The day my life changed

14th January 2011 at 00:00
I knew I'd stand on an Olympic podium only once. It was incredible

I was not good at sports. I could not catch, hit, throw or run, which is how most schools decide if you are sporty.

Instead of being on any school team, I went down a more academic path. All children need to have something they are good at, an investment in their worth. It turned out I was good at science and music. I played the French horn, sang in the choir and played the piano at home.

You would expect an Olympian to have a natural aptitude for sport at school, but I think science and music gave me a sense of discipline and responsibility.

I first came across rowing at Liverpool University. I enjoyed being physically active in something I was good at. I got a first-class degree in microbiology and then a PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge University. I was 26 when I enrolled in a science PGCE at Roehampton University. I chose it because it was the closest university I could find to a river.

In September 1997, after starting teacher training, I began working towards the national rowing trials the following April. I had seven months to get fit.

It was an exhausting time. I would get up at 5am to row, then cycle the eight miles to work. I would do a full day teaching, complete my planning and marking, cycle back to Putney at 6pm and put in another couple of training sessions.

I came second in the single sculls at the trials. It was amazing to think that I was performing at that level.

Two years later, I qualified for the Sydney Olympics, where I finished 10th in the single sculls. It was not until then that I knew I had to try for an Olympic medal. I decided to row for another four years, this time in the quadruple sculls.

Back then, I was teaching chemistry part-time at Wycombe High School, in Buckinghamshire, and juggling two training sessions a day.

In 2004, we went to the Games in Athens. We got through to the finals: only the Germans stood in our way. We knew we had a battle on our hands, but we still had a chance of getting gold.

We got off to a good start but everyone just canes it in the finals - there is nothing left to lose. At 500 metres, we were in fifth place. At 900 metres, we were still there.

It was scary. Never mind a gold medal, I wasn't even sure we would finish in the top three. We could not see ahead of us and refocused on every stroke.

It felt like we were flying. With 500 metres to go, we were in silver medal position. With 30 strokes to go, we had caught up with the Germans. We put our heads down and fought for every stroke.

When we crossed the line, we were within half a length of them. There was that initial disappointment but then came the realisation that we were silver medallists. It was incredible.

I knew I would only ever stand on an Olympic podium once in my life. I was 33 and, unlike the other girls, was not going to carry on rowing. You have a one in 14 million chance of hitting the jackpot, but there are less than 350 Brits with an Olympic medal. It is a wonderful feeling.

I did not want to retire, but I was so exhausted. I kept on exercising, though. Two years ago, I took up modern jive and the tango. It is a bit scary but my mantra has always been: "What can I do today better than I did yesterday?" It is classic goal-setting, but it really does work.

I tell young people that if they have drive, they will improve. I was never an archetypal Olympian at school. But through sheer hard work and self-belief, that is exactly what I am today.

Dr Alison Mowbray is an inspirational speaker: www.alisonmowbray.co.uk. She was speaking to Hannah Frankel. If you have an experience to share, email features@tes.co.uk.

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