Great Britain rowing legend Heather Stanning (pictured right) retired last November as a double Olympic, double World, quadruple World Cup and double European champion. Her partnership with Helen Glover in the coxless pair saw them become the first women in the country to win an Olympic gold medal in rowing at London 2012 before retaining their title in Rio four years later after 39 consecutive victories.
Heather, a serving Major in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, went back to work with the British Army shortly after returning from Brazil. The 32-year-old, no longer having a strict training and competition regime to follow, ran the London Marathon earlier this year and is now gearing herself up for this weekend's RideLondon where she will cycle for Team SportsAid with her partner Jonny.
Heather benefitted from a TASS (Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme) award, a programme managed by SportsAid, while she was balancing her studies in Sports Technology at the University of Bath with a promising rowing career. She and Jonny will be joined on Team SportsAid by charity ambassador Laura Wright, alumni Derek Redmond, Jessica Eddie and Olivia Carnegie-Brown, and over 50 other riders.
Here, Heather talks about her excitement for RideLondon, the importance of dual-career support and why she is fundraising for SportsAid....
How has training been so far for RideLondon? Have you been sticking to a rigid training plan?
“I probably should have! Having retired from being a full-time athlete, I think my view on training now is to do what I want to when I feel like it. So I’ve been enjoying going out for long rides at the weekends but I don’t feel like I have to go and do stuff which is quite nice. I think I’m still able to hold onto a little bit of residual fitness from the years of training I’ve done! I’ve done a fair bit on my bike but I’d put that mainly down to the weather being quite nice and that making it enjoyable going out for a few hours every weekend and even some days after work. There hasn’t been a huge amount of structure to my training but that’s what I’ve enjoyed. I’ll probably pay for it this weekend!”
Where have your training rides taken you? Have you been varying your routes much?
“I’ve mainly stayed in the local area where I live down in Wiltshire. Being wedding season as it is we’ve taken our bikes with us so we did a nice long ride over in Suffolk at the start of our training. The longest we’ve been out for is around two and a half hours really but it’s likely to take us six hours plus come RideLondon. We’ve probably not done enough time all at once but accumulatively we’ve managed to get plenty of miles through our legs. A couple of hours is a nice amount of time to go out for but then you start to get a bit hungry or you see a nice pub and you think ‘let’s stop here!’. The time in the saddle come RideLondon is probably going to be quite painful!”
How much are you looking forward to the day itself and riding through the closed streets of London?
“I’m really looking forward to it because if it’s anything like the London Marathon was….that was just such an experience and I absolutely loved it. I’d do it again just for the atmosphere, not the pain! Riding through London on closed streets will be really cool. The Marathon was the first real mass participation event I’d taken part in - other than a half-marathon I did in the build-up towards it. It’s so different because you go out running on your own and you get used to doing your pace. It takes a couple of miles in the race to find your own pace as there’s so many people around you and it’s difficult to find your flow. It’s not worth fighting it as you just have to go with it. I’m intrigued to see how it’s going to work on bikes as the biggest group I’ve ever cycled with is eight to 10 people.”
You and Helen Glover had an incredible unbeaten record up until you retired after the Rio Olympics. How did you build that winning mentality?
“It just became a nice statistic to us. It wasn’t necessarily something that meant a huge amount to us while we were competing. For us, it was about going out and achieving the goals we’d set ourselves to do in each competition and each race. In doing those, we knew that if we went out and did what we wanted to do then we’d do well and we’d win. Therefore, we’d tick that other box [maintaining the unbeaten record] nicely but that wasn’t our main goal when we set out. We wanted to go out and learn more about ourselves and use that Olympiad from 2012 to 2016 to learn about how we race and get better and that’s what we did. We won a lot along the way but we weren’t afraid to experiment and I think that did give us confidence. There were times when we’d win when we may not have felt 100% but you do get confidence from that and that helped us going into the next race and the one after that.”
You returned to work the British Army soon after the conclusion of both the London and Rio Olympics. How have you found that transition this time around?
“The bit that has been easy for me, and what a lot of athletes struggle with as they’re not as lucky as me, is the transition phase. I’ve gone from one thing to the next very quickly and I’ve not found it stressful. It’s been relatively easy to adjust and what I think a lot of people do struggle with when they do come to the end of their career, whatever that may be, is that you’re losing that identity of who you are. For me, I suppose my identity has always been that I’m an Army Officer who rows. So I’m still an Army Officer but I don’t row any more. I still have my identity but my focus has changed.”
