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‘Our brilliant coach deserves a medal’ – Helen Glover’s road to Rio paved with gold

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Helen Glover

Helen Glover, left, and Heather Stanning show off their Olympic gold medals from London 2012. The coxless pair are unbeaten in 36 races stretching back to 2011

Coaches may never get to stand on the winners’ podium at major championships, but they are put on a pedestal by their athletes. Olympic rowing champion Helen Glover pays tribute to her coach Robin Williams, and claims that she and coxless pairs partner Heather Stanning would never have reached the position they are in today without his help.

By fusing raw power with oar power, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have blazed a golden trail at the pinnacle of their sport.

The female equivalent of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, the dynamic double act have won every major accolade rowing has to offer. 

Since bursting on to the international stage with a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships – a matter of months after winning a place on the Great Britain team – their unstoppable progress has seen them gobble up Olympic coxless pairs gold, three world titles and three European crowns, not to mention a multitude of World Cup golds. 

They head to Rio for the defence of their Olympic title as World, Olympic and European record holders and last tasted defeat in 2011 – pipped to the line on that occasion by just 0.1 second! It is a winning streak Ed Moses would be immensely proud of. 

When it comes to lauding famous female double acts, they may not command the same celebrity status as French and Saunders or Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman, but in sporting terms, only colleagues Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins – the reigning women’s double sculls Olympic champions – come close to matching their extraordinary exploits. 

As far as Helen is concerned though, they are no dynamic duo. Tremendous trio would be a more appropriate description as there is, in actual fact, a third member of their crew – an unsung hero who does not fall under the glare of the media spotlight, who does not provide any extra propulsion power during races but who experiences every stroke as if he was sitting alongside them in the boat, and who is every bit as important to the synchrony and success of the team. 

‘Our coach Robin Williams has absolutely got us to where we are today with the medals around our necks,’ states Helen categorically when I manage to grab a fascinating chat with her during a break from training in Germany in the build-up to Rio. 

Loyal servant, trusted ally and confidant, friend, mentor and organiser, Helen heaps on master of all trades Robin the recognition he so richly deserves. 

‘He is so much more than a physical and technical adviser. If you’re not feeling well, your heart rate is up, if you’ve got a concern about the racing, then you go to Robin. He is all areas rolled into one. 

‘He was an exceptional athlete himself. He was a lightweight rower, and I think his memories still feel as fresh to him today as at the time he was racing. That he can call upon all those experiences really helps.’ 

Robin won World Championship silver and bronze medals for Great Britain during a distinguished career in which he also coached the Cambridge University Boat Race side – guiding them to seven victories during his 11 years at the helm.

But the birth of his partnership with Helen and Heather was more down to luck than judgement. 

Helen, clearly relishing the trip down memory lane, talks enthusiastically about how the three were pitched together. 

Robin Williams

Robin Williams, centre, is sprayed with champagne following Cambridge's victory in the 2001 Boat Race

Retirement can wait 

‘Heather and I both had the same first coach, Paul Stannard, who has also been a hugely influential figure for both of us,’ she recalls, ‘from getting us started in rowing, helping us break into the Great Britain team and then setting us up together as teammates. 

‘When we broke into the GB team in 2010, we were late additions to a 10-day training camp, and Robin – who had recently retired from coaching – got a phone call to say they had a couple more girls out here than they had expected, and would he come and be an extra pair of hands and help lighten the load. 

‘After that 10 days, we then went away to the World Championships and ended up winning a silver medal. We realised at this point that the project was viable and had a lot of potential. So Robin came back into the system and started coaching us. 

‘The partnership has evolved over time, but it was also pretty instant as well. There was an immediate universal feeling that this was going to work.’ 

Robin will surely have no complaints about being coaxed out of retirement, bearing in mind what has transpired since the turn of the decade.

‘Probably not,’ admits Helen before jokingly adding, ‘but then, day to day, maybe he does,’ alluding to the punishing training regime and gamut of extreme emotions that being a member of the Great Britain squad entails. 

