Being an athlete and a mum is possible – just not for me

The news that Katherine Grainger, one of Britain’s greatest Olympians, will be announced imminently to compete in Rio, will please those who believe the 40-year-old rower is capable of winning her fifth medal at her fifth Games. Despite Grainger and Vicky Thornley, her partner in the double-sculls boat, not being named in British Rowing’s initial squad on Thursday, it appears they will in fact be added in the near future. The pair had narrowly failed to qualify for the women’s eight in a race-off with the existing team when it seemed the double-sculls team had been disbanded. It has been a topsy-turvy period for Grainger.

It is a far cry from Grainger’s golden experience in London when she and partner Anna Watkins were crowned Olympic double-scull champions to mass patriotic celebration. What happened next was extraordinary. Watkins took three years out of the sport, ostensibly retired, had two children and only last year decided to launch a comeback. She gave herself one year, instead of four, to be an Olympic medal winner. She described the attempt at the outset as “ridiculous”, but with British Rowing’s support, her own commitment and the example of Jess Ennis-Hill, the enterprise was on.

Vicky Thornley’s boyfriend, and an Olympic medallist, Rick Edgington, told the Daily Mail: “When you read about it, it seems like a brilliant story, but this is real life and high-performance sport and to bring someone back in, fantastic athlete though Anna was, just 10 months away from the Olympics was not the right thing to do.”

That is one perspective. There are others. A sport out for medals (and funding). Coaches justifying their selections. Athletes competing for Rio. And one woman, aged 32, two children, Olympic gold medallist, PhD in Mathematics … with a profound sense of unfinished business.

This is Anna Watkins’s story, told exclusively to the Mixed Zone.

“I was looking over my shoulder. Every time I described myself as a ‘retired athlete’ it stuck in my throat. I couldn’t quite do it. There were tiny little things. I remember when I went to register William’s birth, there was a place on the certificate for ‘Mother’s Profession’. I put ‘Athlete’ down, justifying to myself that I’d just stopped rowing to have my son and didn’t really know what would happen next. When I had Richard I did the same. I thought to myself then, ‘What am I? I don’t really know who I am’.

“I had to have this year of trying to make the team again to move on with my life. I’m in so much a better place than I was 12 months ago in terms of dealing with the impact of London. I wasn’t able to move on until I’d done this big experiment.

“Poor Katherine’s been pulled every which way amongst it all. It was disruptive me coming into that group and she dealt with it really professionally. So did Vicky. We actually all get on really quite well and had an enjoyable time training even though the pressure was there all the time.

“If Vicky and Katherine had been going really well, I probably wouldn’t have tried. I wouldn’t have wanted to disrupt a medal prospect. That wouldn’t have been fair on anybody. I came back because there wasn’t a medal-winning double on the team. It was a big factor in my decision.

“Katherine and Vicky are both astonishing athletes, but there’s more than one way to crack a nut, and they crack it differently. Neither is right or wrong, just different. It’s nobody’s fault. It just means they weren’t the sum of their parts as a combination.

“Even so it was a big risk, but I absolutely have no regrets. I would do the same thing again in a heartbeat because you always learn from trying new things. You don’t get to stand on top of a podium by playing things safe. It’s the reason we [British Rowing] get exceptional results.

“But I knew from the start, I needed everything to go my way. I couldn’t afford any hiccoughs or speed bumps. And there were a couple of things before Christmas. There was a big training camp on bikes out in Majorca and I had to come home after three days because Richard was really poorly. He was in and out of A&E. He had bronchiolitis. He wasn’t on death’s door but it was not something that one parent alone can be dealing with. He was only 10 months old. It did bring home to me a few realities.

“Then I had a back spasm – a fairly minor thing in the end but it took me out of the December trials. It meant I hadn’t done any racing when it came to the trials in February. When the time came, I wasn’t fit enough or race sharp enough to perform – yet. The Olympics weren’t going to wait for me.

“I was upset. I was upset with the reality of my results. And I was upset that is was the end of my partnership with Katherine. There was always a little bit of a candle there. At the same time, there was a weight off my shoulders. I thought, ‘Right, I can look forward now’. I know my rowing career’s over and that’s helpful.

“I’d been torn all the time and there wasn’t any room in the situation for me to be enjoying or not enjoying myself. I gave everything at home and everything at training and tried to keep all the balls in the air. How I was in the middle of it was irrelevant. I was just in survival mode.

“My poor husband – I put him in a really difficult position. The balls that I dropped – and that did happen – he was picking up. He had rather thought we’d done with this rowing thing after London. He hoped I wouldn’t feel I had to go back. But he wasn’t going to be the person who said, ‘Don’t do it’. He said, ‘If that’s what you’ve got to do, I’ll support you’. But I knew it wasn’t easy for him. When I had big training days and the children were up in the night, he was copping for a lot.

“I put him between a rock and a hard place. We’re a horrible selfish lot, athletes. When I told him that I was giving up, he dared breathe a sigh of relief. ‘It’s good to have you back,’ he said.

“The first person I rang was our coach, Paul Thompson, and then I rang Katherine. She and I are really close friends. We had discussed things a lot. She was disappointed. There was big potential, but at that point I’d just shown I was not a 2012 athlete. It wasn’t like there was the amazing opportunity for us to row really fast.

“I’m really amazed how Katherine’s handled everything. She’s in a different situation now, with the double having been disbanded. Her dream is on the line. She’s in the middle of it all. She hasn’t asked for any of this. She went back to rowing before she knew I was coming back again. While she’s very strong and very resilient, she’s also in the crossfire a bit.

“It’s possible they called time a bit early. Given where things are now, if I was still there, who knows what the conversations might be. But we couldn’t predict the future back in February and it’s almost unheard of for a crew to be disbanded this late. In the end, I’m really glad I did it. I needed to find out. Going back to rowing, I’ve realised I’d moved on in a lot of ways and now I’m ready for the next step. It gave me a sense of my new self. If I had to fill in that birth certificate now, I’d probably write: ‘Working Mum’.

“I’ve learnt things. Part of me thought at the beginning, ‘Jess Ennis is doing well – it proves it’s possible and I should be able to make this work’. But I’ve come to understand that being an individual athlete is quite different from being a team athlete. If Jess’s little boy is ill and she decides not to compete that just affects Jess Ennis. But I could be in a position where I’m affecting a whole team. An individual athlete is basically freer. I took a bit of pressure off myself after that. I didn’t want to feel I’d failed because I tried to do something difficult and it hadn’t panned out.

“But I would encourage others to consider being athletes and mums at the same time. It’s a question of your own personal circumstances. Your age, how long you’ve been out, how may children, your goals, how driven you are. And I absolutely think there will be a mother in the

British Rowing team in future. That person and British Rowing will be able to make their next iteration towards getting it right. Both parties will be a little bit wiser. British Rowing, all the way through, were absolutely signed up to trying to make it work, which was great.

“I would say it’s definitely possible. But for me … I’m too late.”

Read more about Katherine Grainger’s story here.
Read about Anna’s comeback here.


Anna Watkins MBE, is a 2012 Olympic rowing champion and two time world champion. She is also a patron of the Women’s Sport Trust. Anna’s latest articles

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles. Twitter: @suemott1

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