Helen Glover brought a bit of Cornish weather — moist and breezy — with her when she arrived Friday morning at a rowing course that’s nothing like the Eton lake where she collected a golden keepsake last summer. Unlike the River Charles, which is named after an English king, there are no curves and no bridges at Olympus, and only one other seatmate in her shell.
Heather Stanning, the other half of Great Britain’s most famous rowing duet, is getting ready to go to Afghanistan for a six-month tour of duty with her other teammates, the ones who wear camo. So Glover is at loose ends this autumn, on the four-year road to Rio de Janeiro but without a chart. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’m just going to go with the flow this year.”
So when the offer came to be part of a five-ringed composite eight for Sunday’s women’s championship event at the 48th Head of the Charles Regatta, Glover happily opted in for her first competitive row since the Olympics. “I’m back in training now, so this is actually a bit of a rest for me,” she said. That is, except for about 16 minutes when her London Rowing Club entry will be involved in a six-way title fight against the three Games medalists (United States, Canada, and the Netherlands), the Great 8 composed of Olympic scullers, and the defending champions from the University of Virginia, the reigning NCAA titlists.
Glover still is catching her breath after a supersonic quadrennium during which she went from raw rookie to the top of the world in a sport where late vocations rarely make it into the planetary fast lane, much less thrive there. “It was a bit of a whirlwind,” acknowledged the 26-year-old former physical education teacher, who’d never touched an oar until 2008.
Not only did she and Stanning win Britain’s first-ever gold medal in women’s rowing, they also won its first gold of the Games, causing Her Majesty’s subjects, who had gone from antsy to anxious after four ungilded days, to emit a great whoosh of relief and delight. “We didn’t really realize how many people were watching us,” said Glover, “how big a deal it was.”
Immediately, everybody in the United Kingdom seemed to know the story of the odd couple — a Royal Artillery captain who’d gone to the same school as the Queen’s granddaughter (equestrian medalist Zara Phillips) and the daughter of an ice cream shop owner (and former Cornwall rugby captain) from a village near Penzance, better known for its pirates.
Glover, who’d been an international cross-country runner and a member of England’s field hockey satellite squad, had never seen a crew race and couldn’t tell port from starboard until her mother noticed an advert from Sir Steven Redgrave, the five-time gold medalist who was looking for “Sporting Giants,” athletes who stood at least 5 feet 10 inches and who might be coaxed into a boathouse. “They would have to pick me,” Glover figured. “That sounds arrogant, but with my sporting background . . . ”
It didn’t matter that she was half an inch shy of the height requirement. Glover simply stood on her tiptoes. Making a boat move, or even staying inside of it, wasn’t as simple. “It’s not an easy thing to do,” she said. “You want to say that anyone can do it, you can start pretty late. On the other hand you want to say, yeah, anyone can do it but most people won’t.”
Juggling working and rowing was a tough act, especially since most of the contenders for the British team were training full time. So in February 2010, with selections looming, Glover decided to quit her job. “Two months to try and live off no money to try and get on the team,” she recalled. “It was a big gamble because if I hadn’t made it I would have to go back and find more work.”
She made the team, began receiving funding from the national lottery, and quickly clicked with Stanning on the water as well as in the boat, which is equally important for a pair. “The fact that we never argued was a big bonus,” she said.
That summer they won the silver medal at the world championships. Last year, she and Stanning fought through a stomach virus and again finished second, this time by only six-100ths of a second to New Zealand. That was all they needed to know, that they’d be podium contenders in London, and after dominating the World Cup circuit last spring they came to the Games considered favorites in a sport where the British expected to collect an armful of medals.
“We were very aware but we never spoke about it,” said Glover. “Every media interview, every question was about the first women ever to win a rowing gold for GB. No one ever said to us, ‘the first gold of the Games for GB.’ ”
When she and Stanning took the line for the final the populace had been twiddling its thumbs since the opening ceremonies, impatient to pop corks. “The Olympics were so big at home,” Glover said. “We kept telling ourselves it’s just a race. Nobody is going to care as much as we are.”
Nobody else could do it and none of their rivals could catch them. With 250 meters left they were up a length on Australia and knew that they needed only to keep on keeping on. “To have lost that in the last 250,” reckoned Glover, “it would have to had been something big.”
There was an unearthly roar from the grandstand at the finish, a bear hug on the dock, moist eyes on the medal stand. Stanning pronounced herself “really shattered and absolutely ecstatic.” Twenty-eight more gold medals followed, three of them from the rowers, but the first one was for immortality.
There’s been no million-pound payoff for Glover, and likely won’t be. The ice cream shop in Newlyn got an Olympic makeover from its employees with gold paint and oars in the window. “And they did a bus parade,” Glover said. “It was brilliant.”
And then she went back into training. The road to Rio begins at the Thames Valley training camp in Reading. The Head is something of a holiday, a chance to jump in a boat with fellow British gold medalists Katherine Grainger and Sophie Hosking and New Zealand world champs Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown, who shared the Olympic pairs podium. “I just had to book my flights and turn up,” Glover said.
And row 3 miles upstream against three boatloads of fellow medalists who’ve been together all year. In Glover’s league, which is never quite out of season, that’s what passes for a restful weekend.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.