Friday, March 9, 2012

Reflection and rehabilitation

It's the night before the first day of final trials, and the first time in 4yrs I'm not sat in a hotel room, going through my pre-race preparation. Because I'm not racing. However, I know, almost to the minute, exactly what I'd be doing if I was racing tomorrow. That's because my pre-race routine had become a second nature military operation and I almost didn't have to think about it. Pre-occupied with thoughts of what was to come I would run through the tasks, each one with a specific reason and purpose, like someone possessed.

More than that, I know, almost to the minute, how I'd be feeling if I was racing tomorrow. I can even hear the same thoughts in my head now, as I sit in my room, as if I was racing tomorrow. The constant wave of running through the race from stroke 1 to the finish, followed by the horrible reminder of the process leading up to taking that first stroke before the calming automated responses I'd trained myself to remember.

Although everyone enters trials with the same aim, everyone is different about how they approach them and how it makes them feel. For me, trials was exactly that - a trial. I feared them. It didn't get any easier either, just worse. The longer I was in the team and the faster I got, the more I felt I had to lose. Ironic really, given I was more likely to get the outcome I desired the more experience and strength I gained. I remember looking at the squad girls at my first ever trial in 2007 (at which I came 12th and was incredibly pleased with myself, for the record) and thinking how nice it must be to sit on the start line knowing you were going to do well. That making the A final was a given.

The truth is, as you obviously know, there are no guarantees. We all prepare for success, as to do otherwise would be foolish, but no-one has a golden ticket. Every place is earned. There are talented individuals who seem to go fast without much effort, but they will still have trained hard and will race to the edge like everyone else. I didn't realise it at the time, but those squad girls were just as nervous, just for different reasons. I feared them.

Then there was the pain. I feared that a lot. The longer you are in a sport, the more aware you become of what it takes to push yourself to that place where results are achieved and dreams are made. And that place just gets deeper. But as much as I feared it, I also craved it, as pain is the guarantee that you are pushing yourself as hard as you can, that you are spending the money you put in the bank over all those long, dark winter mornings. Without the pain, the result would never be satisfactory and a bad result would haunt you forever. Pain is what you seek to live with whatever the result may be.

And that result means everything. It is what dictates funding and separates those that go on - and those that do not. It can change your life. That's what happened to me in 2009. I didn't expect to make the team and I certainly didn't expect to go to the World Championships. 3 seconds did that. That's the time difference between my 3rd place and the girl who placed 4th, which dictated my route into the A final and the lightweight quad, and her path into the B final and the lightweight single. You might think that's the same outcome - we both went to the 2009 World Championships - but the course of the rest of our rowing careers was set from that very point in Hazelwinkel and, although I won't go into it here, they turned out very differently.

So I feared the result more than anything. But that's what make sport so amazing and what keeps people coming back for more. Because the highs are unbelievably high - when the result is what you needed, and often more, and the fear is replaced by immense joy. It's like a drug. It's worth the pain, the mental anguish, the fear, the planning, the days, weeks and months of training, the emotional torture and the constant testing. It's even worth putting all that on the line in final trials.

And that's why I sit here knowing what I would be doing and how I would be feeling. Because it never goes away, that knowledge of what rests on this weekend. What it means to those that are racing. It makes me sad to think I will probably never feel like that again and certainly will never feel like that again for the same reasons. Risking it all for the ultimate high.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tough decisions

So, here I am, 3 months later. A retired international athlete. I faltered for a while, trying to maintain a level of decent training whilst working full time, but ultimately I knew that something had to give and I didn't want it to be me. So the training had to stop. You might think that's defeatist given many people out there train on a full-time job, but once training has been your main occupation, doing it alongside something else is simply not a viable option. Especially when that something else demands your full attention and not falling asleep at your desk. In short, training alongside my job was making me miserable as I was doing both badly and certainly not to the level I wanted.

However, don't be fooled into thinking that was the easy route. Given how long and hard I thought about leaving rowing to commit once again to my career, it has come as an enormous surprise to me (but not my friends and family, which says a lot) how much I'm really struggling to let rowing go. I was convinced it was going to be tough but it was what I wanted - to move on with life and finally commit the time and energy I wanted to my (real) job. To give up the long, cold morning outings, the horrifically painful ergs and the killer weights sessions. To enjoy a warm lie-in rather than slog up to Boston for bitterly cold and mostly miserable winter trials. To avoid the mental and emotional pressure that comes with pitting yourself against your friends in 2k ergs and trials and constantly testing yourself against the best.

