Just over a week ago I was selected in the Great Britain coxless four to race the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. It was a moment that I had trained full time for over eight years for – a selection that felt particularly poignant because four years previously I had been the one that hadn’t been selected; I had been the 2016 “non-travelling spare”.
Four years later I had won my place after a brutally intense selection process. The past six months have been an unrelenting series of weekly races and tests to hone and finally produce the 2020 GB Olympic rowing team. Notwithstanding the eight years in the team where I’ve dealt with being dropped, being the spare, long spells of injury, and many of the tribulations and vicissitudes of being an athlete aiming to reach the top. Being selected for the 2020 Olympic Team was a vindication of a long process where bit by bit I felt I have developed as an athlete.
I actually wasn’t there in person at Caversham to hear that I had been selected for the 2020 Olympics. Ten days previously my grandmother had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly just before our Olympic Trials weekend. It was a moment that I knew I couldn’t let derail preparations for this important moment in the selection process, but I also knew I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and how I wasn’t able to be there for my family. The following week we had Olympic crew formation, a series of races to ultimately decide Olympic boats, this was in the program for Friday and Saturday, but unfortunately, the only date that worked for the family and the funeral was that Saturday.
I decided that I had to prioritise the crew formation racing.
I knew I would have missed a huge part of what my family were going through, we are all very close, but ultimately this was my job, I had a crew I couldn’t let down, and I knew deep down my grandmother would have rather I was racing.
That being said, those ten days between my grandmother passing away, that included Olympic Trials and the Olympic crew formation I felt like I was on autopilot, and I surprised myself with how unemotional I seemed to be. We did the first racing for crew formation on the Friday and Jurgen (GB Rowing Head Coach) felt that was enough. He told us we wouldn’t be racing tomorrow and that was it, I asked if I could go to the funeral the following day and he said yes, provided I abided by the principles of ‘social distancing’.
That was where I found myself on Saturday morning when I got a phone call from one of our coaches to say the Olympic Team had been announced. I was driving down to Somerset for my grandmother’s funeral. I pulled over to return the missed call I had had from Christian Felkel; “Hello Ollie, are you safe?”, “Yes” I replied, “Ok Jurgen has announced his Olympic team”, “oh right”, my heart sank as I felt I would have been told earlier if it was good news, “you, Ollie, are in the four”, “oh bloody hell, is that good?”, “yes, very good, with Matthew, Rory and Sholto [the same four that raced the World Championships last year]”, “thanks Christian, that’s really great to hear”, “good, safe drive to the funeral”, “thanks Christian, speak soon”. And that was how I heard I had been selected for the 2020 Olympic Games; in a lay-by next to the A4 outside of Reading, on my way to my grandmother’s funeral.
It would be a cliché to say I felt my grandmother had a hand to play in the mischievousness of her funeral and me getting the news about being selected on the same day, but she would have certainly enjoyed the coincidence. I made it to the funeral, which was a loving tribute and service to a really wonderful grandmother, recorded so the many friends and family who were not attending due to the growing virus concern could watch. I told my family my news after the service, a slightly strange affair as no-one was touching or hugging each other, but it felt nice to have some good news on what was ultimately a sad day for the family.
For two days I enjoyed the feeling of being selected for the Great Britain Olympic Team. Then came the inevitable announcement from the International Olympic Commission; “The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are postponed to no later than July 2021”. I have to admit that even though the postponement is totally the right thing to do, I mean the world has far bigger and more important things to do right now, my first reaction was, “shit”.
I couldn’t understand why pundits like Mathew Pinsent were being interviewed and saying that the Games should be postponed or cancelled. Sure, he was right, but it also felt like he didn’t speak for me, he’s won his four golds, it’s taken me eight years to get selected. It was a real anticlimax. My family throw me an Olympic selection party, which included a cake with 2021 written on it, but truth be told, it felt like a dream that once I had tentatively in my grasp suddenly disappeared.
I found it hard to see athletes almost instantaneously take to social media and proclaim, “what’s one more year?”, “2021 it is then”, “Tokyo 2021 etc…”. It’s difficult to fathom that what I was so looking forward to: Being an Olympian, representing Great Britain, going for gold, is not going to happen in 2020, a date that I have had almost indelibly ingrained in my subconscious for four years. It doesn’t feel real. That being said, I moped around for a day.
I tried to do an indoor rowing session, but got off, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before (or will do again). Postponement is the right call, but, 2021 feels so far away. That evening all of us in the squad got an email saying GB wouldn’t be taking our Olympic selection forward as there was now no Games in 2020. An inevitable and relatively innocuous message, but it suddenly felt like; was I ever even selected, was it too good to be true?
The moping around didn’t last long. Great Britain has an incredible legacy of Olympians, of celebrating sport and what this country can achieve. I haven’t finished my journey as a sportsman and, you know, a little part of me is glad that I now have more time to discover that bit more about what it takes to be an Olympian. I have everything I need. I have an incredibly supportive family and friends, I have some weights, and I have my indoor rowing machine. My girlfriend is currently working as a doctor in an A&E department in London. If my job is to just stay at home and stay fit then that is a small order compared to the Herculean efforts of so many people working to keep this country going.
Right now Olympic teams around the world are waiting to hear when the Games are going to be rescheduled. When we have the date, we can work backwards so that come that new date in 2021 we will be ready; faster, fitter, stronger, then we were ever going to be in 2020. My dream is to be a British Olympian. I missed out in 2016 and in 2020 the Games were postponed. There is a quote that my old coach at Oxford used to say that I try and remember from time to time:
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
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