Thursday, 18 July 2019

‘Going to the Olympics was a dream come true’

‘Going to the Olympics was a dream come true’

KAREN BENNETT was part of the women’s eight which won an historic silver medal at Rio 2016 but had it not been for her seeing a TV news programme years ago, she may have never have sat in a rowing boat.

The 30-year-old Scot had been in the Team GB crew for just a year before being given the number seven seat for the Olympic final.

The crew finished behind the American eight but still had the distinction of being the first Britons to medal in the event.

A year earlier, as a sport-mad teenager, Bennett saw an appeal by Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave, now chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, asking for tall young athletes to try rowing.

Bennett, who was brought up in Edinburgh by her parents Isabel and David, took part in gymnastics, swimming, golf, basketball and hockey as a youngster but had never considered rowing.

She says: “I’ve been interested in sport since I was young. My parents thought it was very important for me and my sister Fiona to do sport. We started with gymnastics but swimming soon took over, we took that quite seriously.

“Then my dad got us into golf. I didn’t really like it because it was mostly boys with only me, my sister, one friend and one or two other girls, so I got really embarrassed. Now I love playing and I’m glad I’ve got that skill.

“My sister and I both played basketball for Pentland Star and hockey for the school team.

“It was good Fiona was there because she was older and I looked up to her. There was probably a bit of competitiveness as well and she’s part of the reason I succeeded in sport. Being the younger sister, I wanted to compete at the same level but we would never race each other.”

In fact, it wasn’t until she was 18 that Bennett began rowing through the Sporting Giants talent identification project after she saw Sir Steve, a five-time Olympic gold medallist, on TV.

The 1.8m (5ft 9in) tall athlete says: “Steve was on the news one evening saying that they were looking across the UK for taller people with a background in sport.

“I thought I would apply and was invited to a test event in Newcastle. I had to do jumps, a pull and push test and to row for three minutes on a rowing machine.

“When I heard back they suggested I try sprint canoeing or rowing. The test was for handball, volleyball and rowing and in my head I was the next big beach volleyball star so when they said rowing it wasn’t the sport I had in mind.

“They dangle the carrot of the Olympics in front of you. That’s the pinnacle of sport so it was a dream to think I could get there.”

Things did not begin well as Bennett admits she disliked her training at Strathclyde Park, near Glasgow, the home of Scottish Rowing.

She said:“I hated it at first. It was freezing and I kept falling in and had to be fished out by the safety launch. I hated not being good at something, when I’d always been good at sport.

“What kept me going was the people I trained with whom I got on really well. They came through the same scheme. There were six of us, three boys and three girls, in the same situation.

“But as time went on people decided it wasn’t for them and there were only two of us left at the end — me and Johnny Adams. We were training at the university gym in the week and going to Strathclyde Park at weekends.

“They suggested we join another group at Clydesdale Rowing Club, where there was a club atmosphere with lots of people, which I really enjoyed.” During this time Bennett was studying for a diploma in sport therapy at Telford College in Edinburgh.

When she finished the course in 2010, she had to decide whether to pursue rowing more seriously.

She recalls: “It was a case of what do I do now? I wasn’t good enough to be a full-time rower so I wanted something else to focus on and wanted to go to university. I applied to a few in Glasgow but one of the courses I wanted to do stopped running.

“If it had carried on I would have gone there but it was a blessing in disguise because I had to look at other fields and through the talent identification project I heard about other groups of rowers across the UK.

“We came together for testing in Nottingham and there were clubs from around the UK there. Molesey had a course at St Mary’s in Twickenham on sport rehabilitation and when I spoke to coach Neasa Folan she said she’d love to have me down there.

“Moving South was a huge step for me because I’m very close to my family. It was so daunting leaving home.”

Bennett moved to Twickenham and then to East Molesey in 2011 by which time she had much improved as a rower but was struggling to perform well. She says: “I had trials in October or November and did really badly in them. I’m normally quite good on the rowing machine and thought it was in the bag so that was really hard and you start to question yourself.