But the truth is I miss it. To the point that I think about it from the moment I open my eyes to the minute I close them again. There have been tears. Mainly from frustration and anger at myself, rather than sadness or self pity. Yes I'm sad it's over, but this isn't my main reason for being upset - it's the the fact that I made this decision, I put myself in this position. It is my fault I have to go to work all day rather than head out on the water or go to the gym. I know that I'm probably only remembering the good times and not the bad - my flatmate reminded me that I told her that I would change my mind a thousand times and that I had asked her to remind me of my reasons - but that doesn't stop me wanting to turn the clock back and put myself through another season. To finish the Olympiad, whatever the outcome.

Of course, I have to remember that the price was high. In the literal sense, I was not a funded athlete - coming 6th in trials for the last 3yrs doesn't warrant funding due to there only being 2 Olympics seats for lwt women, despite being a gold and silver medallist and World Cup A finalist twice. In terms of my salary, I calculated that my gold medal cost me in the region of £80k in sacrificed salary, bonus and pension. Don't get me wrong, it was absolutely worth it, but when your chances of going to the Olympics are slim and the best you can hope for is to repeat your success already achieved, you start to count the cost. Then there's the career progression. At 31, having already set my career back a couple of years through missed promotions, I started to question what I ultimately wanted out of life and how I could best get there. Another potential year in the GB team (as nothing is guaranteed in trials!) versus accepting a guaranteed promotion and pay rise that would take me to another level in my career was a difficult choice, but ultimately I made the one that made more sense in the longer term.

I now know that my career will always be there and rowing for GB won't, and to be a member of that team in the London Olympic year whether on the Olympic team or not would be incredible - but the deal is done. I've missed too much to go back and made a commitment to my company that I should honour. So I have to keep my head held high, smile about the good times and remember that I achieved more than I ever set out to do. It doesn't make it any easier, but it helps.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


So, it's been a long, long time since I last posted. Apologies for that, but the main reason was that I felt it would be better if I didn't make public the process I was going through in trying to reach the 2011 team. However, now that it's over and I'm sitting back in the UK still working part-time but not training, I now have the time to sit back and reflect on the past 12 months, what I set out to achieve and how it all worked out.

As most of you will know, the last 12 months have been long and difficult (although I'm struggling to come to terms with the fact that it's all over and I not only achieved what I set out to do but came out with the best result). NZ was a hard pill to swallow after 7wks on a bike, and many more weeks and months of work before that, to get in the boat; to come out of that with 4th place by 0.3s was a kick in the stomach to be honest. On reflection, all of us can see the reasons why it happened, some of our making, others out of our control. However, there were a lot of lessons learnt that for those of us that made the crew again this year that we were determined not to make again.

One obvious but key learning was that the later the crew selection takes place, the more likely it is to produce a poor result. Sounds obvious but it's not something that GB Rowing necessarily agree with. This led to me getting quite angry about the delays in selection this year to the point that I emailed the chief coach to say so. In the end, I feel that the right crew was chosen, but they could have selected it weeks before they did. I understand that the right result was achieved in the end, but it still resulted in a lot of unnecessary stress for those of us involved in the process.

The second learning was that we are there to do a job - we are business partners - and therefore we should treat the project as such. More specifically, we all have roles to play - coach and athletes alike - and we all want the same outcome therefore we need to work as a team to produce the result in the most efficient and effective way possible. So we spent a lot of time this year on understanding who we were as individuals, what made us tick, what we could bring to the party and how best to work together to get the best out of us all individually and as a crew. I'm not saying this was easy, particularly for stubborn little me, but I'm certain it was key to our success. Flexibility was critical; being willing to listen and adapt meant that we ultimately were all doing the same thing. This didn't mean that we weren't entitled to an opinion (as we definitely had plenty of those, particularly those of us that had been round the block a couple of times) but we did try and identify when these opinions were valid and when actually it was better to try something new.

As you now know, in the end we came away with the ultimate prize - the gold medal and the World Championship title - something that is still difficult for me to comprehend now. What makes it sweeter though is that I felt we deserved it - and that's not something that sits well with me and sport. Nobody deserves to win - it is earned. Everybody that sits on that start line has trained hard and has earned a result. However, for us this year I feel that we did more than that. I can honestly say that I personally put everything I had into that result; physically, mentally, emotionally. I admitted to my crew in Bled that there were tears most weeks, if not days, during the last season. It took everything I had in me to complete the sessions and keep my focus on the end goal - to make the team and win the World Championships. Failure was not an option, but it was always a possibility - and that's a difficult thing to ignore when you feel that you need to push 100% in every session just to keep with the pace of the rest of the squad.

