Olympian Alison Mowbray: On flapjacks, the french horn, cambridge blues and winning silver

With the anticipation of the Boat Races building, Gabrielle Peterson for TCS Sport talks with rowing Olympic Silver Medalist and Cambridge PhD graduate Alison Mowbray on her newly published autobiography “Gold Medal Flapjack, Silver Medal Life,” chronicling her inspiring journey from a “non-sporty kid” to an Olympic silver medal.

In your autobiography, you give an overview of your childhood and how it shaped your future endeavors. Could you speak more about your transition from an unathletic child to a successful professional athlete? How do you think your non-sport achievements in your youth affected your future?

Perhaps because I grew so quickly and was always tall, I was a rather un-coordinated child. I couldn’t catch anything, throw anything, hit anything, or run very fast. As all our school sports involved those skills I wasn’t very good at any of them. I loved baking and so did my Mum, we both made and ate a lot of cake so I was also quite a ‘well-built’ kid when I wasn’t shooting upwards fast enough to stay skinny. I was keen, loved being active and outside and would have loved to have been good at sport but because I was no good at all the school sports I branded myself ‘non-sporty’. I think a lot of kids do that. This book started life as a recipe book to record all the great recipes I’ve inherited from my childhood and collected during my life. Hence the title. Only the flapjack recipe made it to the final edit but I’m putting the rest on my Gold Medal Flapjack Facebook page if you want to find them.

Fortunately Yorkshire Comprehensive schools had a great school music programme at the time and I was given a school French Horn on loan and free music lessons. What I talk about in the book is how I think I learnt everything I needed to know to get to be an Olympian, apart from the actual sport, from music rather than sport at school. 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 and piano practice, I had rehearsals most lunch times and every day after school, I’d get up again on Saturday to play in Area Orchestras and played at Country level in the holidays. I learnt how to hold my own line at the same time as blending with a team, and dealing with the sickening nerves of playing a solo really wasn’t that different from lining up for an Olympic final. 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 learnt at school was the importance of turning up. You can’t achieve anything if you don’t turn up.

How did you get into rowing? What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of the sport?

I went to Liverpool University to do a Microbiology degree when I was 18 and signed up with the rowing club at Fresher’s fair on the first day. I wanted to take the opportunity to do something completely different. I’d never even watched any Olympic rowing by this point, but I used to watch the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race on TV and while we were watching someone said “You’d be good at that Alison, you’re tall.” So I thought I’d give it a go.

I loved it from the first time I got into a boat. 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. It was a revelation to find a sport where my physical size was an advantage rather than got in the way. I loved being part of a team for the first time. We only rowed twice a week but I also loved the circuit training sessions. I was so unfit when I started I couldn’t last 30 seconds on any exercise but counting the reps and trying to get a bit better every session suited my scientific and competitive mind. I think one of the advantages of not doing a lot of sport when I was a kid was that I was so excited by getting fit and discovering what my body would do. I never grew out of that.

It came easier than any sport had ever done but that wasn’t saying much. I wasn’t even the best rower at my University so I didn’t think about going to the Olympics (except in a rather dreamy way) at that stage. One of the hardest things was that although being tall was an advantage at University and Club level, at 5’11’’ and just under 11 stone I’m quite small for an International rower. It was very hard to make the transition, and I think I had to deal with a lot of coaches prejudice that I was too small and my ergo score was too small to ever be Olympic medal material even though I could often beat the bigger athletes on the water.

But THE hardest thing about being a rower was the early mornings. I’m a complete night owl and find it pretty impossible to get to sleep before midnight, even if I’m completely exhausted, so early mornings always killed me. It’s a testament to how much I loved rowing that despite this I only ever missed one morning session in a 15 year rowing career. I was so tired one day while I was training with the GB squad that I slept straight though my alarm. That day I went out and bought a second alarm clock and then always set two alarms, 2 minutes apart. I never missed another session.

What was it like rowing for Cambridge? How did it change your career? What did you find unique about the program?

I came to Cambridge with the joint aim of getting my PhD and a rowing Blue. I loved my first year rowing with the Blue’s squad. It was the first time I’d been able to row pretty much every day and the first time I’d trained twice most days. Despite the crazy early mornings I found that to be a real advantage. We were also coached every session which again was new for me. 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.

My second year was less fun as I was by that time really struggling with the PhD and since I was CUWBC President I had a lot extra organization to do. I think there was much less of a system back them. We had no paid coaches and it was the President’s responsibility to arrange all the volunteer coaches every week for all three crews (Blue boat, Blondie and Lightweights). We won again but it took far too much out of me. I was rather frustrated too because I’d competed at GB Under 23 level in my single the summer before coming to Cambridge but there was no path to progress any International aspirations I had. I used to put my single on the top of my car and drive myself up to Peterborough for winter trials and compete by myself when everyone else had coaches looking out for them. There are a couple of funny stories in the book about those disastrous trials performances (my boat fell apart the first time and I fell in the second).

