Athlete Insight: Karen Bennett
There are some things that you can typically expect from professional athletes: they are motivated, highly competitive, and intimidating – perhaps even cocky. Karen Bennett is entirely the first two and not a bit the latter, which is somewhat surprising as she’s on the brink of her fourth season as a senior rower for Team GB.
I meet Karen at the GB Rowing facility near Caversham, Reading. A passing car would be oblivious to the impressive training centre down a tiny side street, concealed from the main road. The setting is typically autumnal, heavy with clouds, and it’s the day before Karen’s 2019 season begins. She’s been enjoying the time off, she says, and muses how odd it will be to be back at 7:30 the next morning, ready for the season’s extensive training ahead.
Like any pro athlete, Karen’s day-to-day routine is significantly different from the norm. ‘When I was just getting into rowing I found it very hard to get my head around [the sacrifices],’ she admits. ‘You won’t go on holiday because you’re in the summer season, why wouldn’t you go on holiday? That’s ridiculous. Surely you can just pause for a couple of weeks and get back into it, but that’s not what happens.’
Similarly, late-night socials are off limits. ‘When I do get a break I spend a lot of time seeing friends and family, and we’ll go out and have a couple of drinks in an evening and that’s fine and normal. But during the season you can't afford to do that, or I certainly can’t afford to do that, because the next morning I know I’m going to have to get up at a certain time. If it’s freezing I’m going to have to be prepared to get out on that water and give it as much as I can for that session. If I’m tired or hungover or anything like that then it’s just exhausting. So you just want to make it easier by changing your lifestyle.’
We’ve settled in the Crew Room, a hang-out spot inside complete with a balcony overlooking the practice lake. Karen’s 2016 Olympic Silver is the last in a long list of GB honours inscribed on the wall. There are 40-odd trophies perched on shelves around us, like a family with multiple overachieving children who are running out of space on the mantelpiece. The roll call of Team GB athletes who’ve trained here includes legends Dame Katherine Grainger and Helen Glover.
On the average week Karen trains six or seven times at the centre. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays it’s a minimum of 60 minutes on the water first thing, followed by breakfast prepared by the onsite chefs. Then it’s either back out on the water or downstairs to the gym to work out on the rowing machine. After lunch, Karen fits in weight training before finishing up. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays it’s normally two sessions on the water. And Sundays? Far from a day of rest, they’re saved for a solo cardio session like a run or a swim. And I thought my weekly bootcamp session was tough.
Karen’s deep devotion to sports has always been evident. ‘Growing up I had a strong sporting background and did swimming, basketball, hockey and golf. My dad got us into all different kinds of sport.’ But the drive to get to the highest level hasn’t always been as easy to access. Despite being a regional standard swimmer she never had the ambition to carry on competing. ‘I got a bit distracted,’ she admits frankly – but Karen doesn’t see the lack of sporting achievement in her teens as as a negative; ‘it’s probably a really good thing because now I’m older I know exactly what I want.’
It wasn’t until Karen saw an advert on TV for Steve Redgrave’s Sporting Giants Programme that she knew becoming a professional athlete was her dream. ‘The carrot that was dangled in front of me was that you could get to go to the Olympics and I thought that would be amazing, I feel like I’ve always been destined to be a sportswoman because I’ve done it my whole life.’ But having the genes and the natural sporting ability didn’t make rowing an easy sport to master. ‘I was up in Scotland when I started. I was terrible, a complete novice. I really hated it to begin with because I wasn’t very good. When I started getting better that’s when I started to enjoy it. The people who I trained with were the ones that kept me at it, I really enjoyed their company and wanted to see them, rowing was just part of that.’
In 2010 Karen moved south to attend St Mary’s University in Twickenham where she rowed alongside her studies. After graduating Karen committed to rowing over getting a ‘normal’ job. ‘I decided to go full time when I graduated in 2013 because I struggled to put all my effort into two things at once [whilst studying].’ The decision paid off, and two years later Karen made the senior GB team.
But making the squad doesn’t guarantee you a spot at the Olympics. In fact, Karen had just a year to secure her place in a boat. ‘It was very intense, the racing and testing in the gym and on the water was ferocious. I had to make sure I wasn’t ill because I might miss training or an opportunity to get myself into the team.’ As Karen takes me through her path to the Olympics, it’s clear how much competition there is within the GB team alone; ‘It’s so cut throat. You win [a race and] you’re through to the next round of Olympic selection. You lose and you’re dropped and you’re not going to go to the Olympics.’
Coming home with a historic medal, the first women’s eight podium finish for Team GB, is no measure of security either. After Rio multiple senior members of the squad retired opening space for new recruits. ‘There was a big target on my back, [people thought] we have to beat her and if we beat her then we’re doing well.’ It’s not something Karen is especially comfortable with, imploring that ‘we all need to do our own thing and be our own people’. But right now Karen’s not precisely at her silver medal winning standard. ‘It should be that you go to the Olympics and you come back a tiny bit below what you were and then you build it back up.’ Medal winning times are, by definition, hard to achieve. For now, Karen is three seconds off the 2k time that won her that silver at Rio. If she’s going to secure the elusive gold, she’ll need to PB three seconds faster than her current best.
But it’s not all about Karen’s own progress. Despite working on training programmes alone in the winter season, rowing is still a team sport. ‘The summertime, when we get into crew boats, that’s when we’re all one unit and come together. In the back of my mind I also know during winter training I’m going to be in a boat with some of these girls and I need to look after them to see that they’re all alright.’ The benefits of that team spirit are evident here at Caversham. There’s a tradition, Karen tells me, of more experienced members of the squad giving advice to newer recruits.
With such a huge goal set firmly in her sights, 16 sessions of training week-in week-out in pursuit of that doesn’t leave a lot of time for extras. It’s part of the reason Karen has struggled to find a sponsor. Whilst British Rowing receives the largest pot of lottery funding of all Olympic sports, athletes themselves are only paid around the £30k mark. ‘I am on the lookout but I find it very hard to put myself out there. Training does take up a lot of time and that’s where you’ve got to find the balance. What’s more important, that you go to a sponsor’s event or talk this evening or that you’ve got your training the next day?’
Whilst being an elite athlete doesn’t necessarily equate to financial success, Karen still feels the pressures to live up to the expectations of being in a well funded sport. ‘I know that there are other countries and sports that don’t get the funding that we do and I feel like I think we’ve not been as successful as we have in the past, so there’s a pressure to win a gold medal...These facilities are incredible and we get given all the support from the coaches the nutritionists, the psychologists, the physios, the doctors...we should be producing results and when we’re not there is a question as to why we’re not.’
Next season is crunch time. At the upcoming World Championships in August 2019 they have to qualify the boats for Tokyo. Nothing is guaranteed for the eights boat that Karen currently races in, and realistically they won’t make it if they hit the same time as they did this year. As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Karen about her future ambitions. 2020, she’s decided, will be her last Olympics, but she won’t be cutting ties with the sporting world once her professional rowing career comes to an end. ‘I think sport can have a positive effect on a lot of the world’s problems like obesity and mental health...it can bring different cultures together. It is a massive player. When I retire that’s something that I’d like to go into.’
Looking toward Tokyo, Karen remains optimistic. ‘I’d like a gold medal because that’s better than what I did last time and I probably will be extremely disappointed if I don’t get that...But I think how I do things everyday today will have an effect on what I do in two years time. Hopefully I will be fast enough and come back with a gold medal. Simple as that,’ she laughs.