‘This little lake is where big dreams happen’: How Jess Leyden found her competitive spirit in Hollingworth

Jess Leyden was never concerned with winning in sports before she joined Hollingworth Lake BC. The rest is history


By Jess Leyden (World Championships bronze medallist; U23 and Junior world champion)

“The bleakest place I have ever rowed.”

That’s what Sir Steve Redgrave said about Hollingworth Lake. I think Steve has it wrong.

This little lake is where big dreams happen. I followed in a succession of successful scullers from this little gem in the North.

There are many heroes of Hollingworth Lake RC; there are too many to mention all of them all but the recent ones that were showing me the way were the likes of the Walzack twins, Ruth and Lucy and Stuart Sykes.

I came from years of horse riding, which, for me, was definitely a case of “it’s the taking part that counts”. I was a jack of all trades when it came to horses: I took part in a bit of everything but didn’t take anything to the next level. I just loved riding and most of all riding everywhere fast! I started rowing while I was still riding and had very much the same approach; I just liked rowing and wasn’t going to take it as seriously as the other juniors. No, that looked like way too much hard work! I had the rowing bug, it had me hooked, I kept asking my coach Ian John to do more training and eventually I had to make a decision between the two sports.

“I had the rowing bug, it had me hooked”

I started out in the same non-competitive attitude when it came to rowing, just enjoying being on the lake. Another member introduced me to Ian, a long-standing member of the club who had rowed there since he was a young boy.

This was his comeback after a long break and to start coaching. I was the first person he had taken on as a project. He was learning as I was learning, which is how it carried on throughout our time working together.

At the club, we would have a 9km race every Saturday morning between members, which is where my competitive side began to bloom. First it was just with myself, trying to beat my time. Then it was with my now best friend Ashleigh. As the slowest person was set off first the next week, we would jostle not to be that person.

Year-on-year I started to climb, having little competitions with the next person and the next person. When I was 14, after a season competing, we decided to try my first national champs. We weren’t expecting anything; I remember pushing off and Ian saying “just try your best” and then we actually won!

This was a massive surprise and opened our eyes to what we were up against. We went to more national events and heard about the J16 GB v France match. After a lot of thought we decided to trial for them but at the same time heard about the J18 trails for the World Rowing Junior Championships.

Knowing that this was probably the next step, I asked to do these at the same time. Mainly see the process and get experience for the years to come. Again we weren’t expecting anything form these but I just went along and tried my best. Surprisingly again I was selected to compete at my first World Junior Championships.

This was the start of how I got to where I am today in my sport. I was on a track where I could now see where I wanted to go and had support to see how I could do it. Through Juniors, U23s and Seniors, the GB system has been a huge source of guidance. But it was those first steps at Hollingworth Lake, with no outside pressures, just myself that changed my life.