In March 2020 I was selected as part of the GB Rowing Team for the Tokyo Games. It was something I’d dreamed about for nearly a decade, having joined the GB senior rowing team in the run-up to the Rio Games and qualified the Women’s Quad in 2019 – and it came at the end of a really difficult couple of years. It felt like I was in the final metres of a really hard race – I just had to close my eyes and keep driving for the line.
Three days later the Games were postponed, and it felt like the race course had just been extended from a few more metres to a whole marathon.
I felt mentally burnt out and struggled with a series of injuries (a bulging disc through lockdown, needing an iron infusion in December and discovering a fractured rib in the New Year), which led me to take time out from the team in February 2021, ending my Tokyo aspirations.
In some ways it was one of the hardest periods of my life.
However, another story unfolded alongside my training which made a real difference to where I am now. Spending lots of time training in the outdoors, and seeing more and more about climate on the news, had made me increasingly concerned about what was happening to the planet and to nature. During the lockdown I became part of a group called Champions for Earth, which introduced me to the idea that athletes could be really powerful spokespeople for climate issues.
It helped me make sense of my time as an athlete, to realise that the same qualities that sport had helped me develop – resilience, ambition, courage, collaboration, the ability to pursue a long-term goal with urgency every day – were also some of the ones that were needed when tackling climate change.
In September 2020 we published a letter with over 320 GB Olympians and Paralympians calling on the UK Government for a green recovery to the pandemic, and a couple of months later I started collaborating with Team GB in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, helping to develop a sports-tailored climate session which was delivered to Olympians prior to the Games.
In autumn 2021, I founded Athletes of the World with double Olympic Champion and Team GB flagbearer Hannah Mills, to harness and expand the power of athletes to inspire environmental action. Our first project together, in the run-up to COP26 (the global climate summit held in Glasgow last November), was to produce a video with support from the IOC which had over 50 Tokyo Olympians and Paralympians (including household names like Andy Murray, Eliud Kipchoge, Tom Daley and flagbearers from 35 different countries) calling on world leaders to prioritise ambitious climate action. A few weeks later, we published a letter from over 200 professional rugby players, calling on World Rugby and Rugby NGBs to deliver a brave and bold climate strategy.
In March 2020 I would never have thought of setting up my own organisation – if Tokyo had gone ahead, I was meant to be starting a job in the autumn with a legal charity.
The postponement of the Games was a curve ball I’d never have asked for, but the last couple of years have given me so much.
Although it’s definitely had its ups and downs, I feel so much confidence in the opportunity athletes have to make a real difference in the face of some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Hannah and I would love to hear from any current or retired athletes who’d like to be involved in our work, or would like to find out more about Athletes of the World. Our website is www.athletesoftheworld.org