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'The Four Year Fight' by Lauren Rowles

Paralympic Rowing Champion Lauren Rowles

A little over one year after winning Gold at the Paralympic Games in 2016 I was lying in a hospital bed, unable to move and ready to give up the sport I love. The seemingly endless cycle of injury, rehab, recovery, injury had chipped away at my morale, made me doubt myself, made me limit myself. I’d had enough. But now, from the brink of giving it all up I’m now just one year away from my second Paralympic Games.

A gruelling, exciting, spirit breaking and fantastic experience

The Para Rowing World Championships begin on the 25th August, exactly one year to the day until the teams will parade their flags at the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. 365 days to go in a four year Paralympic cycle. A gruelling, exciting, spirit breaking and fantastic experience.

Nothing is settled yet and I’m not getting ahead myself. Firstly, we have to qualify the boat at the World Championships. Secondly, I have to keep my place in the boat. GB trials start in Spring next year to give the best possible chance of the correct combinations ending up in the boats come the start of the Paralympic Games. It’s a rigorously fair process. If the boat goes faster with somebody else in my seat, I’ll be watching the Paralympics at home.

I’ve been working towards one goal and one goal only for the past 3 years; getting to the Games

Having said all of that, I’ve been working towards one goal and one goal only for the past 3 years; getting to the Games. With the Paralympics getting closer and closer I’m more focussed than ever. This has been the best season of my life, not necessarily because we’ve been winning every race, we haven’t, but because I’m just enjoying being in the boat again. Anybody who has been in a dark place and come out the other end will be able to understand. The highs are a lot higher when you’ve experienced such lows. It’s been a tough few years, but qualifying the boat and keeping my seat is all that matters now.

Lauren Rowles celebrates winning gold with Laurence Whiteley for Great Britain in the trunk-arms mixed double scull (TAMix2x) at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Paralympians and Olympians talk about the post-Games blues.

Paralympians and Olympians talk about the post-Games blues. The almighty come down from the high of being at a Paralympics, winning Gold, representing your country, being the centre of the World’s attention. It’s like post-festival blues on steroids. Somehow it’s strange that it’s not really spoken about. We prepare ourselves down to the smallest details pre-race, but there’s no preparation for dealing with the aftermath.

My comedown started immediately. One day after the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio I started University. It was a bizarre experience. On the one hand I was famous, I was a Paralympic Gold Medallist, I had press interviews around the clock. On the other hand, at University nobody knew who I was, I was on my own. It was like living two lives at once.

Also, looking back we were back on the water too quickly. 3 weeks after the Paralympics we were training again. We should have taken our time to process everything, to celebrate what we’d achieved, to take a break from the incredibly pressurized mindset of preparing to try and win Gold. Instead it was a bit like, what’s next? I guess we should train for Tokyo?!

Trying to find the motivation for another target, Tokyo 2020.

The whole situation was disorienting. It’s the part that most people don’t know about when they see you at the start line of a Paralympic Final, that it’s been years in the making. Here I was, only 20 days ago I was winning Paralympic Gold. But that’s all been forgotten. My new reality was that I was living somewhere new, trying to find my place, trying to find the motivation for another target, Tokyo 2020.

Then the injuries started. I lurched from one major setback to another. I’d been struggling with my back for a while, but then during the World Championships it just went. I was in agony and I said to Laurence, “you’re going to have to pull me down the course”. Amazingly we finished up with a silver, but I knew immediately that there was something seriously wrong with my back. I was right, I’d slipped a disc.

Lauren Rowles recovering from spinal surgery
Surgery, rehab, recovery.

Surgery, rehab, recovery. Sounds simple, just do the work and you’ll be back in the boat. But being injured takes an incredible toll both physically and psychologically. You spend a lot of time on your own doing gym work so the worst thing is the isolation. I’m lucky to have someone like Laurence to bounce off, to keep me motivated. But once you’re back into the boat again it’s a great releif.

Unfortunately it didn’t last long. I ended up with being diagnosed with Compartment Syndrome, a serious condition, most likely brought on by the exertions of rowing. It requires very invasive surgery and I really struggled over whether to put myself through it, not just from a sporting perspective but also from a personal perspective. I’m a young woman who cares about how I look, I like to go out and dress up, do I want the scars this surgery will give me for the rest of my life? For what? Another injury could be around the corner.

This was the make or break moment.

This was the make or break moment. The doctor’s had advised me that if I had any hopes of competing in Tokyo I had to have the surgery. They also told me it would likely be my last Paralympics. So at the age of 20 I was facing the fact that I had to have major surgery for a career than had a shelf life of just a few years.

Despite all that, I knew the answer in my heart. How could I walk away from another shot at Paralympic Gold? I went ahead with the operation. Surgery, rehab, recovery. Of course, I got injured again, this time tearing my hip. But this time it felt different, manageable. I’d already hit rock bottom and resolved to stay with my Paralympic dream, so it felt like nothing was going to stand in my way.

Lauren Rowles with Laurence Whiteley on the water.

It’s proved to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m feeling strong, really enjoying my rowing and Laurence and I are finding our stride in the run up to the Paralympic Games. From 2 years to go, it’s like somebody hits a switch. There’s an incredible energy within the team, you turn a psychological corner and the Games are in sight.

Competition is incredibly high at the moment.

Also, competition is incredibly high at the moment. Without talking down the achievement, we were confident in Rio that if we followed our training programme we would have a good chance of Gold. With the kind of times the Dutch team (Annika van der Meer & Corne de Koning) are pulling there’s no room for that type of thinking this time around. We’re being pushed, no doubt. But it’s the type of situation I thrive on, finding the 1% advantages that add up to make difference between winning and losing.

Wherever you’re going, whatever goal you have the main thing is the stay in the race, to not give up, from there you at least give yourself a chance.

This is the first time I’ve been through the four year Paralympic cycle. Before Rio 2016 I only joined the boat 18 months before the Paralympics, so the entire process is new to me. I’ve experienced the highs and lows, but now one year out I can finally almost feel the start line in Tokyo. Wherever you’re going, whatever goal you have the main thing is the stay in the race, to not give up, from there you at least give yourself a chance.

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