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.