Durham rower Jess Eddie was the most successful North-East competitor at the Rio Olympics, winning a silver medal as part of the women’s eight. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met up with her in London, less than 24 hours after her return to British soil

IT was a moment she had dreamed of for more than a decade, but when it finally arrived, Durham rower Jess Eddie readily admits it did not really go as planned.

Crossing the line in second position at the end of the final of the women’s eight in Rio, Eddie had achieved her lifetime ambition of claiming an Olympic medal.

All the sacrifices, the freezing-cold mornings and exhaustingly punishing training sessions, had been worth it. Now, it was time for the celebrations to begin.

“I’d always thought about what I would do in that moment,” said Eddie, relaxing in a South London pub on the afternoon after Team GB’s triumphant return flight from Rio. “I had all these visions of casually sitting back in the boat and roaring in celebration.

“In fact, I was so bloody exhausted I could barely even smile. People have spoken to me since and said, ‘You didn’t really look pleased at the end of the race – was that because you were disappointed at not getting the gold?’ It wasn’t that at all – I’d just never felt so knackered.

“I remember Polly (Swann) just about choking me as she leaned over to celebrate, but I could barely move a muscle. I guess at least that proves I’d given everything in the race.”

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In fact, Eddie’s success reflects the extent of her determination and commitment ever since she first stepped into a rowing boat at the age of eight.

She might be based at Mortlake now, close to British Rowing’s high-performance base at Caversham, but she remains fiercely proud of her North-East roots and her medal, along with that of her team-mate, Zoe Lee, who hails from Richmond, is another huge feather in the cap of North-East rowing, one of our region’s most unsung sporting success stories.

Jess took up rowing along with her twin sister, Alex, at Durham Amateur Rowing Club when she was still at primary school, and her medal-winning appearance at Rio caps a career that has also seen her win bronze at the World Championships and compete in Olympic finals at Beijing and London.

Rowing still has a reputation for being an elitist, southern-based sport, but Eddie was a state-school pupil at St Leonard’s, in Durham, prior to moving to London after she was named on Britain’s high-performance squad. Her success is not down to privilege; it is the result of a fierce desire to prove she could make it. And an equally-strong desire not to let her sister down.

“Our parents used to take me and Alex everywhere,” said Eddie. “Rowing at the Olympics all sounds very glamorous, but if I look back to when I was teenager, it was weekend trips up to Berwick for a competition or across to Scaling Dam on a wintry Saturday morning.

“I remember rowing with Alex in the National Schools Regatta for Durham when we were about 14. All the big private schools from the country were there, and it felt as though as everyone else was looking at us when we turned up to compete thinking, ‘What are they doing here?’

“We lost in the final, and I remember thinking, ‘That won’t happen again’. The next year, we got to the final again and smashed it. That’s when I remember thinking, ‘This feels good, I can do this’. I was called up for the Junior World Championships not too long after that, and it all really went from there’.”

Alex no longer rows, although she was in Brazil watching her twin sister claim Olympic silver. Jess’ career has gone from strength to strength, although prior to the last 12 months, it had looked as though she was destined to be one of the ‘nearly women’ of the British team.

The eight is widely regarded as the hardest boat to succeed in in rowing. Eight different people – nine if you include the cox – have to come together to achieve their peak performances in synchronicity, and while making the finals at the previous two Olympics had hardly been a disaster, successive fifth-placed finishes were a disappointment when the rest of the British team was seemingly winning medals at will.

Twelve months ago, there were signs of something special brewing when the eight finished fourth at the World Championships. A European title earlier this summer provided further cause for optimism, and when Britain finished second to the reigning Olympic champions, United States, in a pre-Rio World Cup event, Eddie knew a podium finish was possible.

“We’d been going really well all year,” she said. “I’ve been in and around this boat for more than a decade now, so I like to think I have a pretty good feeling for where we are at, and I always sensed this was the best boat I’d been a part of.

“You still have to do it though. We knew heading into the training camp that we were right there behind the US, but although you’re moving forward with your training, you don’t know how much the other crews are improving as well. That’s always the biggest unknown until you start racing.”

