Episode 38 in an interview with Olympic Rowing Gold Medalist Kat Copeland MBE.
We talk about loving her sport, coping with self-doubt, what made it possible for her to achieve Gold and also the unexpected effect that had on her.
I used to think success was an Olympic Gold Medal
Katherine was part of the Great Britain rowing team for 10 years and went to the Rio and London Olympic games, winning a gold medal in the lightweight women’s single scull in 2012. Katherine has also broken five world record times and won gold medals at the European Championships and World Cup regattas and medalled at the World Championships in the same boat class. Now retired, she plans to finish her degree in English, is currently training to be a qualified yoga teacher, and is co-starting a biscuit company which aims to promote and support inspiring women. Coming from a non-sporting background, Katherine is keen to promote the many benefits sport can bring, especially to young girls and women.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 1.3.19 – Ep 38. Kat Copeland
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Today I’m talking to Olympic Rowing Gold medallist, Kat Copeland. We talk about loving her sport, coping with self-doubt, what made it possible for her to achieve Gold and also the unexpected effect that had on her. I asked her first to tell me what she says to people when they ask who she is?
K: So first of all I’d say I’m a Northern girl, born and bred. And that’s really important to me, I love where I came from, I feel like its shaped me. So Northern girl, I’m a rower, I’ve actually just recently retired, I’ve been a rower for the past 12 years. Ever since I started the sport I loved it and I left school, I went into that professionally and since then I’ve been to two Olympic Games and yeah, I’ve just trained full time and had a really good time.
T: You say you started rowing and you just loved it.
T: Why? What is it about rowing that just floats your boat, so to speak?
K: Really interesting, when I say that it sounds quite flippant but actually when I was younger I was really overweight and I wasn’t sporty, I was actually really not self-confident at all. Didn’t like sport at school, when we played rounders in primary school I would literally always choose to be a fielder and then if the ball would come near me, I’d just purposefully go slow, I also couldn’t run very fast anyway. But I’d purposely go slow so I didn’t really have to do anything, so I wasn’t like, you know, “sporty person“. Yeah, I went to secondary school, my friend wanted to try rowing and she didn’t want to go on her own, I think she had to ask me about six times ‘cause each time I was like, na, na. Finally I relented and went with her and I think, I don’t know if there was just one thing that I loved about it, like I was with my friends that was good. It was like a team sport that was really good for me, when I started it was summer time and the bit of river we were on was beautiful, like I loved being outdoors I think that’s something I’ve learnt about myself. That’s where I just feel so content and happy. And we had a great coach at school who, it wasn’t pressurised, but because we enjoyed it we wanted to go more and he would accommodate that. I think just the whole package that was what I loved.
T: Did you ever have points where you doubted your ability?
K: Yeah, like literally all the time. All the time. And it’s so funny because actually, so I’ve been to two Olympic. I’ve been to London where we won, and then I’ve been to Rio where we really didn’t do very well, we came 14th which for us was like abysmal, that was not what we wanted to do. But actually like, ironically after London I really doubted myself when I was coming back after London I was like, ooh, I don’t know if I’m good enough to go again. I’ve got to get so much better because everything’s gonna move on now and I’ve got to get better. So I think actually that was a surprising moment of self-doubt, you think that you would do really well in something, that’s the pinnacle in our sport and I think I always expected that once I’d reach that level then I would be so confident and I’d feel like I was amazing and like life would chance and how I felt about myself would change. But I still had those doubts all the way through.
T: So the weight of expectation, did you feel a weight of expectation after London?
K: Yes, I did because I guess once you’ve won once, that is, then you’ve set the new, that’s where you set your bar really, so if you don’t win. And just as athletes then all the girls that I train with on the team like that is where you set your expectation anyway. So I guess anything less than that is, I think at the time I thought “failure” and it sort of took me actually Rio, in hindsight, it was a really good experience for me to re-think that thinking.
T: Talking about re-thinking, you talked about having doubts. How do you get through those, how do you keep going when those doubts are plaguing you?
