FEATURE: Longsdon gold medallist Anna Watkins on life after the London 2012 Olympics
Anna Watkins was the first woman from North Staffordshire to win an Olympic gold medal, when she and double skulls partner Katherine Grainger rowed to glory in the London Games. The 29-year-old, from Longsdon, near Leek, talks to Danielle Bourne about life post-Olympics, coping with media attention and that gold post box.
“My long-suffering husband thought he would get to see a lot more of me after the Olympics, but that’s not been the case so far,” laughs Anna.
“I’ve been invited by lots of schools and businesses to give talks, so that will keep me busy until Christmas.
“I’ve also had a busy week visiting local schools in Leek. It’s something I love doing though as I feel I’m able to make a real connection with the pupils and share with them my experience of taking part in the Olympics.”
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Anna has been married to Oliver for the past three and a half years and the couple live in Wokingham in Berkshire. Oliver, aged 34, is an engineer with the McLaren Formula One team.
“In the new year we’re going to South America for two months. It will be a bit like the gap year that neither of us had, though shorter obviously,” laughs Anna.
“The Olympics was my ultimate goal for so long that I need time to be able to work out what I want to do next, I mean what can top winning a gold medal at the London Games?
“This momentous summer of sport has been such a precious experience that I now need to get away, have a chance to reflect and do some serious thinking about my future plans.
“Walking away from this sport would feel like a bereavement, but I have achieved so much and there are other things I want from life.”
As the former Westwood College pupil reflects on the past year, she recalls the media attention that surrounded their race for the finishing line.
She was cheered on by a 40-strong group of family and friends, when she and Katherine Grainger crossed the finish line at Eton Dourney to win gold for Great Britain. That’s not to mention the 30,000 spectators who bought tickets for the event and the billions of viewers who watched the games worldwide.
However, much of the media attention was focused on 36-year-old Katherine, referred to as Britain’s first lady of rowing, who had won silver medals at all three previous Games, always narrowly missing out on achieving her ambition of a gold medal.
The pair had partnered up for the women’s double skulls back in 2010 and although they did not know each other very well at that stage, the connection between the two women and their potential was quickly apparent to all.
They soon had an unbeaten run of races behind them and were focusing their sights on the London Games. This did not go unnoticed in the media and in 2011 The Guardian suggested they were the number one favourites to win gold for Britain.
“I think the media really focused on Katherine, as her story was a very emotional one and the public like to get behind a sporting hero who has had so many near-misses at achieving their dream.
“I know she was very upset in Beijing and everyone was rooting for her to get gold in London.
“My success story may have been slightly overshadowed by Katherine’s but I don’t begrudge her that attention. I have my own story and the people who are important to me know what is has taken for me to get where I am today.
“I’m also a much quieter person than Katherine and I would never want being famous to get in the way of rowing, but that doesn’t alter what I’ve achieved.
“Plus the BBC gave both of us a camera and asked us to make video diaries, Katherine did hers religiously and I never did any, so I can’t really complain about not getting media attention,” she admits.
Unlike Beijing, where Anna was not expected to reach the podium but managed to exceed expectations by winning a bronze medal, in London Anna and Katherine were the overwhelming favourites for gold, as they had been unbeaten in their previous 22 races.
“I actually felt less pressure in London though,” she admits.
“In Beijing nothing was guaranteed and I really I had to pull something out of the bag, whereas in London we both knew that our best was good enough, so all we had to do was just do our best.
“On the day I just had to think small; in my mind there was no cameras or journalists, there was just me and Katherine in our boat. We had won 22 races and we just had to win our 23rd, which was how we got through the pressure, for us it was just another race.”
Anna also admits that although she was aware of the buzz of excitement in the Olympic Village, she was completely unaware of how this was echoed throughout the country.
“As competitors we were living in a bubble and unaware just how engaged the whole country was with the Games.
“I do recall getting up early to do some training on the lake and there already being thousands of spectators cheering us on.
“But it wasn’t until after we had finished our event that we became aware just how massive the Games had become.”
A nna first got into rowing while studying Natural Sciences at Newnham College Cambridge. “It was one of my teachers at school, Damian Haigh, who encouraged me to go to Cambridge, I had assumed it was full of posh southerners and to me it seemed like a completely different world than the one I was used to, growing up in Longsdon,” she adds.
