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Army Olympian on sport and service

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

After winning Olympic gold in London 2012, Army officer Captain Heather Stanning has hung up her oars and returned to her beloved Army. Interview by Lorraine McBride.

Just weeks after what she described as ‘the best moment of my life’, Captain Stanning is back in uniform with 32 Regiment Royal Artillery (32 Regt RA) in Larkhill, Wiltshire.

For two years, Captain Stanning was granted leave to train for the Olympics, but while getting back to routine is a far cry from the euphoria of winning Britain’s first gold medal of London 2012 with teammate Helen Glover, she wouldn’t have it any other way:

I think being part of the Armed Forces is such a great thing,” she says. “It’s such a family and I’m so proud to be associated with them. I’m not quite ready to make that break.

Weighing up whether to go back to the day job, Captain Stanning readily admits she was torn by loyalty to crewmate Helen Glover with a desire to get back in uniform. Captain Stanning is aiming for Rio in 2016 but her main priority remains the Army and she won’t participate in British trials for the new season.

While content to put her rowing career on ice, any disappointment is compensated ten-fold by her excitement at being back in uniform:

I’m very keen to keep my career going so I want the experience being back in a regiment working with the guys, almost having the year to myself, and then throw myself into rowing again.

Captain Stanning knows that as an Olympian she will be forever asked about her historic achievement. The night before the final, she and Helen played down the significance of the occasion to each other:

We didn’t want to be overwhelmed and end up underperforming so we said to ourselves ‘it’s just another race at Eton Dorney’. We kidded ourselves because it was the Olympic final and the biggest race of our lives and we’re doing it in front of the biggest crowd that we’d ever seen.

In the run up to the Olympics, the pair won all three World Cup regattas and, while quietly confident, refused to let complacency creep in, yet Captain Stanning felt composed knowing that they had done everything in their power to prepare.

Reliving the final she says that their early commanding lead barely registered in the heat of battle:

So for me, it felt a lot closer,” she explains. “When I look back and see at one point there’s a five-second gap it feels an awful long way. I’ve got clear memories of parts of the race and other parts where the race just happened, but winning was a fantastic feeling.

Moments after the race, BBC commentator John Inverdale showed Captain Stanning footage of cheering troops watching the final from Afghanistan who’d sent her a good luck message the night before:

That was really touching,” she says. “Seeing them able to watch the race was really cool because they’re so far away from home and detached from everything, so for them to be able to watch, relate to it and know someone competing was great. It was really touching to watch it back and recognise faces in the crowd.

Hours after their victory, the pair carried out wall-to-wall media interviews before being whisked to TV studios in London, and the following morning the pair’s faces filled the front pages:

It was funny and felt as if someone had played a prank, printed out something off the web and put it in a fake newspaper in front of us. It was very strange and we laughed as it seemed crazy.

When Captain Stanning met Dame Kelly Holmes, an ex-Army drill sergeant, she was slightly ‘awestruck’ to meet her childhood idol. But it fast became the other way round as famous figures flocked to congratulate her and Helen and request a photo, which still takes her back:

Helen and I were like ‘Oh Gosh it’s so and so!’ It was really weird and we almost didn’t get the opportunity to say what we wanted because we were a bit too gobsmacked.

Now when people utter the phrase ‘Olympic champion’ within earshot, Captain Stanning catches herself:

I always think they’re talking about someone else,” she says.

Since the Games, Captain Stanning has been recognised in a variety of remote locations. On a train in Cornwall, two old ladies told her that despite knowing nothing about sport, they’d been glued to the TV.

Life changed overnight after that race and Captain Stanning has barely set foot in a boat since:

I’ve been enjoying time off and letting my body recover because it’s quite stressful on the body and it’s nice to get out and do other things.

Captain Stanning is aware of the huge media interest and is keen to be a role model that youngsters can look up to. She believes that winning gold has boosted her confidence, and, with no shortage of offers pouring in, she visits schools where teachers play a DVD of her triumph and chats to youngsters, disarmed by their out-of-the-mouths-of-babes approach:

The kids are brilliant and ask all sorts of questions from how fast the boat goes to do I like the person I row with, which was funny,” she smiles.

So is it possible that having proved her military credentials, she will then take up oars again in time for Rio?

Well, that’s my plan at the moment. I’ve just got to prove that I’m good enough to do that. I’m keeping my military career going and having a year to just keep fit and healthy, do other things, and then get back into the fold of rowing and work towards Rio.

Although resigning her Army commission was an option, Captain Stanning says:

I joined the Army for various reasons and a lot are still true. There are things that I want to achieve so I wasn’t quite ready to give up my dream yet which is why I’m going to try to keep the two going together.

Now a junior operations officer, Captain Stanning is focused on getting troops trained up to go on tour and hopes to go to Afghanistan in 2013. For now though, she is finding her feet:

I’m finding out all the military things I should know and do. The uniform has changed, so getting a new uniform, reorientating myself, and I’ve got a lot to learn about the changes since I’ve been away so I’ve been doing a lot of reading up.

Ask if she accessorised her uniform with a certain gold medal, she nods:

I didn’t wear it round my neck but I did carry it because all the soldiers want to see it!

As the Army’s only serving female Olympian, do people treat her differently?

I suppose it is unique,” considers Captain Stanning. “But I don’t think they’re awestruck. Quite a few knew me before but they’re just really pleased for me and I’m really glad that they get to hold it [her medal] as well.

She carries her gold medal on her person constantly:

I keep it with me most of the time, otherwise it’s locked up in the Mess,” she says. “It’s not locked in a bank vault but that’s mainly because I want to be able to access it and show people.

Captain Stanning shrugs off the prospect that the greatest moment of her life may be behind her at just 27:

Well it’s definitely the best moment of my life so far but there are definitely other challenges out there that I will hopefully deem equally as good in years to come.

Back with 32 Regt RA, Captain Stanning still holds military ambitions:

I want to fulfill all the things I joined the Army for, goals like having roles of command and opportunities to do things with an incredible bunch of people. Soldiers are highly motivated individuals and disciplined about what they’re doing. It’s a real honour just to work alongside these people and to be a leader of any of them is amazing and something I still want to do.

I’m going to keep working towards it and I know my peers are very competitive within this regiment so I want to make sure I do a good job within the next couple of years. I’m incredibly grateful for all the support I’ve had from the Army and wider military and so much looking forward to getting back to work and being part of it all again.