Proud and confused - but that's sport

I have been trying to write this blog for most of the last fortnight and what I have wanted to say has changed every day.

The logical part of my brain tells me I have got so much to be proud of. I am a two-time Olympian, part of an elite group. I won a silver medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing and have stood on the podium at three World Championships since then.

To then represent my country at a home Olympics is an indescribable honour. However, the emotional part of my brain leaves me feeling confused about London 2012.

How should I feel about coming fifth in the final of the women’s eight? How should I feel about all that has happened in the last eight years, the incredible highs and horrific lows?

GB’s women’s eight finish fifth in the Olympic final at London 2012. Pic: Getty 

It has taken me a while to work out what the Olympics mean to me. It will mean something different to the journalists writing about it, to the country at large, to the organising committee, and to family and friends of the competitors. And particularly to the athletes, those who achieved what they had dreamed and those who did not.

In 2008, there was the crushing disappointment of being in a boat that staked everything on winning gold, but came away with silver, a result that absolutely ripped me apart. In 2012, I was part of a crew that promised so much more than fifth.

It is easy to stand on the middle step of the podium, gold medal round your neck, and think it was all worth it. What happens to those who come away from the Games feeling like a failure? How do I begin to relate to this behemoth called the Olympics?

Having spent most of the last two weeks since the Games with a montage of my entire rowing career constantly running through my head, I think I am beginning to understand.

It comes down to one very simple answer: it’s sport. Sport can be a cruel mistress. It will chew you up and spit you out, but it’s sport. It is irrational, it gets under your skin and takes you over, but it’s sport. It means the world to you, but it’s still only sport.

I love sport, I really do. I love the fact it gives you the opportunity, at any level, to truly express yourself. I can put my heart and soul into my rowing and I can turn myself inside out to be the best I can be, irrespective of the outcome. I can work with a team of committed, driven, passionate people in pursuit of our dreams and we can create something really special together, something we will remember for the rest of our lives.

The cruel side of sport is that the person who comes first and the person who comes last put in the same commitment, make the same sacrifices and experience the same emotional rollercoaster, but to the victor the spoils. One person gets their moment on top of the podium, the other goes home with nothing.

That is another reason I love sport so much. I love the people who are brave enough to gamble it all, to put their entire life into one thing, racing a boat, knowing that only a very small number of people get the fairytale ending. I love the people who are prepared to put mind, body and soul into something with absolutely no guarantee of success.

You will not meet a group of people more passionately committed to representing their country and wearing the union jack with pride - and, in my case, the Cornish flag - than the women who make up the British rowing team. I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of it for eight years.

So how do I process all the highs and lows of my career? With that one word: sport.

I know I have never stepped away from a challenge, never been afraid to fail and never, ever accepted second best from myself. I have rowed with some brilliant, inspirational, nutty people and I have got some magical memories that I will take to my grave.

There is so, so much more to this last four years than the number five. Actually, finishing fifth is the least important part of it all. It will take some time to be able to realise all this and to accept it, because right now it is raw and it hurts. I have got a few plans for the next few months and then reality beckons.

At the risk of using a cliche, I will finish with the Olympic motto, which is something I held on to after the crushing disappointment of Beijing…

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”