TO have bagged an Olympic medal after less than a decade in your sport is, by anyone’s standards, some pretty impressive progress. And such is the pace of Karen Bennett’s rise up the rowing ranks, she admits that she goes into next week’s European Championships in Racice knowing that anything less than a gold medal will leave her unsatisfied.
The signs are looking good for the 28 year-old from Edinburgh — she and her partner in the women’s pair, Holly Norton, have made the best possible start to the year, winning gold in the first World Cup race of the season in Belgrade a couple of weeks ago and Bennett is feeling confident as she heads to the Czech Republic.
“It’s nice looking forward to the Europeans knowing we’ve got a race under our belt and we’ve been working on some things that we need to improve on to go even faster,” she says.
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“I want to win a gold medal at the Europeans, it’s as simple as that really. It’s a good target for us and we’re feeling confident so we’re just hoping that we can get the job done.”
Bennett was part of the women’s eight which won silver at Rio 2016 with the Scot having only being invited to join the GB set-up the previous year. It was a remarkable achievement, particularly considering she could barely stop herself falling into the water when she first took up the sport.
Bennett’s path into rowing was somewhat unusual; having been an active child, she drifted away from sport in her teenage years. But as her twenties approached, she had a sense that she was wasting her athletic potential and applied for a talent identification programme called “Sporting Giants”.
Bennett had her eye on volleyball — sandy beaches and sunny climes were what she had in mind — but instead, she was invited to join a rowing programme. Her start may have been somewhat inauspicious but slowly but surely, she got the hang of her new sport.
Finally, just a few years before the Rio Olympics, Bennett decided that if she was going to take rowing seriously, it was now or never. “It got to the point when I had to decide if I wanted to have a proper go at it and so I made the choice to go full-time and see where that would take me,” she explains. “I definitely made the right choice. When I got into the GB squad in 2015, the progress I made between then and the Olympics was really surprising, that was a real springboard for me.”
After Bennett returned from Rio last summer, she and her compatriots had a well-deserved few months off. However, the return to the daily grind was not, admits Bennett, always easy.
“When I went back to training after Rio I felt really unfit, and there was a lot of new girls in the team, so I felt almost like I had a target on my back, because when you’re the Olympic athlete, everybody is trying to beat you in everything, so that was quite tough,” she says.
“And it was coming into winter so it was cold and wet and dark so it was hard. But we went on a training camp in January which was exactly what I needed and since then, I’m back loving it and aiming high.”
Another factor in Bennett’s rejuvenation is her change from the 8 to the pair and this transition has given her the new goals that she needed. “I do miss the other girls and last summer will always have a special place in my heart, but I think I needed to draw a line under it and move on because if I’m always looking back and wanting things to be the same then I’ll never progress,” she says.
“So I need to look forward to the pair if we do continue to race in this boat throughout the season and this will be something new that we need to form and create and make it our own little project.”
Bennett is now one of the most established members of GB’s lauded rowing team, and so already she has turned her thoughts towards the 2020 Olympic Games. Having won an Olympic medal with just one year of training with the national squad, she admits that the prospect of going to Tokyo with a full, four-year cycle under her belt is an enticing prospect.
“It’s really exciting knowing that I’ve got an Olympic medal but I can progress on from here and so I’m really looking forward to what’s coming in the next few years — hopefully it’s success,” she says.
“At the back of my mind, Tokyo is the big goal but I don’t think you can get too far ahead of yourself so for me, it’s just about taking it one competition at a time and one year at a time. But what’s great about being part of this GB system is that you know that if you’re selected to go to an Olympic Games or a World Championships then you’ve got a great pedigree. We all have to work really hard but that’s all repaid when we are successful.”