Securing an Olympic berth is no mean feat. Achieving that goal, however, when you’ve been vying for a position alongside Britain’s joint-most successful female Olympian makes it all the more fulfilling.
Edinburgh women’s eights rower Karen Bennett appreciates that success is shaped by the smallest of margins which, in this case, was less than half a second.
As the 27-year-old begins her quest for gold tomorrow at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas venue situated in the heart of Rio, Bennett is first to admit she is filled by an overwhelming sense of pride just to be donning the Team GB crest as it could have been fellow Scot and 2012 gold medallist, Katherine Grainger, in her place.
The former Balerno High pupil endured a torturous wait to learn her fate despite having been part of the GB eights team that secured gold at the European Championships in May.
Bennett revealed GB officials still weren’t convinced that the boat was operating at its optimum speed and had both Grainger, who has also won three Olympic silvers, and Vicky Thornley, who will represent Team GB in the women’s double sculls, undergo testing for the eights team as well.
“After the Europeans we were told the doubles pair of Katherine and Vicky both wanted a shot in the eights, which was fine, but it was a bit of a blow because we had just won gold and we were doing really well,” she explained.
“But they wanted to see if the boat could potentially go faster. It was stressful because we had such a strong bond between us all so I had a lot of time to think.
“They ended up keeping the boat the same for the second World Cup event in Lucerne just a couple of weeks later and we came second which was a really good result, but they still insisted on testing afterwards.
“I thought ‘I’m the last one into the boat so my position is really in jeopardy here’. Katherine was tested but I got the faster time by less than half a second so we were then told that the eight would remain the same. It was such a huge relief as I’d worked so hard and couldn’t have even contemplated being told I wouldn’t be going to Rio.
“Katherine is so professional though, so nice, and if you have any problems or anything then you can always go to her.
“Her experience was always in the back of my mind and that it might work in her favour but you can’t be distracted by that. It’s here and now but I had to earn that spot that’s for sure. She’ll be with us anyway in the rowing team so we’re all behind one another.”
Bennett’s inclusion in Brazil is quite remarkable given she didn’t familiarise herself with an oar until the age of 20. In fact, it wasn’t until she responded to an ID talent search in Newcastle that finally revealed her potential.
Disclosing she initially struggled to see the appeal in racing boats along a river, Bennett eventually found her rhythm and began to make her mark both in Edinburgh and Glasgow before a career-defining move to London in 2010.
“I never really had any interest in taking up rowing whatsoever. I was more of a swimmer when I was younger but when I realised I wasn’t going to do much with it, I kind of thought ‘well that’s that then’,” she said.
“Rowing started off really slowly as I was just doing it a couple of times a week and if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say I immediately loved it. It definitely grew on me and I eventually got better and took it to the next level.
“When I moved down to London, part of me really wanted to make the Olympics in 2012. But it soon became clear I wasn’t going to make the team. I was still at uni and still enjoying the social side of things, but I think watching it on the TV made me more motivated to try and make it to Rio.
“It’s been a long and hard four years since then but I’m so proud. It’s been a long time coming. I used to look up to all these Olympians when I was younger and I can’t believe that I am that person now.
“Gold is our aim. Why would you train so hard to try and win silver? We’ve got that belief but it’s going to be hard because the Americans have beaten us already this season. We’ll be giving it our all that’s for sure.”