It was exciting travelling east to Belgrade as it’s a venue we had never raced at before. We were met immediately with stifling heat, but coming from the terrible weather of Italy, we were certainly not complaining. After settling into the hotel we took an evening stroll through the streets of dilapidated tower blocks to work the travelling out of our legs. It’s so important to get everything right for a world cup as the change around time is tight. We arrive two days before racing starts, have one day of training and familiarisation on the lake, then have to be on top form, ready to race. Preparation is key and we have to make sure we adapt to the change, keep hydrated, eat well and stretch to be in the best physical shape possible.
Coach Jürgen surprises us the next morning as we come to the lake to rig the boats by swapping our seating order around. This is something that is not usually done weeks before a race, never mind the day before! In turn, we surprise him by putting up no resistance to his suggestion and just get on with the preparations. I figure that the boat isn’t going so well, we are far from perfect so why not, it can’t make us go worse! We take to the water, I settle into my new seat (I have never raced at bow in a four before) and have three of the best sessions we have had in this new crew so far. The boat feels amazing underneath us, it flows from stroke to stroke, the speed is far greater than we have been doing in training, everything just works. We come off the water feeling really positive knowing we can do a good job this weekend after all, and everything we have been working on in training has suddenly fallen into place.
The first race is tight but we get control early on and maintain the lead, crossing the finish line well within ourselves and a pleasing margin ahead of the following crews. It’s great to finish ahead after the uncertainty of the previous few weeks and this has given us a boost of much-needed confidence. The first race of any regatta is always tough, it’s a shock to the system. Although we prepare with racing pieces in training, the full race distance of 2000m is a different game. Immediately my racing cough starts as my lungs have been strained and I can expect this to last for well over a week. As we land the boat on the pontoon I have to stagger off to the bushes to be violently sick, which happens so regularly that my crewmates barely notice. I try to keep it hidden from my competitors as it shows them how hard I have been working in the race. In actual fact it is mainly due to my coughing and the sickness is a consequence of the strain from the cough, not necessarily the strain from the racing. We take an hour to warm down properly using the rowing machines and refuel with recovery drinks and food prepared earlier. Then it’s the short bus ride back to the hotel for a physio recovery muscle rub and hot and cold contrast showers to flush the body of remaining lactic acid. Finally a chance to lie down and relax before a crew de-brief with Jürgen, reflecting on the race positives, negatives and the plan for the next day. This post-race strategy is repeated for every race we do and is essential for us to maintain our best performance.
The regatta runs very much to plan, we improve further in the semi final and move into the final with confidence but never taking anyone for granted. We have a slower start than others but remain very focused in our own boat and settle onto our race rhythm quickly, feeling crews dropping back. We take the lead by 500m and gradually, inch by inch, extend this lead over the next 1000m, where with 500m to go we are clear water ahead of the rest of the field. This is such a good feeling and at this point you are in the knowledge that someone would have to do something very special to come through and beat you from this position. We finish a boat length ahead winning our first gold in the 2012 season.
It is very pleasing to be presented with a gold medal knowing that, although we had a good race, we were actually very lucky to have pulled together just in the nick of time and get our boat moving well at the last minute. The race was good but it was nothing more than a start and if we want to win the Olympic gold in three months’ time, we still have a long way to go. Some say that the key is to be able to win on your worst day, and I feel that in Belgrade we were far from the best we can expect and we have plenty more boat speed to find. We head home looking forward to the next couple of weeks of training leading up to the second World Cup in Lucerne.