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Proud and confused - but that's sport

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Annabel Vernon | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 3 September 2012

I have been trying to write this blog for most of the last fortnight and what I have wanted to say has changed every day.

The logical part of my brain tells me I have got so much to be proud of. I am a two-time Olympian, part of an elite group. I won a silver medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing and have stood on the podium at three World Championships since then.

To then represent my country at a home Olympics is an indescribable honour. However, the emotional part of my brain leaves me feeling confused about London 2012.

How should I feel about coming fifth in the final of the women's eight? How should I feel about all that has happened in the last eight years, the incredible highs and horrific lows?

GB's women's eight finish fifth in the Olympic final at London 2012. Pic: Getty 

It has taken me a while to work out what the Olympics mean to me. It will mean something different to the journalists writing about it, to the country at large, to the organising committee, and to family and friends of the competitors. And particularly to the athletes, those who achieved what they had dreamed and those who did not.

In 2008, there was the crushing disappointment of being in a boat that staked everything on winning gold, but came away with silver, a result that absolutely ripped me apart. In 2012, I was part of a crew that promised so much more than fifth.

It is easy to stand on the middle step of the podium, gold medal round your neck, and think it was all worth it. What happens to those who come away from the Games feeling like a failure? How do I begin to relate to this behemoth called the Olympics?

Having spent most of the last two weeks since the Games with a montage of my entire rowing career constantly running through my head, I think I am beginning to understand.

It comes down to one very simple answer: it's sport. Sport can be a cruel mistress. It will chew you up and spit you out, but it's sport. It is irrational, it gets under your skin and takes you over, but it's sport. It means the world to you, but it's still only sport.

I love sport, I really do. I love the fact it gives you the opportunity, at any level, to truly express yourself. I can put my heart and soul into my rowing and I can turn myself inside out to be the best I can be, irrespective of the outcome. I can work with a team of committed, driven, passionate people in pursuit of our dreams and we can create something really special together, something we will remember for the rest of our lives.

The cruel side of sport is that the person who comes first and the person who comes last put in the same commitment, make the same sacrifices and experience the same emotional rollercoaster, but to the victor the spoils. One person gets their moment on top of the podium, the other goes home with nothing.

That is another reason I love sport so much. I love the people who are brave enough to gamble it all, to put their entire life into one thing, racing a boat, knowing that only a very small number of people get the fairytale ending. I love the people who are prepared to put mind, body and soul into something with absolutely no guarantee of success.

You will not meet a group of people more passionately committed to representing their country and wearing the union jack with pride - and, in my case, the Cornish flag - than the women who make up the British rowing team. I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of it for eight years.

So how do I process all the highs and lows of my career? With that one word: sport.

I know I have never stepped away from a challenge, never been afraid to fail and never, ever accepted second best from myself. I have rowed with some brilliant, inspirational, nutty people and I have got some magical memories that I will take to my grave.

There is so, so much more to this last four years than the number five. Actually, finishing fifth is the least important part of it all. It will take some time to be able to realise all this and to accept it, because right now it is raw and it hurts. I have got a few plans for the next few months and then reality beckons.

At the risk of using a cliche, I will finish with the Olympic motto, which is something I held on to after the crushing disappointment of Beijing...

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."


  • Comment number 1.

    That's just fabulous. It really says it all. Required reading for all involved in sport at any level and in any way

  • Comment number 2.

    In all of life and not just sport, enjoy the journey and the challenge as the destination may not be the most rewarding part of it all.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant Article. You hit the nail right on the head, it is the bravery to do something to the best of your ability and maybe come up short.

    If sport was to predictable people would not want to watch it so much.

    Best of Luck for your future

  • Comment number 4.

    Great views about a tough sport! Well done Annabel!

  • Comment number 5.