Assessing the qualities of a top coach, Helen ranks personal and people skills just as highly as coaching ability, and in Robin, they have found someone who possesses the lot – scathingly honest occasionally, warm and understanding usually, but at all times, exuding an unfaltering passion and minute attention to detail. 

‘Robin is a perfectionist,’ says Helen. ‘I think a lot of the delight he gets is not necessarily always in the results. He wants to see perfection, which, in rowing, is virtually impossible to attain. So it’s quite exciting, knowing you are setting out to achieve an impossible target. I know that sounds silly, but he knows there’s always work to be done, and for us, it’s always motivating to have someone around with that passion, which is something you just can’t bottle up and sell. 

‘We definitely all feed off each other and have good open lines of communication. Heather and I will talk about things among ourselves, but Robin is the dot at the end of the sentence. He is the one who puts it all together.’ 

Coaches are seldom seen on television. When they are, it is invariably in the minutes that follow a glorious triumph, when track and field athletes dash headlong into the crowd hell-bent on hunting down their coach for a tearful embrace, or when spectators’ heads are used as stepping stones, à la Pat Cash at Wimbledon, so players can hop it to the players’ box to celebrate with their coach and members of their family. 

It is in these fleeting moments when your average armchair sports fan begins to comprehend that coach-athlete relationships are something extra special, forged from years of blood, sweat, tears and toil. 

This resonates with Helen, who says: ‘The first thing we do, when we get off the water, is to go into the media area, but if Robin has managed to get back there, we will always go and see him first because he has been such a massive influence on us, and he has to share in it.’ 

Don’t rock the boat 

Robin is not the only person Helen and Heather are indebted to. 

Psychologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, they all perform a valuable role for elite athletes. 

‘Chris Shambrook is our psychologist, and Wendy Martinson is our nutritionist, and they are two of the key people on our team,’ says Helen. ‘We have been really fortunate because they have been in those job roles (consultant psychologist and lead nutritionist for GB Rowing) since we’ve been on the team, and have seen us grow and develop. That has been really important.’ 

Stability seems to be a running theme in the camp. It has helped nurture unity, which in turn has helped deliver success. But stability is a rarity in rowing circles. There is more chance of a doting couple on Celebrity Big Brother forming a long-term partnership than there is a rowing team staying together for the majority of their careers. 

‘We’ve definitely veered away from the norm in terms of how long we’ve been together. In fact, there hasn’t been a combination that’s stuck together since we’ve been on the Great Britain team,’ says Helen. 

‘Practically every year, there are changes of personnel in virtually every boat. Coming up to an Olympic Games, you’ll probably have some boats that are more consistently set with their personnel but it’s more common to have change. The whole purpose is that people are trying to take other people’s seat each time they get in the best boats, and that creates change every year.’ 

Helen and Heather are also part of an exclusive club in that their coach has stayed with them for the entirety of their careers. 

‘Sometimes, there is a bit of shuffling with coaches in boats. But we are uniquely close as a three. It is a professional but also a personal relationship. We get on, we are very invested in the same project, and I would say the secret of mine and Heather’s success definitely comes down to our relationship with Robin. 

‘If it wasn’t for Paul Stannard, I wouldn’t have got remotely near to getting on the team so he had the most influence on me in the early days, but then, in the last six years of our international success, the world records, Olympic gold, World Championship titles, Robin has taken over as my biggest influence.’ 

Great expectations 

Helen and Heather have remained (touch wood) blissfully free from injury during their preparations for Rio, which cranked up another gear at the European Championships in Germany in May when they retained their title with another faultless display in finishing eight seconds ahead of the host nation. 

Footballers trot out the stock phrase ‘We’re taking one game at a time’ whenever they are asked to look into the future, and this refusal to make predictions is a trait shared by all professional athletes. 

But Helen will admit that their preparations could not have gone any better. 

‘Yes, obviously, it is great to take our unbeaten run into the Games and show that we have improved year on year. Also, the Olympic Games is the important one so to go into them unbeaten in the World Cups and the Europeans is an ideal show of our strength and our form.’ 

