‘Why don’t you wear gloves?’
Most rowers will be familiar with this question from non-rowers. Being a sport where you are holding and rotating oars in your hands, you develop anything from callouses several millimetres thick to open blisters on your hands. But you don’t wear gloves. There are lots of sane reasons, such as you’d lose grip of the handle, you might over-tighten your hands, they would get wet in winter, you’d sweat and get terrible sun-tan marks in summer; but mainly: you just don’t wear gloves to row.
Every sport has its norms and its cultures that you take for granted. It’s like your family Christmas traditions – there’s stuff that seems normal in your family on 25 December, that nobody else does. But the challenge is when you leave the safe confines of your sport, where you’re surrounded by people with callouses and blisters on their hands, and emerge into a world where people ask: ‘why don’t you wear gloves?’
I retired from elite sport on 2 August 2012. We’d finished fifth in the final of the women’s eight at the London 2012 Olympic Games. I walked away with a decent medal haul from my eight-year professional career including two World Championship golds, one World Championship silver and Olympic silver four years previously, in Beijing 2008. I’d won a lot of races and achieved more than I could ever have dreamed as a sport-mad child growing up in rural Cornwall.
But my calloused hands would soften now they weren’t completing two to four hours of rowing every day of the week, and I had to face the real world. I wasn’t dreading it. I’d always done a lot of work-related activities alongside my sport and was enjoying the thought of living a more normal life. Having weekends to myself, not being so tired I couldn’t walk up the stairs and not being subject to random drug testing at any time of the day were three things I was relishing the idea of.
And yet it was a struggle to fit into the real world. As someone who came to the sport relatively late (I didn’t take rowing seriously until I was about 19 and became a full-time professional at 22) I had a strong identity from my life pre-rowing. I had an idea of what I wanted to do career-wise and had a good network of friends outside of rowing. And yet. It was the lifestyle that I struggled with.
In my previous career, feedback (or criticism?) was constant and daily. There was never a single moment when I was just going through the motions. Every day athletes are bombarded with objective and subjective information about how to improve. ‘The inches we need are everywhere around us’ said Al Pacino in the film Any Given Sunday, but the downside of that is you can never relax. You need to keep searching for the inches.
In the workplace, it seemed the emphasis was more on just doing your job. You didn’t need to profess every day how you wanted to be the best in the world. The atmosphere was different and the aspiration was very different.
I went into a workplace with people of all ages and levels of experience. Previously, we’d all been in our twenties and early thirties, had probably known each other since the junior or Under-23 systems, and had been managed by the same handful of coaches. Now I was working alongside men and women nearing retirement.
I wasn’t consuming 4000 calories a day, litres and litres of fluid, and sleeping for 10 hours at night and one hour in the day anymore. I also wasn’t sharing hotel rooms or communal showers with my colleagues. That part, I don’t miss.
I wasn’t experiencing the enormous ups and downs of success and failure with my colleagues. I wasn’t going through heaven and hell with others, and processing it together. More than anything I no longer had one over-riding goal, one North Star, that dominated my every thought: how can I do everything in my power to become the best in the world?
And this was the part, more so than a sense of identity, that I struggled with. The lifestyle. How much should I eat every day if I’m not doing three sessions of training? How much to sleep at night? How much alcohol is it reasonable to drink? If I don’t have a relentless, selfish focus on myself and my own performance, what do I focus on instead? How much occasional sport counts as exercise and what kind of exercise do I want to do? You mean I don’t need to update drug testers on my daily location? What kind of personal relationship do I establish with my team-mates? Easter had always been our national trials regatta, the most important selection event of the year. What’s Easter about if I’m not racing for a place on the British team? And more than anything else – what on earth do people do at weekends?
In those first twelve months I was like a person from another planet being introduced to Great Britain for the first time. There was so much I had to figure out about the day-to-day of living and lifestyle. After a few years of full-time employment, I decided I wanted the freedom of freelancing and have been relishing that life ever since. The rest of it, I am still trying to work out.
Just don’t ask me about wearing gloves.