A lot has changed for Glover and her family compared to winning her first gold at London 2012
Credit: CLARA MOLDEN/GETTY IMAGES
Helen Glover is sitting at the large table of her open plan waterfront family home. Only days earlier, the all-conquering double Olympic rowing champion had located her eldest son, Logan, relaxing under this same piece of furniture, gleefully tucking into a cake he had swiped from the sideboard.
Today the youngster, who turns three on Saturday, is free of sugary goods, but still a bundle of energy, clambering over the bench to be closer to his famous mum.
Through the vast floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Thames at the bottom of the garden, heavy clouds are forming. But inside the house, one that she shares with husband, TV explorer Steve Backshall, all is calm as Logan’s 18-month old twin siblings, Kit and Bo, finish off their midday nap.
In the final run-up to Tokyo – where she will partner Polly Swann in the women’s pair – Glover has extended an exclusive invitation to The Telegraph to see life behind the scenes of one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes in search of an unprecedented Olympic rowing medal as a mother.
Tellingly, everywhere you look signs of family life are haphazardly coexisting with the equipment of an elite athlete. Above the twins’ high chairs hangs a pair of gymnastics rings comfortably mixing with an unidentifiable pink-painted cardboard creation – it could be a rocket ship or a long-nosed dinosaur, depending on where your imagination takes you.
The kitchen wall is adorned with colourful children’s masterpieces, while in the far side of the lounge a ball pit sits not far from where a gym and hardcore weights set up can be seen. The opposite corner is clearly the space for downtime, a scattering of children’s books spilling out from underneath the television cabinet. This may be the site of an epic sporting comeback, but it is also a family home full of love, laughter and fun.
It is this same home-based equipment – plus the rowing machine tucked away in the garden next to the Wendy House – that Glover used to regain her fitness after the twins’ birth. It is what helped sow the seed of a remarkable comeback, and culminates in Tokyo next week, as the 35-year-old becomes the first British rower to compete at the Olympics after giving birth.
Balancing training with motherhood was quite the juggling act
Credit: CLARA MOLDEN
Attempting a sporting comeback is a decision that has surprised everyone, not least her husband. Just months after giving birth to the twins – born in January 2020 eight weeks before the national lockdown – Glover privately shared with him her wish to turn a daydream into reality. Ever since, it has been full steam ahead.
Glover wants to use her Tokyo journey to set an example to her children
Credit: CLARA MOLDEN
As we sit and chat through her remarkable return to the sport, I struggle to understand how Glover has once again conquered a sport as demanding as rowing – and this time with three children under the age of three. Her former GB team-mate Anna Watkins, who won gold at London 2012 in the double sculls with Katherine Grainger, had attempted her own Olympic campaign ahead of Rio 2016 following the birth of her two sons, but was unable to return to the same level of performance and retired for a second time in February that year. She duly took advice from her close friend, but it is testimony to just how arduous a goal Glover set herself in attempting to compete in a sport that, in her words, has traditionally “left no room for children”.
Even more impressive still, then, that she has been unequivocal in her stance that rowing would not be allowed to overshadow life as a mother. She refused, she says, to “dedicate all my time to rowing”. But with a triumphant competitive return in April, winning gold at the European Championships with Swann, how on earth has she done it?
“I think you get convinced that to do something that other people think is exceptional, you have to be perfect at it,” she reflects. “It’s important not to worry about perfection, and just think what is the best case scenario for me, and just try to do that.
“Some things aren’t achievable. Also, it might be achievable, but at what cost? Will it mean that the time you should have been with the children, you haven’t done something you wanted to do with them?
“Definitely taking the pressure off is the key. Just stop trying. Because you can realistically spend the whole afternoon feeling guilty that you haven’t done it, or you can think I’m not going to do it, unless in five hours time I actually want to. Often when you’ve cut yourself that slack, and taken off that pressure, you find you do want to do it and you do it later on.”
An average day’s training, over the last 12 months, has tended to revolve around the children’s routine: a morning training session while Backshall occupies the children, a second while the twins are napping, and a third in the afternoon or evening either with weights in their home gym, or on the rowing machine.
The day's training sessions would be dependent on the children
Credit: CLARA MOLDEN
Glover has been known to pack in squat sessions in between putting the potatoes on for dinner. While it all sounds rather exhausting, Glover remarkably insists she is not a natural planner, and the synching of her and her husband’s diaries on their phones is “as organised as we get.”
In many ways coronavirus has a lot to answer for, namely that it delayed the Olympics and got Glover, largely confined to home, pondering matters as her rowing fitness returned. It also taught her valuable lessons in time management.
“Forcing the babies into a bit of a normal routine meant that I knew I had set times every day that I could train,” she says. “I’m naturally somebody who likes to do it the other way, get out of the house, have a fun day and not worry about when they sleep. I couldn’t have managed it without the lessons that lockdown taught me about schedule.”
One of five siblings raised in the town of Penzance, Glover spent her childhood running free around the beaches of Cornwall, sea kayaking and fishing mackerel to cook over a fire on the beach. The daughter of an ice cream shop owner in Newlyn, she married Backshall on a Cornish clifftop in 2016 – with her dad’s vanilla ice cream served to the guests – memories captured in the wedding photo of the couple on display in their home.
Despite her Olympic bid, family always comes first for Glover
Credit: PETIT FILOUS
It is little surprise, given their parents’ backgrounds, that Logan and the twins are already showing a keen interest in nature and the outdoors, whether throwing themselves joyfully into muddy puddles on walks, or assigning names to insects and beetles found in their garden. Logan, in particular, is obsessed with dinosaurs.
“He was not so bothered by the European gold medal as I also came back with a Pterodactyl toy,” says Glover with a smile, referencing April’s European Championships – her first international since the 2016 Olympics – extending a personal unbeaten run that dates back to 2011.
Oldest son Logan is more interested in dinosaurs than Olympic medals
Credit: CLARA MOLDEN
If she carries on her remarkable comeback in Tokyo, there could be the danger that Logan expects mummy to bring home medals as well as toys from all of her races.
“We did a race to the tree in the garden and he turned around and said, ‘I won an Olympic medal!’. I keep saying to him that it takes a lot of hard work and it doesn’t matter if you don’t win. I’d like to think in the future, whatever they have as a passion, they could see it go badly or they could see it go well, but it doesn’t take any of their self-worth away.”
Wondering if @TeamGB need a couple of mascots 🤔 Attempting to pack with 3 under 3 ‘helping out’ isn’t the most efficient… pic.twitter.com/qvIcJrr1wg
— Helen Glover (@Helenglovergb) July 9, 2021
Post Tokyo, Glover is looking forward to normality resuming in all aspects of her life, including delayed birthday celebrations for Logan. First though, a historic return to the Olympic arena.
“It’s just important for this story to not seem like this fairytale thing,” she concludes. “So much has been circumstance, so much has been trial and error, so much has been this is quite a big leap of faith, but it was always in the effort and trying that was the most important thing, rather than just the execution.”
As I leave, she begins making a den with her three children using the sofa cushions. Whatever the result in Tokyo, they will be hearing some very special bedtime stories for years to come.
Yoplait Kids is the Official Yoghurt of Team GB. Its Moments of Gold campaign aims to motivate the next generation of athletes.