|11 Feb 2020|
The year 2020 will be forever associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. Without the coronavirus, the GB Para rowers would be about to compete for their place in the history books at the Tokyo Games. Instead, the Paralympic rowing will take place in a year’s time on 28-30 August.
After the highs of qualifying three Paralympic-class boats – and 10 Olympic-class boats – at the 2019 World Rowing Championships last August, the team has had an exceptionally tough year.
We caught up with a few personalities from the Paralympic squad – pictured above – to find out more.
Former Boat Race cox Erin Kennedy steered the PR3 mixed coxed four to a gold medal and qualification spot for Tokyo at last year’s Worlds. The crew, including Rio Paralympic champion James Fox, were in blistering form, winning the race by an emphatic 12 seconds.
But on Tuesday 24 March, with Covid-19 spreading across the globe, Tokyo 2020 was officially postponed – and the UK went into lockdown.
Readjusting to the new date for Tokyo hasn’t been too difficult for Erin – “we were still in winter training mode when lockdown began and therefore, I wasn’t quite thinking too far ahead to the summer”, but for James it was gutting.
“It was always going to be a vicious pandemic – the signs were there very early on,” he says. “But I was so desperate for the Paralympics and Olympics to go ahead that I fully believed it was going to go ahead, right until the announcement came out that it wasn’t.
“The really upsetting thing was that we found out through the media.
“So, I was shocked and really upset. I sat down and had a few tears with my girlfriend – and then I went training.
“I went cycling with one of my friends and it was just a really nice coping mechanism, so in that respect it didn’t take very long at all [to adjust].”
“I’ve lost just short of 10 kilos so a serious amount of weight! I look like a cyclist now”
Tom Dyson, Chief Coach of the Paralympic Programme, reflects that the most important part of the last few months has been giving the rowers some space to come to terms with the postponement, and enabling them to be mentally ready to go again in 2021.
He adds: “Each of the squad has adjusted to the news in their own way. Some have set challenging goals to help them refocus, some have taken the opportunity to refresh their approach to training and get some mental downtime without the pressure of a championships on the horizon.”
James has been focusing on his weaknesses. After having hip surgery in 2017, he’s been unable to train on the rowing machine, so since March he’s been cycling 200 miles over six days a week.
“Part of my lockdown challenge was to be a bit more nimble and agile and to lose a bit of weight. I’ve lost just short of 10 kilos so a serious amount of weight! I look like a cyclist now.”
Incredibly, James hasn’t missed a single training session since lockdown – and he’s also discovered that he likes training on his own.
“I’ve done probably 99% of my sessions since lockdown by myself. And that’s not a situation I’ve ever been in before. I’ve been rowing since I was 11 and, at the very least, I’ve been training with just my coach – I’ve never spent that much time training alone. And if I’m honest, I’ve loved it.”
Like James, Erin spent lockdown in Henley, with a turbo trainer in her kitchen for cardio and weights for strength and conditioning.
Following the squad’s programme has been creative and fun, she says. “We all trained together (coaches too!) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“We also invited athletes from other sports to join us, so by the end, we were joined weekly by a range of new faces from wheelchair basketball and rugby to Paralympic swimming and cycling!
“On top of that, my teammates are also my friends and once restrictions were lifted, we regularly caught up over coffee by the river!”
In between training, Erin has also been practising new sewing skills after buying a sewing machine – projects so far have included a lot of face masks and about 15 tote bags for a friend’s hen do.
A small but tightly knit group, the Para rowers managed to stay well connected through lockdown. However, Tom observes: “The one thing that is lacking when you speak online is the energy that comes from meeting in person; it’s the same when not training as a group, but I think the rowers have been exceptional in this regard and found ways to keep each other motivated.”
Food seems to have been a great source of motivation with GB chef Marcin Mazur hosting online cooking lessons for the rowers three times a week.
“I think it gave me lots of new ideas and made me more creative,” says Marcin. “The response from the rowers was very positive. They sent me lots of pictures with the dishes we made together online; they really enjoyed the food as well. The most common recipes were fish dishes and curries – red Asian curry and Thai green curry.”
James has been busy making scones, cakes and sourdough bread – even delivering loaves to needy friends in Henley – while Erin has tackled “complex dinners” including a traditional Moroccan chicken pastilla, a recommendation from Moe Sbihi. “It took me about seven hours, and we ate it over three days!” she adds.
“We are all looking forward to getting stuck into training for Tokyo”
So, fittingly, on the squad’s first day back to their training centre at Caversham in early July, Marcin treated them to one of their favourite breakfasts: a breakfast burrito with chorizo sausage, bacon, egg, spinach and black beans.
Behind the scenes, the support team have kept the rowers in the best physical state for training and Senior Para Rowing Physiotherapist Pat Dunleavy provided physiotherapy advice and rehabilitation over video calls in lockdown. More recently, Pat has been treating the rowers in person at Caversham, wearing PPE during treatments.
“The outcome is still the same,” he says, “and the rowers are not phased by any of the new procedures that are in place.”
“We were blown away by the hospitality we were shown by our Japanese hosts”
Though the Para squad are now enjoying a well-deserved break, the countdown to Tokyo 2020 (2021) will begin in earnest when they return to training in mid-September.
Erin says: “We are all looking forward to getting stuck into training for Tokyo. It will doubtless be a challenging year, and nobody can probably predict what it will look like. But we are all excited about the racing to come and to eventually get on that start-line in Tokyo.”
The 28-year-old has no plans to retire any time soon, while James had planned to step down after Tokyo, but is now in two minds.
He says: “I love the lifestyle we lead, but it is really tough. Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time injured or ill and it’s not all gold medals or smiles either – there’s a lot of graft that goes behind it.
“This year, even before the start of the season, so September / October – I started thinking ‘I’m going to really miss it if I don’t row after Tokyo’.
“I think it depends on what happens in Tokyo. If we win, it will be a lot easier to hang up my oar and be grateful for what I’ve had. If we don’t win, then I think I’ll be hungry for something better next time round.”
Last October, the Para squad visited the Japanese capital to explore the venue and soak up the culture.
Erin says: “It is a dynamic and fascinating city and we were blown away by the hospitality we were shown by our Japanese hosts.
“The rowing venue is spectacular and thoughtfully built – it is also right in the centre of the city and just 15 minutes from the athlete village. The course may be a little windy, but the location and infrastructure undoubtedly make up for it.
“The Japanese were so welcoming during our visit and are very excited to host the Games.”