My favourite sports film is not really about sport at all. Forrest Gump, in the 1994 film, becomes a top kick returner in the All-American football team, an international ping pong player, and an early pioneer of ultrarunning. He also, along the way, exposes the Watergate scandal, inspires John Lennon to write the song Imagine, is awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam, and makes his fortune in business.
The line most quoted from that movie is the slow-witted Forrest’s reflection on it all: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”.
In my life, I like to think we can pick the chocolates a little, reading the little leaflet and having some clue what we are getting into. But I do love the chocolate box analogy, and for one reason especially. Most of the time, you eat a chocolate and savour it, rather than stuff them all in at once and try to taste everything and then feel sick.
So why is it that in real life, there is a prevailing sense that we can and should do all of the things all of the time? The idea I’m talking about is ‘having it all’.
I saw no obstacle to having a career, academic success, sporting success, and a family, all in parallel. Until that is, it became my real life.
My Olympics were Beijing 2008 and London 2012; and by 2012 I was in a great place. I was at the top of my game in the sport, winning most of the trials and partnered with Katherine Grainger. On a personal level, I was married and had a house, a PhD in progress- the plan was coming together brilliantly. I did, however, feel very keenly the constraints and narrowness of life as an athlete. I counted the weddings and funerals I had missed, the friends I hadn’t seen, the breadth of life experience I hadn’t had. I knew for certain that after the London Olympics I would take a step back and try to have a family.
This was not the media narrative. In our double, the story told was of Katherine, her three Olympic silver medals and her one last chance for gold. Neither of us particularly liked that, Katherine because she had six world titles and didn’t feel it fair to be cast as always silver. For me it was because it really was my last chance, and Katherine, although older, would probably carry on, and media had assumed the opposite. Also, we were competing in the double, my event from Beijing, which I’d been six inches from winning that time, with my partner Elise Sherwell. But the media never sees the whole chocolate box, they pick the most resonant story, and that’s what happened. It was amazing for the profile of women’s rowing in the UK but it was only a small slice of the story. We managed to achieve the fairy-tale by winning gold on Dorney Lake at London 2012.
The assumption that I would carry on- I mean who quits when they just became the best?- began to seep into me. I felt heroic, I could do anything. I would pop out some babies and then get back on the water.
But of course, having babies and being an international athlete is really not straightforward at all. Reality bites hard, cries all night, and needs a clean nappy, and doesn’t want you to go away on camp, and changes you emotionally too.
I became less ruthless: not ruthless enough to do what I needed to, to take chances away from my teammates and claim them for myself.
It can be done, of course it can. But many people’s lives need to be totally invested in the effort- spouses, grandparents, nannies- money too. It’s a phenomenal undertaking, to work out a plan that feels like you are able to do justice to both worlds.
But for me? I began to wonder why I was trying to stuff all of the chocolates down together. How about one after another and enjoy each one? After all, athletes have an amazing advantage compared to their career minded friends- the action happens early, they are not trying to make partner in their firm at 40 years old and freezing their eggs.
And this decision has been the right one for me. I do have both worlds, because I am still savouring the memories and relationships from my life as an athlete, but I get to do life as a parent too. I’m a part-time working mum, like many of my friends.
I would like to add a different voice to the chorus shouting about having it all. How about having it all, eventually?
How about taking it one chocolate at a time and really enjoying the place we are in, rather than trying to solve all of life’s hopes and dreams in one go? There is no such thing as the perfect chocolate, though I have bravely put in a lot of research to this exact question. The chocolates are all different and life is long, so let’s move away from the all you can eat buffet and to a chocolate tasting adventure that lasts a lifetime.