uncertain, especially under Covid restrictions. It was so intensive because I thought: ‘Is it possible to do with young children? Is it possible with Covid?’ I answered those questions and I’m so proud. I think one of the most important, significant things I’ve done in my sporting career was that comeback. But I wish I had known then what I know now, which is, yes, you can do it. I just want to do it fully this time.”

Soon after she began her improbable tilt at Olympic selection for Tokyo, Glover broke a rib in training, which she believes was caused by an iron deficiency as she was still breastfeeding. “That’s the likely cause,” she suggests as a lesson that can be shared with future mothers who aim to compete at elite level. “I went through my whole career as a pretty robust athlete and then to get a fractured rib so early on in the comeback was a real setback. Covid didn’t help because I wasn’t able to get the normal medical support and I was essentially training [on a rowing machine] in my living room. But [the rib injury and iron deficiency] is a wake-up call into how much your body goes through when you become a mother.”

Helen Glover (centre left) and Polly Swann of Team GB compete against Ireland, Canada and Australia during the Women’s Pair semi-final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Helen Glover (centre left) and Polly Swann of Team GB compete against Ireland, Canada and Australia during the Women’s Pair semi-final at the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Coming through uncharted territory, with no other mothers to learn from in British rowing, Glover says: “I was genuinely surprised at what I managed to achieve in getting to Tokyo. Success for me was getting on the plane to represent Team GB in those circumstances. When [she and Swann, a full-time doctor who also returned to rowing after a long break] got through the heats I was pleased. When we got through the semis to the final, I was delighted. I understand what people mean when they say fourth in an Olympic final is a tough place to finish, but it’s better than fifth or sixth. Yes, in London or Rio I would have been devastated with fourth. But, in Tokyo, I was really proud.”

There will be a real difference to her latest comeback. “Now I feel like I can take my time,” Glover says, “get the building blocks in place and the goal is to be better than I ever have been. Slowly and surely, that’s happening. I’ve come back into a different system with different management and coaches. They have really given me light at the end of the tunnel as to how, as a mum, I can train at an elite level. There’s enough flexibility for me to train and be a mum, but also enough routine with the wider team as well. The balance is really good.”

The seeds of her Tokyo comeback were sown on her rowing machine when, between breastfeeding the twins, Glover tried to regain some of her lost fitness while the babies slept. Her return to full-time rowing this time has been more conventional, if still unusual. “It was definitely step-by-step,” Glover says, “but the catalyst was Steve saying: ‘I really think you should do it’. I was never going to ask again after doing it in lockdown. This time [in retirement] I did some beach sprint rowing in Wales, which was probably the most important factor in me coming back. It kept me fit but I also loved it and thought: ‘I love this competitive feel and being part of a team.’

“Steve then said: ‘Oh no, it’s only a few weeks until the first trial [for the GB squad].’ At that point I thought: ‘It’s really hard to close the door, but having it closed for me might make things easier. If I go and trial and I don’t do very well, I can take that. My pride can take a hit.’ The older you get the more able you are to say: ‘I’ll give it a go, and if it doesn’t work I don’t mind.’ I had no ego about it. I thought it might help me [accept retirement] because I expected to do badly. I thought it would help me walk away and put it to bed. Then I managed to win that trial and I thought: ‘Here we go again.’”

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Glover explains that “if you hadn’t competed in the worlds the previous year you race in this first November trial that the team are exempt from. I won and the fact I had not trained for it made me think: ‘OK, this is something.’ The whole team then rejoins for the February trial, in Boston, Lincolnshire, which is the main winter trial [for the GB squad as the elite women all race against each other]. I won that as well so I was really happy. I’m pleasantly surprised but, even though I’ve had those huge chunks of time off and children in-between, the muscle memory kicks in. I’m getting good scores and good results again. I keep surprising myself.”

Helen Glover poses with her two olympic gold medals, which she won at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Helen Glover with her two Olympic gold medals, which she won at London 2012 and Rio 2016. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Glover’s performances in training and the trials have thrilled her new coaches. “That’s been a shift since Tokyo,” she says, “because when I first came back there definitely was more doubt [among the GB coaches]. There was uncertainty and a sense of not knowing what to do with me or how to treat me or react to me. Now I feel the coaches are more excited. They’re all fathers, and that really makes a difference. It’s really nice because they have empathy and they’ll say to me: ‘That also happened to my wife with our little ones.’ They’ve seen children who don’t want their mum to leave for work. They’ve seen children who don’t sleep through the night. That’s been really important and so far I feel really supported.”

Asked if she plans to return to the pair, the boat in which she raced at her past three Olympics, Glover says: “Not necessarily. I want to be in whichever is the top boat and I don’t know what that’ll be yet. It’s a really competitive team, with a really high standard, so I’ve got to keep my head down, keep training and hope my results put me in the top boat.”

Fourth place won’t be enough for Glover next year: “My thoughts are definitely on the podium. I think that’s a realistic target and I would not want to come back empty-handed. I have days chained together where being a rower and a mum is going seamlessly. But then one thing can happen. A kid gets ill or there’s a phone-call from the school and it all implodes and you’ve got to start linking the chain together for the next month. So I know it will be up and down.”

Glover will turn 38 just before the Paris Olympics but she sounds determined: “The age thing’s really interesting because you’re told to believe you’ll be at your best in your twenties. But I only started rowing when I was 21. I feel I have much more to give under this programme, which is really hard and challenging. But I think it can be done and I’ve every reason to believe I’ll be better than I have ever been.”