Helen Glover’s fairytale falls short but Team GB star content with supercharged rowing comeback

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Helen Glover (left) and Polly Swann of Team GB react after coming in fourth in the women’s pair final (Getty)
Helen Glover (left) and Polly Swann of Team GB react after coming in fourth in the women’s pair final (Getty)

As Helen Glover reflected on her supercharged rowing comeback ending with fourth place in an Olympic final, she had one overriding thought: “How the f*** did I do that?”

The two-time gold medallist made history just by reaching the start line of the women’s pair heats alongside Polly Swann – the mum-of-three becoming the first woman to compete in rowing for Team GB at an Olympic Games after giving birth.

Further history was on the line in the final at the Sea Forest Waterway on Thursday, with no British woman having ever won Olympic gold at three separate Games and Glover already sitting on women’s pair titles from London 2012 and Rio 2016.

There was no shame in a fourth-place finish, as they crossed the line 2.86sec behind bronze medallists Canada in a race won by New Zealand, and in some ways it shouldn’t come as a surprise – given that while her competitors were racing in World Cups earlier this year, she was still breastfeeding her twins Kit and Bo.

Yet Glover’s status as one of the greatest British rowers in history gave rise to the hope that, even though they had to come through the repechage after stuttering in their heat, they could complete one of the most unbelievable fairytales in sporting history.

Swann, it’s worth noting, wasn’t merely a vehicle for Glover to start an incredible return to rowing barely a year before an Olympics; the Scot has a remarkable story of her own, having worked as a junior doctor during the first wave of the Covid pandemic last year, and will return to a job at Borders General Hospital next week.

Ultimately, the rowing gods deemed that reaching an Olympic final was reward enough but Glover had no regrets about the outcome – merely slight bemusement at how she’d reached this point.

“For both of us, this has always felt like a journey more than anything we’ve done,” explained the 35-year-old, all her races live on Eurosport and discovery+.

“The journey, not only during this regatta to get to this final, but the journey over the last year for both of us is one that I’ll look back on in a few years and go, ‘how the f*** did I do that? What was that year about?’

“Everyone will remember the year of the pandemic for their own reasons. Me, I’ll think that’s the thing that took me to another Olympics.”

Glover has made no secret that her family – TV explorer husband Steve Backshall, their three-year-old-son Logan and 18-month-old twins Kit and Bo – have put rowing into perspective and given her a new outlook.

In fact, rather than feeling disappointment at a fourth-place finish, the Cornwall native wanted the result to inspire her brood.

“My ambition for my kids to take home from this would be, in the future – take the risks, take the chances with no fear of failure,” she added. “Just have excitement – yes, there are the results, but it’s the journey.

“Your perspective changes when you have children and my perspective is what effect and impact can I have?

“What does this journey mean and where does it lead to, rather than just a result that’s a dot in the timeline of your life.”

Having quit rowing after her second gold medal at Rio, Glover changed her mind four years later – so is she definitively done with the sport now?

“In Rio, I said it was my last Olympics and this time I’m saying ‘this is definitely it’,” laughed Glover. “But everyone around me keeps saying ‘no, no, you’re definitely going to do the single’!

“I definitely don’t see myself coming back. It’s definitely not in the pipeline.”

While Glover was celebrating her fourth place, Imogen Grant and Emily Craig were experiencing the heartbreak of the worst position to come at an Olympics.

Only a photo finish denied them bronze in an enthralling lightweight women’s double sculls final, where all six crews were in the medal hunt, as the Netherlands pipped them to third by 0.01sec, literally the finest of margins.

“I think we all deserved a medal,” said Grant afterwards. “We were pretty close but I think we did everything we could.

“We left everything out there and obviously it was pretty gutting to not be coming away with a medal around our necks.”

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