Jess Leyden’s oarsome progress towards Tokyo Olympics

Rowing strong: Great Britain women's quad, from left, Charlotte Hodgkins-Byrne (stroke), Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne, Melissa Wilson and., Jessica Leyden (bow). Picture: British Rowing
Rowing strong: Great Britain women's quad, from left, Charlotte Hodgkins-Byrne (stroke), Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne, Melissa Wilson and., Jessica Leyden (bow). Picture: British Rowing
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Jessica Leyden only took up rowing to help straighten her right arm after she injured it in a horse riding accident but now the 24-year-old from Todmorden is on the cusp of reaching the Olympic games in Tokyo.

Leyden, along with team-mates Melissa Wilson, Mathilda Hodgkins Byrne and Charlotte Hodgkins Byrne booked Great Britain a women’s quadruple sculls spot at the Olympics for the first time since the London 2012 games.

I trained in that team with all the great names, like Catherine Grainger and people like that. Now it is a younger team because all those people have retired and we are trying to carry on the legacy.

Jessica Lyden

Great Britain crossed the line just 0.18 seconds ahead of the USA to earn a place at Tokyo at the World Rowing Championships in Austria.

However, Leyden, a former Todmorden High School student, must now qualify individually if she wants to step onto the plane to Japan next summer.

Leyden first picked up an oar at Hollingworth Lake Rowing Club in Littleborough, after club members paid a visit to her nearby high school in Calderdale.

The Yorkshire-born athlete could not have imagined the success that would follow.

Although she has admitted that her arm still is not straight, despite that being her initial reason for getting into the sport.

“There was a project through our school and British Rowing, called Project Oarsome.

“So they would give local clubs boats if they went into schools and Hollingworth Lake Rowing Club came into Todmorden High School and I thought I would give it a go.

“I had a horse-riding accident that left my arm bent, so my mum said I should go rowing to straighten it. It is still not straight.”

Todmorden-born Lyden must go through a number of trial races to secure her place in the Olympic team.

“We went to Tokyo last year to have a look around, to see what we would be doing and where we would be staying,” she said.

“That was a really nice experience and, hopefully, I can do the real thing.

“You can never be certain, you could get injured or someone could be faster. But, all going well, I should be going.”

Leyden is based at Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Oxfordshire where she trains with the Great Britain squad.

She has also taken on the added challenge of completing an engineering degree with the Open University.

Leyden combined two years of part-time study into 12 months although she managed to juggle both education and rowing rather well.

“I row full-time but then I am doing an Open University Engineering Degree on the side,” she continued.

“It has been pretty hard, especially this last year because I did two part-time years in one.

“So full-time studying and full-time rowing and that was really quite stressful.

“But I seemed to have got through it, I passed my uni year and qualified the boat. I will go back to part-time study and then I have got another four years to get a masters.”

Leyden became the first British rower to win an international women’s single scull title at any level when she took gold at the Junior World Rowing Championships in 2013.

She followed that up with a gold medal in the World Under-23 women’s double scull with Hodgkins-Byrne at the 2016 World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Leyden was named in the GB women’s quad scull at the start of the 2016 season. The British team finished fourth at the World Cup in Varese, Italy and fifth in the European Championships in Brandenburg, Germany.

At the final qualifying regatta for the 2016 Rio Olympics, they needed a top-two spot to secure their spot at the Games, but the squad had to settle for a fourth-place finish.

“I tried to qualify the boat for Rio and we missed it out,” said Leyden.

“I trained in that team with all the great names, like Catherine Grainger and people like that.

“Now it is a younger team because all those people have retired and we are trying to carry on the legacy.

“I think we haven’t shown the medals yet that they did but we did qualify the most boats out of any country.

“We have got the most boats qualified at the moment, because there are other ways to qualify later in the year. I think we did a really good job as a team. I am excited to try and get better and as close to the medals next year.”

On becoming the first British female to win a solo open-weight rowing title, she added: “I always draw on that experience and other experiences I have had racing internationally since then.

“I got the junior world championships and then a couple of years later I won the Under-23s world championships.

“So I want to add a senior one to it now.”

Rowing requires impeccable upper body strength as well as endurance to maintain a competitive speed.

All of Leyden’s races are 2000 metres and sometimes it can be a strenuous task.

“The training programme is specifically tailored to that,” she added. “But I think the hardest bit is the sprint at the start.

“Because you have built all that lactate up in your muscles and then hold that there while you are doing your endurance bit.

“Then you have to sprint again and it is quite painful but you don’t think about all that when you are racing.”

Leyden was also encouraged to get into rowing by her older brother, who had tried his hand at the sport when he went to university. Although, the Yorkshire rower insists that she got her competitive edge from her mother.

“My brother plays rugby, he started rowing a little bit before me at university. That probably helped me want to do it,” Leyden continued.

“He has got more into rugby again now.

“My mum is not sporty but she is extremely competitive, so that is probably where I get my competitive side from.

“She doesn’t like to admit she’s competitive, she pretends she’s not.”

Leyden’s father passed away through a heart attack when she was just 15.

She was studying for her GCSEs at the time and said it was her relationship with her mother, Sharon, that helped her get through one of the most difficult periods of her life.

She said: “It was really sudden. He had a heart attack when he was riding his bike.

“But my mum was awesome and I had to do my GCSEs and stuff and she just helped to keep me going. She is a tough nut.”

Leyden misses the rolling hills of her home county, and tries to get back to Yorkshire as much as her commitments allow.

She added: “I lived there all my life but to row for Great Britain you have to move. I get back whenever I possibly can, I do miss it.”