Friday, 30 October 2020

Tokyo is my last chance for gold... then I’m getting married

Tokyo is my last chance for gold... then I’m getting married

TWO years after she won her first silver medal at Rio 2016, Vicky Thornley’s chances of returning to the Olympics looked precarious.

The 32-year-old sculler, who rows for Leander Club in Henley, suffered a drastic decline in her performance throughout the summer of 2018 due to over-training.

She had enjoyed a successful season in the women’s single scull but then intensified her regime to the point where her body was breaking down and could no longer muster enough power during races.

As a result, she fared far worse than expected in several key events, including the semi-final of the Princess Royal Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, where she lost to Australia’s Maddie Edmunds by three and three-quarter lengths.

Eventually she was forced to take a month off all exercise in the hope of making a full recovery and rebuilding her fitness.

Now, following an enforced break and a gradual return to the demands of the sport, she says she is back on top form and will be going for gold at her third and final Games in Tokyo in July.

Thornley, who grew up in Wrexham, took up rowing in 2007 after ditching her original plans to become either a showjumper or a model.

Being 6ft 3in, she was recruited as a student into the national Sporting Giants programme, which sought to identify young athletes with the right physical attributes for rowing, She joined Leander in 2010 and two years later competed at her first Olympics in London as part of a GB women’s eight, which finished fifth.

She wanted to compete again but had thought that Rio, where her silver came in the women’s double sculls with Katherine Grainger, would be her swan song.

But six months later, during which she rested and considered her future, she stepped forward for selection once again.

What swayed her decision was pairing up with Paul Reedy, who had coached the GB women’s double of Grainger and Anna Watkins to gold in 2012.

“I was really happy with the result at Rio,” says Thornley. “We went through a lot of ups and downs in the year before with issues like selection and not finding our speed, so the training came with a lot of frustration.

“However, we got everything right in the end and performed at our best when it mattered, which was thanks to our combined experience and faith in all the time we’d spent preparing.

“It was really satisfying to produce that result because the pressure is very challenging and I have some very happy memories from that time. That was definitely going to be my last Olympics but the sport has a funny way of keeping you involved for a long time. It’s almost addictive, I guess, and the closer Rio got the more I realised I probably hadn’t reached my full potential. I had to consider whether I wanted to leave rowing in the knowledge that I potentially had more to give and the answer ultimately was no.

“However, Rio was sometimes unnecessarily stressful and I needed to think before committing to 2020 because I didn’t want to experience that again.

“The longer I’ve rowed, the more I’ve realised that the overall journey and day-to-day satisfaction are the most important aspects. You may ultimately be doing it for that end result but I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it and was coached by someone I respected. You can’t avoid stress but you can make sure it’s the good kind. Paul makes training more like a joint project, which is a great way to work.”

Thornley said her decision was supported by her family and friends, including her fiancé Ric Edgington, a retired Olympic rower and, like her, a former captain of Leander Club. The couple have been together 10 years and live in Bix.

She says: “I’m very lucky because Ric understands the pressures and complexities of the sport and his support is really important. If someone hasn’t done it themselves, they might wonder why you get so wrapped up in it but he says I should only ever finish when it’s the right time for me and I’m very lucky to have that.”

Thornley opted to race in the single sculls as she feels that it will be the ultimate test of her ability and that she is finally good enough to face it.

She says: “Your career always has to end at some point but I’ve always felt a burning desire to do the single and hadn’t really been up to the right standard until then. I’d enjoyed it but I was finishing seventh or eighth in the world championships and not challenging for medals.

“I thought my time in the double with Katherine would stand me in good stead to have a crack at the single at the start of the Olympiad. I thought I’d just see how competitive I could be and take it from there.

“I’ve always thought it must be the most amazing feeling to win in that boat. It doesn’t appeal to everyone but it’s how I spent a lot of time training. It can be lonely and pretty hard because the mileage takes a lot longer to complete but it always felt like home to me. I love the fact that you’re so exposed and need to use all your strengths and minimise your weaknesses to really get the most from yourself. There’s no hiding whatsoever so it’s a very personal journey.”

Thornley resumed training at Leander while the other athletes were attending an overseas camp, then joined the GB squad at Caversham Lakes when they returned. She secured her place on the team by winning her fourth consecutive national title at trials in April.

She says: “You usually get two months off after the Olympics but I knew I needed at least until the New Year to rest my body and mind. I was still training every day but doing more of what I enjoyed, like running, rather than anything structured.

