Trials and Tribulations

With the GB Rowing Team Olympic trials on 13-14 March, Imogen Grant and Tom George talk about their ambitions for Tokyo 2020

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Tom George and Imogen Grant at the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Caversham

The Olympics is the pinnacle of athletic achievement, but before attaining such heights GB rowers must fight for a seat in the boat. It is a stressful process: teammates from the summer become rivals in the spring, their competitive instincts channelled against one another.

Friendships forged throughout winter are strained and an uneasy dynamic builds as the selectors establish an internal ranking. The Olympic year adds an additional element of stress and a heightened level of pressure.

Fresh from training camps, GB rowers Imogen Grant, 23, and Tom George, 25, reveal the highs and lows of their season so far, and their hopes for the year ahead.

“It’s the Olympic year and that’s really exciting,” says Imogen. “Definitely, it has a different feel to it. Coming back this season there’s that little bit of extra intensity and extra bit of focus. The winter has been good, luckily I’ve avoided injury and illness and I feel I’ve made real progress.”

Imogen’s latest training block was in Portugal: “I focused on erg fitness and with the gym tests coming up it is quite exciting to see what’s possible. The 5km and 2km are great chances to see how
much I’ve improved.”

The lightweight sculler grew up in Cambridge and landed a place at the university where she discovered rowing. “During freshers’ week the boat club runs a cocktail evening at the college bar; if you sign up for a taster session you get two free drinks! I signed up but had no intention of rowing. The next day I felt guilty so I decided to go down and I’ve never looked back.”

She experienced an astonishing rate of improvement: from college newbie to Cambridge Blue and in 2018 a bronze medal at her first senior World Championships. Last year, Imogen and Emily Craig won bronze at Linz securing the lightweight women’s double Olympic qualification.

Summer results are built on brutal mileage. Tom discusses the men’s recent camp in Namibia, saying: “It has been a long hard winter leading to this camp and although the ergs are miserable it
was fun to go cycling.”

Sunny weather provides a welcome boost while cross training helps reduce the number of attritional injuries.

“It’s a great opportunity to experience another culture,” he continues. “We kicked on from the fitness gains made in Sierra Nevada, the pre-Christmas camp – that one is always horrific, but very productive.”

With multiple training modalities on site, Sierra Nevada provides a fantastic base in the Spanish mountains, and altitude training instils a hard-earned fortitude.

Fortitude is a prized commodity for those with Olympic ambitions – the individual testing began at the end of 2019 and continues for months.

Tom adds: “There was a lot of testing and seat racing around Christmas, which is tough and pretty stressful, but I try to do my job and take it one day at a time. I don’t want to look too far ahead or neglect today’s training for the sake of worrying about future trials.”

The biggest stressor is what Tom refers to as the “gold medal situation”. For the first time in over 30 years GB Rowing are heading to an Olympics without a gold medal from the preceding three World Championships. “There is still an expectation that the win is going to come from somewhere and obviously that creates a lot of pressure – but pressure makes diamonds and I thrive under pressure.”

Both athletes relish the prospect of Tokyo – Imogen has always had an eye on the Olympics. She says: “The idea of racing at Tokyo is kind of bonkers really. I was only in my second year of rowing when Rio was happening. I remember thinking ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to do something like that’ but I never thought it might actually happen.”

Tom talks about the anticipated buzz. “Staying in the Olympic village is going to be epic,” he says. “If we handle the distractions and draw on its energy, well that’s a comparative advantage we can create for ourselves.” As a former rugby player he enjoyed watching the 2019 Rugby World Cup. “The Japanese seemed to be amazing hosts and their cultural heritage is so unique. I think the Tokyo Games will be even better. I really hope everything comes together to make it the absolute ultimate stage on which to perform.”

A sentiment no doubt echoed by all those who will be supporting from back home, screaming and cheering at the telly in the early hours. Go GB!

By Jay G Nomahaus

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