I ask Helen if the tag of reigning Olympic champions, and the increased expectation that brings, piles unwanted pressure on their shoulders heading into Rio. 

‘There is more pressure this time, purely based on a pretty unrealistic 2012, because not many people went into the Games, like Heather and I did, with so little pressure. 

‘We were going there for the gold, absolutely, but we kind of got away without the media attention and didn’t really have to say too much. Now, there is a bit more interest and attention, and it all feels a bit more normal, I guess. Pressure, at the end of the day, is a reality of sport.’ 

Helen has had a bit more practice living life under the watchful glare of the media following the announcement of her engagement to TV wildlife presenter and former Strictly Come Dancing contestant Steve Backshall. 

But she laughs off the suggestion that she will have to get used to dodging paparazzi prowlers or scrutinising the gossip columns. 

‘We are really fortunate because the profile we have had in the media has all been really positive. 

‘We know what the media is like, and we know what social media is like, and we are very grounded and would be totally prepared for any situation in terms of that spike in interest. 

‘And that’s definitely contributed to us being happy in the place we are in and feeling like it’s not pressure, it’s anticipation and expectation in a positive way, with lots of support.’ 

Happy families 

Team Glover then is a close-knit family. Close in every sense, with Helen, Heather and Robin living just a little more than a stone’s throw away from each other, handily placed for their two training bases. 

Buckinghamshire-based Helen is only a 15-minute drive from the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake at Caversham, while Bisham Abbey, which serves all their indoor training needs, is ‘just down the road’. 

‘Heather is based round here as well so we very much chose our location to make our lives and our recovery as easy as possible. 

‘We train together in the boat, live together in the gym, and we even sit on the rowing machines side by side. But that’s good, I think. When you are side by side with someone training hard, that’s really empowering.’ 

Talking of distances, there will be 2000 metres to negotiate for Helen and Heather at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake in Rio, beginning on 6 August, and they will be doing everything in their power to put some distance between themselves and their rivals, and add another golden chapter to their success story. 

Their triumph on day five of the The London 2012 Olympic Games sparked a Team GB gold rush. It was the host nation’s first of 29, and it was also British rowing’s first ever female gold medal. 

An action replay would spawn some colourful headlines – ‘Hel-Nino goes down a storm in Rio’ perhaps – but while Helen and Heather will be feeling on top of the world, how they would love it if Robin’s involvement was hailed in similar red-top fashion. 

I fear there will be no ‘Braziliant! Life’s Rio grand for rockin’ Robin’, or the like, but then coaches aren’t in the job for media acclaim. Being hailed by their athletes as fundamental to their success and being told you are worth your weight in gold is as precious as any medal. 

Question time

ConnectedCoaches member Simon Browning had a question for Helen.

Becoming an elite performer obviously takes a lot of dedication to that sport. However, there is more and more research being done to encourage multi-sport over single-sport specialisation within children. Given your background, would you say that playing multiple sports helped you?

‘I can talk about this all day. I love this subject. I am a massive, massive advocate for multi-sport. I absolutely believe in playing for fun when you are little, and trying everything.

‘If you look at the way kids play, it’s training without really realising it, and I think that’s crucial. A huge reason behind me getting to the level I have is because I had 21 years of playing virtually every sport under the sun and enjoying it.

‘It makes you more robust, it makes you less injury-prone, and the more you learn to pick up skills, the quicker you learn skills in later life.

‘So no, I don’t believe early specialisation is in the child’s best interests if they want to be good at their sport.

‘I was very grateful that my parents were keen for me to have fun with sport and encouraged me to try things, not that I needed any encouragement.

‘I was a very good runner at school. So at junior level, I did some international cross-country running. I played hockey at a reasonable level too.’ 

Helen is being incredibly modest. In actual fact, as a junior, she ran cross-country and middle distance for her county, Cornwall, and for England, winning a junior international gold medal for England in cross-country. She played county-level tennis and hockey (captaining the Cornwall team and being selected for the England Satellite squad) and also swam for the county.

Did any points Helen raised strike a chord? Please leave a comment below. 

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