K: I think a couple of things. I just learnt over time that that was my minds set, I wasn’t sort of person who would always think that I was gonna smash it and I was amazing. And I actually don’t know if those people exist all the time, I think everyone has self-doubt. I think a couple of things. I think once I’d realised that that was my normal and that was okay, then I didn’t worry about it so much. I just thought, okay, this is me, this is how I think. Sometimes. I don’t constantly think like that and…
T: But it’s okay to do it anyway?
K: Yeah. It’s okay to, I don’t have to stress about it, yeah sometimes that’s gonna creep in, that’s alright, its always happened and I’ve done well anyway. And I think also, just I guess when I sort of step back a bit out of myself and thought about it logically, I was like, well I am carrying on and I am going in for this race. And I know that I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t truly believe in myself, so I think deep down the foundation was that I did believe in myself and then those thoughts would just be like on top of it, fleeting.
T: London 2012 was incredible for women’s rowing. You got, I think it was the third Gold medal for rowing, which was absolutely amazing. And I’ve read that it wasn’t expected for that to happen. What made that possible?
K: I think a couple of things. Number one, we had an amazing training group so all the girls trained together as a big team, so actually the three girls that we got were in our boat, they’re heavy women’s double and they’re heavy women’s Pair. And we would actually, the three of us, because we were similar speeds, all of our pieces before in that year we would do side by side, so we just stagger it a little bit, do side by side so we’d be racing each other. And then you sort of get ranked on, you have like a percentage Gold medal time, so we get ranked. So I think the fact that we had such amazing women to train with, I mean literally going side by side with like all four of those girls who were like I think like some of the best rowers we’ve ever had that was amazing for us and that pushed us on and showed us the level. I think that London was the first Olympics where we got any Gold medals in women’s rowing but actually we did rely and we could use a lot on the women who’d gone before us. So like, I know, to me I’d say someone like Fran Houghton, I mean she’s been to five Olympics and to be able to be on a team with her and use her experience from the Olympics before and to speak to her. Like she was like a wise owl, that helped us because then we could learn quicker, we could learn off them. So I think those two things. I think the fact it was in London, like the atmosphere was literally like amazing, it was insane.
K: Yeah, it was incredible. Team GB set it up really well. There’s just so many reasons.
T: You we’re given quite a homecoming in Stockton where you come from and became a hero there. What’s that like?
K: So actually, at the time it was really weird for me because I had grown up and rowed literally until April of 2012, up in the North East in Stockton and Middlesbrough. And I was just used to sort of rowing on a boat on my own down this river with no one else on it and just sheep at the side, me and the ducks, there was a seal that would sometimes come. It was like a bubble and rowing to me, you know, one of the things I love about rowing is just being on the river on my own, the feeling of the water and just having that quiet space. And I think after London that obviously shifted a lot and I think actually at the time I found it really hard to deal with, because I felt like it had changed my relationship with rowing a little bit, so I was sort of trying to resist that…
T: You say, “Hard to deal with”, the notoriety?
K: Yeah, the attention and I think I always felt like rowing in the middle, and this is probably quite a selfish way of looking at it, was like a personal thing to me, that was what I wanted to do just ‘cause it was my dream. And I felt a bit like, when you’ve been asked to go to all these events and they’re like, ‘bring your medal’, show your medal around. It’s almost like selling it a bit and I didn’t really like that, and I was like this is like my… So that was hard, but then at the same time I feel like my surroundings and the people in the North East did really shape who I was and it’s because of my family and my friends and the people at Tees Rowing Club that I got to that level in the first place. So then there’s also really good things about it that we could celebrate that and also hopefully raise the profile of rowing in the North East because it does tend to be a predominantly southern based sport.
T: Do you feel a responsibility to do that?
K: It’s not so much, I don’t even know if I feel responsibility…
T: A pressure?
K: I just feel really proud of who I am, so I don’t feel of where I come from, so I don’t feel it as a responsibility ‘cause I would just want to do that anyway.
T: When you look back at your career, did you achieve what you wanted to?
T: You did.
T: What did you want to do?
