Two years ago, the Olympic Games were postponed. It had taken me eight years of training full time to get initially selected for the 2020 Olympic Games, before the Games were pushed back another year. Last summer I got to live my dream of being an Olympian and race to win the Olympic Games. However, the final did not go to plan. It has been a cathartic process putting pen to paper and thinking through our Tokyo Olympic campaign.
We didn’t cross the line first, nor second, or third. We came fourth. The final moments of the Olympic Final have since played over and over in my mind like a highlights reel. The race marshal shouting “Great Britain!” as we veered violently towards the Italians in the final moments of the race. Aware that the Romanians and Italians were pushing past us, and the Australians were slipping out of reach, the horrible sinking feeling that this can’t be happening. With a minute left of the race believing we could still win, we could still catch the Australians, and then realising something wasn’t right with the steering of the boat – like a Formula One race car travelling at top speed when a tyre suddenly bursts – the power down the boat wasn’t equal, which meant I had to lighten off to get the boat back into lane. Slumping across the finish line with a million thoughts crashing through my head, while the Aussies and Romanians were celebrating, and the Italians were swearing at us. Drifting to the landing stage, and not the medal pontoon, we took the boat out in a daze of incomprehension. Anti-doping wanted someone to test, and the media wanted an interview. My first and lasting instinct was to protect my teammates. One of the Italians was shouting at us, “f*** you”, and an Italian supporter was following us around saying “I hope you’re happy”. Emotions were pretty raw.
That race – what happened, why did it happen the way it did and what does it mean – has never been far from my thoughts in the last eight months. I have been simultaneously rational, trying to piece together the chain of causation that led to that outcome, to disconsolate about a missed opportunity and feeling like a total failure. The past eight months have been a rollercoaster.
Why then did that one race we wanted to get right more than any other go so disastrously wrong? The process of “soul searching” hasn’t been easy. Ultimately, we were beaten by a brilliant Australian crew who set an Olympic record in the process of winning the gold medal. We wanted to win, and anything less would have been a shortcoming of our own ambition. The Romanians and Italians to their credit are gutsy and classy racers, never to be underestimated, you don’t beat them until you cross the line in front of them. Some have said since that we should have gone into the final with a tacit understanding that silver would have been realistic. But as a crew we had decided that going for gold was better than settling for silver.
We were undefeated last season bar one race. We had won the European Championships, the only World Cup regatta we raced and the heat of the Tokyo Olympics. There was, however, one crew that we hadn’t raced yet. We would meet the Australians for the first time in almost two years in the one race that mattered more than every other in an Olympiad. There would be no second chances, no repechage, no opportunity to learn from the red-hot fire of trial. And the Aussies were fast. They had only not won one race in the entire Olympiad and that had been the previous time we had met, the World Championships in 2019, where we came third and they came sixth. In the Tokyo Olympic Final, the Aussies would do to us what the legendary Royal Navy Admiral Jackie Fisher recommended for his commanders if they were facing unavoidable conflict: “Hit first. And, hit hardest”. Indeed, the tenacity of the Australian’s start, in the speed and unpredictability of the conditions, ultimately sank our hopes for winning that race.
We were a great crew and coached by one of the very best coaches in the world. Why then were the Australians able to knock us off our stride last season? There is an argument to be made about conditions. It was the fastest Olympic Final in history. The Aussies had a lightening quick start and the faster the conditions, the less time other crews have to respond during the race. As a crew we typically made most of our impact in the third quarter as other crews slowed. Had the conditions been a howling headwind perhaps the result could have been very different. But I think just looking at externalities for why we didn’t have our best race misses a fundamental lesson.