James Lawton: Heather Stanning and Helen Glover take pleasure in the rowing pain


Eton Dorney

After all the great achievements in rowing it is always the same. You just get back to the pain.

It is the other shoe that has to fall before you can step into the promised land and it can be as fierce as a martyr's conscience. Once again you were reminded of this when Britain's first golden girls – with not a wisp of hair out of place now – spoke of a gift rather than an ordeal.

"In a strange way, you enjoy it because it tells you that you have done what you set out to do," said the 26-year-old Helen Glover, who four years ago had never sat in a competitive boat.

Her team-mate, Army officer Heather Stanning, 27, who expects to report for duty in Afghanistan next month, put it rather more extravagantly in the first rush of the adrenaline that came when she knew the nation's expectation and –maybe even more vitally her own – had been met on this stretch of water where it is the sons of Eton College who normally define their character.

"I'm absolutely shattered and ecstatic at the same time," declared Captain Stanning. "I want to collapse but I'm just so overjoyed I want to jump around at the same time."

That part of the nation which had been getting increasingly nervous about the wait for this first gold medal was surely in pretty much the same category. However, with each stroke, each racking up of another notch of that pain level, our worst fears began to look increasingly absurd.

These, you could see from their whiplash, burning pace over the opening 500 metres were not chance and speculation girls. They were not here for any speculative lunges of pace. They were here to do a job, nail it from start to finish, and, of course, suffer whatever was required.

They did it so solidly, with such a proprietorial authority, they might have borrowed a trade-name that sounded something like Redgrave and Pinsent.

The first name in that partnership once said that if anyone ever found him near a boat again they should do him the mercy of putting a bullet in his head. That was four years before he won his fifth gold in Sydney.

Yesterday the firm of Glover and Stanning were considerably less melodramatic after their first.

Both suggested they were suddenly at a loss to know what to do – book a holiday, have a few drinks, or maybe just stay part of the rhythm of Team GB for a little while in the belief that more medals were on their way.

In the end they achieved an agreement entirely consistent with the perfect rhythm of the stroke-making called by Glover as they hit the worst of the pain and the loudest of the cheers when they hung on over the last 500 metres and held off the late rush of the Australians and third-placed New Zealand.

They would have dinner with the families who had supported them all down the years – and, more than anything, understood that they had about them an especially deep need to make a mark. Stanning agreed that it had been said of her back in school that she was the most likely pupil to win an Olympic medal, "even though I tried everything without being particularly good".

Glover talked about her sense, as a PE teacher back in Cornwall, of the power of sport to inspire young people, as it did her four years ago when she was selected from one session of 200 candidates applying to British rowing's Start programme, and her family said they always knew she had an insistent need to compete at a high level.

Her younger sister Freya reached for the word that best summed up the new heroine. "She was always the life and soul of the family," she said, "but always determined to win – even if it was a board game at Christmas. Helen was always the most diligent."

What a fine and appropriate word – and what a superb performance from two young Englishwomen who went off to do the nation's work in the haunting beauty of the water and the meadows on a sultry morning. Both went to war with diligence.

They set a withering pace that put them ahead of their most dangerous rivals, the Aussies and the Kiwis at every point of the race.

"We often start fast," said Glover, "and it seemed every time I looked up we were a little further ahead. But we knew the quality we were facing and we knew that we were going to have to produce everything we had at the finish. It is hard to describe all the emotions that were running through my head as we reached the line, but I suppose the greatest was that we had done our job."

At the start of it they tried to tell themselves, and accept the word of their coach Robin Williams, that the effort was on their own behalf, and how they would always remember their day at the heart of their country's hopes, and for a little while it worked.

Then they came to the start line and realised that all the scene lacked was an updated version of the old general's finger pointing out of the poster and the legend: Your Country Needs You.

It did yesterday, certainly, and the response from Glover and Stanning could hardly have been stronger. With the likes of the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry on the banks – not to mention Redgrave – they could no longer suspend the reality.

Whatever they wanted for themselves, there could no longer doubt they were reporting for national service. For a captain of artillery, who insists that when she flies off to Afghanistan she will simply be going back to work, this was of course no great strain.

Nor was it for Helen Glover. She had a similar diligence – and was also, of course, oblivious to pain.

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