K: And I honestly did. I went into it and I didn’t go into it with, I did not start rowing, ‘cause as I said I was not sporty at all. I did not start rowing thinking I wanna go to the Olympics and be an Olympic Champion, like literally, no, that was not in my mindset. I like always approached it, almost a sharp turn but that worked well for me so when I started rowing we wanted to do really well at the J14 Championships and Durham Regatta. And then it sort of moved on and I wanted to do Junior Trials, then I wanted to go to Under 23s, I always only looked at it a year ahead. Which in a way made it really easy ‘cause then I didn’t feel under pressure. So I’d say I didn’t go into it with expectation.
T: What are you most proud of?
K: I’m actually most proud of the way that I trained and the way that I raced and the way that I worked.
T: Tell me about that?
K: I’m just proud that, I don’t know how to do describe it. I’m proud that I know that I gave it like everything that I had, I literally put everything out there. I’d hope that people thought that I did it in a way that was positive and helpful to those people around me that I helped some of the rowers around me, that I did it with integrity and that I enjoyed it.
T: You’re retired now. When do you know it’s time to retire?
K: This is [laughs] really tricky, I don’t know. Different for everyone. I had actually been thinking about it for probably about a year. I took some time out last year, a couple of months, ‘cause I got to a point where I wasn’t really sure and I thought that, like I said before when I was saying what I was most product of, I’ve always been proud that I’ve given my all to rowing. I’m very much in the mindset of like if I’m gonna do a job, I’m gonna give it like everything I’ve got and I’m gonna do my best. And I thought if I was in a mindset of not being sure, I didn’t want to be putting myself forward for races and rowing ‘cause I felt I was doing it a bit of an injustice. Do you know, it’s so weird, it wasn’t one big thing, I guess I always expected to either, I would get injured or it would be after an Olympic Games, ‘cause that sort of, for us, a bookmark point, you work in four year blocks. But do you know, I literally just got to a point where I’d been thinking about it and then one morning I went out in my boat and I just, this sound very like airy fairy. But I just knew, just deep down I knew and I think maybe me having been thinking about it the past year was just me coming to terms with it a little bit, ‘cause it was such a big change. But yeah, I just went out one morning and I just, yeah, I just knew.
T: Do you still get in a boat? Is rowing going to be in your future in some capacity?
K: So, I only just retired actually, literally just over a moth ago, so since then I haven’t been in a boat. I feel a bit…
T: A month’s not very long.
K: No, but it’s not very long. I do intend to and I think one thing I’m really pleased about is that I finished at a point where I still love the sport. I’ve seen people finish where they feel a bit bitter, but like I love rowing and I love sport so I will definitely be out in a boat again. But yeah, right now it’s quite a novelty and it’s nice for me to try loads of different things. So if I wanna go, like I went out on my bike with my friend yesterday, that was really fun. I tried a bit of cross fit, I go to a dancing class which I won’t be very good at but I just enjoy like, it’s nice doing different things.
T: Yes, you don’t have to worry about mucking up your training and…
K: Yeah. Just like branching out and getting out of my bubble a little bit, because I have been in a bubble.
T: Might be too early to ask this question, but how do you figure out what next?
K: I don’t know. [Laughter] That’s a really tricky one. I guess for me…
T: Maybe ask you in a couple of years, maybe?
K: Yeah, maybe ask me in like a year. [Laughter] My mum and dad will laugh at this because I’m so indecisive. I think, the thing I do know is at the minute I’ve had something that I’ve loved doing, I didn’t see rowing as my job, it was like my baby, it was my passion. And I know I won’t find a job that’s exactly like that, but I think what’s important to me is to follow things that I love, things that I feel really strongly about. Like I couldn’t go and work in an office if I didn’t care about what I was doing, or just for money. So I think that’s definitely something I’ve worked out that’s important to me.
T: So finding a purpose?
K: Yeah, I think that’s really important, that’s like a very millennial thing to say, isn’t it, but yeah, so at the minute I’ve been exploring like a couple of different things. I’ve got my fingers in a couple of different pies. And yeah, I’m just gonna see what works out.
T: So this podcast is about performance, people’s different views of success. What’s success for you?
