Development & Alumni Relations Office 

WATER IS WATER – MEET QUEEN'S ALUMNA AND OLYMPIC ROWER, REBECCA EDWARDS  Olympic rower, Rebecca Edwards, in side on pose in rowing boat on river, wearing shades

24 June 2021

When Rebecca Edwards takes her place in Team GB’s women's eight on the Sea Forest Waterway (Central Breakwater) in Tokyo Bay next month, it will be the culmination of an incredible journey which started at Queen’s back in 2012 for the young woman from Aughnacloy, County Tyrone.

Between 23 and 30 July 2021, sport loving Rebecca – who had never rowed before coming to Queen’s – hopes to be among the winners in the seven medal events being contested by 260+ women athletes.

Life at Queen’s

“I was approached in Elms Village during Freshers’ Week by one of the University rowers who encouraged me to give rowing a try as I was quite tall. I was keen to try something new and challenging at University so I went along to some of the taster sessions and loved it straight away!” Rebecca told Paddy Gilmore, Development and Engagement Manager for Queen’s Sport.

Rebecca loved being out on the water and being challenged to do something she had never tried before. And not only did she learn how to row but she found out how to be a team player, important for the crewing requirements in the four and eight disciplines.  

“Queen’s Rowing set me up with strong values of teamwork, determination and perseverance, which were key in me making the steps into the GB rowing team. It hasn’t been an easy journey; there are times when I’ve really had to hold steady and keep believing despite everything being against me.”

Adapting to the sport both quickly and successfully, Rebecca was an Irish National Championship winner as a Novice in 2013, received Rowing Academy Bursary awards in 2013 and 2014, and was an Elite Athlete Programme participant in 2015.

“I can’t thank the Rowing Academy system and the Elite Athlete Programme enough for helping me in my development as a top level rower. This programme set the foundations for me in terms of development as an athlete beyond just being in the boat.

“The funding which went towards University costs was extremely helpful and insured I didn’t need a part time job as well as studying and training. I had access to the Dub for weights sessions, Queen’s Sport was able to rent a boat for me to ensure I could compete at trials and the costs of travelling to the UK regularly were covered.”

Although she had sound coaching and financial support, how did Rebecca manage to juggle her academic and sporting commitments as a student?

“It was a tough balance. As a rower I trained pretty much every morning before seminars, and every evening including weekends. I had to be organised and I found the best way to do that was to start assignments as soon as I got them! Leaving things to the last minute is not a great idea.

“I also had some tutors who were very helpful and understanding of my commitments, particularly in my final year as my rowing was getting more serious. Occasionally there would be a clash between my rowing and studies.” 

Acknowledging those who helped her in those early days at University, Rebecca singles out a number for individual praise. 

“I have to mention the great people I got to work with including Mike McGurn (weights coach), Hugh Campbell (sports psychologist) and Petrina Scullion (physiotherapist). And both Liz McLaughlin and Karl Oakes were very supportive and often offered words of encouragement.”

While many people certainly influenced Rebecca’s journey, she’s quick to recognise that the biggest impact on her rowing career were the coaches during her novice year at Queen’s.

“They encouraged me to work hard, to take on the challenge and to work hard as part of the team. If we did that, I was assured, we could achieve great things.

“I remember particularly the women’s four from Queen’s who represented Ireland at the World University Championships being a huge inspiration for me. My main aim at that point was just to be able to compete at that level.

“And of course my parents have also been a great influence for me. Neither of them are sporty but they always encouraged me to try my best – no matter what – and I learned the value of consistent hard work from them.”  

That hard work has certainly paid off, and among the many honours and achievements Rebecca has recorded since 2012 are:

  • British University Championships 2013 Silver medal in both coxed four and eight
  • World University Rowing Championships 2016 Bronze Medal in four
  • Finalist at Henley Royal Regatta 2018 in The Town Challenge Cup
  • World University Rowing Championships 2018 Gold Medal in both eight and four
  • Represented GB in Women’s Eight Rowing

Spending a year abroad in 2015 as part of her degree, Rebecca rowed at French club Aviron Bayonnais before graduating from Queen’s in 2016 with a BA in French and Spanish. She went on to make her senior debut for Great Britain at the third World Cup in Rotterdam in 2019 in a second development GB Eight that finished seventh overall.

Apart from the obvious dedication and hard work, what does it take to be an Olympic athlete? Rebecca highlights a number of important elements.  

“At this level everyone is fit and strong so I strongly believe the difference is mindset. Resilience is key; being able to make mistakes and seeing them as opportunities to improve rather than a failure.

“Being accountable is also a great attribute so you can analyse honestly, reflect and do better. Excuses are all too easy.

“There are no shortcuts; you must turn up to training everyday as your best self, ready to improve on yesterday. Even being 30 seconds late might not seem like anything today but cutting 30 seconds every day soon adds up to a lot of time that you can’t get back!

“These things all lead to a deep belief within yourself that what you are doing day in, day out is going to result in you being successful.

“Finally, I would say to be very present and enjoy the exciting moments as they come. As athletes, we can get caught up in the next thing and never appreciate our small successes which are just as important as the big wins because they get us to that point!” 

Olympic preparations

Rebecca is eagerly looking forward to competing on the world’s biggest sporting stage, having dreamt of being an Olympic athlete from early childhood. And she’s not fazed by the hugeness of the occasion, or all the associated competitive stress that goes with it.

“It might sound like a strange thing to say but I’m really looking forward to the pressure and the nerves that will come with competing at this level,” said Rebecca. “I just can’t wait to pull on my rowing Lycra with the Olympic rings on it and to sit on the start line knowing that I have done everything within my power to produce the best performance of my life so far.”

Currently at a Team GB rowing camp on a quiet lake in Italy, as far away as possible from the hubbub of the rest of the world, Rebecca is making the most of every training session, while availing of the opportunity to eat properly and rest well before competition begins. The daily routine is simple: three training sessions starting at 7.30am and finishing at 6.00pm, but there’s more to it than that.

“I am also spending a bit of time mentally preparing myself. For example when I am in the boat pushing off to do some racing pieces, I am thinking: ‘Soon I’m going to be pushing off for my Olympic final, let’s get into that mindset now Rebecca’ so that when I get there it won’t be a massive shock.

“Apart from that it is not massively different to anything we’ve been doing these past few years. The boat is the same, water is water and I know hard work pays off so that keeps me calm and gives me confidence in what we are doing.”   

Final thoughts

Having spent three years in the Sports Academy system at Queen’s, what learnings has Rebecca taken with her, so far, on her journey through sport and life?  

“I’ve realised that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. However, I have also learned that it doesn’t mean it will be easy, nor that I have to do it alone. Asking for help and support is a good thing.

“I have discovered how to be open to being taught new skills and being patient with myself to keep working until I see progress. And I have realised that you have to enjoy the journey because medals don’t solve problems; if the journey is miserable a medal can’t fix that.

“Overall my biggest learning has been realising the power of every day. I have earned my Olympic spot this year but I have been working for it every day for the past eight years!”  

If you would like to support the next generation of sport at Queen’s through one of our five Sporting Academies – including Rowing – visit the Queen’s Foundation website or contact Paddy Gilmore, Queen’s Development and Engagement Manager, Queen’s Sport.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast or telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

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