I thought it would be a bit of fun. After a couple of weeks back at training, our three-week post-World break was long forgotten. A short trip to South America would fit into my schedule very well, thank you very much. This was something I wasn’t going to turn down in a hurry – a once-in-a-career opportunity to visit a different part of the world, without the pressure and stresses that come from a major event. I was taking it seriously but I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it was more of a treat than a necessity. How very wrong I was.
We were flying off to Rio de Janeiro for an Olympic familiarisation and orientation training camp. It was to be a mixture of site visits, acclimatisation and training. A joint trip organised by GB rowing and the BOA (British Olympic Association), it was to prepare us for what we may face when the 2016 Olympics arrives. This is something that happens before every Olympics; before 2012 it was a small-scale affair, around London, on a bus.
We arrived in Rio late one evening under a thick blanket of warm South American air. Immediately I could smell the difference and I loved it. Weaving our way through city streets, forest-clad mountain peaks and beach-front drives, we arrived in a tiny, nondescript hotel in an area called Ipanema. It meant nothing to me. I was dazed, my time zones were out of sync and I was feeling a little sick. I felt excited about the coming days, but otherwise desperate for sleep.
The next morning I was awoken by the sound of traffic beneath my window. It was difficult to grasp where I was to start with as I looked out to the street below. The trees along the roadsides were covered with epiphytes, vines clung to the canopy and stretched down to the pavement – there was a prehistoric look to them all. There were a couple of guys lowering a wardrobe out of the window of an apartment opposite me, three floors up. The wardrobe was hanging precariously by what looked like a long, frayed shoelace. There was a chap below standing helpfully with outstretched arms, presumably waiting to catch it if something happened, like the shoelace snapped. I’m sure he would have been fine though, as he was wearing his protective Havaiana flip flops. I had woken up in a different country, that was for sure.
We were to meet as a group in the hotel lobby to walk our new commute to work. We would be training at the famous Flamengo football club, which was around 25 minutes from our hotel. En masse, 30 British rowers turned right out of the hotel doors and were all instantly stunned to see the sea shining straight ahead of us. An expanse of shimmering, glistening ocean stretched out before a vast beach of beautiful yellow sand. Palm trees framed our view and arched over us as we took the 50 or so steps onto the famous Ipanema Beach. Pulling our eyes away from the view, we moved through the streets, block after block towards our destination. The streets were already buzzing and you immediately had the sense that people had been awake for many hours before us. Even at 7:30am there were people well into their day’s work. We walked until the towering high-rise buildings opened up and we could see the spotless blue sky above. Stretched out ahead of us was another vast expanse of water –this time it was the city’s lagoon, or Lagoa. It forms a central focal point to the city, framed around all edges by busy roads and high-rise buildings, which are surrounded by huge, towering tree-covered cliffs. It makes an impressive attraction. Incredibly, this will be the lake we will race on during the Olympics in 2016 and for us to race not only within the confines of the city but right in its very centre, is going to be incredibly special.
Circling the Lagoa for another 10 minutes we arrived at our host club. Our training requirements were simple: a rowing machine (ergo) and a room full of weights. It’s rare to say sitting on an ergo is interesting, fun or even inspiring, but the machines were placed in the shade on the water’s edge. We spent hours on those machines looking out at the rowing course towards the start line. Christ the Redeemer stands tall, high on a mountain peak, arms outstretched, overseeing the city, and any rowers lucky enough to be on his waters. It was an incredible view, it’s an inspiring place, and motivation to race in two years’ time was rising with every stroke I took.
It wasn’t only the views that proved to be a motivation. What struck me more than anything during my time there were the people. There was a welcoming atmosphere that hung with me from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. All warnings and concerns of safety quickly disappeared. Striking up a conversation with someone was easy, people are happy to stop and talk, say hello as you pass, and there seems to be a genuine interest in one another. We became friendly with the rowers at the club. One young rower sat next to me for some of the ergo sessions, matching my rhythm, hour after hour. We chatted afterwards, as though we had known each other for years, and exchanged gifts when it was time to leave.
The best example I have of the passion and interest of the people was during one afternoon after a training session. I was walking back to the hotel, along the edge of the Lagoa, when a huge man in a vest stopped to chat to me. He was a local, setting up a small kickboxing ring on the grass to do a bit of training with his friend. We started talking; he was genuinely interested in why I was there, what I was doing in Rio and invited me to train with him. Looking at the size of him, the scars covering his face, and the jaunty angle of his nose, I thought it was better that I didn’t use that moment to take up kickboxing. Using the excuse of being very, very tired from my own training, I politely declined. He knew my game, but I felt that we were both better off after our exchange. Maybe he was simply looking for an easy target to kick, but I like to believe he was genuine. It was unusual, pleasant, interesting and something I wish we were more comfortable doing in this country. There were numerous similar examples where I was surprised by the friendliness and passion the local people had for life.
We were taken on tours to the sites of the Olympic Park, stadium and Olympic village, which, come 2016, will house 10,000 athletes and all the thousands of support staff that make up the teams. Much of this wasn’t yet fully built but work is well on the way. I left with an impression that things weren’t going to be finished early, but everything would be done on time…the Brazilian way.
I’ve only touched the surface here; the trip was filled with unbelievable experiences. I came home with a huge surge of motivation knowing that everything I do now is to ensure that when 2016 comes around, I’m sitting there in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer. I want to experience one of the greatest events on earth in a country where sport and passion are natural and part of life. London was a spectacular games and Rio will be even more so.