From Olympic Podium to Yoga Mat: Former Pupil Explores The Importance Of Finding A Career You Love

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From Olympic Podium to Yoga Mat: Former Pupil Explores The Importance Of Finding A Career You Love

Former pupil and 2012 Olympic champion, Katherine Copeland MBE, is steering her way through the adventure of becoming a new business owner.

Kat joined Yarm School in First Year (Year 7) and continued through to Sixth Form where she studied English, Biology and PE at A Level. Kat achieved three As, as well as an AS Level in Chemistry.

Kat was always extremely passionate about sport during her time at Yarm and took part in a range of extra-curricular activities here, including hockey, netball, cross-country, 800/1500m athletics and canoeing. She started rowing at the age of 14 and continued throughout her time at Yarm, representing the School regionally, nationally and internationally.

“Sport has given me a much healthier relationship and view of my body. I think pre-sport I would worry a lot about what my body looked like… Rowing completely changed my view and I now look at what my body can do, and that’s such a more freeing, fun, empowering mindset to have.”

After representing Great Britain in a number of Junior and Senior womens’ events between 2007 – 2011, Kat was selected for the Olympic class double scull in 2012. On what became known as Super Saturday, Kat and her sculling partner Sophie Hosking finished first and claimed Olympic gold in the Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls at the London 2012 Olympics.

Kat has been extremely busy on and off the water since her Olympic success, continuing with her rowing, delving into the world of public speaking and more recently, setting up her own business.

We caught up with Kat to find out more about her career as a professional athlete and what she has been up to in recent years.

Q. When did you first consider pursuing rowing professionally?

I don’t think I ever really consciously thought about it, I just took it step-by-step and kept making decisions based on what I was enjoying (which tended to be rowing!). I decided to take a Gap Year to allow me to row full time and evaluate how good I could get.

I didn’t do as well as I would have liked that year, but I came across a new coach and set-up at Tees Rowing Club which persuaded me to give it one more year and I ended up being selected for the U23 World Championships and winning a gold medal!

After that I thought I might have a chance of making the senior team.
Q. How old were you when you first represented GB and what event was it?
I first represented GB when I was in Fifth Year. Rachel Gamble-Flint (who is now coaching rowing in New Zealand) and I competed in the GB vs France match in a double.

I can still remember how excited we were to get our first GB vest and try it on. Even though the race was only in Nottingham, it was still such a big deal for us and we were beyond excited!

Q. What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Your goals and perspectives constantly adjust and shift in sport so I actually found (nearly!) as much joy winning the J14 Peterborough Championships at school with my best friends as I did winning elite races. All year we’d been training after school, working towards and dreaming of winning so when we did, we were ecstatic.

Some of my highlights post Yarm include breaking the world record, and winning gold at the Italy World Cup in 2015; the BBC were also presenting from Tees RC at the time too!

Personal achievements, such as coming back from stress fractures in my ribs to win senior final trials also stick out as highlights.

It goes without saying that London 2012 is up there too, but at the time it all happened so fast it was really hard to process. The whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind!

Please provide details of your experience at the 2012 Olympics…

Ahead of the Olympics I was training full-time at Tees RC which involved 2-3 sessions, six days a week combining rowing on the water, indoor sessions on the ergo and weight training. This was every week, all year round so it was pretty intense but I absolutely loved it.

One of the great things was the people I was doing it all with. We had such a close-knit bunch of athletes training together every day, supporting and cheering each other on. They’re now still some of my best friends, even though I’ve retired.

At the time of Olympic selection in April 2012, Sophie and I knew we had to be super focused and intentional with how we spent our time and had to come together quickly and efficiently as a team.

We spent the first week of the games at Oakley Court, just down the river from Eton Dorney, which we were taken to in boats to avoid the traffic! I remember arriving at our room and feeling like a child at DisneyLand because Team GB had decked it all out with GB decorations as well as Olympic dressing gowns, bed throws and bunting. It was gorgeous; their attention to detail was incredible.

Racing at Dorney was like nothing I’ve ever experienced: the size of the crowd and configuration of the spectator seating meant it felt like you were in an arena in the last 500m which is something you never get in rowing. The roar of the crowd just echoed from side to side and the stands were so high and you were right down in the middle of it all. I remember getting butterflies as the volume increased and increased the further we went down the course.

Winning was obviously a magical moment for Sophie and I, but it was made even more special by seeing the faces of everyone who had helped me win my medal. From my first coaches at Yarm, Mr Clark and Mr Guest, to my current coach, family, best friends and fiancee, seeing them right in front of me, smiling and waving their banners as the national anthem was played was unforgettable.

North East Olympic Champion Kat Copeland

After our final we moved to the Olympic Village which was amazing. I made the most of being able to go for a cup of tea in the dining hall to people-watch, with the likes of Usain Bolt and the Williams sisters getting food and relaxing around me.

Following the Olympics I took some time out to work out who I was outside of rowing and really, just allow myself to decompress and process the previous years. I still had a real love and passion for the sport so found myself back in training a few months later with hopes of making the team for Rio 2016.

I still felt so young and thought I had a lot of room to improve technically and physically, and I wanted to see how good I could be. I was really happy to have been selected for the Rio team and to have the opportunity to race at another Olympics.

