Frances Houghton’s Olympic Journey

Fran, thanks for chatting. How are preparations going ahead of Rio?

So far so good. It’s been a challenging four years but I’m so glad that I’ve hung on in there. This winter seemed really long but now time is flying by very quickly. We have had so many trials and we all want to know for sure if we have made it, but at the same time I don’t want to wish the time away because I don’t want it to end!

You’re the longest serving current member of the GB Squad – how did you first get involved in the sport?

I first took up rowing when I was 11. My older sister was really good at all the normal school sports like running, swimming, tennis, hockey; and the teachers always thought I’d be even better because I’m so tall. It turned out I am useless at running and can’t jump at all so I was always a bit of a disappointment. Consequently, I sought out the only sport she didn’t do, gave it a go and loved it straight away. It was my own little world. I first learnt in a big skiff with wooden oars (like the ones you see in Hyde park that are for tourists), and didn’t make it into a real single until my next school. Even through my junior years we used wooden boats and oars made by our boatman.

Having won junior international medals, was it always your ambition to race at Olympic level?

When I was young I remember watching the Olympics on tv. I loved the colour and all the positive energy but for me it didn’t feel at all tangible as I wasn’t even remotely sporty. When I first started rowing I just did it for pleasure and for the social aspect. Then at 16, an Olympic rower, Nick Strange, came to my school to give a talk and told us all about the Atlanta Olympics. By this time I still hadn’t won a junior medal but I was hooked on the sport and was further inspired by hearing all about the Olympics. I remember writing on the back of the menu card “I will do everything I possibly can to make it to Sydney 2000”. And signed it. It was a vow to myself that I kept. I worked hard at school to get my A Levels and make it to the University of London, where I wanted to row. Once I was there, rowing was my priority. I completed my first year and got onto the senior team as a spare for St Catherine’s in 1999, then joined the squad full time to try and get in the team. It was the hardest period in my rowing career physically, as it was difficult to get up to the training and performance level of the seniors. To then make it through and be selected and be a part of the team in Sydney was a complete dream come true.

Two silver medals at consecutive Olympics must have been a dichotomy of emotions – which was the most challenging campaign?

Beijing (2008) was the most challenging but Athens (2004) proved a fairly big hurdle too as none of us had ever even won a senior medal. How we wanted to row and race, and what we wanted to achieve was completely based on our own belief in ourselves. We had the best races I have ever had- it was a really special quad. We were only together for four months in the end, unlike 2008 which was a four year campaign. In recompense we had more success (lots of gold medals at world cups and three world titles), but we learned that defending is just as challenging as aspiring. The Beijing Olympiad also had so many emotions within it. We were the first win for a British quad in Gifu (2005) and then in 2006 we were able to trade our silver medals for gold seven months later as the Russians were found to have tested positive for testosterone. We then had one of our best performances in Munich in 2007 despite struggling with injury in the crew. Each year however the selection battle was relentless- I think this peaked in the winter of 2007/8 when we had six or seven people going for the four seats and none of us ever felt safe. By the time we got to Beijing, our top speed wasn’t as consistent as it had been in the past. It was the belief in ourselves and the bond we had made between us through all the experiences we had had together over those four years that carved our success in that race. To people watching and to ourselves, silver was considered a big disappointment, but I am incredibly proud of what we achieved.

Having been involved with lots of squads, how does the current crop compare with previous crews?

Now is an incredibly positive time within both the men’s and women’s squad. It is very competitive but there is also genuine respect too which is important. Having now swapped to sweep I appreciate the teamwork aspect of the crew even more- it’s a lot of fun. We are aspiring again rather than defending or searching and that’s a really good feeling.

You’ve sculled throughout your career – why did you choose sculling originally?

It was never really a choice. In the past the top scullers at trials always went into the sculling boats, so that’s where I’ve been. I have always loved sweep whenever I’ve had the chance though. I did a junior pair in 1997 and the eight in 2001; as well as the eights head most years. This year, with the quad not having qualified for the Olympics, I leapt at the chance to trial for the eight.

Having raced alongside big names throughout your career, how important is your own experience to shaping the crews you race in?

I try not to shape crews. I just say what I believe at the time, whether that’s based on an experience or a new thought. I want us to find our own way together. Collaboration for me is very powerful; it’s like creating a bundle of positive energy all of our own that’s unique to us.

You moved to the eight this year – how much of a new challenge is that?

It was big challenge. I didn’t appreciate how much you really rely on each other and need each other in sweep rowing and in many ways I prefer that dynamic. I was told to make the switch at the end of December and had to come to Caversham over the Christmas period whilst everyone else was having a break to go on the oar tech. Then we went on camp in the new year, in the eights and fours every day to be assessed. The biggest test was within five weeks of switching to sweep when I was seat raced in a four, in the first race of the day. This is one of the days that I am most proud of in my career. Having had an up and down past three years, I knew the pressure was really on for me to perform and I was being challenged head on by the coaches to prove myself. I didn’t have many tools to use as I hadn’t raced in a four since I was 15 and wasn’t skilled enough yet at sweeping to be able to speak and row at the same time, so I couldn’t use my calling or say anything motivational like I would in a quad or double. So when I won my race I knew I’d done it with the raw bones of who I am as an athlete and it instilled a lot of my confidence in myself back again, as well as excitement about what could now lie ahead. Since then it has been challenging, but in the most positive sense of the word. I want to see what we can do, with no fears or worries or insecurities. The time for that is over.

Having dabbled in a range of sculling boats over the past three years, how is it settling back into a larger crew?

I am loving the bigger crew- I like the banter. I love that in the eight I don’t have any responsibilities. No calling, no worrying about getting to the start on time and no working out race plans. I can just turn up with my water bottle to the boat at the time I’ve been told to and just row. It feels like it’s ok to just have a lot of fun with it.

What are your personal ambitions for Rio?

I’d like to win another medal- specifically a gold medal. But most of all, I’d like us to put together the best strokes we’ve done and to race a race that teaches us something we never knew was possible.

What’s your favourite training session, and why?

Anything in the boat when it goes well. I think that’s why I’ve been doing it for so long!

What’s your favourite location to race and train, and why?

I loved going to Australia for the first World Cup in 2013. The course in Penrith has such an aura. It feels like it is still shaking from Steve Redgrave winning his 5th gold medal there. The training we did in Canberra was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of Sydney. Vicki Meyer-Laker and I won the bronze in the double there but weren’t able to go to the podium to pick it up because we had to race the eight soon after. I’m still gutted about that.

What are your plans after Rio?

I’m planning on taking a year to unwind and get my head around not rowing any more. Then find something I enjoy and motivates me but perhaps involves less pain…

Matilda Bywater

Having rowed for a number of years, Matilda has decided the sport may be better observed from the bank as opposed to the bows of a coxed four. Having finished school in the summer of 2015, she is now pursuing journalistic opportunities with a number of publications on her gap year. She is also planning to visit three continents in the space of six months.

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