Tokyo Olympics: Karen Bennett on love, loss and busting the myth that rowing is a posh person’s sport

At 5,735 miles and eight time zones removed, Karen Bennett has rarely felt more separated from home in Edinburgh. Painfully so. Six days from now, she will march to the sea blue pontoon of Tokyo Bay, to row at her second Olympics, for what should be a fantastical pursuit of gold in the coxless four to accompany a silver procured in the eights at Rio 2016.

Karen Bennett at the official announcement of the GB Olympic rowing team at Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake. Picture: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images for British Olympic Association

The temporary 14,000-seater grandstand overlooking the course will lie largely empty. A silent void where proud parents and siblings were slated to be the loudest and proudest of fans, if not for the Covid-induced lockout. Davie, her father, would have backed himself to joyously out-scream them all. Six weeks ago however, he passed away following a lengthy battle with blood cancer. His 32-year-old daughter paddles on, but with the heaviest of hearts.

“We thought it would maybe come after the Olympics,” she reflects. “You always hope that you're going to have a lot of time with them. But that wasn't the case. It’s been probably one of the hardest things I've had to deal with. But I've had a lot of support from my team-mates, my family and friends. Everyone's been there for me. It doesn't make it any easier. But I guess just knowing that you've got those people around you is really helpful.”

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When the end-game arrived, she was due to head to a leg of rowing’s World Cup in Lucerne. Priorities took hold. To be at her Dad’s side was simply too precious. “But then at the same time, it's such a shit situation,” she whispers, emotion evident in her voice. “You shouldn't really feel lucky.”

Karen Bennett won silver as part of the GB team in the Women's Eight at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Picture: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

The absence will be felt, indefinitely. What is fortunate is that Bennett is not completely shorn of her innermost circle in Japan. John Collins will contest the double sculls while helping to keep his long-time girlfriend afloat. A constant rock, she testifies, even when the nightmare of pandemic-related protocols precluded him from accompanying her to the funeral. “But he was there for the important stuff,” she says. “It's nice knowing we've been through it together.”

They share too a superhuman capacity to mesh an extraordinary aerobic capacity with tolerance for exhaustion and pain. Steve Redgrave was to blame for unearthing the Scot’s undiscovered aptitude for extremities.

The five-time gold medallist was promoting a talent search that held out a vague opportunity to one day compete at an Olympics. Bennett, keen as punch, was directed initially to trial at volleyball and handball. “But they thought that I'd be good for rowing.” Science, well-applied. “Although I hated it to start with because I kept falling in and I was rubbish at the sport. But then I soon got a bit better.”

It beckoned her into an elitist environment centred around private clubs and punchbowls of Pimm’s. A cursory look down the British team list betrays a skew towards those from a paid secondary education in central Scotland and southern England, a titled aristocrat among them.

“I'd like to think that I drag it down a few levels,” laughs Bennett, who attended a state school in the admittedly-chic Edinburgh suburb of Balerno. “In a positive way, because I'm not a posh person. I don't see myself like that at all. And that's not the way I've been brought up.

“I don't like that stereotypical thing for rowing that it's a posh person's sport. I do think things are changing a bit. The doors are definitely opening up for the younger generation to come through, be able to try it and it not be a money thing. And that's really important.”

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Following a week spent at Team UK’s preparatory hub in Yokohama, the gates of the Athlete Village flung open yesterday for Bennett and her foursome friends: fellow Scot Rowan McKellar, plus Harriet Taylor and Rebecca Shorten.

She is a veteran among Olympic debutantes. Aware of how distinct Tokyo’s shell of a Games will be from the engorged dish of five years ago. “It’s also different because we are into the village pre-competition,” Bennett notes.

“In Rio, we went in after competing. And obviously, that was 'we've done the job, we've done the business, now we can go out and party.' But now it's really different, we're going in not having raced yet. But it's nice, that we're all together, the four of us, sharing an apartment.”

Scripting an Olympic formbook, as for so many sports, is fool’s gold. Limited competition. An ability to venture beyond one’s own continent. Apples and oranges, and then some. The British quartet collected bronze at April’s European Championships behind the Netherlands and Ireland. Gold, nevertheless, remains the exacting ambition here. “100 per cent,” Bennett underlines. “It's the target goal.”

Come what may, the final was due to double as a fond farewell. The plan to retire, drag John toward Edinburgh, career and babies soon to follow. Life can pivot abruptly, alas. Unforeseen twists, good and bad.

“The closer I get to finishing, the more I get upset about it,” Bennett reveals. “Before, with what was happening with my dad, I was dead set on coming home. Now, my situation has changed.” Paris 2024, perhaps, could yet lurk on the horizon.

“I don't think anybody really knows what they're going to do until after the Olympic final and they've taken a bit of time to really weigh things up,” she adds. “I guess we'll just have to wait and see.”

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