And so, that's why I've decided to retire from international racing. There were a lot of reasons I got through last season, some of which people will understand and others that they won't, some of which are obvious and others which are not. I won't go into detail on all of them in this post, but I will explain at some point. Suffice to say, not all of those reasons still exist and I feel that without them the motivation to put myself through what is required to maintain my place in the team is simply not enough. In addition, I had taken the decision prior to going to the Worlds that this season would be my last, whatever the result; if we came away with gold, I would've achieved my ultimate ambition in rowing, if we came away with anything less then frankly I felt I'd have given it my best shot and that was what I was capable of. I knew that the crew this year was the best GB had ever fielded and if it wasn't capable of winning gold then quite honestly it was time for me to move on. Finally, as my crew constantly reminded me of, I'm not the youngest squad member and there are other things in life I want to explore which trialling and then training for the Worlds simply does not give you the time and energy to do.

And so it is, Steph Cullen hangs up her blades. Not necessarily for good (watch this space) but you have seen her in GB colours for the last time. This makes me incredibly sad (typing this through tears!) as rowing has been my constant companion through many things both good and bad over the past 12yrs but it's time to move on. I'm World Champion, not many people can say that, and there's a lot of life out there waiting to be lived.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


The 2010 World Championships is over, and now it's done I feel I need to take it all in. Despite the fact it was a long time coming and the weeks and months of training running up to it felt relentless, my over-riding feelings are sadness and a I'm a little shell shocked that I'm back in London with it all behind me.

The past 6 months pushed me to the brink - from the brink of quitting, the realisation of the importance sculling is to me through to understanding that it's international racing that now drives me. It's been a hell of a ride. Looking back, every element played a role in this World Championships being completely different to the last - despite looking exactly the same on the surface. Same crew, same order... different result. But it's not just the result that was different, it was the whole process.

The biggest difference is obviously that this time I wasn't the new fish (although I was still the baby of the crew, racing with 3 seasoned veterans... again!). However, a bigger element in my opinion to making this season so different was doing the World Cups. Looking back, I had no idea how those races would change my perception of racing and what I'm capable of. Bled presented me with the toughest race of my life. That's banked and believe me I keep going back to it when I need to dig deep.

Secondly, and for similar reasons to be honest, my rib injury played a huge part in making this season what it was. Two months out of a boat and the gym in the middle of trialing, with only a watt bike for company, pushed me to the limit of my personal capacity to handle situations. Some people would relish the opportunity to do something different. I resented it and - being brutally honest - hated every second. Anyone who would rather do 2,400 squats in one go than get on a static bike definitely has issues! When I needed to find something extra in the last 500m of my Worlds final last week when I already felt like I was on the line, I thought back to my 30min watt bike test. Sweating blood, tears and a lot of self respect taught me that I can definitely go harder when the limit has already theoretically been reached.

So, in the next couple of days before I have to head back into the office, I'll be taking some time to get things straight. Then I'll think about getting back in a boat.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back where I belong

The headline says it all really - I'm back in a boat, and it feels great. Ok, so the speed isn't what it was - it's going to take time for the 7wks of no weights or being in a boat to be overcome - but I'm getting there. I just have to have faith and determination. And I have the latter in bucket loads, even if sometimes the former begins to falter, which it has done a couple of times.

My crew mates have been amazing. Going out in the 4x the other day, one of the girls from the crew with me last year turned to me and said it was great to have me back - that made my day! I told her exactly what I was thinking - it's great to be back.

The Worlds feel an eternity away and we are still not entirely certain of the final line up (or whether I'll even be involved) but one thing is for certain - I'll have earned my seat if I am, and I'll put in a worthy performance to prove it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You don't know what you've got until it's gone

Well it's now August and a lot (or rather not a lot) has happened since I last posted... I'll explain.

Having felt rather pleased with myself and very lucky about being robust and almost the 'last man standing' as the other lightweight women almost seemed to take turns in taking a few days/ weeks off with injury, the inevitable happened - I got injured. Looking back I had it coming. I started with a dull, niggling pain in my back on arriving in Munich but having been reassured by the physio that it was nothing to worry about I did just that and didn't worry about it.

After a fun 24hr experience on diclofenic (how was I to know it could cause water retention and a resultant massive weight gain in a few short hours... not exactly ideal for a lightweight rower!) I resorted to ipubrofen to ignore the persistant - but shallow - pain. Having shortened our initial paddle due to my 'niggle', I prayed it wouldn't affect my racing ability. Luckily, I felt nothing in the pre-paddle (drugs are amazing things!) and racing went as planned with no significant impediment to my sculling. In fact, I'd go as far to say that I didn't notice it when racing. Kinda busy focussing on other stuff! Anyway, we got through the weekend successfully, registering the highest ever position for a GB WLwt2x second boat in the process (4th), and I went home happy, the beer helping along with the drugs no doubt!

