Last week, Olympic champion Kat Copeland announced her retirement from rowing. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met up with her to discuss medals, memories and golden moments

“IF I could go back and talk to the teenage me, I’d say: ‘Don’t do anything differently. Go on exactly the same journey and do exactly the same things. Just maybe try to enjoy it a bit more. The only thing I would change is to have smiled a bit more than I did’.

Four days on from the announcement that confirmed her life has changed, and Kat Copeland is in a reflective mood. Still the North-East’s only female Olympic champion, the 28-year-old is no longer a professional rower. A decade-and-a-half of brutal training programmes, punishing early-morning wake-up calls and the strictest of dietary regimes, over, quite literally, in a stroke.

She will forever be remembered for that golden afternoon in that golden summer, when the nation stopped to watch her crowned Olympic champion at London 2012, but her sporting memories go back much further. Back beyond the heady days of London, back beyond her first experiences with the GB elite team to a time when she would leave her lessons at Yarm School to make the short journey to the boat house at Tees Rowing Club. Even today, that is where she still feels home.

“I’ve been asked what I remember best a lot over the last few days,” said Copeland, whose Olympic success with her lightweight double partner, Sophie Hosking, came on the same ‘Super Saturday’ that also saw Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah win gold. “Obviously, London was amazing, but although that was easily the biggest thing I ever did, when you’re a professional athlete for so long, it gets caught up with so many memories.

“If I think back to when I was first starting out, then competing in my first Durham Regatta was the biggest thing that could ever have happened to me. You’re comparing different things, but I’m not even sure winning Olympic gold made me feel more excited than when that happened.

“It was great to achieve things, and knowing how competitive I am, I’d have been gutted if I was retiring without all the medals. But I know this sounds corny, it’s the journey that’s more important than where you end up.

“It’s the memories of training camps you’ve been on, little breakthroughs you made, really great days on the water or in the gym. Then it’s the people you’ve been with too. I’ve met my two best friends and my partner through rowing. In the end, that’s worth more than a gold medal.”

That said though, a little bit of success along the way can only help. It would be wrong to say that Copeland was a complete unknown when she lined up on the start line for her opening race in the London Games – she had won a World title at Under-23 level the previous summer – but outside the confines of British Rowing’s high-performance centre at Caversham, she was not regarded as medal prospect.

That changed when she teamed up with Hosking to record a comprehensive victory in her heat, and while her euphoric reaction to triumphing in the final – “We’re going to be on a stamp” – betrayed a sense of wide-eyed naivety, her exploits at London 2012 remain one of the greatest achievements ever recorded by a North-East sportsperson.

The Northern Echo:

“At the time, you’re so caught up in it all, you probably don’t appreciate the enormity of what you’ve done,” she said. “More recently, I’ve probably started to get a better sense of perspective. I’ve even watched the race back a few times, which I didn’t really do at the time.

“Looking back, I think it probably helped that me and Sophie only came together quite late in the day, and I hadn’t been on the World Class programme from an early age so I had a bit of an unorthodox run-in to the Olympics in that respect. Right up until the April before the Games, I was still doing all my training up at Tees.

“I think that helped because when the Olympics came around, we didn’t feel as though we were under a lot of pressure. We knew we’d been rowing really well in the build-up, and we knew if we produced our best, we could be more than a match for anyone. But I think we saw it as one big adventure rather than something to fret or worry about.

“The day of the final is a bit of a blur, but I remember those moments in the boat before the start, and it was just a real sense of calm. We knew we could win it and we did.”

The Northern Echo:

In sport, though, the highs never last forever. Whereas Copeland headed into London with nothing to lose, she travelled to Rio for the 2016 Olympics as the reigning champion expected to defend her title. Suffice to say, things did not go to plan.

“I was reading one of the pieces written about me last week, and it said, ‘Copeland then competed in Rio and finished stone-cold last’,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, harsh. Harsh – but true’.

“Rio was a difficult time. Sophie had obviously retired, and a few different things were tried before I eventually teamed up with Charlie (Taylor). We had an interrupted preparation – injuries, illness, trying a few things that didn’t really work – and although we’d had a few decent results in the build-up to Rio, deep down I think we probably knew we weren’t where we wanted to be.

“You’re hoping that the adrenaline will kick in and lift you to a different place, but as soon as we started in the opening heat, the writing was on the wall.

“It was hard. You go in with all these expectations, and then fall flat on your face. The worst part was that because we did so badly, we had to race in either the C final or D final, I can’t remember which. Anyway, the weather was so bad that the race kept getting cancelled, so in the end they had to run it straight after the A final.

“So I’m down at the start line watching the Dutch team win gold, and I’m thinking, ‘Right, that’s it – you’re not Olympic champion anymore’. Then I had to crack on and race in a race that meant absolutely nothing.”

The Northern Echo:

In the immediate aftermath of Rio, Copeland pledged to continue through to Tokyo 2020. “We knew we were better than we had shown in Rio,” she said. “I’m not saying we were ever in a position to win gold, but performing like that wasn’t us’.

However, when Webster announced her retirement last year, Copeland was faced with a difficult choice. Go through another rebuilding process, trying to find a new partner who could enable her to compete with the new generation of lightweights coming through the ranks, or step away from the water for one last time.

“In the end, it just felt right,” she said. “I’ve had my time, now it’s someone else’s turn to live their dream. Beth (Bryan) and Jo (Wratten) are doing great things now, so at least the Tees legacy is in safe hands!

“I’m going to enjoy watching them over the next couple of years, although it’s definitely more nerve-wracking watching than racing. They’re great – they’re so talented and determined, they can definitely achieve something really special.”

The Northern Echo:

And after all, it’s not as though Copeland will never row again. When Sir Steve Redgrave retired for the first time, he famously said, ‘If I ever go near a boat again, shoot me’. Copeland will not be making the same mistake.

“I decided I was going to retire in early December, and was back in a boat for the Christmas Eve row at Tees,” she said. “Someone asked if I fancied it, and it was great. A nice still morning, rowing along the Tees. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Who indeed. Rowers might be the only sportspeople who spend their lives going backwards, but Copeland could not be happier that her career has come full circle.