Anna Bebington: The rowing production line continues

Britain's latest rowing hope is a pilot and Cambridge graduate called Hedgehog by her Brownies. Mike Rowbottom meets Anna Bebington
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The Independent Online

It is a pity that our sporting psyche is so dependent upon football. Now that the red-and-white bunting has been packed away for the next tragi-comic campaign by our underachieving superstars, a nation is seeking another wagon to which it might attach aspirations.

Wimbledon has come and gone, with a brief flaring of hope from Andy Murray. The cricket has rolled along, but with Michael Vaughan and now Andrew Flintoff hors de combat, the prospects for the rest of this year look less than rosy, and Britain's athletes look likely to endure a less than sparkling time at next month's European Championships in Gothenburg.

And so to rowing. Now here is a sport which does what it says on the label. British rowers compete and win. Regularly.

If we were a nation of rowers, rather than footballers, how different the public mood would be. As we crammed in front of our pub televisions, elbow to elbow, it would be in the expectation of plenty rather than... oh, let's not think about it any more.

Like Steve Ovett, Seb Coe and Steve Cram in athletics, three mighty champions of rowing - Steven Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell - have helped to deliver a glorious sequence of success at Olympic and world level.

Their successors are also established at the top of the world. The men's four - which includes Steve Williams, one of the four that struck gold in Athens two years ago - has established an unbeaten record from the start of last season. The women's quadruple scullers, too, are world champions.

With next month's World Championships scheduled for Eton Dorney - venue for the 2012 Olympic event - Britain can look forward to at least one, and possibly two titles coming home. Or possibly more, if Anna Bebington has her way.

The women's double sculls event still looks most likely to go to the current world and Olympic champions, New Zealand's Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell, who have established a hold over their domain similar to that of Redgrave and Pinsent when they rowed as a pair.

But earlier this month in Lucerne, at the last of this season's three World Cup races, Bebington and her rowing partner, Annie Vernon, came very close to beating the Kiwis.

This was not supposed to happen - or at least, if it did, it was not meant to happen so soon. Bebington, who graduated last summer from Newnham College, Cambridge, with a degree in Natural Sciences, and Vernon are only 23.

And yet in their first year together the pair have shifted through the ranks at a rate of knots. Their main season began with victory in the World Cup at Munich, and although they slipped to fifth last month in Poznan - where the New Zealanders opened their World Cup campaign - they have restored self-belief with their outstanding performance in Switzerland.

There are distinct possibilities for them in Eton between 20-27 August. And the prospects for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and those in London four years after, are starting to look rich indeed.

Bebington's excellence at rowing emerged only after she had been persuaded to represent her college and then talent-spotted by coach Adrian Cassidy and transferred to the Great Britain programme, but her ambition has always been in place. As a schoolgirl in Leek, she concentrated on her studies.

"I always considered I was going to make my way in the world academically," she said. "It is something that has been with me ever since I was tiny. I have always wanted to do something out of the ordinary." Accordingly, perhaps, Bebington took up flying after moving to Cambridge and is now close to achieving her pilot's licence having been on several solo flights in a Cessna 152.

As a full-time athlete who has moved to within driving distance of the national training facility near Reading, she has added another element to her CV, albeit of a less high-flying nature. She is now a leader in the 1st Crowthorne Brownies, answering to the name, not of Brown Owl, but Hedgehog. "I just thought it was a great way to try and fit into a new community," she said.

Any other spare time is taken up seeing her boyfriend, a testing engineer for McLaren, and learning Chinese in preparation for a trip to Shanghai and Beijing in September.

Since Lucerne, British rowing has been further enriched by a £3.7m seven-year deal with Siemens, offering a new range of medal bonuses. The incentives are there for Bebington - but her sights are set beyond cash.

"My personal ambition is the usual cliché - to win an Olympic gold medal," she said. "Annie and I will be 29 in 2012, which will be exactly the right age. Once you get to 30, people start wondering when you are going to retire."

Bebington believes the performance in Lucerne has been crucially important. "I idolised the Kiwi pair when I was learning the sport, and I found it quite hard to come to make the switch of trying to knock them off their pedestal in Poznan," she said. "We didn't believe we could get a good result out of that race. So we had some issues to work on when we got back. The fact was that there were eight seconds between us and them, and so we addressed that gap rather than constantly thinking about challenging the world and Olympic champions."

The method the pair came up with for reducing that difference was either brilliant or bonkers, depending upon your point of view. They decided to make up a second a day on each of their main training sessions.

"We made some technical changes, and we had a productive period of training," Bebington said. "So by the time we got to Lucerne we were a different crew psychologically, and very confident of giving the Kiwis a good race."

From eight seconds in Poznan, the New Zealanders' margin of victory was narrowed to just 0.41sec. Job almost done. So can the Brits do even better next month? Bebington certainly does not rush to rule it out.

"One of the things we are wanting to do as a crew is to challenge preconceptions," she said. "You are not supposed to be able to make up eight seconds in three weeks, but we think a lot of the reason why people don't improve as fast as possible is that they don't think it is possible.

"What happened in Lucerne was a huge leap for us, as much mentally as technically. The Kiwis have been world champions since 2002, but we are obviously going to have our best crack at knocking them off top spot."

Bebington recalls the time at Cambridge when she told all her friends to wait in the college gardens so they could wave as she flew past. "I was waving like mad when I went over. I was completely happy up there. When I got back I was asking them, 'Did you see me? Did you see me?' But they'd all forgotten."

She tells the story with a laugh. Soon, however, this young woman's exploits - on water, rather than in the air - are likely to be attracting proper attention.