Monday, 08 August 2022

I became world champion and Olympic bronze medallist

I became world champion and Olympic bronze medallist

WITH early morning training sessions, gruelling workouts in the gym and the threat of someone else being selected ahead of you, the life of an elite rower is not easy.

But Sarah Winckless has had it harder than most.

She has faced devastating injuries, cheating rivals and being diagnosed with a debilitating hereditary disease as a student — but she still came out on top.

She was a world champion twice, won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and even in retirement is still involved at the highest level of rowing after being appointed Henley Royal Regatta’s first female umpire last year.

Winckless, who was already a regatta steward, is looking forward to this year’s event, where she is running the commentary team.

“I can’t wait,” she says.

Winckless was born in Henley and grew up in Hamilton Avenue with her father Bob, an accomplished rower himself, mother Valerie and brother Charlie. She attended Rupert House School in Bell Street.

Her parents split up before her mother remarried Mike Hart, an Olympic silver medallist, and Sarah, her brother Charlie and mother went to live with him in Kingston.

The Harts then had two children, John and Imogen.

Winckless says: “I was lucky enough to spend my formative years in Henley. My dad Bob was a Cambridge Blue and a member of Leander and Henley Rowing Club as well as a very talented rowing coach who contributed to the Cambridge University eights.

“My stepdad was a winning blue and went to two Olympic Games, winning a silver medal and a world championships. Despite this, I realised rowing was not for me and avoided it! I loved sport but I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps.”

Winckless admits that she “messed around in boats” but the sports she excelled at during her school years were netball, basketball and athletics. During her GCSE year her school team were the national netball champions and she also competed at discus for England.

For sixth form, she went to Millfield, an independent, co-educational school in Somerset, which she enjoyed so much that it removed any temptation to row.

“Millfield allowed me to be a kid again,” says Winckless. “It gave me an extra four or five hours a day to train and work.”

Following her A-levels, she was offered a place at Cambridge University to study natural sciences and says it was the perfect opportunity to throw herself into sport .

She saw herself as a sprint athlete, taking part in events which required small bursts of power rather than endurance.

She threw the discus far enough to qualify for the 1994 Commonwealth Games but wasn’t selected for the England team.

However, she was soon tempted to try the sport she had been determined to avoid — rowing — thanks to a “very persuasive” captain of boats.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she was not very good at the beginning.

Winckless recalls: “I’d watched thousands of strokes through my dad’s coaching and been to the royal regatta for years where I’d seen it made to look so easy but people speak a different language in a boat.

“I didn’t understand the discipline or the skill but I was keen to learn and asked lots of questions, which was probably very annoying for my coaches!

“Rowing is an extraordinary sport because if you have a bad day at the office you can’t just get subbed. If you catch a crab you stop your whole crew.

“I had to overcome the technical and language side of it as well as the belief that I was a sprint athlete. I’d been doing low endurance, high power sports but rowing is high endurance and high power and that scared me.

“I wondered if I was brave enough to hurt myself and I had to get over that. It was conquering the technique and my own fears and they both came gradually.”

The turning point came when she was selected for the Cambridge development crew for the 1995 Boat Race in Henley. They were huge underdogs but upset the odds by beating Oxford. Winckless says: “Winning that race got me hooked — it was the best feeling to cross the finish line.

“I was still involved with other university sports but rowing was in my heart.”

However, her hopes were thrown into turmoil when she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary condition which causes progressive brain damage.

Her mother had just been diagnosed with the disease, so she decided to get tested.

Winckless says: “The year I was diagnosed I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I was president of the university boat club and I was doing my finals.

“I suddenly understood that my mother wasn’t just a bit different, she was properly ill and there were implications for me and my siblings.

“When I went in for my results I knew it was not going to be good news. It was really difficult. It wasn’t the news I’d wanted to hear but not being tested and not knowing would have been no better.

“It took some time to seep in — there were some angry moments, some tearful moments and some inspired moments. Sport really helped. It gave me huge confidence that I was still well.”

When she left university in 1997, Winckless was given the opportunity to join the Great Britain set-up but the step up in quality came as a shock.

She says: “I realised what I didn’t know very quickly. A lot of my rowing had been in eights so I had to learn how to steer, to work in pairs and understand the group dynamics as well as make the step up in training.

“My hands hurt, my body hurt and my brain hurt most of the time but the progress was there and I started to think I might be able to get into the squad.”

Winckless competed at her first world championships in Cologne in 1998, when she was in the women’s eight that finished eighth.

After that her rowing improved so that her place in the Team GB squad and the world rankings went up and she had high hopes of competing at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

She was selected for the women’s quadruple scull, a crew with high hopes of winning Britiain’s first ever Olympic women’s rowing medal, but disaster struck just six weeks before the Games when she suffered a stress fracture on her ribs.

She battled for fitness and recovered in time but more disappointment followed when she was moved from the quad to the double scull with Frances Houghton.

The quad went on to win silver, while Winckless and Houghton finished last in their heat.

Winckless says: “It was my first Olympic cycle and I was still pretty new to the sport so any berth was a great achievement. But when I got into the quad and we started winning world cup medals that was where I saw myself and the injury was terrible timing.