“But after a couple of months to settle in and make new friends, the rowing got better. You have to get used to change and that was the biggest change of my life.”

By 2012, an Olympic year, Bennett was competing in the world university championships in Russia, paired with Pippa Whittaker.

The previous year she had raced at the under-23 World Championships in Amsterdam and came last but she says the experience of travelling was invaluable.

“It was a really good experience,” she says. “I would never have gone to Russia if I hadn’t done that and it was cool to see that part of the world too.

“There’s nothing wrong with racing domestically but it was good to have an international competition to go to.”

In 2013 she graduated and was chosen for the Team GB under U23s squad.

Once again she had to choose whether to continue rowing or get a job until fate intervened.

Bennett says: “I was at that crossroads again. Did I get a job or continue rowing and do that full-time and see where I could go?  I applied for a job in an NHS rehabilitation unit but I didn’t get it and was absolutely gutted. They said another job would come up but while I was waiting I was asked by a girl I used to row with if I’d like to coach at her school, Sir William Perkins’s School in Chertsey. I would be getting enough money to work part-time and focus on my training.”

For the 2103/14 season Bennett became a full-time rower and again went to the university championships, this time in France. Victory there led to her moving to Henley.

She said: “I was in the four and we got the gold medal. It was great and I knew then I had made the right decision.

“By then I was already in discussions with Leander about moving clubs. Molesey is a brilliant club but there weren’t that many girls there and I needed the likemindedness of people who could train together.

“I didn’t want to leave during the year so I joined in October 2014, spent six months training and then managed to get into the GB team.

“We had trials in April which are the last set of the year. Katherine Douglas and I got into the A final where we were the only pair that weren’t a squad pair.

“We came sixth but that was good enough for me to be invited into the squad.”

During this time Bennett was one half of a “spare” pair for world cup events with Becca Chin and says the experience of her first real international tournaments was an eye-opener.

She explains: “It was really daunting to be at an international event as I’d never raced in one. I didn’t know where to warm up or the rules of the regatta, on top of the stress of wanting to impress.

“I went along as a spare to the European Championships in 2015 and that was my first time with the squad at an international event.

“Usually when GB were rowing I’d turn on the TV and see them doing brilliantlty but I didn’t see what goes on behind closed doors and how much hard work you have to put in.

“Helen (Glover) and Heather (Stanning), I’d always expect to win and they looked amazing and effortless but it’s all that hard work that you don’t see that made them win those medals.”

Despite joining the British team just a year before the Olympics, Bennett’s performances were god enough to put her into contention for a seat in Rio.

She said: “In the summer of 2015 myself, Becca, Holly Norton and Lucinda Gooderham got a silver medal in the fours at the World Championships, which at the time wasn’t an Olympic event. There was pressure going there — it was my first World Championships and I didn’t want to go there and not get a medal. It was a good race and set me up really well for that next year, which was Olympic year.

“Because I’d only just joined the team I was ranked at the bottom and there were so many girls ahead of me. I knew if I wanted to go to the Olympics I would have to climb up the ranks and take them down one person at a time.

“In Olympic year the gruelling testing starts in December and you have to race your team-mates, which is not very nice.

“I was invited to a camp in Portugal in June and then just trained as hard as possible and tried to impress both off and on the water.

“I was climbing up the ranks and getting more consistent as I went on. We went away on another camp and Jess Eddie got ill, so I got the opportunity to sit where she sits and made sure I did a really good job.”

For the first round of Olympic trials, Bennett was partnered with Mel Wilson.

She says: “We went out there and took the race on and after 1,500m we were second.

“In the last 500m every boat but one overtook us and we finished fifth, which wasn’t ideal and meant we had more racing. It was really ferocious, intense and horrible. You are on the start line knowing that what happens next decides if you go to the Olympics or are sent home. I lost one race and won one and as a result managed to get into the eight for the European Championships in Brandenburg.