K: I said before we started this, I was really pleased the discussion was in here ‘cause like without consciously doing it I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot over the past year. I think I always used to see success to me as Olympic Gold medals and I mean I am so pleased and lucky that I can finish with one. But I think I used to think, after London I was okay, well, I just need another one and then I’ll feel successful. And, you know, I bet even if I’d have got one in Rio I’d be like okay, I just need another one and then I feel successful. So I think actually what I’ve realised that for me success is more like on a personal level, I think success is being happy and comfortable with myself and having good people around me, doing things that I love. That to me, being healthy, that is more success for me now, I think.
T: What makes you happy?
K: I’m quite a people person, so I’ve got certain people like my fiancé and my best, best friends that always just make me feel happy. Being outside is like massive for me, I grew up near the Cleveland Hills at home and that is like, yeah, nature and being outside makes me happy. Travelling, getting out of my bubble, that’s another thing. Being with my dog, Doug. So yeah, I think to me it’s spending time with people that I love and being outside.
T: Sounds good to me. I am just going to end up with a few quick-fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
K: Toast. [Laughter]
T: You don’t look totally convinced of that, was it definitely toast?
K: No, I just feel under so much pressure and I was like, oh god, what did I have for breakfast? and then I was thinking I should have said something more interesting. [Laughter]
T: What was on your toast?
K: Jam, but my mum had made it, so it was nice and homely.
T: That’s suddenly become much more interesting. Favourite piece of kit?
K: We have these things, this is so geeky, we wear these things called ‘gamaxes’, they’re basically like waterproof tops but they’re really soft. My t’s one and I’ve got one that’s like t’s my home club colour so that’s my t’s gamax.
T: Sporting hero?
K: Oh, this is so tough. I’ve got two. So actually for me Fran Hatton, who I said before I think she’s the most underrated, one of the most underrated women’s athlete there is. She is amazing. She’s literally, she’s been five Olympics, which just blows my mind and he’s a wealth of knowledge and I think how she trains and speaking to her, yeah, I mean she is literally inspirational.
T: And the other one?
K: I’ve just thought of another one, so I don’t know who I would pick out the two.
T: You’re allowed a couple.
K: Okay. So I’d say this is also a bit like cliched, but Jess Ennis. Because the reason I’d say her is because she had so much pressure put on her before the London Games and I think to be able to perform with that amount of pressure, as an athlete I know how hard that must’ve been, so I think that’s amazing.
T: And the third one?
K: I was gonna say, there’s an American Hurdler, Lolo Jones. And why I find her really inspirational, I guess with her it’s more like perseverance and grit when you fail at something. Like I remember watching her at the Beijing Olympics and she was like on for a Gold medal, she’d won at Worlds, she was literally, she was miles ahead for her sprint race and she actually did fall at the last hurdle, that wasn’t a bad saying. And then that would have been so easy to just like shirk away but then she went back and got back to competing so I think that is the bit that I find really inspirational about her.
T: Most useless piece of advice that you’ve been given, or given to somebody else?
K: Actually, I said before that I knew what this was, but it’s not really useless. I was in a boat one time with Sophie, who I rode with in London. And one time she just turned around to me and she was like, “Stop saying sorry.” ‘Cause I’m like a very, I’m a people pleaser and I would always be like, oh, sorry, whatever. And she just turned around and she was, “Stop saying sorry”. And that has really stuck with me.
T: Greatest passion outside of sport?
K: Is yoga a sport? Everything I like to do…Oh, food, cooking. I love cooking.
T: Do you have a particular dish that you’re very good at?
K: Yeah, I quite like Middle Eastern style, so like a good Middle Eastern salad, that is like that’s like a go-to lunch, but I’ve literally got about 30 cookbooks, I love cooking.
T: And the last question. Best performance enhancer?
K: Happiness. I always find that when you’re happy and sorted outside of sport you just perform so much better. And my old coach always used to say, your body…And it’s true ‘cause I read like, there’s a lot of science behind it. ‘Your body can’t tell the difference between physical and emotional stress’. So if you’re mentally going through some big things it will come through in your body and your performance. So, happiness.
T: Brilliant. Well it’s been fantastic talking to you this morning, thank you very much.
T: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a Question of Performance. com.