“Frances is a phenomenal athlete but we didn’t have the time together to do ourselves justice.”

Winckless believes the injury was caused by pushing herself too far in training.

She says: “I was doing five training sessions a day and I started to get a stress fracture. It was cumulative as my body was still learning to deal with the training and I didn’t have the resilience.

“Ann Redgrave was the team doctor and it was her job to tell me. I did everything you expect someone to do when they get bad news: disbelief and bargaining, I didn’t want to know. I had to listen to her advice and how to best get back. I was young and desperately wanted to be at my best at those Games.”

She listened to the commentary on the quad’s race sitting behind the stands. “I had two heads,” says Winckless. “I was desperate for the quad to win and desperate for them not to. I wanted Team GB to be brilliant but I wanted to be in that boat with them. The result was tough for me but brilliant for GB rowing.”

Despite her disappoinment , Winckless looks back on her first Olympics with some fondness.

She said: “It was incredible in Sydney. The Australians are phenomenal sports fans and put on the most amazing Games. It was bigger, louder and brighter than anything I could have imagined.”

She returned from Australia with an even greater desire to win an Olympic medal and threw herself into training with renewed vigour, only for injury to strike again.

She says: “It was phenomenal coming back from Sydney but I was also disappointed with my result. I trained harder than ever before but ended up overtraining and missing the 2001 world championships and most of the season.

“It was a bittersweet pill of wanting to put everything right, having the confidence that I could be good enough and not allowing myself to rest and recover.”

She returned in 2002 and competed at the world championships that year and the next, achieving fifth and fourth finishes.

Then she was selected for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, this time racing in the double scull with Elise Laverick.

Winckless says: “Athens is a very special place to have the Games, it’s the home of the Olympics and I felt at home there. We got there one morning and saw the flame being run down the marathon track, it was incredible. I knew how it worked this time round and could enjoy the bits I liked.”

They faced New Zealand sisters Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell, the world champions, in their heat and only made it through to the final via the repechage.

Winckless says: “I felt nervous the night before and didn’t sleep. I was going through the race in my mind but at the end of the day it was just another race so we went down with that mentality. There were so many supporters in the crowd even at 6am and they were cheering us in the last 500m of practice so we couldn’t pretend at that point that it was a normal day but we were prepared. At the start line it was blisteringly hot but the conditions were great and we were ready. We knew we could get on the podium, we had the race planned.”

After a shaky start, Winckless and Laverick put together a strong second 500m before making a burst in the second half of the race.

Winckless says: “In the third 500m we had a pact to do a sprint to the finish and our belief was that would bring us a mental advantage. It worked really well as we had been in the middle of the pack and we moved up to the medal places.

“The Bulgarians disappeared and two other boats had already been dropped. It came down to us, the Germans and the Kiwis.

“We moved up towards the Germans who flew up on to the Kiwis. I stopped being able to see so I just counted the strokes but I couldn’t count to 15, I couldn’t remember the order the numbers came in. I was just praying for the boat to move as fast as it could.

“I felt Elise stop and knew we had finished but I didn’t know the result. I started to see a bit better and she had her arms above her head, which was a good sign! She said we had got a medal and I asked what colour. She said bronze.”

After the heartbreak of Sydney, Winckless had achieved her dream of an Olympic medal.

She says: “It was amazing to think we had done it, we had become Olympic medallists. It was the first time GB had had success across so many levels and we started to stand shoulder to shoulder with the men.

“I had drug testing and press conferences, everything that happens when you win a medal. In the evening I had dinner with my friends and then they all went out to party and I went home exhausted!”

Little did she realise that actually completing the race was just a small part of being an Olympic medallist.

She says: “I got invited to amazing things, met the Queen and had bus tours in Henley and Marlow. The thing that did make a difference was meeting athletes from other sports. I could apply to be the chair of committees and went to the Olympic academy to represent GB, there were amazing opportunities.”

As for competing, she was keener than ever. “It’s amazing to get an Olympic medal but it doesn’t change who you are. It just made me want more and to keep going. I wanted a shinier one. I wasn’t the finished article by any stretch. In fact, I still wasn’t when I retired!”

After Athens, Winckless had her sights set on a world championship medal and in 2005 she was part of the quad that competed at Gifu in Japan along with Rebecca Romero, Houghton and Katherine Grainger.

She says: “We had a humdinger of a final. There were six boats but it was between us and Germany, who had strengthened their squad.

“Our second 500m was massive but they eked us out and at half way I realised it was time to go early like we had done in Athens.

As soon as we made the move [the German] Kathrin Boron looked over and let go of her blade and didn’t make a clean stroke. Rebecca Romero saw that and called for us to make a surge.

“We won by just 0.3 seconds over 2,000m. I had my hands over my head at the finish line convinced we had won then put them down very quickly to check.

“It was very different to becoming an Olympic medallist because that is something every sport in the country recognises. A world championship is something everyone in your sport recognises.

“Being in the middle of the podium and hearing the national anthem was brilliant but the Olympics is the one I wanted.”