“It was the first time we were going out there as a crew and we wanted to prove that we were the fastest eight they could produce and we got the gold medal. It was awesome.”

Bennett believed that medal would secure her and the rest of the crew’s places for Rio, only to be told they would be subjected to more testing, known as “seat racing”.

She says: “We came back and were told we were going to do more testing. We had just won a gold medal and were thinking, ‘Why are you trying to fix what’s not broken?’ I knew I would get a seat race because I was the newest in the boat.

“We were given the chance to row again at the World Cup in Lucerne. The Americans were the ones to beat and we hoped that if we beat them they would leave the boat as it was. We were very close but got a silver medal and the following week we had seat racing.

“I remember lining up knowing that if I won the race I’d be going to the Olympics but if I lost that would be it.”

The women raced over 1,500m, swapping between boats each time and afterwards they all knew it was a close call as to who would be chosen. Bennett says: “I remember getting off the water and being really upset and crying to one of the girls. What got me was it was that close — I knew I was good enough to go to the Olympics and if I’d lost by 0.1 or 0.2 of a second I don’t know what I would have done.

“This eight was really special — we all got on really well and I would have been gutted because it was a journey we had gone on together.”

Both Bennett and Wilson were told by coach Paul Thompson that they would be informed over the phone if they had been selected for the crew in Rio once the results had been analysed.

Bennett says: “On the way back to Henley I phoned my dad and said I didn’t have a clue but I had gone out there and done the best I could.

“If that wasn’t not good enough I’d have to be okay with it because there was nothing I could have done to be better on that day.

“I got back to the house and it was just me. I couldn’t eat or sleep and there wasn’t anyone around so I went round to my boyfriend John’s.

“Within five minutes of being there I saw ‘Paul Thompson’ come up on my phone. This was where I found out whether I’d be going to the Olympics or not.

“I answered the phone and he started making small chat like how was my day? They were silly questions but I had to be polite! Then he said I had beaten Katherine by 0.54 seconds and I thought, ‘Oh my God’.

“John poked his head through and I gave him the thumbs-up.

“I didn’t know what to think when Paul told me I was going to the Olympics. It was what you want to hear as a person who has loved sport since they were a young girl. It was a dream come true. I would be rowing in a boat I loved, rowing in with girls I loved rowing with.

“I asked how Mel did and he said she was in too. That was a relief too as it meant the boat wasn’t going to change and we were the fastest combo.

“I called my mum and dad and they were over the moon. It was a good day.”

The crew, unchanged since the European Championships despite the testing, competed in the World Cup in Poznan, Poland, where they won silver behind New Zealand.

Bennett says: “We got beaten by the Kiwis who hadn’t beaten us all season.

“The next competition was the Olympics so that was frustrating because you don’t want to go into that knowing two countries have beaten you already. We had summer camps and the next call was the Olympics.”

The crew flew to Brazil a week before their race so they could explore the venue and city. Bennett said: “We weren’t staying in the Olympic village for the first week, we were in a hotel a
20-minute walk away from the lake.

“I was obsessed with the favelas in Rio, really cool buildings on top of each other. You would row down the lake, look to your right and see favelas in the distance.

“Christ the Redeemer looking down was awesome as well. You had to have a few rows around the lake before you realised where you were — it was
breathtaking.”

Her feelings of awe were soon replaced with nerves as the racing began.

The eight eased into the final after winning their heat, beating the Kiwis in the process.

Bennett says: “All I remember thinking was, ‘Don’t mess it up’ but if you do there’s another race and another chance. We raced and won so we went straight into the final.

“August 13 was our final and I’ve never been so nervous for anything in my life. I hated it.

“I felt sick, my legs and arms were shaking and I was on the start line with all these girls relying on me and each other.

“A lot of them were retiring after these Olympics and they had been in the Games before but not won a medal and this was our chance.