“I also needed to recover emotionally so that I could go back fully refreshed. Ric and I went on holiday to Cape Town and on the plane back I was 95 per cent sure that I was going to carry on.

“The trials were the first stepping stone in the process and I was pleased with the result because, having won from 2014 to 2016, I was seen as ‘the’ person to beat. It was definitely like having a target on my back.”

She says the 2017 season was a “great” first year in the single as she added two more world cup silver medals to her tally, as well as the European title, before taking another silver at the world championships.

But after taking a break at the end of the season, she began pushing herself harder than usual in training and in early 2018 she suffered a short illness, which was unusual.

The time off knocked her confidence because she likes to be consistent in her routine so she continued pushing herself to match the performance of larger boats training alongside her.

By the start of the world cup in Belgrade in early June, she hadn’t scaled back her training enough to achieve peak racing condition. Thornley explains: “My mileage was really high and I was doing it all in the single, which maybe we should have thought about and adjusted in comparison to other crews. I was pushing intensely and not focusing enough on recovery between sessions.

“I don’t think I was overtrained at that stage but I didn’t have enough time to dig myself out of the hole I’d made. I had to give it everything I could in my world cup final and still ended up fifth, which was absolutely not where I saw myself.

“There were only two-and-a-half weeks between races and after the opening regatta I started to see signs that my body was struggling. But you always make excuses for why it’s not going well and don’t immediately realise what’s happening. The real tell-tale sign was losing to the Australian at Henley, who was a good sculler but I should have been faster.

“That was a real low point emotionally — I was in tears at the Leander boathouse and desperately trying to work out where things had gone wrong. I couldn’t understand why I was training so hard yet slowing down.”

Soon after that she saw a doctor who diagnosed overtraining, a form of muscle fatigue brought on by exercising too hard over a long period. Sufferers can feel anxious, depressed and physically unwell even when they’re at rest because it increases stress hormones.

Thornley missed the chance to defend her title at the European championships while on a reduced training schedule in August, during which her condition became worse. She was ordered to rest for a month and missed the world championships in the following month.

She recalls: “That was one of the most challenging times in my life — I’m in the middle of an Olympiad and I’ve been told to have a month off when I’ve probably never had more than five days off in my entire career.

“I was allowed to do some yoga or walk 10,000 steps a day but nothing that felt even a little bit difficult. I didn’t know how to approach it mentally but Ric said I should treat it as a challenge to become the best at recovering.

“That was better than beating myself up — accepting that I was in this situation so I just had to suck it up and apply my mental discipline in a slightly different way. I used the time to see friends and family, go on holiday and not worry too much.

“I put on a bit of weight but that was healthy as my energy had been very low. It was hard to embrace but it was part of the process of getting better.

“In a way, getting back into training was even harder because you can only do 30 minutes at a very low level, then maybe 45 minutes. It was tough building back up as you’re hyper-aware of how your body feels and constantly worrying that you’ve pushed it too far.

“I didn’t get back into full-time training until November, which wasn’t easy but I listened to the doctor and put a lot of trust in her and the GB support team.

“Initially my numbers on the ergo were absolutely awful because I had to keep my heart rate under control. I was seeing performances that I hadn’t seen since I took up rowing, which was pretty depressing. My foundational fitness came back quite quickly but that higher-level racing fitness took a while longer.”

Thornley won last year’s GB trials by just a few seconds and came seventh in her first race at the European championships at Lucerne in May, which she says was “pretty dire”.

However, she continued to push her racing speed in training and gradually rose through the ranks as the season progressed.

She says the world championships in August were stressful as she needed to come at least second in the semi-finals to remain eligible for the Olympics.

She achieved this, beating third-placed Swiss entrant Jeannine Gmelin by little more than a second and coming in behind American winner Kara Kohler by less than two seconds. She came fourth in the final, again just over three seconds behind Kohler.

Thornley says: “I was on the back foot early in the season so we had to take a step back and ask what was missing as I had no power. We focused on race work and I started getting faster than people who’d beaten me earlier.

“Lucerne was the most high-pressure week of my career, more so than Rio as this was about proving to our head coach that I was quick enough for him to back me for Tokyo.

“It was like nothing I’d experienced before because my lifelong dreams were on the line. I’d competed in two Olympic qualifying regattas in 2011 and 2015 but this was far harder.

“I had a great first race and won the heat by comfortable, clear water, then again in the quarter-final where I beat two good scullers who I’d previously lost to.