The most important thing it taught me though was how to be self-reliant in my sculling. Once I’d finished the second Boat race I didn’t row with the squad anymore and stopped competing to finish my PhD but I trained every day by myself, making up my own training programmes and coaching myself. I won Women’s Henley in my single like that. I still think that was some of the best training I ever did because it was so absolutely right for me and my body.

How did you find balance between rowing for the blues and doing a PhD?  In your book, you say that the PhD was the most difficult thing you ever did. Could you talk a bit about the highs and lows of your experience?

Doing a PhD caught me completely by surprise. I’d loved science since I was at school and had the best years of my life at Liverpool University so I’d imagined doing a PhD was just a way of making all that last a bit longer. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I arrived with no idea of what a PhD entailed and it took me the best part of 2 years, and most of my funded time to work it out. My supervisor and I fell out badly over rowing. He didn’t think I could do both at the same time. I thought I could but my lack of results was evidence in his favour. I had to restart from scratch on a new project a year and a half in. My three years of funding had nearly run out before I got my first real result. I had to stay on unfunded for an extra year and left after four still with most of the writing up to do. It took me five and a half years in total to get it. I’m not sure there were any highs from doing my PhD, apart from some of the friendships I made. 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. As with the school music, I’m not sure if I’d have known how to get that Olympic medal without the PhD experiences.

Your book goes into a lot of detail of your mental process for overcoming the challenges and the physical pain of training. What kept you going every day?

I write that this book is a story of “mind-set not muscle”. I work with sports psychologists now taking sports psychology into business and I was amazed when I started how much I already knew despite not having done a degree in it. It’s like I worked so much of it out for myself over the 15 years I was rowing. 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 and I write them all down in the book. I had a lot of mantras that I adopted or made up myself and they form the Chapter titles for the book. 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. I allow myself to set the big, crazy goals and dreams but then break it down into the smallest steps and do a bit more every day. Sometimes, it’s so hard to find the motivation and the step will be as small as just focusing on putting on my trainers or opening up my lap top, but once I’ve done that step I allow myself to think about the next one and get that done too.

What was it like racing in the Olympics? How did it feel to win the Silver medal?

I was terrified before my first ever race on a little canal in Manchester aged 18 and I’m not sure it changed that much. I kept getting better but then kept competing at higher and higher levels so still always felt just as terrified. The last 2 hours of racing were always the worst of my whole life, but then I loved racing. It was like I was designed to race, everything always came together in those moments. 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 maybe you’ll have to read the book for that bit.

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

I’m not sure it’s changed my life because who knows what I’d have been doing otherwise but having that one medal has changed how I feel about myself. It’s like a coat of armour but on the inside where no one can see. I’m not famous so I can be in a room with thousands of people and no one will know I’ve won an Olympic medal. But sometimes I remember when I’m sat there and think that I’m probably the only person there who has competed at the Olympics, let alone won a medal. 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.

Your book talks about the incredible challenges that you faced getting to the Olympics. What was the hardest thing you had to overcome?  How has getting the Olympic medal changed your perspective on those challenges?

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 and deeper. I stopped for several months at one point because 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. But I loved writing so I decided to keep going and not worry what I’d do with the finished book.

I think it was writing the book, not getting the medal itself that has changed my perspective on all this. I think we are all the sum total of all our experiences in life and I needed all of mine, including and perhaps especially the most difficult ones to get that medal.

Do you have any advice for rowers who haven’t made it to an Olympic final?

Nothing we do is ever wasted. Most people row because it’s a brilliant sport and they love it. Whatever level you reach, pushing yourself on to the next scary level is your equivalent of an Olympic final. I don’t think I was any more scared or any more elated about racing and winning my first Boat Race or the single at Women’s Henley than I was about the Olympic final. Well maybe just a bit more elated, but that was to do with the length of time I’d been working towards it and how hard it had been to get there. Get as far as you can with your rowing, balance the working hard with the enjoyment and don’t be afraid to fail at the top. At least then you’ll know you took it as far as you could. When you move onto something else the skills you’ve learn from rowing may well take you to an ‘Olympic Final’ in whatever you choose to do next.

How have you coped and continued after achieving your goal and winning an Olympic medal?  What have your experiences after the medal taught you?

Publishing the book nearly 10 years after the medal means I get to talk about that in a way that most sporting autobiographies don’t. ‘What happens next?’ and ‘What happens after that?’ are the two last chapters.  It was very tough at times but writing, learning to write and publishing the book has been the next ‘Olympic medal experience’.

If you're interested, check out Alison's facebook page and gain access to more recipes, and more photos and information about her extraordinairy life.

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