“Throughout the season we had not got anything less than a silver medal. I was thinking, ‘You’re going to win a medal, just don’t mess it up’.

“When the buzzer goes you’re in the zone and those thoughts disappear. You’re just taking one stroke at a time and listening to your cox.”

The crew made a trademark steady start before turning on the power in the second half of the race, passing most of their rivals on the way before pipping Romania to silver in a photo finish behind the US crew.

Bennett said: “I remember thinkingat about half way how quiet it was. Usually eights races are so loud, with eight people, a cox and oars. I was sitting at seven and had a little look and there was no one there. I thought ‘we are coming last!’

“There were still three minutes to go and this was an Olympic final, where people do silly things like go off as fast as they can.

“We knew people would go out and throw everything at it because that’s what they had to do. But we knew that if we stuck to our plan it would be absolutely fine and when we got over half way we slowly started taking one at a time. We went through all the crews bar the Americans but it was a photo finish and we didn’t know if we had finished second or third.

“We had a 10-second wait to find out if we had got silver or bronze and it made it that bit more special. Looking back now, any medal is incredible but bronze would have been an underperformance. When it was announced that we had got silver it was so much better. My cheeks were hurting from smiling so much.”

Bennett says that during the second week of the Olympics, when the crew relocated to the Olympic village, they partied every night.

On her return to training, she opted to stick around for another four years, the next Olympic cycle.

However, with many of that history making crew having retired, she has found it much harder.

Bennett says: “I decided to go back. I’d only been in the team since May 2015 so thought, ‘Do I go in for a year-and-a-half, get my medal and come out or carry on and see what I can do?

“Last year, I did a bit of fours racing and eights is the focus for this year. It has been a really tough year.

“The team has had a complete revamp as only three of us from Rio are back and the rest of the girls are pretty new.

“It was a completely new group of girls and I felt like I had a target on my back. It makes me respect the girls that came before me so much more.

“I was one of the youngest in 2016 and now I’m one of the oldest but not actually that much more experienced than the rest.

“It has been hard and frustrating at times but it’s a learning process for everyone involved.”

Bennett is in the GB women’s eight that is competing in the Remenham Cup at Henley Royal Regatta this year.

She has competed previously for Molesey and also took part last year but has yet to take home a winner’s medal.

She says: “2018 was the first time I’d raced Henley in a few years and I was a boat athlete rather than a club athlete getting knocked out in the first round.

“It’s a great regatta to be part of and great to be in a boat that stays until Sunday.

“I really want to win Henley before I retire and this could be the only year to do it.

“Being in the final is ncredible. You don’t see anything like it elsewhere as there are crowds all the way along the river.

“You are going out representing Great Britain and probably racing Australia or New Zealand. People might not know who you are but they’re shouting you on because you’re British.

“I love the fact you can get dressed up afterwards as well. Often when you’re away when you finish racing you’re putting your tracksuit back on.

“Here your friends and family can come along — my parents love coming down to watch the regatta — and after your last race you can get dressed up and enjoy the day.

“Rowing is very sociable and a lot of people you know are going to be at the regatta. I don’t get the chance to go home very often so when people come down from Scotland for the regatta I can catch up with them.”

While Bennett has her eye on competing at the Olympics in Tokyo next year, she knows that she will soon have to once again face the question of what she wants to do after rowing. And this time she doesn’t want to leave it to chance.

She says “I’ll be 31 if I go to the next Olympics and if I stay on for another four years I’ll be 35. That has been done before but I don’t know what’s out there for me.

“I’m hoping that something will follow on from rowing but I’m nervous about just waiting for that to happen. I need to get out and start experiencing the real world to get a taste of what I want to do.

“I’m very happy I turned on that TV and saw Sir Steve. It’s weird the way life takes you and everything happens for a reason. When I look back at the university not running that course or not getting that job with the NHS I was gutted at the time but look what it resulted in. I’d take that every single day of the year.”

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