Alison Mowbray's personal struggle from Cambridge Blue to Olympic silver

Alison Mowbray is now a motivational speaker
Image credit: Ben Freeman

Nearly 10 years after winning a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the women’s quadruple scull, British rower and Cambridge PhD graduate Alison Mowbray took on a new challenge that she says became her “next Olympic medal experience.”
She recently wrote an autobiography called Gold Medal Flapjack,  Silver Medal Life.  It is a remarkably honest book that provides insight into her amazing career.    

“I started writing this as a recipe book with a few stories from my life, but once I started writing I couldn’t stop and just kept going deeper,” Mowbray said.  “I knew, if I kept writing like this, I was going to have to start writing about things I’d hardly talked about or even thought clearly about before. Things I didn’t think I could ever publish.”

Mowbray discusses overcoming personal family problems that deeply affected her. “I flirted with anorexia, I think, but rowing saved me because it was more important to me to be good at that than to get thin.” 

She describes herself as an unlikely Olympian – a “non-sporty” child.  “I couldn’t catch anything, throw anything, hit anything, or run very fast,” she said. She was, in fact, a musician.

“What I talk about in the book is how I think I learned everything I needed to know to get to be an Olympian, apart from the actual sport, from music rather than sport at school,” Mowbray said.  

“While all the sporty kids were doing sport, I was doing music with the same dedication.  I’d get up early every morning to do my French horn …. By the time I finally found rowing, I already had all that going for me.  I couldn’t believe it when people just didn’t turn up for training.  One of the most important things I learned at school was the importance of turning up.  You can’t achieve anything if you don’t turn up.”

Mowbray discovered rowing at Liverpool University when she was 18. “I loved it from the first time I got into the boat,” she said.  “I joke that it was the relief of finally finding a sport that didn’t involve catching, throwing, hitting or running, but that’s not far from the truth.”

From there it was Cambridge Blue and a PhD to go with it. “I loved my first year rowing with the Blue’s squad,” she said.  “Being coached by the legendary Ron Needs was the first time I’d had international level coaching.  We won, and it was hard work but a lot of fun.”

Achieving a PhD was not as much fun.  Once Mowbray finished her second Boat Race, she stopped rowing with the squad to finish her PhD, which she says took five and a half years.

“I’m not sure there were any highs from doing my PhD, apart from some of the friendships I made,” Mowbray said.  “I am glad I finished it and got it through.  Learning how to deal with that repetitive failure and finding the success at the end was pretty much a mirror of my future rowing career.”

Then came the 2004 Athens Olympics and the race that would define her life. “It was like I was designed to race, everything always came together in those moments,” she said. 

“I was terrified racing at the Olympics, but I just had to trust that my mind and body would respond as it always did and it did. Racing in the Quad at Athens was extra special because I had such a close bond with the other girls in my crew, and that boat felt so amazing when we got it right. Winning the medal was an incredible feeling that’s hard to describe. That’s kind of the end of the story, so you’ll have to read the book for that bit.”

Mowbray says winning the medal has changed the way she feels about herself. “It has given me the strength to do a lot of things I’d never have thought I could do, including writing and publishing this book,” she said. 

“Not being a sporty kid or the best and biggest natural athlete rower, I had to work out every mental advantage to keep me up there in training and racing ... I had a lot of mantras that I adopted or made up myself … One of my favorites is: ‘No goal is too big and scary that you can’t do the next smallest step before you give up on it.’ I’ve got a PhD, an Olympic medal and written this book by holding absolutely onto that mantra every day.”

If you are looking for a great flapjack recipe, it did make the final edit. 

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