So last summer, the British elite women’s quadruple scull – Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne, Holly Nixon, Beth Bryan and Jess – was pencilled in to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta.
It might have done, too.
Mathilda was fit. She’d had a rib injury, but a couple of injections and it had healed up nicely. Holly could probably have made it, too – the rib problem she’d had had settled down, and surgery seemed to have fixed her recurrent bladder infections – while Beth had found herself a little pocket of good health post-norovirus and before a wisdom teeth flare-up in early September that necessitated intervention and removal a matter of days before the crew flew out to the World Championships.
With all the ins and outs, the first couple of months of the racing season had been tough. The boat had gone from a quad to something that’s either a ‘trod’ or a ‘truad’ but whichever way means three people sitting in a four-person boat, to a double, to the truad (I’m going to spell it like that, just pretend there’s a ‘q’ in there somewhere) again, to the quad, to a different truad and back to a double, and in amongst all of it there were World Cup races to get to and medals to fight for.
And then, just when the original foursome was back together and with the garish blazers and the floaty-dressed foot-dabblers beckoning, Jess had to be pulled out of the boat, because she’d put her hand up in the middle of a training session to say yeah, you know what, I can’t really breathe any more. Liz Arnold, one of the British Rowing physiotherapists, poked around for a while and asked Jess if it hurt, and she’d said nope, lying only a little, and maybe she could do Henley after all! And then Liz poked a bit more, and the pretence became that bit harder to maintain, what with the screaming.
So Henley drifted past; and so did the next World Cup race in Lucerne, and Jess still wasn’t getting better. The rib injury cleared up within a couple of weeks, but then there was a hip thing, and it wasn’t clear what had caused it and there didn’t seem to be an endpoint, and the quad started going through a few rocky patches in training, and there were dark times. Not irretrievable despair, nothing that bad, but frustration on Jess’s part that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do, which wasn’t much – just train, and race.
But through rehab weights, and squats, and trunk work, and conditioning, and soft tissue appointments, and swimming, and cross-training, and ever so occasionally actually getting a chance to sit in a boat, it all came together, just about, for the World Championships, Beth’s teeth notwithstanding. And out in Florida, somehow a crew that had spent more time together in rehab rooms than on the water fought their way to a bronze medal on which – if they stay together after next month’s trials – they will be expecting to build.
And Jess would say that the whole experience has taught her something. She’s pragmatic. There will be more injuries in the future, and she’s that bit clearer in her mind about how to deal with them. There are exercises, and stretches, and early bedtimes, and lifestyle choices. And for the time being, if you can pull yourself back from the pain and the frustration of it, each injury, each rehab is a chance to learn a lesson or two. So Jess hasn’t been driven – yet – to the point where all hope seems lost, where it feels like she’ll never recover and her dreams look to be dying before her eyes.
Could she perhaps, for the sake of narrative, save something like that for, say, February 2020, before an improbable fightback culminating in glory in Tokyo?
She laughs, sort of, and says no. Let’s not do that.