Interview: Anna Watkins on beating the world

Gabrielle Peterson 31 January 2014

With the Boat Race looming, TCS Sport asks Olympic gold medalist Anna Watkins about her brilliant rowing journey that started on the River Cam.


Q: What got you into rowing and what is the most difficult thing about rowing?

A: I got into rowing to get fit, and to try something new – that was all! I never expected it to become my life. The most difficult thing about rowing is getting the whole crew to be thinking and feeling both in a physical and emotional sense, the same thing at the same time.

Q: What was it like rowing at Newnham? How did you transition from rowing for a college to rowing in the Olympics?

Q: I loved rowing at Newnham. I was a committed boatie and my social life was all wrapped up with the boat club. Going for a long row below the lock on summer evenings after revision is one of my all-time best rowing moments. My first race in the NCBC first eight was Lent Bumps 2002. I was pretty nervous as I had only noviced the term before and I had been given this opportunity. I totally tensed up, caught a crab and we got bumped. I’ve never felt so awful. The next year we won our blades going head of May Bumps, so that was the moment of redemption. Once I decided I wanted to row seriously, I joined Rob Roy as I needed to learn to row a single. I took a job looking after conference guests at John’s, stayed in Cambridge for the holidays and went out on the river twice a day. I found someone to coach me and started going to trials.

Q: What was it like training for the Olympics? What kept you motivated?

A: On a good day, you can’t believe training for the Olympics is your job. We could be out on a lake in the Italian sunshine, sculling on flat water surrounded by the Alps, and then come in and eat ice-cream with impunity as we had burned so many calories. On a bad day, it is 24km on a 2k course in the howling wind and rain, or an ergo test when you’re already exhausted. On days like those you need your friends and plenty of gallows humour. It also helps that you don’t have any choice about whether to do the session, once you’re in the national squad that deeply!

Q: What was the race like? What does it feel like to win an Olympic Gold?

A: The race was a huge effort. I knew precisely what mindset I needed to be in: nervous but excited, alert, calm and in control. I wasn’t worried about the pain because by that stage it seemed irrelevant. I wanted to win so much I would have taken any amount of pain. So I put a lot of effort into getting in and staying in the right zone. When we crossed the line I was still working hard physically and mentally. Everyone watching was way more emotional than me, I couldn’t afford to get like that! Then over the next weeks and months, it sunk in that I’d done it, my ten years’ effort had been worth it, we had beaten the world, and there were tears! I would cry in random places like a carpark as it hit me bit by bit.

Q: How does it feel to have an entire country pulling for you? How has it changed your life?

A: I feel very proud that I was able to represent Team GB well. The roaring sound of the home crowd will stay with me for life. I now feel a great responsibility to live up to that role, and use the status well. I realise that I have an influence and I want to use it to promote fitness for young women.

Q: What made you want to be the Ambassador of the Boat Race? What kind of involvement does that entail?

A: It’s natural for me as a rower and Cambridge graduate. BNY Mellon want to raise the profile of rowing and drive participation. I’m passionate about that so I was keen to be involved. My role is to communicate to the world what the Boat Race is all about, and also to teach BNY Mellon a bit about rowing!

Q: Any advice for rowers who haven’t made it to that Olympic level yet?

A: Trust your own boat feel, it’s more use than any words from the bank!

Q: How do you feel about the women moving to the Tideway next year?

A: It’s absolutely fantastic and key to making the Boat Race relevant for the modern world. It’s a worthwhile lesson that the change was actually sponsor driven, these old ways of doing things can’t continue in the 21st century. With the newly boosted set-ups, the standard and interest are only going to climb.