#WSW16: My journey from sporty schoolgirl to Olympic medallist
As Women’s Sport Week continues, Karen Bennett tells us how she is using her Rio experience to inspire the next generation.
A swimmer, hockey player, golfer and basketballer while growing up in Scotland, Karen Bennett is now a history-making rower after an unforgettable first full season with the GB Rowing Team women’s squad.
Identified as a potential rower through the same Sporting Giants programme as Helen Glover and Vicky Thornley in 2007, Karen developed her talent with the GB Rowing Team Start programme – first at Clydesdale ARC, then at Molesey BC – and progressed through the U23 ranks before finally making her senior debut in 2015.
A silver medal in the women’s four at that year’s World Championships and an impressive winter of training and testing led to Karen overcoming fierce competition to secure a place in an Olympic-class boat for 2016 – the women’s eight.
And it proved to be a season to remember as Karen and her ‘sassy’ crew-mates – Katie Greves, Melanie Wilson, Frances Houghton, Polly Swann, Jess Eddie, Olivia Carnegie-Brown, Zoe Lee and cox Zoe de Toledo – won European Championships gold, two World Cup medals and, of course, silver in an enthralling Rio 2016 Olympic final.
That was the first-ever Olympic medal for a British women’s eight and, as Karen and her colleagues have been quick to point out, a landmark moment that the GB women’s programme has been building towards for many years.
“There is a sport out there for everyone – it took me a few years to discover mine but it was fun finding it.”
“The eight is such a big project, you can’t just have eight rowers and a cox because that would not be competitive and you need people to be ready to sub in for injury and illness,” she said.
“That’s why the silver medal was for all the women who have been part of that project over the years and made it what it is today. Without all of that experience, we would not have done what we did.
“It’s incredible to see the results in recent years and how far we have come in women’s rowing. We have pushed the boundaries and set new standards, now hopefully we can build on that.
“We won a silver medal in the eight in Rio and were so close to a gold. We have the data for what makes a silver-medal boat, the aim is to use that to keep improving.”
Karen returns to training this week after an extended post-Rio break, during which time she has been using her Olympic experience to inspire the next generation to get active.
“It’s been an absolute whirlwind since I got back but I wouldn’t change it for the world, it has been incredible,” she said.
“When we were out in Rio, we knew the support was there for us but you almost have to shut it out because you have a job to focus on. Being back home and actually seeing that support, how many people we had behind us, has been amazing.
“It’s been nice to go events like the Scotland homecoming parade and thank people for their support, not just during and after Rio but all through the build-up to it too.
“I’ve also done a number of school visits since I got back, which have been great. I’ve been back to a couple of my old schools and it was good to show the children that I’m not anything special, that I came from the same place and the same background as them. It shows them if you work hard and believe in what you do that you can achieve whatever you want.
“I tried a lot of sports when I was growing up. I did swimming and hockey at school, then I played a bit of golf and basketball. It took me a few years to discover my sport but it was fun finding it.
“There is a sport out there for everyone. My main message would be to go out and enjoy it – if you love your sport, that helps you through all the hard work. It’s also a great way of making friends, when you have those people around you and supporting you.
“I am inspired by all of the girls that I train with and who have been on the journey with me, they made me who I am today and the athlete I am today.
“I can ask them anything and they are always generous with their advice. I look at how they train and compete, the standards they set themselves, and I learn so much from them.”