Fast-tracked to Olympian: Helen Glover on her rise to Olympic gold

 

Their superiority was evident in moments, measured by clear water to their pursuers within the first 500 metres. But that margin, in turn, traced back four years to one of barely half an inch.

For Heather Stanning and Helen Glover could never have given the nation the succour it craved, with a first gold medal on the fifth day of its great carnival, but for a convenient approximation over the latter’s height. Now 26, Glover owes it all to a newspaper article in which Sir Steve Redgrave explained the Sporting Giants initiative in 2007. The programme was designed to identify tall, powerful youths who might warrant fast-tracking in rowing, volleyball or handball. Her mother read the piece. “Look at this, Helen,” she said. “That sounds like you.” But Glover admitted yesterday that she had to stand on her toes even to approach eligibility. “The minimum was 5ft 10in,” she recalled. “And I’m 5ft 9.5in. So it’s possible I may have stretched up a little bit.”

How tall she stands now, and how touchingly giddy with emotion. Glover never set foot in a boat until a couple of months before Beijing, and watched British success there from a novice rowing camp. “I was in awe,” she said. “I was still falling out of the boat then. But I thought if I worked hard, it could be me. It proves that anyone can do anything with hard work.”

Sure enough, 20 years to the day since Redgrave and Pinsent inaugurated this era of British hegemony at Barcelona, the former PE teacher has joined Stanning to break new ground of their own. Daughters of Scotland and Cornwall respectively, they have united a nation in celebration of its first women to row to Olympic gold.

“I really hope it has a snowball effect in the coming weeks,” Glover said. “I hope we have some great results to come from GB Rowing. I worked as a PE teacher, and have seen how inspired young people can be. I have an athletics background, and when I watched Kelly Holmes win her medals, that was massively inspiring.”

Stanning, as befits a captain of the Royal Artillery, proved rather more composed as the anthem was played. Both, however, admitted later that they had been perfectly aware how much was riding on their status as hot favourites for the women’s pair. They matched that billing with a performance at once smooth and belligerent.

Expertly drilled by their coach, Robin Williams, they produced an explosive start and imposed themselves brutally through the opening phase. Their pursuers, revisiting consecutive World Cup thrashings at Belgrade, Lucerne and Munich, soon became thoroughly demoralised. Glover and Stanning had gone so hard, in fact, that they were barely holding it together as they approached the line. Their journey through the last 500 metres, and a nearly tangible cascade of patriotic cheers, took nearly four seconds longer than that of Kate Hornsey and Sarah Tait of Australia, who wore down New Zealand for silver without ever getting to the British stern.

Stanning sank bank into Glover’s lap and their simmering emotions finally bubbled over. Even in the privacy of the camp that morning, they had tried to suppress the nation’s restless expectations, lapping at their boat. “We were kidding ourselves it wasn’t happening, we were saying it was about us,” Glover said. “But as soon as we crossed the line, we realised there was a lot of expectation on us, that a lot of people were waiting for that.”

At 27, Stanning owns a still more exacting duty, having been given leave from the regiment that sent their congratulations from Afghanistan. She will be reporting back in September, and could yet be posted there herself. “Four years ago I got commissioned from Sandhust and hadn’t thought of the Games,” she said. “All credit to the people in the army to give me time to train. In my early teens Kelly was a real inspiration to me, as well, she was a corporal in the army. I come from a military family, and Kelly showed me you could combine two careers.”

Before teaming up, Stanning and Glover had been misfits, a pair of drifting reserves for the ladies’ eight. If nothing else, then, yesterday served as memorable vindication for the fairly ruthless pragmatism with which Lottery funds were invested in sports with a financially forbidding infrastructure. One way or another, these women have blossomed in precisely the fashion the organisers, in bidding for the Olympics, have envisaged for the next generation.

“I just hope this shows people can pick up a sport in your early 20s and still be successful by your mid-to-late 20s,” Stanning said. “If I can do it, take the chance – not just in rowing, in anything. I joined rowing because it was the best social club at university, and I’ve ended up with a gold medal. I really hope people aren’t shy, that they just go out there and try something.”

And the momentum of those already here is still gaining. Alan Campbell remains in genuine medal contention after an excellent second in the solo sculls semi-final, while a strong finish for third qualified the quadruple sculls crew for their final. Above all there was another remarkable performance from the young men’s pair, Will Satch and George Nash, who consolidated their breakthrough with a remarkable semi-final success. These lads are only 22 – the same age as Glover when she first wobbled into a boat. As tall stories go, this is one you really couldn’t make up.

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