Friday, 24 September 2021

I ended up a GB rower aiming for Rio

ROWING wasn’t Vicky Thornley’s first love, or even her second.

ROWING wasn’t Vicky Thornley’s first love, or even her second.

That was showjumping, which she was reasonably successful at as a teenager, followed by modelling, which she says she could have made a living out of.

But it is rowing that has brought the 6ft 3in Welsh woman the most success, including bronze medals in the women’s double sculls in this year’s European championships in Poland and at the world cup regatta in Varese, Italy.

She hopes that she and her experienced team-mate  Katherine Grainger will be kept together for the Olympic Games in Rio and, naturally, to improve on third place.

It was in 2007 that Thornley learned to row after being talent spotted and then trained for the Olympics in London in 2012.

She was selected from 3,500 applicants from across the country to join British Rowing’s Start programme and was taught on the River Avon at Minerva Bath Rowing Club.

“The boat house was just a shed in a field — I didn’t know any different and it served a purpose,” says Thornley, now 28.

“Our coach, Paul Stannard, said on the first day, ‘you have got four years, eight months to the London Games’ and on every programme week he would write how many days were left.”

Thornley made it all the way to London but her life could have been so different.

Growing up in St Asaph in North Wales with her parents, Andrew and Gina, and older sisters, Aysha and Sam, she first started riding horses at age three.

“It was absolutely my first love,” she says. “I got my own horse when I was eight. I would come back from school and go to ride the horses and train every night.

“Both my parents invested a lot of time and energy and money and we went away pretty much every weekend. We got on this treadmill of trying to qualify for different events. I competed at the Horse of the Year Show and won a class at Hickstead. I represented Wales a few times.”

She competed with a number of different ponies but the family kept her first one, Marquis.

“He was 17 when we bought him,” she says. “It was like the most exciting day of my life. I remember Mum and Dad picking me up from school with the horse trailer we had borrowed.

“We never sold him and never would. We had him until July this year when he passed away, aged 35.”

She went into senior showjumping two years early at 15 because she was too tall to ride ponies any more.

“I was having to flick my legs back when I was riding a pony so that I didn’t catch the jumps with my feet,” she recalls.

Thornley’s other teenage passion — and one she retains — was fashion.

She says: “At 14 I went to the Clothes Show Live because it’s a good day out and got scouted for  modelling. I really wanted to do it but Mum wanted me to do my exams first and said if people were still interested when I was 18, then to give it a go, which is basically what I did.”

Thornley concentrated on her studies and was offered a place at City University in London but deferred it for a year in order to try to become a professional model.

“After horses, I did dream about being a model,” she says. “I went to London and was told by the big agencies that I was too tall.

“When you are nearly six four — and then you put me in heels — things aren’t going to fit. I was gutted because it was what I wanted to do.

“I did some work in Manchester and probably could have made a living out of it but I wanted to do it properly with a big agency.”

It was during her gap year that she saw an advert for the Sporting Giants, a scheme run by UK Sport to encourage taller people into “taller” sports.

“I’d been sporty at school and was looking for a new challenge,” says Thornley. “I wanted to go to university but wasn’t massively fussed by it and this sounded like a good opportunity.

“I thought they would want me for volleyball, I didn’t even realise you needed to be tall for rowing. I knew nothing about it.

“I think I had heard Steve Redgrave’s name but apart from that I was clueless.”

At the testing centre in Manchester, she and the other applicants were measured for height, wingspan, arm pull power and leg press power and were given an ergo test.

Thornley says: “I remember turning up in a room with everyone at eye level. I was one of the taller ones but had never seen so many girls that were my height. It was bizarre.

“I was not the most physically talented but I remember Paul Stannard was there and he wrote on my sheet ‘she keeps pushing herself’.”

She made it through to a second phase in Nottingham where she got in a boatfor the first time — and promptly fell straight in the water. “The aim was to go to the Olympics in one of these boats and I remember looking at the single [scull] and thinking ‘this is so thin, how am I going to stay in it?’” laughs Thornley.

She started university in September 2007 to study business management but quit after only a few weeks when she was offered her place on the Start programme and moved to Bath.

She learnt to row — despite falling in another three times — and became fit thanks to the intense training which she wasn’t used to.

“It was a mental time,” recalls Thornley. “We didn’t have a day off for the first six weeks. I would just sleep in the afternoon because it was such a big shock.”

She improved steadily and made the British under-23 squad. She made her international debut in the women’s eight in Essen, Germany, in the summer of 2009 and then won gold at the world under- 23 championships in Racice.

“I got my first GB lycra and thought I was the biz,” recalls Thornley.

“Everything was new and exciting because I’d never been to a world championships before. I was very naïve in a lot of ways.

“To be in an eight was really good fun. The girls were really close and it was a really fun time.”

In the following season she made the GB senior team and moved to Henley to join Leander Club.

She recalls: “I was quite in awe of it all and the legends who have trained here.”

This was when she started going out with her boyfriend Ric Edgington, who has now retired after winning a rowing silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and a bronze at London 2012.

Thornley recalls first chatting to him at the Redgrave Pinsent Lakes in Caversham, where the GB rowers train, the previous year.