“I was very pleased with how the semi-final went — it’s probably the most I’ve ever celebrated coming second in that round. I felt very nervous but managed the emotions and achieved a great race despite feeling more tense than I’d have liked. I’d never beaten the Swiss sculler before but didn’t even realise until someone pointed it out and I was so relieved.

“It was a really proud moment because it hadn’t been an easy year. I’d had to dig deep into my previous experiences and hold tight to my belief that I’d get there in the end.

“In the final the pressure was off because I knew I was going in at fourth place and had a shot at bronze so I really attacked it and tried to overturn the American but didn’t quite manage it.

“It’s hard to finish just shy of the podium but I slept soundly because I knew I’d done everything I could after all I’d been through.

“That was a good motivation for going back into training as I’d shown I was capable of challenging for medals, which set me up to be selected for the GB single again. I’ve still got to go through trials but I’m in a good position.”

Thornley never considered giving up throughout her ordeal.

She says: “There were obviously some low points. I was questioning my ability and whether the overtraining had gone too far but there were always glimmers of speed or power that gave me hope. I was on a training camp in Italy when I finally got that feeling of the boat being light underneath me — it was a real ‘lightbulb moment’ that I’d waited ages for.

“It’s about having confidence that you’ve dealt with pressure before and now you’re just going to cope with a different kind. As long as you’re learning and improving from tough situations, you’ll always be better for it. It’s when you can’t learn that you’re in trouble.”

She says Edgington, who won silver at Beijing in 2008 and bronze four years later, helped her to keep her perspective.

“I’m really grateful because he deals with me when I’m grumpy, stressed and a bit of a pain in the a***,” she says.

“Sometimes he lets me get it all out and at other times he’ll snap me out of it and explain that it’s not the end of the world. He’s very honest — he’ll tell me things which can be difficult to hear but I know he’s being totally truthful when he’s positive.

“He isn’t the only one as I get a lot of help from my family and friends, especially those in the rowing world. They go through it all with me as it’s a real sacrifice when I’m not available for weeks or months on end.”

Her fiancé intended to propose last summer but postponed it until she had recovered. He popped the question in December as the couple were on a walk near their house and they celebrated with lunch at the Royal Oak in Marlow.

“I’d just got back from training in Majorca so it was the perfect day off,” recalls Thornley. “Ric didn’t go down on one knee — it would have been difficult as we were in a muddy field and that’s not his style anyway.

“He didn’t have a ring because he’s got no idea about jewellery and thought it would make sense for us to pick one together afterwards. It was all very typical of him. We’ve been together 10 years and it took nine years for him to ask, which has always been a bit of an ongoing joke among friends. He was going to do it June but that obviously wasn’t a good time so he waited until things were more settled.”

The couple will marry in Provence on September 12, five weeks after the Olympics.

Thornley says: “The wedding isn’t going to be on my mind during the Games and won’t make the result any better or worse — my rowing is very compartmentalised in my mind and a totally separate part of my life.

“If everything goes well, the Olympics will be my career-defining performance because it’s going to be my last one and I want to show what the culmination of 12 or 13 years’ training can look like.

“I’m looking forward to the wedding but whatever happens in Tokyo, for better or worse, I’m going to need time to adjust afterwards. This is a period where you’re so single-minded in your pursuit of this goal that you’ve got nothing to think about and a lot of emotions to process when it’s all over.

“All my family watched me in London but it was easier for them as they could stay at our place. It was just Mum and Dad for Rio and it’ll be the same this time as my sisters have two kids each. I’m already asking them to come to France for the
wedding.”

Afterwards, Thornley is considering pursuing a career in health and fitness coaching and has started making contacts in the field after taking her first course in 2018.

She says: “The focus is all on my Olympic training for the next few months but I’m still conscious that I’ll have to find a way to live and ideally find something I’m passionate about. It’s hard to imagine loving anything as much as rowing but it’s everyone’s dream to do what they love.

“I’m feeling pretty good at the moment — I’m happier about some things than others but that’s always the way. It’s rare that you feel everything’s going exactly as you want but I’m looking forward to finishing winter training and competing in trials on this weekend, which is six weeks before the first race of the season.

“I always knew I’d get back to this point but once you’re in an Olympic year the time passes really quickly. I want to embrace the next six months because although they can sometimes be stressful, it’s a privilege to be in this position and I don’t take it for granted because I know how special it is.

“I’m going to miss that single-minded focus and all-consuming mission but I know I can’t do it forever.”

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