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
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
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

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits