Interview: Golden dream lures Karen Bennett home

Glasgow 2018 ambassador Karen Bennett. Pic: SNS/Gary Hutchison
Glasgow 2018 ambassador Karen Bennett. Pic: SNS/Gary Hutchison
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A return to the Strathclyde Park loch where her rowing career began will mark the halfway point of an Olympic cycle which Karen Bennett hopes will see silver become gold.

The Edinburgh 29-year-old was part of the Great Britain women’s eight who took a historic silver in Rio and, as she prepares for a homecoming at the Glasgow 2018 European Championships, doesn’t hesitate when asked if dreams of striking gold in Tokyo in two years are already forming.

“Yes. It’s always in the back of my mind,” she said. “But I need to follow what I did back in 2016 which is not get too far ahead of myself, just focus on the next race, the next test.

“Tokyo isn’t far away now and we know next year we need to qualify the boat. These European Championships are a massive thing for us in terms of putting those building blocks in place.”

Bennett is one of the Olympic medallists unearthed from the “Sporting Giants” talent ID programme launched by Sir Steve Redgrave for UK Sport back in 2007, which aimed to tap into the potential of young people who had the physical attributes to be potential elite athletes but may have slipped through the sporting cracks.

Despite the fact it was an advert featuring a man as eponymous with oars as Henley Regatta or the Boat Race, rowing was actually not on the 5ft 9in Bennett’s radar when she sent in her application.

“Beach volleyball was what I wanted to do,” she says with a smile. “When I was asked to try rowing I was like ‘what? why?’

“I did [starting out with Clydesdale ARC aged 18]. I hated it but I kept going because the people were really lovely and I enjoyed their company, the rowing was like an interruption to our chatting.

“It went from there, I slowly started getting better after not being very good at the start. Looking back now, you’re not really good at anything you start from scratch.

“I started winning some local competitions and then decided to move down south to study at St Mary’s Twickenham and take it more seriously.”

Bennett came to a crossroads when she finished her degree in sports rehabilitation and applied for a job as an NHS physio. The disappointment of not getting it led to her re-dedicating herself to the water, while working part-time as a rowing coach at a school.

She broke into the GB team in 2015, winning European silver with the women’s four. That event at the time was not on the Olympic programme, a situation which has changed for Tokyo, and it was becoming an Olympian which had prompted Bennett to apply for that talent ID programme in the first place.

A sweeper rather than a sculler, that left her with two options – the women’s pair or eight. With Heather Stanning and Helen Glover untouchable in the former, it was the latter route she took and worked her way on to the boat.

After a European gold, things looked good for Rio but Bennett found herself caught up in the tense situation which followed her legendary compatriot Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley failing to make the initial Olympic team after finishing off the podium at the Euros in the double sculls.

The pair were given a chance to make the eight but Bennett dug in and kept her place through the gruelling testing process. It all ended happily as Grainger and Thornley made the most of an eventual reprieve by taking silver in their original event and Bennett, of course, got the same with the eight.

It is this kind of brutal internal competition which gives an insight into why the British team end up doing so well at major championships.

Bennett explained: “All the stuff I went through to get to the Olympics was probably harder than being there, where all you have to do is go out there and execute a race you’ve spent years preparing for, go out and annihilate it. Getting on to the boat and then staying on it was much harder.”

She is looking forward to Glasgow, where a showdown between the British and Dutch eights for gold is looking on the cards.

“We had the Commonwealth Rowing Championships in 2014, it wasn’t part of the actual Games but I’d say that’s the biggest thing I’ve done in Scotland,” she said. “Compared to an Olympics or world championships it wasn’t as big.

“But this will be big and I’m looking forward to the home crowd. I started rowing at Strathclyde Park so to be going back there it will be really nice, remembering where I came from and how far I’ve come on.”

European Rowing Championships, Strathclyde Park, 2-5 August