It wasn't to last. 4km into my first session on day 2 the pain switched from niggling to intense. It was like someone flicked a switch in my ribcage - the pain in my chest and back was immense and like nothing I'd experienced before. We decided to stop - not something an athlete does easily. This time the physio looked more concerned, and so was I. He packed me straight off to the team doctor who instructed me to take 2 days out of the boat and off the erg. 2 days? Sure, I can handle that! Almost like a holiday!

That was 7 weeks ago. I haven't been back in a boat since. OK, I tell a small lie - I tried 2 wks ago. I didn't get far. After numerous different diagnoses, those in the know deemed that I had a rib stress fracture. Apparently this is good news. A rib stress fracture takes only 6 - 8 wks to heal (ONLY?!) and when it's fixed, it's fixed. It could have been far worse; cartilage issues, disc issues... the list is endless. It's been 7 weeks and it feels like an eternity. For someone who hasn't been out of a boat for more than a week in the past 2 yrs, 7 wks is a lifetime. Worse still, the only thing I have been allowed to do is get on a bike. No running, no swimming, no erging and definitely no weights. Seriously? I HATE cycling. Don't get me wrong, I can handle a 30min commute to work, but 100mins on a static bike in a gym? Are you kidding? I'd rather stand and squat at 30 reps per min for 60mins straight. (Which I did in the end, by the way).

If you ever want to punish an elite athlete tell them to 'rest'. Then tell them once they feel ok to breathe deeply without pain to get on a watt bike and not get off for 7 wks. I've not felt this bad about life since my Mum grounded me for the whole summer holiday in 1992. (And that was pretty bad - my sister was grounded as well and we shared a room. Brutal). However, the past few weeks have given me a lot of thinking time, and I've come to realise something fairly crucial - rowing is pretty important to me (no shit I hear you cry). Seriously though, when you do something day in, day out - and have done for 11yrs - you kinda take it for granted. You see it as something you have to do. You start to resent getting up at 5.30am to go and get in a boat. You start to wonder what it would be like to go to work having not already done more exercise than most people do in a week. When the truth of the matter is that this is what I choose to do. In fact, it goes further than that (and this is what kicked me hardest) - being a sculler defines me. It's who I am. It's what I like most about me.

Without sculling, I'm not the same person. Let's be realistic about this - my whole life would change. And at some point it will. And it's going to be really difficult - but nowhere near as difficult if I choose when to stop, rather than being forced through injury or failure to make a boat. Suddenly the importance of making the crew for the World Champs and winning the gold we all so desperately want - and are capable of achieving with the athletes we have - became incredibly clear to me. And when you're sat on a watt bike watching your team mates out on the water that's a really tough realisation! I'm desperate to get back in a boat. Not because I love sculling. Not because it's what I do. Because it's the most important thing to me at this point in time. Nothing has ever been this important to me. And that makes the next few weeks the most important in my life. I don't want to spend them sat on a watt bike...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Short update

2hrs 40mins until our repercharge. I'm dreading it but relishing getting it started both at the same time. Bit like how you feel before an exam. You're not looking forward to it, but you know you're as prepared as you can be so you're looking forward to getting it started, doing something constructive (rather than the horrible final hours before hand where you're just worrying about it) and finding out the result. In these last few moments in my hotel room before I get on the bus to the course and we go through the racing day motions... practice weigh (always unnecessary), waiting, weighing in officially, waiting some more, waiting some more, going to the loo, getting race kit on, going to the loo AGAIN, heading to the boat for pre-race chat, walking the blades down, wondering if I need the loo once more, deciding it's just adrenaline, hands on the boat, walking to the pontoon, pushing off, warm up, waiting for a race to go past, continuing warm up, questioning why I'm doing this, waiting for another race to go past, heading up to the start area, removing final kit, hearing the start list and the inevitable '5 mins' read out in a vague European accent, getting attached, waiting.... before all that lovely 2 and a bit hours, I like to remind myself that the result is not yet acheived, the inevitable is not inevitable, that history has not yet been written. I can still influence the result. It is still anyone's race. I am constantly reminded by myself, coaches and my fellow athletes that anything can happen. If you're on the start line you have a chance. It can be anyone's race. Nothing is guaranteed. So matter how the race unfolds, you stay alert, stay on your game. In international races things DO happen and they tend to happen in the last 500m, if not the last 250m. There is no giving up, no finding yourself in 4th place and thinking 'oh well, this is always where I thought I would be'. EVERYONE fights, even if all looks like it is lost, nobody gives up. It is a fight to the death, to the last stroke. You only need to win by a bowball - if you can still hear the other crew you still have a chance, even if you can't see them. So, I'm preparing myself for a battle. There are 5 crews, 2 spots in the A final and 10 women on that startline who all want it and know that on their day they can acheive it. Only the others can stop them and they're going to make it damn hard. I'm getting prepared to make it the hardest race they've ever had.