The format of the eights competition sees the two heat winners progress directly to the final, while all the other crews compete in a repechage. In the past Britain have been forced to fight for their place in the Olympic final, but this time around, a commanding heat performance saw Eddie’s crew progress straight to the medal race. That eased some of the pressure, but it also meant an agonising week-long wait between races.

“That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing,” she said. “A week is a long time to sit and stew about what’s going to come. We were training twice a day, but you’ve got to balance the need to keep ticking over with avoiding any risk of burning yourself out.

“That’s probably the most intense time I’ve ever had as a rower. In that environment, everybody’s personality is magnified by about 100. All your good parts and bad parts really come out.

“Everyone handles it differently. I tried to shut myself away. I watched some of the other sports, but I didn’t really watch the rowing and I tried to shut myself away from social media. On the morning of the final though, I went on the BBC Sport app to see how the cycling girls had done the night before, and the main picture was us in the eight. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this is happening’.”

The final was a thriller, with Britain trailing at the halfway stage, only to power through the field into second position behind the US. They were forced to repel a late surge from Romania, but held on to claim silver by 0.12 seconds.

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“Everything after that is a bit of a blur,” said Eddie. “You come off the boat and it’s straight into interviews with the TV. That was cool because in the past it had always been a case of, ‘Why don’t they want to talk to me?’

“We watched the men’s eight finish their final and win gold, and then we changed into our tracksuits and had the medal ceremony. That was probably the best thing of the lot to be honest. I’d privately kind of told myself, ‘Don’t get too upset if this isn’t how you’d imagined it’. But actually, it was better. It was the most emotional, amazing half-hour you could ever imagine.”

Then, it was time for the partying to begin. The rowing programme finishes at the halfway point of the Olympics, so with a medal in the bag – quite literally in the case of a still-beaming Eddie when we met last week – there was an opportunity to let off some steam.

“We’ve had a good week,” she croaked. “It’s been so full-on for the last year that when you suddenly get the chance to relax, you take it.

“All the nations had their own house in Rio. GB House was this amazing mansion house in the old part of the city, and we had some great parties in there. Chase and Status played there for the athletes one night, and I’d definitely recommend the gin.

“One night we’d have everyone round at our house, and then the next there might be a party with the French team or the Americans. Because we row against each other all year, we know each other pretty well.

“I also got to watch lots of other sport which was incredible. I’m friends with a lot of the hockey girls, so being at their final was brilliant. I was able to go to the cycling, and I watched Usain Bolt win his ‘triple triple’ on the final night of the athletics. My favourite was probably the weightlifting though. I watched an Iranian guy taking on a bloke from Azerbaijan in the final and it was unreal.”

The Games are over now of course, although the sporting world does not stand still for long. As part of the Closing Ceremony in Rio, Tokyo formally took charge of the Olympic flame. Thoughts are already turning to 2020, by which time Eddie will be 35, not an unfeasible age to still be competing, but one that unquestionably represents a challenge.

Next month, she will begin a History of Design course at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is something she is passionate about pursuing, and she intends to take at least 12 months out of rowing.

Beyond that? Who knows. She had always imagined she would probably retire after Rio, but her competitive instincts mean she is reluctant to formally call time on her sporting career.

 “We went to the Closing Ceremony, and I know what I’m like,” she said. “I’d told some of my team-mates, don’t let me get emotional when they start talking about Tokyo, but as soon as the handover happened, I was like, ‘Right, that’s it.  I’m going – it looks amazing’.

“I don’t know. I would like to carry on because I love what I do and I still feel really privileged to be able to train every day with a group of talented, driven athletes. I know what I’m capable of and I still feel as though I deserve my place on the team.

“But four years is a long time and there’s always a new generation desperate to get their chance. I don’t want to stay in the sport and turn into one of these people who become really bitter because they start picking up injuries or they’re not quite as good as they once were.

“I think the disappointment of that would last longer than the joy of what I’ve just achieved. In many ways, this would be the perfect moment to bow out on a high. But I’d have to go back to the real world then, and where’s the fun in that?”