Helen Glover column: Back on British team, training with kids & breastfeeding twins

helen glover
2021 European Rowing Championships
Date: 9-11 April Venue: Varese, Italy
Coverage: The semi-finals will be shown on the Red Button, iPlayer and the BBC Sport website on Saturday, 10 April and the finals on Sunday, 11 April on BBC2

In her first BBC Sport column, double Olympic champion Helen Glover explains why she decided to try to become the first mum to get back on to the British rowing team, what it has taken to achieve this while raising three children under three - including training while breastfeeding twins - and how she feels before her competitive return at this week's European Championships.

The problem with going back on a rowing machine if you have been a rower in a previous life is you start thinking "I wonder if..."

Last year when we went into lockdown my twins were eight weeks old and I just started doing a bit of exercise to get my fitness back and for my mental health, and I was not really thinking any further than that.

Then the Olympics got moved to 2021 and I was thinking: "I'll be watching that on TV." At the beginning of the summer it had got quite clear that the pandemic was going to last a long time and we were going to be in this situation for a while - and around this time I started to see some really good scores on the rowing machine.

I started thinking "I wonder if I could scrape on to the team" and then I got a bit better and started thinking: "I wonder if I can get on to the Olympic team."

I told my husband, Steve, who was instantly supportive. He might have initially thought it was the sleepless nights affecting my judgement but after a few weeks of fitting in two to three training sessions a day during the babies' nap times he could see that I was actually serious.

Life as we knew it had changed and all the things I had planned to do with the children this year weren't going to happen, and anything I had planned work-wise for me wasn't going to happen, and so I thought what can I do outside of being a mum?

I was looking at my little girl and thought: "In 20 years when you're making your decisions about your life, what can I physically show you about who you can be, and the chances you can take?"

And it is a chance - there is no saying I'm going to make the Olympic team, but I think that taking a step is almost as important as getting there in the end.

The first step is the Europeans this week - and I think the scary thing will be the familiarity of it all after five years away but it will also answer some of the questions in my mind.

Reading to the kids between training reps

Training is unrecognisable to what was in place before London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Back then, every single session and every single stroke was done at the training centre under the eyes of the coaches. But now, like most people, we've had to adapt and work from home.

That has not just been an advantage in my situation - it's been the only reason I've been able to make it work.

At the moment the babies and my two-year-old son Logan are all up at about 5am and I leave the house at 7am. That might seem quite early but I love that two hours in the morning - I give them breakfast, play with them and get them ready for the day.

Then I'm out of the door for one or two sessions on the water. When I get back around 1pm they have usually just woken up from their nap. Literally as I walk through the door they sense me! They are all happy after a nap and I have the whole afternoon with them - we go for a walk or maybe to the park.

Then I will have a third training session and that is always at home. If it's weights and I am on my own I can incorporate the kids into the session - I can lift, have a little dance to Paddington Bear, lift again.

A session which should take an hour takes an hour an a half, maybe two hours because I'm kind of reading a book in between sets.

I also get a lot less sleep than I used to, which I've had to factor in. But the balance is nice; it's been good for my headspace to get a couple of hours where I'm doing my own thing and even though I'm physically more fatigued, I am way more energised.

helen glover being pushed on a toy tractor
It's not just Helen doing strength training

There is no 'cheat sheet' for what I'm doing... yet

Because I'm the first British woman to make it this far in rowing as a mum, the research isn't there so we're learning as we go.

The physios are really excited - they see it as a challenge that we can find out even more about the human body.

We're really aware that we don't know enough about the female body, let alone the female athlete who has just had babies.

I see what I'm doing as almost as taking a hit - I might have to learn the hard way on a few things so that the next person who comes along can be given the cheat sheet of answers much quicker than I had.

Last year, before I was even thinking about being a rower again, I couldn't find enough information about how to get my core back - with the twins my bump was really big and so there is a centimetre of abdominal separation that will never go back. I googled it and couldn't find much so all I did was side planks. I side-planked for six months!

And actually my core is the best it's ever been so I swear by side planks now.

And when I went back to training while I was still breast feeding, I realised that probably for a long time I wasn't drinking enough water and counting the feeding into my training and the calories that it was taking. Over Christmas I probably lost a little bit too much weight but I've managed to put that back on now.

In my head I'm the old athlete I was and yet I have had to learn to be a little bit more careful not to get injuries, for example every time I was lifting weights with more stretchy ligaments, and to listen to my body.

helen glover and her son
Training is a family affair these days

Breastfeeding while training was demanding

I was breastfeeding the twins until a couple of weeks ago. I breastfed them until they were 14 months.

I think I underestimated the energy demands on the body while I was also full-time training. As soon as I stopped feeding I had this kind of surge of energy - I was like, "Woah, I was putting my body through a whole lot there".

I had been having to take iron supplements as that was definitely low and also I'd had three babies in 17 months.

Their feeding determined my training time. I would feed and do my session straight away because if I left it any longer I would just get really uncomfortable.

I'd finish my session in Caversham and I was kicking up dust with my car getting back to my children. I'd walk in the house and say 'Put those babies on me!" because you get to that point…

Twice I've had some really bad mastitis and also I've been dealing with a cocktail of hormones because of weaning and also the pressure of trying to achieve selection.

Sometimes I don't know what's real - am I feeling fatigued today because of my hormones or am I run down from training and should I push through this? I think that will start to get more level as we start to come into the summer.

helen glover training at home
Working from home

I'm doing this for my family - and other mums

When I'm sitting on the start line in Italy this week it will be that familiar feeling of dread. I guess that's what gets the best out of you on the day - that feeling of trepidation.

I need to take time to look at how far I've come and who I've brought along with me, not only my three children, husband and our families but the people who have been watching and cheering me on.

My biggest cheerleaders on social media have been women with children - it makes me emotional to even think that - and that when I am at the start line I am representing them and they don't care if I win, they care that I'm there, that I've done it and that I've made that step. It's really important to remember that.

I don't see there is any reason I couldn't be any better than I ever was and I love seeing people - like Jo Pavey in athletics and Sarah Storey in cycling - who have been the proof of that.

Even though things are different between sports, fundamentally as a mother you've got the same priorities - it's family first, sport second, and if you can make both of them work then that's amazing.

Helen Glover was speaking to BBC Sport's Sonia Oxley.

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