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After hitting a career high in winning Olympic gold in the coxless pairs on home water at London 2012, British rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning went on to dominate their event and retain their title at Rio 2016.
It was only in 2008, four years before the London Games, that Heather Stanning and Helen Glover had their first taste of international rowing. Born on 26 January 1985 in Yeovil, Somerset, Stanning had originally turned her back on sport to focus on her military career, serving in Afghanistan as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Meanwhile, her future rowing partner Glover, who was born on 17 June 1986 in Truro, Cornwall, was a PE teacher trying to break into Great Britain’s Olympic hockey team.
One of 4,000 people responding to a national campaign to unearth sporting talent, which was headed up by five-time Olympic rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave, Glover earned selection for the rowing programme. For her part, Stanning was moved to pursue her ambitions in the sport after watching the rowing competitions at Beijing 2008, deciding that she still had goals to fulfil and to push herself to the limit to achieve them.
The British duo’s rise to the top began when the coach Paul Stannard put them together in the coxless pairs in 2010. Though they came away empty-handed from their first World Cup regattas that year, the gap separating them from more established pairs ahead was relatively small. Despite Glover’s lack of experience and the fact their partnership was still in its infancy, they improved so rapidly that they won silver at their maiden World Championships that November, on Lake Karapiro in New Zealand.
Devoting their energies entirely to their sport ever since, Glover and Stanning set about preparing for the Olympic Games London 2012. In the season leading up to that date with destiny, they won every round of the FISA World Rowing Cup they contested and were favourites by the time they lined up for the start of the coxless pair Olympic final at Eton Dorney on 1 August 2012, having set a Games record of 6:57.29 in winning their heat.
With 32,000 expectant spectators in the stands, the pressure on them to win Great Britain’s first gold of its home Games and the first ever for British women’s rowing was intense.
Recalling her thoughts as the home crowd voiced their encouragement at the start line, Glover said: “I remember the feeling was quite ready, just quite calm.” Adding her recollections, partner Stanning said: “I think it’s always quite nice in this part of the race because you’ve gone out at the start, you’ve got an idea of what’s going on and then you can relax into the race a little bit.”
Jumping into an early lead, the British boat quickly pulled away from the rest of the field and stayed well ahead all the way to the finish line. Settling to 36 strokes a minute, Glover and Stanning passed the 1,000m marker in a time of 3:39.5, some 3.5 seconds clear of New Zealand’s Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown, with Australia’s Kate Hornsey and Sarah Tait 6.2 adrift of the leaders.
As the finish line approached so the noise from the crowd increased, as Stanning recalled: “Normally you only hear people in the last 250 metres. So having that extra 500 metres of people, it kind of swallows up that bit of the race quite quickly.”
The lead over the Kiwis had grown to five seconds with 500m remaining, with Glover and Stanning eventually easing over the line to spark scenes of great celebration in the stands. Behind them, a little over two seconds adrift, the Australian pair took silver, having overhauled the New Zealanders in the sprint for the line.
“I just remember feeling utter relief because we’d won every race that season coming up to it,” said Glover. “I was so tired but so excited and I couldn’t even lift myself to get up off my seat or get back on my seat,” added Stanning. The pair looked up to see their coaches waving excitedly at them from the bank. “That was one of the nicest moments actually just seeing them,” recalled Glover. “No matter what happens for the rest of my life, I’ve done something I can be proud of forever. No one can ever take that away from me.”
London 2012 was just the start for the pair, however. When Stanning then took a break from rowing to return to the armed forces, Glover teamed up with Polly Swan to win her maiden world title in Chungju (KOR) in 2013. A year later, the Olympic champions were reunited and showed they had lost none of their magic by setting a new coxless pair world record of 6:50.61 in becoming world champions in Amsterdam. Another world title followed in Aiguebelette (FRA) in 2015, with the British duo also winning three consecutive European crowns between 2014 and 2016.
Comfortable winners of the British Olympic trial in March 2016, the all-conquering Glover and Stanning headed to Rio as the reigning Olympic, world and European champions and very firm favourites to retain their title in Brazil.
The British pair eased through their heats in Rio. The Olympic and world record holders over 2,000m, they defended their title in style, leading the final from start to finish and holding a four-second lead over Denmark’s Hedvig Rasmussen and Anne Andersen at the halfway stage. The Danes were caught by New Zealand’s Genevieve Behrens and Rebecca Scown in the closing stages, with the Kiwis taking silver, 1.24 seconds behind the invincible Glover and Stanning.
"I just want to find our coach and family and friends because it’s all for them. I want to say thank you,” said Glover afterwards, while a delighted Stanning was moved to compare their second triumph to the first: “I know it was a home Games and there’s nothing more special, but this was defending a title. This is not being good once, it’s being good every day, every race. It just feels so good with all the pressure we put on ourselves. It’s pretty immense.”