Helen Glover - What The Outdoors Means To Me
From feeling wild and free, to giving me purpose.
I was born and brought up in Cornwall, and the sea, salt and sand were my first sensory experiences of the outdoors. Even now, if I just get a sniff of the ocean or hear a wave crashing in the distance I’m transported back to my childhood on the beach. There’s a freedom that comes from the car doors swinging open (or in our case, the old VW camper sliding on its rusty hinges!) and disappearing off into the outdoors. I vividly remember those days being truly free. Though always within sight of my parents, we could run, play, splash or go rock pooling. We’d only be persuaded back to the windbreak and towel by the promise of sand covered sandwiches and suddenly realising how hungry my siblings and I were.
I think the early years in the outdoors shaped me in many ways. If it wasn’t sunny beach days, it was wrapping up warm for cliff top walks. Hats pulled low over our ears and my dad's over-sized gloves stuck on my hands. All of this developed a physical capacity, I’m sure. Time spent running, walking and scrambling up rocks to get the best view. It made me stronger, fitter, more physically nimble and able. But I’m convinced what it gave me most is the mental capacity to strive. To push on just one headland more and see what the view is like from there. To race my brothers right to the top of the cairn just so I can claim the victory! I learnt the kind of self-talk I was still using on the day of my Olympic final.
My first outdoor adventure away from the watchful eyes of my parents was a cycle ride. My brothers and I planned the route on the map meticulously, including breaks and a lunch stop. At the halfway point of the circular route, we must have missed a turning (I didn’t have the map at the time so to this day refuse to take any blame!) and found ourselves cycling down lanes that were getting narrower and narrower, muddier and muddier. We soon reached an impassable section, hopped off our bikes and pushed them home the fastest route we could find through mud and fields. We returned home as the sun was setting, muddy from head to toe, our lack of map reading skills well and truly exposed but beaming from ear to ear and recounting the stories of our adventure to anyone who would listen for weeks.
At around this time I started taking sport more seriously. The sand dunes once used for playing hide and seek were now my training ground for hill sprints. I would swim in the sea, play hockey wherever I saw an open space and started to view the outdoors as something else. Somewhere I wasn’t just free, but somewhere I could have a purpose and pursue my love of sport.
When I started rowing at age 21 in many ways I wasn’t the right fit. A little too short, not quite strong enough and new to the sport in my 20s. Plus, nobody in my family had a clue about rowing other than watching Sir Steve Redgrave storm to many a victory. But there were things that made it perfect for me despite all of this. I was so exposed. So intertwined with the elements. Rivers and lakes have their own feel, their own way of moving. The wind, rain and sun are part of your session and when you’re on the water for hours at a time training you’re at the mercy of a change in weather. You have to hold your head and keep your cool while waves batter your boat from side to side and your body is on fire from the lactic acid building up in your legs. These moments I like to come into my own. The self-talk and ownership of myself I feel in the outdoors is so deep-set in me from my childhood that I relish the chance to call this my job. Being at one with the boat and the water no matter what the great outdoors throws at me - what could be better?!
My relationship with the outdoors has now come full circle. As many things do when you have children. I see the outdoors as the biggest tool in my armour of motherhood. If the kids are overstimulated, bored, annoying each other, or any number of daily (or hourly) considerations with young children, there’s usually the same answer - get them outside! I watch the wonder in their eyes as they turn over stones to inspect the underside for bugs. Cold walks with pink cheeks and runny noses usually end up in giving them a piggyback home but that's part of the fun! I hear resilience being instilled in them when they climb trees, I once heard Kit whispering to himself “I can do this, I’m strong”, I nearly melted with cuteness. It also took me straight back to why the outdoors was important to me. My children might not end up having careers in the outdoors, but I want them to know it's always there for them. And it's my job to nurture their love and understanding of what the outdoors gives them, while gently teaching them to give back, appreciate and look after what we’ve enjoyed for generations.
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