If an Olympic origin story is supposed to start with pushy, sport-mad parents, then nobody told Hannah’s mother.

Actually, that’s not quite fair. When Hannah was younger, and being given a whole lot of different types of physiotherapy to do – strengthening her hips, helping her to weight bear, that sort of thing – Margaret was right behind her, nudging her along, making sure she kept it up. Because Hannah didn’t really like physio.

But then Hannah didn’t really like being pushed, either. She’s gone her own way since she was small, maybe five or six, and used to lead a trail of fifty, sixty kids around the school playground, Hannah at the front supported by her Kaye walker and everyone else weaving a crocodile behind her.

And she did what she needed to on the physical side, so in the end Margaret left her to it, left her to the things she was good at, the things she enjoyed. She was bright, and she was sociable, and she was artistic and creative, and that was more than enough.

But none of it exactly screams Olympian. And if it’s tempting to dig around for early hints of what she would become, to trace the sportswoman over the kid who certainly seemed to enjoy riding her little heavy disability tricycle, the truth is – there wasn’t much. Not really. Unusually high levels of concentration and determination, perhaps – at the age of no more than two, she’d be doing a jigsaw, or building something complex out of Lego, and it might take an hour, but she’d sit there until it was done.

Still, she never really got into sport, until that day that she discovered RaceRunning. And if you asked her now, given where that’s led, Margaret would admit to one or two regrets about what more she could have done, but she’s not going to beat herself up too much. It was probably more Hannah to have discovered it herself, to have been completely self-motivated. Frankly, it’s probably turned out better.

“There were no obvious athletic seeds. If you’d asked me which one of my children would be an athlete, it wouldn’t have been Hannah.”

Margaret Owen

Sharon Leyden wasn’t pushy either.

Although again, that’s not entirely true.

In her household, everyone needed a hobby. That was the rule. On the other hand, there was nothing whatsoever that said that it had to be sport. So the eldest of the Leyden kids joined up with a brass band, and off they’d all go, following him around the country. The second son wasn’t quite as quick off the mark, but got sat down in the kitchen one night and told, “You’re not getting up from this table until you’ve decided what you’re doing, and you’re doing it this weekend”, upon which he decided to join the sea cadets; and when she was young, Jess started to get into horses.

Horses scared Sharon. She decided, however, that she’d have to get to like them for her daughter’s sake, so she’d do all the walking, miles and miles around the moors near their house, and then Jess would come home from school and say, “Can we go out, mum?” Which meant three more hours over the hills, a vanishingly appealing prospect as the cold winter nights drew in. “Yeah, course we can, Jess.”

Then one day, when she was about 12, Jess was out riding with her dad, up at the front because that’s where she always wanted to be, and her dad told her not to ride too close to Chester, a frolicsome sort who belonged to a friend of the family; and of course that’s what Jess did, and the horse kicked out and caught her flush on the elbow and down she went. They didn’t tell Sharon straight away, either – didn’t want her to stop the buffet she was preparing for a birthday party that evening. All about priorities.

So Jess couldn’t get back on the horse for a while, but while she was recovering, she thought she might give rowing a go instead.

As it happened, she was quite good.


2 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. Jess was the most unsuspecting rower! She was the friendliest, most unassuming girl on the circuit.
    My daughter is the same age and we would meet up at all ‘the’ events – my daughter was always in a crew boat but Jess was always in a single scull and often at events with just her mum.
    She never went into a race assuming she would win but she generally did.
    She has such a friendly manner and positive presence..
    Sharon has done a great job supporting her through some tough times and Jess clearly gets her inspiration and attitude from her mum.
    I’m proud and feel privileged to have witnessed her early days in rowing -she’s a credit to her family and I wish her all the luck in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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