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Helen Glover comeback shows why the Olympic journey is about more than just medals

·3 min read
Glover and Polly Swann just missed out on a bronze medal (Getty Images)
Glover and Polly Swann just missed out on a bronze medal (Getty Images)

On a stretch of water that has been the undoing of all manner of British boats, Helen Glover could not quite pull off the mother of all comebacks.

That the mum-of-three was able to make it to Tokyo itself was a remarkable achievement, so too the final and then also be in the medal mix. On a different, flatter day, she argued it could have been a different result.

But in the women’s pair with Polly Swann, who Covid in a sense brought together, they came up agonisingly short in fourth place.

It has become the position of choice for British crews in Tokyo, two having done so yesterday and the women’s lightweight double sculls also finishing in that spot. In their case, it was by one hundredth of a second.

Glover has been the stand-out story of the Games from a British rowing perspective. She had walked away from the sport, certain her time with rowing was done, while former partner Heather Stanning headed back to military life.

Marriage to the television presenter Steve Backshall and three children followed, including one-year-old twins, and she returned to the rowing machine merely as a way to clear her head when the twins were napping.

Those ergo sessions turned into thoughts of a more serious return, which then translated into Tokyo and finally the prospect of a medal.

But she argued that just being there, nervous at the start, breathless at the finish, had been sufficient reward. She said: “The reward is knowing we crossed the line giving it our all. The frustration would have been coming away thinking we had more and we didn’t. Had it been a flat water day we would have expected to come through to that last place but it wasn’t.”

Three months ago, Glover was still breastfeeding and returns to family life in the next 48 hours. For Swann, next week she clocks in as a doctor at Borders General Hospital in Scotland. As she put it, she was “looking forward to having a new team behind me”.

Had Covid not happened, Glover would not have been in Tokyo, the year delay enabling her to even have a medal shot. For Swann, the ramifications of the virus have been different. During the first lockdown, she stepped away from training to work on the Covid frontline as a doctor. Few double acts at this Olympics have surely had a more punishing schedule to get here.

As Swann put it: “Helen was looking after three kids, I was working in a hospital a year ago today. I don’t think there’s many people in the Olympic athlete set-up who can say these things and be in a final.”

Glover was not about to quite make protestations in the mould of Sir Steve Redgrave, who offered to be shot should he ever set foot in a rowing boat again only to return for a fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney 2000.

But she said: “In Rio, I said it was my last one. This time I’m saying that is definitely it and everyone around me keeps saying ‘no, no, you’ll be back doing the single’ but I definitely don’t see myself doing the single.”

Swann is among the doubters that this marks the end for Glover. As for herself, she said she was “tempted to do a Helen Glover”, which in her case might equate to “maybe one year work, one year to have a baby, one year to come back! We’ll see”.

Wherever their position in Tokyo, it has been the most remarkable of journeys. In time Glover said she would reflect, “how the f*** did I do that?” Every parent of young children was thinking the same thing.

Read More

Team GB’s Helen Glover and Polly Swann finish fourth in women’s pair at Tokyo Olympics

Helen Glover proud but keen to return home after missing rowing medal

How Covid lockdown allowed mother-of-three Helen Glover launch unlikely Olympic comeback

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