‘I wasn’t a sporty kid – but now I’m off to the Olympics’ – former Crofton School pupil Rebecca Girling is part of Team GB’s Tokyo rowing team

By her own admission, Rebecca Girling ‘wasn’t a sporty kid’ during her time at Crofton School and Bay House Sixth Form College. And when someone told her at a Freshers Fair she had the ideal build to be a rower, she was so offended she walked off in a huff.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 11:00 am
Former Crofton School pupil Rebecca Muzerie will make her Olympic debut next month. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images for British Olympic Association.
Former Crofton School pupil Rebecca Muzerie will make her Olympic debut next month. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images for British Olympic Association.

Not the ideal background, therefore, for an Olympic athlete in the making. But next month, the 31-year-old will become one of 37 Team GB Olympic rowing debutants when she competes in the Women’s eight competition at the Sea Forest Waterway, a 2,335m long course in Tokyo.

Rebecca - who now competes under her married name of Muzerie - is currently in Italy, in the second of a three-week training camp at Lake Verase, in the shadow of the Alps, ahead of the XXXII Olympiad (the 32nd Games).

It was the second time in as many years the Surrey-based Molesey Boat Club member had been selected. In March 2020 she was told she was Tokyo-bound, but four days later the Games were postponed due to the pandemic and the entire Team GB rowing squad were instantly de-selected and told to go home and train on their own.

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Life in lockdown - Rebecca Muzerie training at her home in Molesey during the first national lockdown in May 2020. Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images.

The eight-strong team Rebecca will form part of in Tokyo only came together in February of this year. As a result, it’s been a whirlwind period of ‘getting to know’ each other and trying to build up a successful team virtually from scratch.

The eight - including another with strong Hampshire connections in Southampton-born Caragh McMurtry - have only had one major competitive event so far, finishing fourth in the European Championships.

While at their training camp, Rebecca and the rest of the Olympic team will be rowing for around six hours a day virtually every day for three weeks.

They will return to England for around a week - but won’t be allowed to go home, though, as they will all be based in a ‘bubble’ at the same location near Reading.

Rebecca Muzerie pinned up motivational pictures on glass doors to help her during training at home during the first national lockdown in May 2020. Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images.

The squad jet off for Tokyo on July 13 and will need to quarantine in a hotel for four days before moving into the Olympic Village.

Heats for the eights take place on Sunday, July 25 - just two days after the Games opens - with the quarter-finals three days later and the final on July 30.

It is all a far cry from Rebecca’s younger days. Born in Bristol, she grew up in Stubbington before taking up rowing after moving to university in Cardiff to study for a degree in psychology.

‘I wasn’t a sporty kid. I used to cycle to school, that was about the extent of it!’ she told The News via a Zoom call.

Rebecca Muzerie training at home during the first national lockdown in May 2020. Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images.

(Rebecca said she could see the Alps from where she was sitting. I was a tad jealous, as I could see the M27).

‘When the Olympic team announcement was made my former PE teacher messaged me. I remember him giving me extra lessons for basketball lay-offs - I had no coordination!’

Her sporting life changed on moving to Wales. ‘I was at a Freshers Fair at uni and I was asked if I’d be interested in rowing as I had the right build. I was really offended and walked off,’ Rebecca recalled.

‘I eventually got into it in my second year and it was a case of finding something that I loved.

Training in amongst the wheelie bins - life for an Olympian during the first national lockdown in May 2020. Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images.

‘I love the fact that rowing is a weird mix of the individual and the team.

‘You have to put in the hard work on your own in training, but then it’s a case of how well we can all work with each other.

‘I just love being on the water, and we get to travel to some amazing lakes.’

‘I got addicted - after the first time I raced at the Henley Regatta it was like ‘right, next year I want to win that!’

She was true to her word, winning a title while representing Cardiff University at Henley - the world’s most famous rowing event - in her second season in the sport.

Rebecca carried on rowing at Cardiff University’s high performance programme, training alongside established global competitors at the Sport Wales National Centre.

From there, she joined the GB rowing squad in 2016 and competed in the 2017 World Championships in Florida the following year.

Three years on from that she was off to the Olympics, but not for long.

‘It was quite a wild four days,’ she recalled of March 2020.

‘Two weeks ago we were all sat on the stairs at Caversham (British Rowing’s training centre in Berkshire), socially distanced and wearing our masks, when the Olympic team was announced.

‘That was the first time in 15 months everyone had been together.

‘The previous March we were told we’d been selected, but because we were going into lockdown everyone had to go home. Four days later the Olympics had been cancelled.

‘We had to train at home - I found that really hard.

‘I didn’t really feel I’d been selected for the Olympics last year.

‘But now I’m really excited - I’m going to be an Olympian and I’ve got something to show for all the years of hard work.’

Team GB have a proud record in the Olympics. It is the only sport they have medalled in every Games since 1984. Overall, GB have won 31 gold, 24 silver and 13 bronze since 1900.

Rebecca and her colleagues have the weight of history against them, though; since the women’s eights were first contested at the Games in 1976, GB have won just one medal - a silver in Rio five years ago.

‘It’s been a steep learning curve for all of us,’ she said. ‘Bringing nine people (eight rowers plus a cox) together has its own challenges.

‘There’s a lot of getting to know each other and knowing how each other likes to row before you can start to concentrate on speeds.’

While every Olympian dreams of, as Rebecca puts it, ‘something shiny’, a healthy dose of reality never goes amiss.

‘For us, we’re focussing less on the outcome and more on the process,’ she explained.

‘You can row a boat in a lot of different ways.

‘Of course we would love to win a gold - that’s the absolute dream. But we have no idea what our speeds are in relation to the rest of the world.’

Understandably, the Tokyo Games will be unlike any other. Athletes were told months ago that friends and family members will not be allowed to travel to Japan, while it was confirmed this week that Games venues will only be 50 per cent full, up to a maximum of 10,000 people.

It has also been revealed that spectators will be asked to refrain from shouting or talking loudly, and to avoid any stop-offs on their way to or from Games venues.

In a code of conduct published on Wednesday, one section entitled ‘Watching the Games competition and cheering the athletes’ encourages spectators to clap rather than cheer, and contains an image of a trumpet crossed out above the words ‘no noisemakers’.

Spectators are also encouraged to bring a towel or handkerchief with them to clean their hands on, but waving that towel or other items to cheer on athletes is forbidden, as is high-fiving other spectators who are not family members, or venue staff.

Spectators are told not to seek autographs or to express verbal support for athletes.

Alcohol will not be available for purchase at the venues, and nor can it be brought in, the guidance stated.

Spectators are asked to wear face coverings throughout their visit to a venue,

That doesn’t sound a huge amount of fun for those watching, and of course it will be hard for the competitors too.

‘I have got used to the fact it will be a very different Olympics,’ said Rebecca.

‘We won’t have our family and friends and we won’t be able to mingle with the other athletes in the Olympic Village. They’re all exciting things but I’ve had to let go of that.

‘We won’t be at the opening ceremony or the closing ceremony.

‘I’m used to sitting down all the time - I think if we had to stand up for four hours at the opening ceremony it would break us!’

‘It will be secure and safe - I think we’re having around 33 Covid tests while we’re in Tokyo. I’ve already had my first vaccine and we’re tested regularly.’

Traditionally, rowing teams don’t attend opening Olympic ceremonies as their sport is one of the first to take place.