When Jess first started rowing, she wasn’t very good.
When she competed in her first race, she crashed into a bank.
When she went to the national championships in 2009, the two other girls on the podium towered over her – and neither of them was the one on the top step.
But she was a nice kid. That’s what Ian John remembers. And you tend to try to help the nice ones.
Ian’s not – and he’d admit this himself – the coach you’d have picked if you were planning to make an Olympian. He’d loved his rowing for years, but for one, he’d always done sweep. And he’d been a coach, but only for adults, the masters and veterans who came along to Hollingworth Lake because they did other things now, but still couldn’t shake the rowing bug. But he saw this 11, 12-year-old kid who kept on coming down to the club, with school at first and then in her own time too, and he knew something needed to be done.
So he took her under his wing. And because he’d never sculled, he was learning as much as she was as they went along. He’d talk to others at the club, but most of the people he knew had coached boys rather than girls, and the way you had to approach the two was completely different.
All of which meant that they had little more than Ian’s two guiding principles at first – keep your technique the same on the rowing machine as on the water, and if it looks right it probably is – but bit by bit, by trial and error, they found different ways to improve. They added in extra sessions of training, and so keen was Jess to keep getting better that within a couple of years, she’d be up at the club every night from Monday to Thursday and fitting in two sessions a day over the weekend.
British Rowing started to get interested, and sent a couple of their juniors coaches up to Hollingworth Lake to watch her and to talk to Ian. “She’s not using the hips,” said one. “What do you mean, she’s not using the hips?” said Ian. “Well, she’s not driving through with her hips,” said the coach. And Ian had never heard this. He’d rowed for the best part of thirty years, and he’d never driven through with his hips in his life. But the coach showed him on the rowing machine, and a little bell went off in Ian’s head, and so he showed Jess, and whoomph! her times started shooting down.
And they kept on muddling along together, Ian and Jess, step by step, because either they were going to do it together or they weren’t going to do it at all. To develop her stamina and toughen her up, Ian suggested that she take part in the club’s weekly time trial – every Saturday, eight a.m. sharp, nine kilometres of gruel – and she did. And because she was a 14-year-old girl up against adults, she’d come last, over and over again, but at least she was out there doing it.
As the months and years passed, it became clearer and clearer that one day, she’d have to leave Hollingworth Lake if she was going to make the best of herself on the water, which is not to say that that made it any easier when it finally happened. Jess and Ian have remained close, though – and it was his sixtieth birthday earlier this year.
Over the years at Hollingworth Lake, they’d developed a bit of a post-race routine – Ian’s wife doesn’t like him eating sausage rolls, and Jess’s mum’s a vegetarian, so after she competed, off they’d sneak to a Greggs, and they’d each get a sausage roll. Jess has moved on to grander horizons now, but she hasn’t forgotten, so for Ian’s birthday just gone, she bought him sixty of the damn things.
Had to give a lot of them away, though. They were even bigger than he is.