“I was thinking ‘who is his massive man with a really deep voice?’” she says.

“When he rowed he was very good at switching off and didn’t want to talk about it when he got home.

“I was in the first year of everything — my first world championships, my first Olympic qualifying and first Olympics. He had done it before.

“He says I’m really intense and need to switch off more, which I have got better at. It’s good to have someone who understands what it takes.” In the two years in the run-up to the London Games, Thornley switched between the single scull and the eight and also spent time in the quad but by the start of the 2012 season she was still not settled in a boat.

She says: “I had been sculling all year then had to swap to stroke the eight for the last world cup in Munich.

“We won bronze there, which was good, but we had a lot of swapping and changing. The crew wasn’t the same at the Olympics.

“In training camps we had injury and illness. It had a massive impact on our performance in London.”

With less than a month to go before the Olympics, Thornley herself had an injury scare when she thought she had fractured a rib.

“The physios said they could tape me up to race but that was a stressful time and not great for the crew,” she says. “With the eight there are so many variables that can go wrong because there are so many people.

“The boat was not going as well as it needed to. We didn’t have enough consistency.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the women finished fifth in the final at Dorney Lake. Despite reaching the Olympics — the goal set out for her when she went to that testing day almost five years before — Thornley was disappointed.

She says: “I wish I had been happier because then I would have been able to enjoy the occasion more but after the result I was gutted and wanted to go home.

“My family were so excited to see me race a final but I was devastated that we had come fifth. They wanted to get the champagne out and I was like ‘what the hell? Don’t get it out’. They wanted me to be proud of myself about how far I’d come. I just needed to get away.

“I went to meet Ric in floods of tears. He took me back to the hotel where he had his car. We were half an hour from home and he took me there. It was bizarre sleeping in your own house the night you were in the final.”

The next day Edgington convinced her to go back the Olympic village and enjoy the rest of the Games.

Thornley says: “I can look back now and think it was really cool to be part of the London Olympics.”

After London, Thornley took two months off, including two weeks in Thailand with her boyfriend.

She also took part in the Henley half marathon. “I did something like one hour, 48 minutes,” she says.

“There was a picture of me in the Henley Standard on the ground at the end because I was so wrecked.”

After returning to training, she began to think about competing at Rio and even questioned whether she wanted to continue rowing.

“All the decisions seemed to be going against me,” she says. “If you speak to any rower there is a time in their career when they have been left out of a boat that they thought they should be in.

“I remember thinking that I wanted to do the single because that was going to make me improve the most because you can’t hide. It’s very exposing and shows what you need to do to improve.

“I pushed to do it and had lots of arguments with the powers-that-be. It made me pig-headed and I wanted to show them they were going to regret not putting me in that boat. That was my mentality about it.

“That was probably the best thing that happened to me. Doing the single that year made me learn so much about myself as an athlete.

“ I got a lot better and it stood me in good stead for the trials the year after.”

Thornley won the trials the following season, which gave her more say over which boat she would be in.

“Frances Houghton had come second and I said wanted to do double with her,” she says.

“As much as I enjoyed the single, I wasn’t in the medals and wanted to be getting a medal at the next world championships and the double was the best chance to do that.”

Unfortunately, Houghton was then injured, so Thornley returned to the single, where she remained for the season.

At the world championships in Amsterdam, she finished second in the B final to Olympic champion Miroslava Knapkova.

“I had my best ever race in a single in that race but another year of not being on the podium was frustrating. It was my best technical scull even though I was eighth in the world when I had been seventh the year before.”

Going into last season Thornley was back in the double, this time with Katherine Grainger, who was returning to rowing after a three-year break following her gold medal in the same event with Anna Watkins at London 2012.

Thornley said: “She hadn’t announced her retirement and the first day back at training she was there. It was cool having her back. She said she was not promising anything but just seeing how she got on.

“Obviously I was very aware of her results and have trained in the team with her before London so we were friends. She is unbelievably competitive and hard on herself and the people around her to get the best out of everyone but she’s equally humble and down to earth.”

The pair trained together during last winter and at the GB trials Thornley won and Grainger finished second.

They won the bronze medal at Poznan and qualified the boat for Rio with a sixth-place finish at the world championships in Aiguebelette, France.

Thornley hopes that they will be kept together in the run-up to the Olympics next summer.

“I want to be in the double,” she says. “Over this winter it is important that I stay fit and train and get stronger and fitter. I’ve still not reached my peak, so it’s exciting to see how I can improve.

“It’s about getting the head down, training well and performing in the trials. There will be single trials but also internal testing in crew boats.”

Looking ahead, Thornley isn’t sure about her future in the sport.

“If I go to Rio I’ll then be 28 and if I go to Tokyo I’ll be 32,” she says. “When you choose to row it puts a hold on going as far as you want in another career.

“That is why athletes struggle with the right time to move on. The transition period for a lot of athletes is a really hard time because it’s a very different way of life.

“Trying to get the same passion from rowing in something else is pretty much impossible for most people.”

Whatever Thornley decides, at least she has got plenty to fall back on.

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