    I can see how this took a long time to write. Watching the Olympics and Paralympics as a spectator is captivating and also full of highs and lows (although most have been highs during 2012 for the spectators!!). it's been like 100 world cup 66 victories all in one summer. What we need to remember though is just what you have said .. for every medallist there are many who go home without one. Like you though they are still very much a part of what has been (and will be in Rio) a fantastic showcase for human achievement, participation and the sporting spirit. Thanks for your contribution to that!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Interesting article and I admire and appreciate Annabel's honesty.

    But I'd love some insight as to why there was such a contrast in the fortunes of the British women's crews.

    How come the pairs and doubles performed so well and the eight and the quad under-performed so badly??

  • Comment number 7.

    Brilliant article. You can't control the quality of your opponents either. Think Murray versus the Big 3. I am convinced he would have won a major by now in any other era. There are bound to be relatively 'strong' and 'weak' Olympic years for any particular event. An 8th place one year might have been enough for a medal in another. I think only the individual or team themselves know if they have fulfilled their potential. Who can possibly ask for more than that in sport, or indeed in life...

  • Comment number 8.

    Well put.

    Don't live with regrets - always be proud of your best effort...

  • Comment number 9.

    Very rarely in sport do you actually enjoy the event unless you are a neutral with nothing invested in the result. It is only some period later when the stress and emotional suffering has begun to ease that you can begin to appreciate what has taken place. Sometimes it may be a short period but often it can take years to look back on a "bad performance" and smile.

    Finishing fifth at the Olympics may not seem an achievement to you but in years to come when you are showing the pictures to your children and grand children just look at their faces. That mixture of awe and pride will show that everything you went through "just" to finish fifth might just have been worth it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Brilliant! Annabel, you have just explained to me why all my life I have cycled, swum, run, climbed hills without any medal being involved!! Thanks!

  • Comment number 11.

    Dear Ms Vernon

    I have enjoyed reading your entries to date, and none more so than this one. Drawing a parallel about the highs and lows of sport, I play cricket for a club in Chiswick and last Saturday my team not only won the game but won promotion to the next division. The following day, however, I played for our Sunday team and we were hammered by the opposition. But as you say it’s not all about the result; it’s as much, if not more so, about putting in maximum effort and doing the best you can: it’s only that you can control; you can do nothing about what the opposition does.

    Keep up the good work and good luck for the future.

  • Comment number 12.

    Just watching and cheering, the toughest part was listening to exceptional athletes who’d produced phenomenal performances, but pipped on the line, apologising for letting other people down. You just wanted to give them a hug and tell them that all those who’d supported them on their journey couldn’t possibly be more proud of them; but still a reminder that it takes a team to put an individual onto the start line.
    The context also plays a part in the reaction; contrast Alan Campbell’s elation to bronze to Purchase/Hunter’s despondency to silver. Even amongst the winners, you’ve seen some displaying relief whilst Kat Copeland’s disbelieving joy will remain with everyone.
    Annabel, you are an inspiration. Whatever you choose next, there will be a veritable army cheering you on.

  • Comment number 13.

    Annabel, I loved your article and truly understand how you feel about your 2012 experience. Your conclusion that it comes down to 'sport' is bang on.
    I'm an old rower, having participated in the Games many decades ago and now have children who are at your level, in fact one was just on the podium recently. I would have welcomed 'just' coming in 5th, as our placing was a higher number. What I found when people hear that I had participated in the Olympics was the majority ask if I won. When I answer 'no' most quickly move on to another topic. However, if I happen to meet another Olympian, no matter what sport or age, that question is never asked. It's because of the mutual understanding and knowledge of what it took to get to that level. It's being part of the 'Olympic Club', if you will, that's important.
    So, Annabel, the fact you did podium at one of the Games and were still able to compete in these ones truly means you are one of the exceptional athletes and 'members' in the 'Olympic Club'. The fact that you will always have moments in the future where your actual placing will bother you is good as it reflects on a competitive nature, keeps you humble and helps to keep so many others things in perspective.
    From an old Olympian, I congratulate you on your article, but, more importantly on the journey you've had and wish you well on the one coming up in your future.
    Pull hard, no matter what you chose to do in life.


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