British women gain degree of success by capturing silver in quadruple sculls

If it had been University Challenge or Mastermind they would surely have taken the gold, but this was the Olympic Games rowing regatta and Britain's women quadruple scullers had to settle for silver under the scorching sun on Lake Schinias here yesterday.

If it had been University Challenge or Mastermind they would surely have taken the gold, but this was the Olympic Games rowing regatta and Britain's women quadruple scullers had to settle for silver under the scorching sun on Lake Schinias here yesterday.

Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton, Alison Mowbray and Rebecca Romero, who between them have more degrees than a Greek thermometer, were beaten to the line by a German crew vastly more experienced in the art of sculling. The Germans led throughout and although their advantage was whittled away, the result was never in doubt.

The Britons knew the early pace would be hot. The Germans steamed ahead, their time for the first quarter bettering that of any of their rivals over any of the 500m sections. Britain were fifth, but gradually turned up the power and at the 1500m mark had climbed to second. Their time over the last 500m was more than a second quicker than the Germans', but the gap was too great and the winning margin was a full two seconds.

But if there was a hint of disappointment at failing to reverse the finishing order from Sydney four years ago, the Britons knew they had at least stretched themselves to the limit. "We filled up the tank with premium octane super-expensive unleaded petrol and made sure we exhausted every bit of it," Romero said.

While you wonder what some sportsmen and women will do with their lives away from the arena, that will never be a question to put to these women. Their CVs read more like an application for Mensa than the credentials of a team of Olympic sportswomen. Mowbray, 33, was an undergraduate at Liverpool University who took a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge before qualifying as a science teacher. Romero, 24, graduated from St Mary's College, Twickenham, in sports science and English. Flood, 24, is reading physiology and biochemistry at Reading University. Houghton, 23, is studying languages at Kings College, London.

Why do brainy people like this choose a sport like rowing, which demands extreme physical effort and a high pain threshold yet appears - to the uninitiated at least - to offer little by way of a mental challenge? "I think it's the very fact that it's such an intense sport," Mowbray said after yesterday's race. "If you look at the jobs and the qualifications that the girls in the British team have, you could say we're ludicrously over-qualified. But the point is that the qualities you need to succeed academically aren't that different to what you need in rowing. The training is so demanding and you have to be so dedicated.

"I can't remember a single day when any of us failed to turn up for training. People even turned up when they were ill because they would have felt guilty if they hadn't. They wanted the coach to tell them to go back to bed, rather than feel they were letting the rest of us down." For Mowbray, the 15 years of dedication are over. "These three girls will go on and will get at least one, if not two, gold medals, but this is my last time," she said. "This silver medal is more than I could have hoped for at this point. This is going to make me so happy.

"It's been a real motivation for me to say that I would be retiring at the end of the Olympics. Some people don't like to think or talk about retirement until the actual end of their careers, but for me it's been a major motivation."

Mowbray has no plans to go into coaching, "because I want my evenings and weekends back". So what next? "I'm going on a long holiday and then I will probably busk it for a month or two. Maybe I'll get some teaching supply work when I decide I need to move on."

As she spoke, Mowbray looked at the back of her hand, on which she had written four reminders to herself shortly before the start of the race. Two were about sculling technique - "hands up" and "separate" - and can be consigned to history, while she will no doubt use the third - "concentrate" - in whatever fields she chooses to devote her energy to next. For the moment, though, the fourth is all that matters: "relax".

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