“He took a group of us on a visit to Cambridge and it was a transformational experience, seeing the town, the college and the students for myself, suddenly made the possibility a reality.
“He was also the one that said to me, ‘you’re tall Anna, you should give rowing a try while you’re at university’.
“He had sowed that seed in my head and when I arrived during Freshers’ Week the rowing team was one of the first things I checked out.
“I had been convinced that my accent, background and lack of knowledge, when it came to social customs, would make me stand apart from everyone else at university.
“But when I met the other members of the rowing team I instantly found my niche and felt comfortable and relaxed in the friendly environment of the rowing club. To be honest I think most of the social exclusion, which I imagined, was just in my head.
“Through rowing I learnt to be comfortable with myself and not to feel intimidated by others – it was a real breakthrough.”
At Cambridge she competed in all rowing disciplines but has concentrated on the double scull.
In 2004 she had her first taste of gold by winning the U23 World Championships and from then on cemented herself within the GB Olympic team. Anna has been on the podium at every World Championships since 2007.
“I was always quite average at sport when I was at school,” she admits, “so it shows that sometimes it’s about finding the right sport for you.”
For the international rower, this is one of the main reasons she enjoys visiting schools.
“I can remember Sharon Davies and Kriss Akabusi coming to visit my school and what an inspiring experience that was,” she says.
“So it’s great to think that I am now in that position, it is a huge responsibility but it is a wonderful thing to be able to be a role model to the next generation of sportsmen and women.
“Sport has played such a positive role in my life, it has been a brilliant experience and I want to promote to others how it can be the same for them too. It can give them a focus and provide more of a life balance for them, outside of school or work.
“I feel like I am able to spread this positivity about sport and make kids believe in themselves, if a girl from Leek can achieve her dreams, then anyone can.
“But even if my talks encourage just one person to take up sport then it will all be worthwhile.”
Anna has strong roots in Leek and regularly returns home to visit her family and friends.
She admits that her biggest post-Olympic highlight has been her homecoming, when hundreds of people lined the Market Place in Leek to greet her return.
“It was a very emotional day,” she adds, “and I kept spotting familiar faces in the crowd, including my old teachers and dinner ladies from Westwood College. When I’m back at home I feel like people know exactly who I am and I don’t have to try.
“It was a definite highlight; it even tops meeting the Queen!”
Anna was also delighted to visit the gold post box that was painted in her honour.
“I love the gold post box; it’s just one of the nicest things. I also like that Leek now has something, it is recognition that the person I am today was made there, through the positive influences of the people who were part of my life growing up.
“If I never do anything else with my life, I will always have that gold post box.”
Anna has experienced a huge amount of emotions as she adjusts to life post-Olympics, but the gold medallist manages to remain grounded, despite her success and the fame that followed.
“There have been plenty of ups and downs over the past few months and keeping my feet on the ground has been a challenge.
“Taking a break from the sport has meant that I have lost my routine and my aspirations. There are many British Olympic gold medallists, but the fact that I won mine in London does change things completely and everything has been magnified.
“No one teaches you how to be well-known and what it’s going to be like to be recognised. I have had 29 years of being normal and just three months of being in the public eye, so it’s been a massive learning curve and one I’m still adjusting to.”
Anna became an Aunty earlier this year and admits that seeing her eight-month-old nephew does make her broody.
“I want to start a family with Oliver and my desire to be a mum is another thing to weigh up, in my decision of what’s next.
“But that’s not a unique decision; it’s one that all career women have to consider.
“When your aim is the Olympics everyone around you has to buy into it, not just you. So if I decide to continue rowing and aim for the Rio Games in 2016, my family need to be prepared to buy into it all over again.
“Oliver and I have an equal opportunity approach to life and a balanced relationship, I may be more well-know, but that does not make me more important. At the moment I’m putting my family first for a change.
“If I do continue rowing and Katherine decides to retire, then I will focus on the single skull race, as it will be a new challenge for me.
“I would need to find out if I could be a serious challenge in the singles for Rio.
“Amongst rowers the single skull is the discipline that earns the most respect and it is an unwritten rule that the woman that wins the single skull race is the number one best in the world.
“That is something that would encourage me to return to rowing, but it is a big decision.
“I am just going to have to go with my gut instinct about what exactly is the right decision for me and my family.”