IN 2016, Richmond rower Zoe Lee was a member of the crew that created history by becoming the first British women’s eight to win a silver medal at the Olympics.

It was a superb achievement, but it created something of an issue ahead of the 2020 Games in Tokyo. If you’ve finished second and are looking to improve, there is only one place you can go.

“I don’t think you can ever say, ‘We’re going to win gold at the Olympics’,” said Lee, who found out she had secured a PhD in geography on the morning of the Olympic final in Rio. “But having won a silver medal in Rio, we’re aware that we have set our sights high.

“At the very least, we want to go to Tokyo and defend the silver medal that we won in 2016. Ideally, though, I think we’d all like to take the next step forward and win gold. It’s going to be exceptionally difficult given the strength of the opposition, but we answered a lot of questions and showed what we were capable of in Rio. If people want to write us off again, that’s fine.”

Having combined her preparations for the 2016 Games with academic study, Lee decided to devote herself to full-time rowing at the start of the current Olympic cycle.

The 33-year-old, who was a pupil at Richmond’s St Francis Xavier School before heading off to university, is based close to British Rowing’s high-performance base in Caversham, Berkshire, but while she had hoped to enjoy a full period of preparation in the build-up to Tokyo, injury issues scuppered her plans.

“I came back for the 2017 season and felt like I was in great shape,” she said. “I was enjoying being part of a new team, a new boat, and everything was going really well.

“But then I twisted my knee lifting some weights, and after a long period of investigation, we found out that I’d extended a tear in my hamstring attachment. I went in for surgery in the spring of 2017 and had to miss the rest of the season.

“I wasn’t able to make it back for the World Championships, which was a blow, so I had to return early for winter training before the start of the 2018 programme. I started the winter trials in a single scull, and won them, and the decision was made that I would spend the season sculling.

“I was the stroke in the quad in the World Championships last year, but then there was a change in the coaching set-up over the last winter, and our old coach, Jurgen Grobler, came back and probably wondered why I was sculling.

“He asked me what I wanted to do for the next two years, and after a fair bit of soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that the best version of me as a rower, and my best chance of upgrading the silver I won in Rio, was to go back to a single blade in either a four or an eight.

“The year I spent sculling has taught me a lot, and there are specific attributes that I think I can bring to what I’m doing now. But being back in the eight is a bit like being home. I’m really excited about what the next couple of years could bring.”

First on the agenda is the European Championships, which are staged in the Swiss resort of Lucerne this weekend.

Lee is one of just two members of the silver medal-winning 2016 crew that will compete in the eight this weekend, with Karen Bennett the other survivor from Rio.

Durham’s Jess Eddie is one of a number of high-profile British rowers to have retired in the last three years, resulting in a much more youthful look to the current squad.

Middlesbrough’s Jo Wratten will also row in the eight this weekend, and having assumed the role of elder statesperson, Lee is excited to be part of a crew with enormous potential.

“I’m one of the few returnees, so I have to be aware that it’s a new boat,” she said. “It’s going to take a bit of time for us to learn how to make the best of ourselves, but the early signs have been really positive. It’s a good blend of experience and youth, and we seem to have gelled pretty well.

“When I was one of the younger crew members in the build-up to Rio, I was encouraged to speak and be a part of things from the word go. I think that’s important. I can have an input and try to pass on some of my experiences, but just because someone is new to the team, it doesn’t mean their opinion is any less important.”

This year’s season will be geared towards August’s World Championships in Austria, which offer the carrot of an automatic qualifying spot for the Olympics. If the eight finish in the first five positions at the Worlds, they will be guaranteed a place in Tokyo.

The Europeans do not form part of the Olympic qualifying process, but this weekend’s regatta should nevertheless provide an early indication of where the British crew stands in relation to a number of its rivals.

“In the past, we’ve sometimes used the European Championships as a development event, with some of the Under-23 teams lining up,” said Lee. “But, this year, with where it falls in the calendar, it’s being treated much more seriously.

“It’s an opportunity to blow away the cobwebs from the winter and put some of what we’ve been working on to the test in a competitive environment. It will also give us an early chance to have a look at some of the other European crews.

“But more importantly, it’s a chance to get used to the feeling of winning. It’s a chance to stand on top of the podium with a gold medal around your neck, and no matter what you’ve got coming up in the future, that can only be a good thing.”