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Imogen Grant puts perspective on sport and training to be a junior doctor

Imogen Grant in training with Cambridge University Women's Boat Club in the build-up to the 2017 Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell
Imogen Grant in training with Cambridge University Women's Boat Club in the build-up to the 2017 Boat Race. Picture: Keith Heppell

Imogen Grant has a stark and unique perspective on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact across society.

The 24-year-old Bar Hill-based rower had taken a two-year sabbatical from her studies to train with the Great Britain squad in the build-up to the planned Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Former Stephen Perse Foundation and Hills Road Sixth Form College student Grant was studying medicine at Trinity College, but had made rapid progress since picking up an oar for the first time in her first year at Cambridge University.

She won two Boat Races with Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club and, after intermitting her studies, what followed was multiple medals on the world stage, which included being named World Rowing’s Rising Star last December.

Just as the pandemic was taking hold in the UK, Grant won the British Rowing Olympic trials. Then everything changed, with the Olympics postponed. Without the sabbatical, it could have looked so different for Grant, who would have just qualified as a junior doctor.

“I have a lot of perspective on it at the moment because if I hadn’t postponed my medical degree and intermitted to train for the last two years I would have just graduated,” says, Grant.

“All the people in my year are now looking every evening at the announcements wondering when they are going to be drafted in to start being doctors three or four months earlier than they were expecting.

“That’s a lot more uncertainty than I’m having to deal with. Ultimately, I’m still training now and can still give myself goals – that’s within my power.

“Seeing my friends going in as a very new F1 [doctor] in the middle of a pandemic, that’s a lot more daunting.My friends, as nervous as they all are, some of them are saying ‘I just want this uncertainty to end so that I can go and help in the best way that I can now that I’m a doctor’.

“There have been quite a lot of GB athletes that have been sharing links of the local or regional area to see how we can help the NHS staff in our area.

“Whether that’s childcare or trying to do groceries for someone, and I think that kind of thing is really important to keep us feeling like a community, even if we can’t interact face to face.”

The decision to postpone the Olympics and Paralympics was eventually taken last Tuesday (March 24) after a growing clamour from athletes around the world.

There had been mounting pressure from a host of Olympic committees and individuals to make a quick conclusion, arguably led by USA Swimming and USA Track and Field, and heightened by Canada being the first major country to withdraw, on March 22.

“By the time the announcement came out, it wasn’t particularly a surprise,” explains Grant.

“It can’t be run if we need to stop the spread of a virus, that would just be irresponsible.

“I know that everyone at the IOC and each of the countries’ organising committees were in constant contact.

“We were getting constant updates of what they were doing, what each individual sport was doing, what the IOC was thinking and trying to put into place, because it’s not an easy decision to take.

“Some of the delay from the IOC was that they wanted to present a little bit more certainty rather than just saying it’s not happening now.

“I think what they wanted to say was it’s not happening now and here’s the plan.

“But at some point they needed to give the athletes clarity and we got that.”

Imogen Grant at the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv. Picture: Naomi Baker.
Imogen Grant at the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv. Picture: Naomi Baker.

By the time of the announcement, British Rowing had locked down the training centre at Caversham.

It meant that all the rowers were having to decamp to their homes to go into self-isolation to train, with Tokyo then still on the cards.

Grant had taken all of the necessary equipment back to the house on the outskirts of London that she shares with a couple of team-mates.

“Our living room is now the home gym,” she explains. “I live with two other rowers on the team. We’ve got an ergo, a rowperfect, a turbo and that is now our centre of operations until however long this continues.

“I was quite emotional when I was leaving Caversham on the Saturday because I didn’t know when I would be back and that has been the constant for the last two years.

“It’s my work place and where I train every day.

“Now it is a little bit more diffuse. We don’t know when the next race is going to be and I definitely want to do justice to the rest of this season but none of us have any idea what that is going to look like.

“What racing opportunities may appear, whether we could be innovative and do virtual races, races online or later on as this progresses, figuring out some other way to get some racing because that’s what we do it for.”

Grant won gold in the lightweight single sculls at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Poznan in 2018 and bronze at the senior championships that summer in Plovdiv.

She followed that last summer, in her first year in the senior squad, with gold in the lightweight single sculls at the Rotterdam Rowing World Cup and added a bronze medal with Emily Craig in the lightweight double sculls at the World Rowing Championships.

But while she was rowing, she was also studying for a part-time masters in obstetrics and gynaecology, doing research in pregnancy at high altitude.

That was handed in a few weeks ago, but it leads into even more unknowns.

Grant will pursue the dream of racing at the Tokyo Olympics, which will be from July 23 to August 8, 2021, but it creates a tricky position.

“It does raise questions about what I am going to do next year,” she added. “I’m meant to be recommencing my studies in August this year.

“Obviously, there is a lot of disruption to medical students as a whole anyway.”

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