Being in the Army must keep a person grounded no matter what you've achieved in sport or life?
“I think that’s what was really great for me after London 2012. I would have struggled a little bit with being thrown into the spotlight after 2012 but the fact I came back to an environment that I knew, where I was treated just the same, I liked that. I was treated for who I was and the job I was doing – not for what I’d done in sport. Soldiers are very good at that – they don’t care who you are or what you’ve achieved. What they care about is whether you can do the job and how you’re going to be able to help them out. That’s what is so good about it.”
You’re fundraising for SportsAid with your partner Jonny. How much of a difference do you think the money will make to young athletes?
“Every time you go out to fundraise, asking people to chuck money at you from here, there and everywhere, every cause is important. With SportsAid I can see the effects as I’ve benefitted from TASS. I do think it’s important that people like me do get behind this afterwards, as if we don’t come and give back later on then the athletes of the future are never going to get the benefits of the things we had. It’s so important now as people are looking at funding and how we’re going to send athletes to the next Olympics and Paralympics and the one after that. Even if people don’t go on to be the stars of the future, the experience they’ve got will help them in whatever careers they go on to do. That’s very important with young people to give them the opportunity. We need to help those who show the potential and realise that not everybody will achieve what they set out to do but giving them the chance to try is definitely important.”
How valuable was TASS support to you?
“At the time I was at university and I didn’t really know a lot about it. I was invited to join a training group and I didn’t really understand the costs of it. The fact I was able to claim my petrol money back every month, when I was travelling up and down from the river to university, and I was able to buy a set of sculls to row with. There are all these costs you don’t think about or know you need. It was really useful for me as I wasn’t working while I was at university. I was doing the Officer Training Course so I got money from them when I turned up and did stuff but other than that I was just at university to study and to row when I got into that. It was hugely important that I had that financial support but also what was more important to me was the medical support. I actually had to have a knee operation while at university and there is no way I’d have been able to have had that done if I’d have gone through the NHS. I had it through the private medical care I got through TASS and the next year I was racing at the World Under-23s Rowing Championships. It wasn’t an injury that stopped me from living day-to-day life but it prevented me from training properly so being able to have that medical care was hugely important as I was able to have the operation during the summer of 2006 and was straight back to training when the season started.”
How important is it to have the opportunity to pursue dual-careers and balance your sporting endeavours with education?
“I’ve always said it’s really important. By giving yourself a different dimension, it allows you something else to think about away from training and actually keeps you a bit more focused on your sessions. Some people say ‘it’s a distraction and you should solely be focused on what you’re doing in your sport’ but having something to mentally stimulate you away from this is really good as it does mean you switch off. It’s probably more important when training’s not going well to be able to switch off as otherwise you may just go home and all you’re thinking about is that bad session. The next day you’ll come in and you’re already on a low as all you’ve done is mull things over and that negativity can lead to another bad session and suddenly it starts to string together. You feel fresh when you have studies or a career to focus on and you can put bad sessions behind you and just focus on today. When I was younger, and new to the sport, doing lots of other things was really important as it really showed me about time management and prioritising things in my life as well. You work out very quickly what is important to you and what’s not."
It must have been difficult managing your time and deciding what you could commit to socially?
"It’s very tempting to go along to all the parties and be involved in everything socially but you very quickly work out that if you can only go to one or two events, which ones you can do, and you make a real effort for them. The people who are your true friends understand that. I think that’s so important as a youngster - understanding what’s important to you and who are your true friends. You’re able to go away and achieve what you want to achieve as well as being able to have a social life and pursue a career in whatever it is. Ultimately, there are so many people who want to be athletes and who want to be number one in the world at whatever sport. Unfortunately, there’s only one sport there. Not everybody is going to get there, even at the Olympics, there are more people that go home without medals than with them. What do those people do? You end your career and you can say you’re an Olympian but many people will say ‘where are your medals?’. It’s a phenomenal achievement to go to an Olympics but unfortunately, the way the world is and how fickle people can be, if you don’t have anything to show for your time as an athlete, what do you then do? You need to have a career or qualifications to back you up in whatever field you choose to go into to be able to say that I’m an Olympian but I’m also this, that and the next thing. It’s a very competitive world these days - not just in sport.”