Anna Watkins: Hitting the water with the non-stop rowing machine

Olympic hero teaches Ashling O'Connor some tricks of the trade and reveals she'll miss Rio while she focuses on family life and explores her many other interests

The last time Anna Watkins was in a double scull with another woman, she won an Olympic gold medal.

So I'm just hoping the experience of accompanying a complete novice – barring the ergo rowing machine, which I'm told doesn't count – is not too much of a let-down from the career high-point of one of Britain's best and most charismatic rowers.

That and staying upright in the boat would be nice too. It is too chilly a day for a dip in the River Cam.

Besides the achievement in itself of winning a gold medal in front of a home crowd at Eton Dorney, Watkins will be remembered for sharing one of London 2012's warmest moments when her partner Katherine Grainger ended her persistent silver streak.

Few in and around Team GB were willing an athlete to win more than Grainger. Who would have wanted such a thoroughly likeable person to endure a fourth consecutive crushing near-miss?

For Watkins, the gold medal was equally liberating. It gave her the impetus to make a huge career and life decision: to take a break from international rowing to have a baby. William was born in October last year.

Gold medallist Anna Watkins passes on her expertise to Ashling O’Connor on the River Cam Gold medallist Anna Watkins passes on her expertise to Ashling O’Connor on the River Cam  

"London 2012 was the biggest event for a British person that you could conceive. You're not going to surpass that, so it has to be for a bigger reason," she said. "London's freed me up a little bit. I could go back and do something more experimental. I could do the single [scull], try a bigger crew or see what else I can give to the sport and get out of it rather than a gold medal at any cost, because that box is ticked."

Rather than race towards Rio 2016, Watkins plans to add to her family with husband Ollie, a Formula One engineer, and return for Tokyo 2020. She would still only be 37 years old – a year younger than Grainger was at the London Games.

"I want to cram as much as I can into my life. If I had had one baby and done Rio and then had another baby, I'd be dragging things out," she said. "There would be a decade when I was on reduced power, as it were. I knew that the wrong thing would be to push everything I have to one side. The sacrifice would be too much."

In the meantime, as befits a character who appears impatient with the normal pace of life, she will hardly be idle. In between raising a child, she is completing her PhD in maths and fulfilling her duties as an ambassador for the BNY Mellon Boat Race this weekend.

"I feel like I'm in a position I should really appreciate. What I'm doing now is time well spent," she said. "I've got the opportunity to be involved in the Boat Race and do a bit of corporate work, which is a gift as a mother as it's a day here and there. I'm not spending any significant time away from William."

She disagrees that motherhood is inherently incompatible with being an Olympian but concedes it would be tough. Those who manage it usually have trailing spouses or other family members.

"I agonised over it. Sometimes I thought if I won the Lottery I could get really amazing childcare and carry on rowing but other times I'd be thinking I need to have something big enough in my life to move on and a child ought to be able to provide that other focus," she said.

"To be the best in the world you have to train as much as your body will let you so weekends are quite heavily involved. With a family that's a big ask."

She is back to peak fitness barely six months after giving birth and is running the London Marathon this month. "It's hugely important after having a child. You give your body over to someone else and sport can help you reclaim it. It's made me feel like me again," she said. "I even have a rowing machine in the house which I would never have previously contemplated. Nap time is ergo time."

Clearly, as all mothers do, she has mastered multi-tasking. Which is just as well during the morning I spend with her, as she is forced to do the work of two people until I find my rhythm.

Under her quietly reassuring guidance, I get the hang of driving with my feet first and bringing my hands through without either skinning my knuckles or catching a crab with an oar.

The effect of getting it right is strangely addictive. If only – as a working mum-of-two – I had the time to actually take it up.

Anna Watkins was speaking as the new official BNY Mellon Boat Race Ambassador. The BNY Mellon Boat Race takes place on Sunday 6 April. For updates follow twitter.com/@BNYMellonRace

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all