I was also thrilled to have been awarded an MBE. Again, at the time I didn’t really process it because so much was happening but looking back, I now realise it was a really special and rare opportunity.

The coolest thing about it was being able to step inside Buckingham Palace and attend the Queen’s garden party afterwards!

Q. Have there been any challenges or tough moments during your career?

SO MANY I can’t even tell you…

I would say the toughest year for me was right after I left Yarm. I moved away from home, down to London, to train full time with athletes a lot older and more experienced than me. I lost the structure and support system that I was used to which was hard to adjust to. I also struggled in terms of my performance so I lost a lot of confidence in my ability.

It was really coming back to the North East, and to Tees RC, that built me back up and helped me to find enjoyment in the sport again – enough to carry on and commit to another year of full time training.

One of my lightbulb moments happened at the National Training Centre. Olympic athletes, who I idolised and had watched row at the Beijing Olympics on TV, were sitting around me in the crew room between sessions, moaning about being tired and not really wanting to go back out training. That just made them so much more human to me and I realised everyone has challenges and days they don’t want to do things. This made the massive challenge of going to an Olympics seem more realistic for me: I wasn’t going to be racing robot superhumans, I was going to be racing human beings.

As challenging as it has been at times, sport has given me so much more than medals and GB vests. It’s given me confidence, friends for life, resilience, and better communication skills. This is all stuff that you can gain no matter what level you compete at or how often you train.

It’s also given me a much healthier relationship and view of my body. I think pre-sport I would worry a lot about what my body looked like (as I think most teenagers do). Rowing completely changed my view and I now look at what my body can do, and that’s such a more freeing, fun, empowering mindset to have.

Q. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue rowing further?

Rowing is definitely a sport for grafters: it’s high volume training and very repetitive. Some days you come home so tired it’s like you’re in a bit of a trance and can’t do anything else apart from sleep or eat!

However, if you love it and you’re willing to put in the time and effort that’s required, the rewards are amazing. Plus, I think there is such a strong community side to it – you’re never alone and there’s always someone to support you if needed.

In terms of selection, each year starts afresh in September. It starts with an open 5km water trial in Boston, as well as a 2km ergo. Team GB then invites rowers to trials every few months based on their performance at previous trials in order to whittle down the team.

Final selection trials and crew boat testing are in Easter and then boats are selected for the World Champs or Olympic Games that summer.

Elite level rowing demands a certain type of lifestyle, like early nights, good nutrition, grit and determination at every training session and the commitment to showing up and pushing yourself to be the best you can be.

Having said that, whilst training and racing is hard work, it’s also super fun and it’s important that you’re enjoying that balance. Some of my best memories from Yarm are from going to races and attending rowing camps with my friends! I feel so lucky to have fallen into the sport at Yarm and indeed, fallen in love with it as well.

Q. What have you been doing since you retired from rowing professionally?

It’s been a lot of this and that to try to figure out what I do and don’t like, and what the right next step for me might be.

I coached rowing for a year and absolutely loved it – being outside, working with young rowers and seeing them achieve things they didn’t believe they could was the most fulfilling, exciting experience.

Now, I work as a Leadership Consultant at Deloitte which I am really enjoying! As well as having great colleagues, I am fascinated by the difference leaders and cultures can have on their teams and overall performance; I see so many similarities between sport and what I do now.

I also do a lot of public speaking and have spoken to a wide range of audiences in the education, charity and corporate sectors. I think being confident to speak to large crowds is one of the indirect skills rowing has given me. The thread that has carried through everything I’ve done and loved – rowing, speaking, coaching and consulting – is my love of working and speaking with people, hearing their stories and understanding different perspectives.#

Q. When did you first start practising yoga and what inspired you to turn this passion into a business?

My mum took me to my first yoga class near Teesside Park when I was about 16. I loved it but didn’t go frequently as I was too busy with after school activities and school. However, when I started training full time I tried to practise as a way to relax and switch off my mind (my favourite pose was always savasana!).

After retiring, I went to Bali and qualified as a yoga teacher as I knew I wanted to explore areas of work that I enjoyed like I did rowing. I loved the creativity involved in writing my sequences – they’re a bit like dances to your breath – creating different playlists and designing all my marketing materials.

Setting up my business was great. The hardest thing was waiting for the business to gain momentum and finding new students – it was quite disheartening but I understood that it takes time and word-of-mouth to spread the word and to build a customer base.

I did everything myself, from designing my logo and negotiating venues, to learning how to do my accounts and building my website. It gave me a whole range of new skills!

Q. What are your short-term and long-term goals?

At the moment I am focusing on enjoying my different projects and ensuring I can still be myself whatever I am doing. I would love to move back to the North East in the future and live by the coast.

Q. If you could have your time at Yarm again, would you do anything differently?

Honestly, no. I really believe that there is something to learn from every decision we make and if I hadn’t lived my life at Yarm as I did, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

If I could go back and tell myself something though, I’d probably tell myself to relax. I felt like I needed to know what I wanted to do when I was a teenager and panicked about choosing subjects that were going to set me up for my dream future career. In reality, I just needed to pick subjects and activities that I enjoyed.

You never know where life is going to take you, so all you can do is stay true to yourself – choose subjects you enjoy and that you’re good at and trust that it will lead you to the right place.