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An emotional farewell and back to reality

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Annabel Vernon | 15:28 UK time, Friday, 28 September 2012

It is a fact of elite sport that you rarely get to choose the way you retire.

There are some who finish on the immense high of an Olympic gold, there are many more whose last moment of being an international athlete might be losing a selection trial, or finally giving up the battle against injury one morning in March.

Steve Redgrave is a name that will forever be associated with Olympic glory. Alison Knowles and Hester Goodsell were not names that even made it on to the Team GB list this summer, as both retired in the spring after winters blighted by illness and injury.

Everybody dreams of the fairytale ending but only a tiny number of people actually achieve it.

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Which is why I decided that I was going to take control of the final act of my rowing career by organising an event in Cornwall after the Games to bring together Olympic rowing and gig rowing - big heavy wooden boats with fixed seats which row in the open sea.

I persuaded 11 Team GB rowers - Helen, Heather, Melanie, Beth, Frances, Sophie, Lou, Jess, Rosamund and Katherine - down to Cornwall for a series of races in gigs. For the last six months, and especially the seven weeks after the Games, the 'Cornish Rowing Challenge' took over my life.

It was a hugely emotional evening for me, just a few miles away from where I first learnt to row on the River Fowey. I'd put so much work into it and it went exactly as I'd dreamed.

The stats stack up well: 2,500 spectators, several thousand pounds raised for charity, front page of the main regional paper, live coverage on both regional TV evening news as well as a live national broadcast on The One Show.

I couldn't have chosen a better way to row the last few strokes of my career. My family have always found my rowing very stressful because although they're immensely proud of me, they also see how much pressure I've been under and how much it can rip me apart.

They've spent the last eight years travelling round Europe to hot, barren lakes on the outskirts of foreign cities to watch me race in the distance and it's an environment they've never enjoyed, so it was also really important that they could come down to St Mawes and share the final chapter with me.

I then stepped back into normality.

First impressions? It's life - but not as we know it. Life as a full-time athlete is one of extremes as you push mind, body and soul to the absolute limit.

My life now is therefore pretty odd because everything has changed. Every tiny detail.

Energy levels:

Then - exhausted, lethargic, constant need to sit down or preferably to sleep, at any time of the day. The kind of deep, bone-aching tiredness where simply going to the supermarket becomes a struggle and staying awake is problematic - missing my stop on the train was a regular occurrence. Anything less than nine hours' sleep and I was useless the next day.

Now - six hours a night and I'm bright and breezy! And if I'm a bit knackered after a busy day - well, it's nothing that an early night or a coffee in the morning won't fix!


Then - the word 'hungry' doesn't even cover it. Endurance athletes will know that after a big session, you're so hungry that you feel like your body is starting to devour itself from the inside, and if you don't eat something substantial, right now, you might pass out. Sometimes a massive meal won't even touch the sides. I'd often eat a huge plate and then have toast for pudding.

Now - if I get a bit peckish, the feeling will often go away on its own. Failing that, a cuppa or some fruit fills me right up.

Body shape:

Then - see my previous blog on this subject. Big shoulders, big quads and callouses on our hands that can rip a pashmina to pieces (and I simply CANNOT live without a pashmina, darling).

Now - My shoulders, arms and quads are slowly deflating, and I can wear rings on my fingers again after eight years of being unable to squeeze them over callouses.

Drugs testing:

Then - a daily requirement to inform UK Anti-Doping of my location under the 'Whereabouts' rules, so they could test me whenever they wished, was a constant source of stress and it's only now I can appreciate how much it was on my mind. Early morning or late night noises that sounded anything like a knock at the door had me jumping out of bed to rush downstairs to see if it was the testers, because failing to hear them at the door counted as a missed test, and three missed tests would have automatically meant the humiliation of a life ban.

Now - I don't need to tell anyone where I am! When I'm on holiday I no longer have to text in regular updates! I'm free! This has without a doubt been the most joyous change to my life, and I didn't realise how much 'Whereabouts' was constantly on my mind until it was taken away.

Of course, I'm focusing on the extremes of the bad bits about being a full-time athlete. Being tired, stressed and hungry all the time are things I won't miss about rowing, but at the same time that feeling of always working towards a goal, and being part of a mission, is hard to let go of.

I have spent the last eight years in the company of a group of ambitious, passionate women who are great fun to be around and are some of the best in the world at their job.

Whatever I do next, however rewarding it may be, will never allow me again to say that I spend every day working towards my dreams.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good luck Annie in whatever you chose to do next.

  • Comment number 2.

    Really good insight in to the ‘cost’ of being an elite athlete. It must be strange not to have that routine that had been so much part of your life for so long. But at the same time I suppose the reward is you can pursue other interests and have family time. How difficult is it to find something new to fill the void? This must be a challenge for all athletes who are retiring from something that has been central to their life but are still at an age when you cannot just retire in the more conventional sense.


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