Latecomer Zoe Lee revels in unity of Britain’s top rowers

Zoe Lee stroked the British boat to silver in the women's coxed eight in Rio (Picture: PA).
Zoe Lee stroked the British boat to silver in the women's coxed eight in Rio (Picture: PA).
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North Yorkshire rower Zoe Lee had one of the worst vantage points from which to enjoy her own slice of rowing history in Rio.

Sat in the front stroke seat of the women’s eight in Rio, the 28-year-old saw little more than the water in front of her as the Great British boat came from last to second on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

Zoe Lee, left, and Laura Weightman during the homecoming event in Leeds City Centre (Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire).

Zoe Lee, left, and Laura Weightman during the homecoming event in Leeds City Centre (Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire).

The bits she could see are all a hazy memory.

But the dramatic race gave her a memory to cherish for a lifetime as she stood alongside her eight colleagues to receive Britain’s first Olympic medal in the event on the platoon in Rio.

“If I could have freeze-framed that and captured the moment. It was really wonderful,” says Lee.

“Standing there on the medal platoon, looking over at the Christ the Redeemer on a bright blue sunny day with my eight closest friends. It wasn’t our national anthem blaring out, but it was stunning. “

The national anthem was instead that of the Americans, who have dominated the sport – winning every regatta – in the four-year Olympiad.

As expected, the USA eight cruised clear, but the battle for second held intrigue all the way, although Lee had little knowledge.

Sat at the front, she had to rely on British cox Zoe de Toledo for instruction.

“I remember vividly, Zoe had a look left and right and not saying anything,” Lee recalls.

“That wasn’t a good sign because if we were up or we were close, she would have said something. That was the one point I really knew that we were not where we wanted to be.

“Equally, we have a very strong finish. This crew pull it out of the bag in the second part of the race. We felt confident in our processes.

“Going through halfway, Zoe wasn’t asking for us to do anything differently. This was what we did, and what we always did so it gave me confidence that we were moving through the field.

“I feel like I don’t remember a whole load of the race. It was such a blur. It was a quick race, whether that was the emotions that I was trying to suppress. It disappeared in a flash.” The Olympic setting was a far cry from her upbringing in Richmond, where the thought of rowing was a distant consideration.

Instead, Lee was a talented netballer and an intellectual with Oxbridge ambitions.

Even after securing her place at Oxford University, the thought of joining the rowing circles felt all too “cliched” – despite her powerful, tall frame.

It was only in her second year at university that she finally gave in to the pressures of fellow students and caught a bug that led her onto the British programme.

“Rowing didn’t even feature in my life at all until really late,” Lee explains.

“I didn’t even recognise it as a sport or a thing that people did. In Richmond, the river is not conducive to rowing with all our falls and stuff.

“But actually it’s a really interesting team sport.

“There are more people in a women’s eight than there is on a netball court, but you are unified as one.

“In any other team sport, you are a team, but you have your individual role or skill that you bring.”

Rowing was again at the forefront of Great Britain’s medals haul in Rio with three golds and two silvers – second only to cycling.

Even though the women’s eight missed out on top spot, Lee believes it could turn out to be the most pertinent of all, given its prestigious status in the sport.

The Richmond rower spoke before flying out to Brazil of how a medal could resonate throughout sport. And added to the women’s hockey gold, Lee believes the sight of celebrations for Britain’s two biggest women’s teams will promote the benefits of sport in schools.

“Most girls play hockey at school and it’s great to see a sport that people can relate to,” she says.

“With us, and our silver, there are girls from all sorts of backgrounds in our boat. There are girls that have rowed since they were 13, Fran (Frances Houghton) who has been to five Olympics now, and then me who has come to the sport really late.

“It’s a really positive image for people to say that they can go out, enjoy sport and, if they dream big, that dreams can come true. It sounds easy, but it really is true.”

British rowing is already in a strong position. The Under-23s women’s eight won silver at the world championships earlier this year while another boat won gold in the coxless fours at the senior worlds – which excluded Olympic boats.

This stands the British programme in good stead for Tokyo in fours years, where Lee is hopeful of a second Olympic experience. She has yet to decide whether her future lies in a boat or in books, having completed a doctorate in Geography at King’s College London days before Rio.

“I can’t see myself not rowing,” she adds.

“It’s a wonderful thing to do. To be able to do it as my job is the most amazing gift ever.

I have to make sure I am making my decision based on sensible things and not just the emotion of the Olympic experience, which I wish I could share with everyone.

“Hopefully now we have that little piece of history in the women’s eight and we’ve got the groups coming through that know how to race hard, and win medals, this should be the first point in the history of the women’s eight in Great Britain.”