No fairytale finish for Helen Glover after the mother of all comebacks
Usain Bolt redefined what is possible by running the 100m in 9.69 seconds, Nadia Comaneci did it by scoring perfect 10s, Michael Phelps by winning eight gold medals at one Olympic Games. And here on Thursday morning, British rower Helen Glover did it by finishing fourth in the women’s pair with her partner, Polly Swann.
Fourth is the worst place to be, the one position no one wants and it would be a lie to say Glover, who won gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016, dreamed of being there this time around. It was not the fairytale finish. But then this was not a fairytale story.
It was a story about what people can do, not what they can dream about doing. Glover, 35, has three children under five, the youngest of them a pair of twins who were born in January 2020. She decided to try to make her comeback this January, a decision she described as “a lockdown project that’s gone too far”.
There are people who would use that phrase because they started making sourdough and ended up buying a breadmaker. And there are plenty more with kids the same sort of age as Glover’s who would consider anything more than making it through the News at 10 without falling asleep on the sofa to be ludicrously over-ambitious.
Glover started thinking about competing here when she was working out on her home rowing machine. She wanted to do it for herself, yes, and for her kids, especially her daughter, and also for every woman who is ever worried about what postnatal life will be like, whether becoming a mother will close off their options or stop them from doing the thing they love.
For the past six months she has juggled rowing with childcare, making shuttle runs between her house and the team’s training facility in Caversham in between naps and feeds, after nights of broken sleep.
The startling part is not that Glover and Swann finished fourth, it is that they were here at all. None of this has been done before. No mother has rowed for Great Britain at the Olympics, no other team have made it to the Games after squeezing four year’s worth of work and preparation into the space of six months.
When it was suggested fourth was not a great reward for it all, Glover was having none of it. “I disagree,” she said. “The reward is knowing that we crossed the line giving it our all. The frustration would have been coming away from thinking we had more and we didn’t.”
The race was won by the New Zealand pair of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, who set a world record in the semi-final. The Russian pair were second and the Canadians third. Glover said she felt that on another day, in different weather conditions, she and Swann would have caught the Canadians and won bronze, but the wind and choppy water meant their sprint finish was not as effective as it would have been on flat water.
They were 2.86sec from doing it. There was a time when Glover would have obsessed over that, ruined herself fretting about where they lost those precious seconds. Not now. “Your perspective changes when you have children and the perspective for me is that it is very much about what effect you have, what impact you have, what does this journey mean and what does it lead to, rather than just the result that’s a dot in the timeline of your life.”
She stopped breastfeeding her twins three months ago and now here she was competing against teams who were in international competitions at that time.
Swann, 33, has an extraordinary story of her own. She took time out from the sport after winning a silver with the women’s eight in Rio. She finished her medical degree and when the pandemic started volunteered as a Foundation Interim doctor. She has spent most of the past year working on the frontline for the NHS. This time next week, she will be back working shifts at Borders general hospital in Scotland. In many ways, there are not a more impressive pair of athletes on the British team, whatever medals anyone else wins.
Swann says she is thinking of making a comeback for Paris 2024. “Maybe I’ll do a Helen Glover,” she said. “Maybe take one year to work, one year to have a baby and one year to do a comeback. We’ll see.” She was only half joking. After all, Glover has shown it can be done.
“The last year has been a journey for us both,” said Glover. “When you’re caught up in the moment of it and the day-to-day grind, it all feels so immediate. But I’m going to look back in a few years and think ‘what was all that about? How the fuck did I do that?’” She’s not the only one thinking it.
“Everyone will remember the year of the pandemic for their own reasons, but for me I’m going to think ‘that was the year that took me to another Olympics’. And that’s bonkers.”