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Tokyo Olympics: Imogen Grant takes inspiration from friends working in the NHS

Cambridge rower Imogen Grant. Picture: Nick Middleton (48974556)
Cambridge rower Imogen Grant. Picture: Nick Middleton (48974556)

At the start of the pandemic last year, Imogen Grant was in a very different position to many of her GB Rowing colleagues.

The 25-year-old had intermitted her medical studies at Trinity College for two years in order to trial with the national squad, with the Tokyo Olympics the target.

If the Cambridge University Boat Club member had not done that, then it is likely that she would have been one of the key workers in the NHS.

Instead, within a week of the country going into full national lockdown, the Olympics were postponed for a year and, with the help and support of the clinical school in Cambridge, Grant extended her time in rowing, ready to resume her studies this autumn.

“Had I not taken the few years out from rowing that I did, I would have been part of that cohort that was graduated early to work during the pandemic,” explains the former Stephen Perse Foundation and Hills Road Sixth Form College student.

“All of my friends who were in my year at Cambridge, I was keeping in contact with them as they were telling me what it was like working in hospitals when they were filled with Covid patients, in a very uncertain and stressful time during the start of the pandemic.

“Hearing what they have done over the last year or so has really put things into perspective.

“I’ve been very lucky, my job stayed the same; I was able to train through the entire thing.

“With the elite sport exemption, we were able to train at our training centre really early, we were able to go away on training camp and go out of the country to race multiple times this year.

“Contrasting that to a lot of my friends who haven’t been able to travel and been working in the hospitals when they were really crowded, high risk and people didn’t know how deadly Covid was going to be, it’s a very easy way of remembering how lucky I am to do what I’m doing.

“I think the entirety of the NHS has been so inspiring and I’m just lucky that I’ve got so many direct connections to people working inside of it.

“Part of the reason that I’m so keen to get back to my medical studies is so that I can finish my medical degree and be a real doctor at some point in the future.”

But first for the unfinished business.

Grant will head to Tokyo to take part in the women’s lightweight double sculls with Emily Craig.

They have already shown plenty of promise this season, winning a silver medal at the European Rowing Championships and gold at the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland.

“With a limited number of racing opportunities this season, I really think we made the most of it,” says Grant.

“The silver at Europeans was really exciting, and to be able to cross the finish line first and get a gold at World Cup II in our last set of racing before we went into our last training block was really exciting and really promising.

“You can’t ask for more when you come away with a gold medal and I just hope we can continue improving.

“We’re quite lucky in that we have raced the majority of the crews that we think will be competitive at the Olympic Games so we’re not going in completely blind.

“The lightweight women’s double event is really competitive and so to be in with a chance of a medal you really need to be aiming for that top spot, and that’s definitely what we’re doing.”

To be in such a good position is a testament to the bond that the pair have forged.

It was something that got closer during the lockdown last year, when Grant was training remotely in her living room in London and Craig was in Henley training in her kitchen.

“We PB’ed on various things last summer in respective kitchens and living rooms so it’s been going really well. That extra strength and fitness has transferred onto the water too,” says Grant.

“I think we work really well together and the last 12 months has definitely cemented that partnership.

“There is a lot of respect between us, and I feel like we really understand each other very well.

“Emily is a fantastic doubles partner. I’ve learned a lot from her in terms of making right decisions around training, but also in terms of how to race well, and empty the tank as much as possible.

“She is the one making the calls as we race down the track, and there is no-one that I would rather be racing with.

“It is sort of paradoxical that the time apart allowed us to grow closer, but I think part of it was that we were making specific efforts to call each other up and spend time, either virtually or in-person when I cycled to Henley, with each other outside of training.

“It definitely accelerated us becoming very good friends.”

It is just worth considering the development of Grant as a rower.

Despite being from Cambridge, she grew up in Bar Hill, it was not until going to study at Cambridge University that she first picked up an oar, and that was only reluctantly at a college boat club open day in 2014.

She rowed for the CUWBC development squad at the 2015 European Universities Rowing Championships winning a gold medal, and was part of the lightweight eight and reserve openweight crews in 2016.

Wins in the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Boat Race followed with the Light Blues, and by the end of the 2018 season, Grant had won gold by nearly two lengths in the single scull at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships.

The success continued with a gold medal in the single sculls at the third seniors’ Rowing World Cup of the season in 2019, and then a bronze with Craig in the lightweight double at the World Rowing Championships.

“Each year of my rowing career so far, from learning to row in my first year of university, I feel like I’ve taken a step and it was always a natural next step,” says Grant.

“From learning to row at my college, to trialing for the university squad, to trialing for GB under-23s and so on and so forth, each step seemed natural at the time, and it’s only now when I look back that I can really see how far I’ve come, and that’s pretty cool.”

Completing the set would be an Olympic medal, but also making the most of the opportunity in Tokyo.

“We’ve got a job to do, but also I want to enjoy myself as much as possible,” adds Grant.

“There is a lot of work that has gone into this Olympic campaign and I work to make sure that we reap what we’ve sown.”

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