SITTING opposite Kat Copeland on the steps of the boathouse close to the midway point of the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Berkshire, it is possible to see both ends of British Rowing’s 2,000m training course stretching away into the distance.
The image is an apt one. When Copeland heads to the World Championships in Amsterdam next month, an event that could see her become the first North-Easterner to hold world and Olympic titles in any sport since Jonathan Edwards achieved the feat in athletics in 2000 and 2001, she will be at the halfway point of the journey from the 2012 Olympics in London to the 2016 Games in Rio.
Behind her, the event that changed her life and saw her claim Olympic gold with Sophie Hosking in the final of the lightweight double. Two years ahead, the event that offers her a chance of sporting immortality as a two-time Olympic champion.
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Both bookends are so big that they dominate every training session and competition in between, yet it is the transition from one to the other that ultimately dictates whether the story has a happy ending.
It is impossible to ignore Rio 2016, a name and date that has lured Copeland back into a boat when she seriously thought about quitting elite sport as she took a year-long sabbatical in the wake of her Olympic success. But it would be extremely damaging to pay too much attention to something that is still so far off.
Striking a successful balance is the key, and so for Copeland, a remarkably grounded 23-year-old who still regards Stokesley as home even though she has had to uproot to Henley to pursue her career, the forthcoming World Championships have to be viewed as a challenge in their own right, rather than merely a stepping stone to the Olympics in two years time.
“If I’m being totally honest, I came back because I want to go to Rio in 2016 and win again,” said Copeland. “That’s the main driving factor for me, and it’s why I’ve carried on rowing rather than going to university or heading off to do something else. So consequently it’s always in my mind.
“But the way I see it is that it’s still too far off to have as a goal, so trials and World Cups and World Championships are all little goals along the way. They’re markers along the journey to the Olympics, and I find that it helps to split the time into little blocks.
“So at the moment it’s about, ‘How far can I develop before the Worlds?’ Then we’ll hit the Worlds and we’ll see where we’re at then. Then it’s, ‘How far can we develop next year’. And if you keep moving along like that, before you know it, it’ll be time for Rio.
“If you go along all the little baby steps, then they all add up and you’re in a better place in two years time.”
Nevertheless, as a reigning Olympic champion, aren’t there times when Copeland feels tempted to take her foot off the pedal, safe in the knowledge that her proven ability should be sufficient to get her through?
When her lungs are burning as yet another ergo fitness test nears completion, isn’t she tempted to scream, ‘Don’t you know I’ve got an Olympic gold medal’? And after a bad day on the lake, doesn’t she feel like getting out that aforementioned gold medal and allowing her mind to wander back to that unforgettable afternoon at Eton Dorney?
“I’ve closed the door on it as much as I can,” she explained. “I think you can use it in different ways. You could think about it all the time and think, ‘Oh I’m so good because I won the Olympics’, but ultimately if you do that, it’s only going to hold you back.
“The thing that actually helps me is that I really don’t want to be in a position where I’m complacent. All the other girls that are moving on and pushing me means that I can’t just stop and think I’ve made it just because I’ve won the Olympics.
“That’s gone now, and I know I need to get better and better. I have 2012 in my mind because I know that if I do get it right, I can be good, and that gives me confidence. Also, just the experience of having been through all of that helps because I learned a lot.
“But the thing that helps most is that I’m scared of being complacent and staying the same because I know that if I do that, I won’t make Rio and these three years will really have been wasted.”
And if Copeland needs a reminder of just how quickly things can change in an Olympic cycle, she only has to look at her own experiences in the build-up to 2012.
Two years out from London, Copeland was not even part of the senior squad preparing for the Games. Instead, she was finishing sixth at the World Under-23 Championships, having struggled badly at the selection trials.
Even in 2011, Copeland was still competing at junior level, so with a strong lightweight contingent due to contest next week’s World Under-23 Championships in Varese, the North-Easterner knows she cannot afford to rest on her laurels with a host of talented youngsters desperate to take her place.
“I remember two years before London, and I was second last at the trials,” she said. “It was a time trial where everyone starts 30 seconds apart, and I actually got overtaken by one of the other rowers. That’s how far away from anything I was at the same stage of the last Olympic cycle.
“That just shows you can’t look too far ahead. For all I know, there might be someone else just waiting to come in and annoy everyone with two months to go, like I did before London.
“I haven’t lost sight of just how competitive this all is. I don’t feel in any way comfortable or complacent. Even though that (defending her title in Rio) is my goal, I don’t take for granted that I’m going to be in that boat yet.
“You won’t know you’re in the boat until the crew announcement in 2016, and I’m very aware that anything could happen. People could come into the squad next year or the year after, and if they’re good enough, they’ll be named in the team.
“I’m confident in the way I train, and I know I’ll be able to push myself on in the next two years, but it’s about making sure I progress enough because everyone else will move forward too.”