The following year’s world championship was a home event, held at the newly-built Eton Dorney lake, later to host the 2012 Olympic regatta.

Winckless says: “We had been training there since the lake was finished and in my head this was home. Rebecca Romero went off to cycling and Debbie Flood came in and we had a brilliant season. We were unbeaten and went in as favourites.”

Everything was set up for Winckless to win her second world championship gold but it was not to be.

She says: “We had a good final but crossed the line in second and were in shock. Our performance was as good as it had been all year when we been winning but we hadn’t matched what the Russians did in the last 250m, although we were just off a world best time.

“We spoke to the press and tried to explain what had just happened, which I still can’t do. We went round to get the medal and the Russian anthem was playing and it was just tumbleweed.”

It wasn’t until five months later that the British crew found out why they had lost — the Russians had cheated.

Winckless says: “The Russians had taken testosterone and tested positive. We found out in the January that they had been disqualified. We were about to do a team dinner and the rowing federation cast new medals to give to us at that event.

“It’s unbelievable really. We had dissected the race and how we could improve and we had never suspected anything.

“To miss your day on the podium is one thing but the anguish and torture I had over six months of feeling I’d let my country down was extreme. It’s something I still can’t put into words.

“I’m now on the board of the UK Anti-Doping Agency to help protect clean athletes.”

Despite eventually getting her hands on the gold medal, Winckless suffered the consequences of defeat as she again pushed herself too hard in training and snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.

She missed the 2007 world championships in Munich where the quad won gold without her.

As a result, the quad crew stayed as it was and Winckless was selected for the eight for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but there was more disappointment to come.

She says: “We got to the final but two of the girls were so ill that they pulled out and we raced with two subs. We came fifth, which we shouldn’t have done without those people in the boat.

“The USA were phenomenal but we were only two seconds behind in the heat and we could have got a medal. It was amazing to watch some of those girls in that eight go through that experience and finally get a medal in 2016 because it had been a long time coming.”

Returning to training after the Olympics, Winckless began to consider her long-term future in the sport as she was 34 and the next Games seemed a long way ahead.

She says: “I didn’t know if I had the resilience in my heart to risk another Olympic cycle. I was getting older and had twice been thwarted to do my best performance in a Games and it felt risky.

“I had the opportunity to be part of a crew but I decided to step away and look for other opportunities where I could use my brain and develop a career outside rowing.

“It was partly Huntington’s-driven. My brain was still able to operate at this level and I wanted to maximise that because after another four years I might have missed that opportunity.”

While still rowing , she had worked part-time for a marketing company in Twickenham but after retiring she wanted to give something back to the sport.

Winckless became the first chairwoman of the British Olympic Association’s athletes commission and started in umpiring.

She served as the national chef de mission, running the UK team for the Youth Olympic Games and in 2012 she was asked to become a steward of Henley Royal Regatta, where she won eight times.

“You don’t get another event like it, with the crowd so close and the gladiatorial aspect on the boats racing side by side,” says Winckless.

“I loved to go to the regatta but never saw myself as a steward so I was surprised when I got the call.

“I didn’t know what a steward did and whether or not I wanted that but I realised it was another opportunity to grasp in life. I’ve been on both sides of the coin now.”

Gradually, she has taken on more responsibility at the regatta, including working with the broadcasting team since live coverage was introduced in 2015 and commentating on races.

A year ago she was appointed as an umpire by regatta chairman Sir Steve Redgrave and became the first woman in the regatta’s 177-year history to preside over a race when she officiated Molesey Rowing Club’s B crew against Sydney Rowing Club in the Thames Cup on the opening day of last year’s event.

Winckless says: “It wasn’t a big deal that I was the first woman umpire. Sir Steve made that decision and it is a privilege for me.

“I never thought I’d be an umpire but I’ve now done many races. You are facilitating the athletes and you hope it’s all about them and not you. Thankfully, the racing went well last year and I didn’t have to do too much.

“I can’t wait for this year’s regatta. I will be running the commentary team, umpiring and doing any other duties Sir Steve needs me to do. We also have four new stewards so I will be getting them ready.

“Any time is a good time to be involved with the regatta but the number of people involved now is extraordinary and the TV side has brought it to more people.”

Winckless is also heavily involved with Huntington’s charities. Earlier this year, she cycled from Penzance to Bristol for the family of Charlotte Miller, the cox of the GB women’s eight at the 2000 Olympics, whose husband has two brothers with the disease.

She says: “The Huntington’s community embraced me. I do a summer camp with a group of at-risk people. I get to see them grow up and deal with their demons.”

Winckless also now works with Women Ahead and Moving Ahead, a social enterprise that develops women in sport and business based in Hart Street, Henley.

In 2015 she was made an MBE by the Queen for services to sport and young people.

She admits she doesn’t know how long she has left to work before Huntington’s forces her to stop but is enjoying what she does while it lasts.

She says: “It’s about doing as much as I can while I still can and hoping the scientists find a way to fix it.

“I want to make the most of my time because none of us know our future but I do have the opportunity to take control of my life.

“I’ve had so many opportunities from going backwards in boats!”

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