Continuing our series counting down to Rio, Ed White speaks to Todmorden’s Jess Leyden on the prospects of her fulfilling her Olympic ambitition.
Jess Leyden is the golden girl of British rowing’s next generation but preparations for her biggest year yet have been hampered by illness.
A four-week lay-off over the winter due to glandular fever looked to have derailed her first shot at Olympic competition.
However, a quick recovery has sped her towards a personal best in training over the universal Olympic rowing distance of 2,000m and she gave a strong show of her rebuilt strength over the same distance at the British trials this week.
Leyden finished fifth in the single sculls on Monday, a performance which should be good enough to secure her seat in the British quad boat for the 2016 season.
From there, the 21-year-old and her three team-mates can put their full focus on making amends for a disappointing showing at last year’s World Championships in Aiguebelette, as they attempt to secure one of two remaining spots on the start line at Rio.
The British boat failed to make the final at the worlds last year and lost out to the Chinese quad in the B final, leaving them ranked eighth in the world. However, Team GB’s quartet have shown glimpses of their potential and were within two seconds of Germany – the world’s fastest boat – in finishing fourth at the 2015 European Championships last May.
Only seven boats will line up in the class at the Maria da Glória in Rio with the British quartet requiring a top-two finish at the final qualifying regatta at Lausanne in May to secure their berth.
Leyden remains confident that her Olympic dream – and that of her home town Todmorden – is not over before it has even began.
She said: “We have got a job on to qualify and that’s obviously our first goal but there’s always someone that comes through the qualification regatta that ends up medalling because you’ve got that added pressure on you. You know you have to perform earlier than everyone else.
“If we qualify – when we qualify – it’s anyone’s game. You just have to put your best performances out there.
“There was massive disappointment last year but we did our best races on the day and we definitely stepped up to the competition rather than under performed. You can’t really ask for more than that.
“Our event was really close. That was a good thing. We haven’t got one stand out team that wins all the time in our class.
“We definitely showed our speed at the Europeans last year. We just need to do more.”
Leyden’s rise into the senior ranks has capped a rapid journey from her initial boat session at Todmorden High School as part of Sir Steve Redgrave’s Project Oarsome, eight years ago.
From first stepping into a boat off the back of a horse riding injury, Leyden has been the rising star in the British ranks, specialising in the generally unfavoured single sculls.
So much so, she created history when she became the first British woman to win an international gold medal in a single scull at the World Junior Championships in 2013.
Her transition from college into the senior British squad has thrown up new challenges. She has had to find a balancing act with her extended training programme, especially with the start of an Open University course in engineering. It was that combination which led to glandular fever symptoms at the beginning of the year.
Leyden said: “The one thing I have struggled with is the extra training. I came straight out of school where I would only be able to get through two sessions per day and then three at the weekend. I used to do fewer sessions but of higher intensity. Here (at the British base at Caversham) we do lower intensity but larger volume so we can sustain it. I have probably got a lot more endurance than I did have.
“Because I’m young in the programme, I’m very prone to over training. I think I had glandular fever as a junior but never knew I’d had it. You can easily get the symptoms back once you’ve had it. I wouldn’t really say it’s put me back. It’s just taught me a lesson. I just need to keep an eye on myself.”
Despite forming a part of the quad in her first Olympiad, the single scull remains Leyden’s boat of choice long term. She will attempt to add another world medal to her haul at the Under 23 championships next year before a “dream” target in the single seater at Tokyo in four years time.
Leyden added: “I just love being out in my single, trying different things on my own thing. How the race pans out, it can be completely different from race to race.
“I have enjoyed the crew boats and learning different things but I do like the single.”