WHEN Kat Copeland lined up for the lightweight final of British Rowing’s pre-season trials at Caversham earlier this month, there was barely a spectator in sight.
There were no film crews recording the action, no members of the worldwide media chronicling the results and no medals on offer for finishing in one of the top three places.
The contrast to her last competitive race, when she claimed an Olympic gold medal in the lightweight double at the 2012 Games, could hardly have been starker.
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Yet for all that she achieved the pinnacle of sporting achievement when she partnered Sophie Hosking to glory at Eton Dorney two summers ago, Stokesley’s Copeland felt more nervous lining up on the start line for this month’s trial.
After a year’s hiatus, would she be able to pick up where she had left off in the wake of her Olympic success? Would the fire still burn inside her, and the competitive instincts that had seen her become the first North-East woman ever to claim an Olympic gold medal remain as powerful as ever? Had the rest of the British team caught her up?
Eight-and-a-half minutes later, and the 23-year-old had her answer. A six-second victory over Imogen Walsh was one of the most impressive performances posted by a British rower all weekend, cementing Copeland’s place in the lightweight double at this year’s European and World Championships.
Having decided to remain in the sport to defend her Olympic title in 2016, Copeland has proved she remains one of the world’s leading performers. Her journey to Rio has begun.
“It seems strange to say it, but I can’t really remember feeling so worried before a race,” she said. “Having been out of a boat for so long, it was always going to be a bit of a step into the unknown.
“I’d done plenty of training with the team, so I knew I was going to be competitive. But until you’re actually out there racing, you never truly know how it’s going to go.
“There was a feeling of pleasure at the finish, but really it was more one of relief. Relief that I’ve still got it in me, and relief that I’m not having to play catch up with the rest of the girls who want to take my place.”
In part, Copeland’s humility is a reflection of her level-headed personality. It is hard to imagine a less pretentious sporting champion, and she remains as grounded now as she was before she shot to prominence in the Olympic final.
Yet there are also more practical reasons for Copeland not to take her success for granted as she remains relatively inexperienced at international level despite her 2012 success.
A year before her Olympic triumph, she was still competing at under-23 level, so while others might assume she has been sweeping all before her for years now, the reality is somewhat different.
She has never competed at a European or World Championships, and in her year-long absence, the likes of Walsh, Charlotte Taylor and Eleanor Piggott have emerged to make their mark on the senior team.
Gold medal or no gold medal, Copeland accepts the next two years will witness a ferocious battle just to make the British squad for Rio 2016.
“I have to laugh when people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I bet you’re looking forward to Rio so you can go to the next Olympics and win a gold medal again’,” she said. “Because you’ve done it once, the perception outside the sport is that you just turn up to the start line and automatically do it again.
“I’m trying to do that, but it’s not like you can just click your fingers and make it happen. Everyone else has stepped up massively in the last 12 months, and I know I’m going to have to work harder than ever just to make the team for the next Olympics, let alone get to a position where I could go to the Games and compete for a medal.
“The (2012) Olympics came very early in my career, and I think people sometimes forget that. That means I can’t take anything for granted, but it’s also the reason why I decided to carry on rowing, because I feel like there’s so much improvement still to come.
“If I thought I was never going to get better, I would have packed in rowing and gone to university. It’s the thought of how much better I could be, and what I could achieve if I was able to do that, that keeps me going. It’s going to be bloody hard work, but it’s also really exciting.”
Since claiming the Olympic title, Copeland was forced to uproot to London when her coach, James Harris, left his base at Tees Rowing Club to join the British High Performance team at their Caversham base.
Earlier in her career, Copeland almost gave up rowing when a move down south left her feeling lonely and isolated. A return to the North-East reinvigorated her, so she admits there were feelings of trepidation when she was asked to uproot again.
The transition has not been without its difficulties, but she is gradually beginning to feel more at home away from her former club mates on the Tees.
“The move has been a big change, and if I’m honest, I really didn’t like it at the start,” she said. “I’d created my own little bubble at Tees – I had my friends around me, I had a routine that I knew worked and I felt completely comfortable in my surroundings.
“That’s gone now, and it’s taken me a while to get my confidence back. I’ve moved out of my comfort zone, but ultimately I think, as an athlete, that’s probably a good thing.
“It will make me a better rower. I’m training in a big group, where everyone’s an elite performer, and although I still don’t necessarily like that, I’m starting to see how it improves you. You’re constantly pushing yourself, and that can only be a good thing.”