Next Stop Tokyo: Victoria Thornley

Tokyo 2020 Athlete Interviews

3 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Nick Middleton & Benedict Tufnell
Published 01.07.21

On the cusp of her third consecutive Olympics, Victoria Thornley is set to represent Team GB at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Thornley is one of only three British women* to win a World Rowing Championship silver medal in the women’s single sculls. She made her Olympic debut at the London 2012 Olympic Games racing in the strokeseat of the British women’s eight. At Rio 2016 she partnered Dame Katherine Grainger in the women’s double scull and won an Olympic silver medal. Victoria Thornley shares her thoughts on Tokyo while making her final preparations on training camp in Varese, Italy.

Photo Rio 2016 Olympic Silver Medallist Victoria Thornley
Credit Nick Middleton

Why the single scull? Racing the single scull has been a long-held ambition of mine. I watched Knapkova win gold at the London 2012 Olympics and as she crossed the line I thought, that must be the most incredible feeling. For me Olympic gold in the single scull is the ultimate. I can’t explain why, but the event has always spoken to me. I started my career in the single and I’ve always felt at home in this boat. Early on I wasn’t sure I would be good enough to compete at the top level: It’s tough! But the learnings from two Olympic Games gave me the skills and confidence to take on the single. After Rio it was the only boat I was interested in. I wanted to see how good I could be and, truly, what my strengths and weaknesses were; the single is the best vehicle for that. It has taken me beyond my previous limits. It has challenged me beyond words. And it has been unbelievably rewarding to push myself to be better in every way.

How’s your season been? There’s serious depth in the field this year. I was reasonably pleased with the silver at the European Championships, but it was early in the season, and I wasn’t able to engage with the race as much as I would have liked. Lucerne was very competitive and I was disappointed to finish 5th but it has renewed the fire in my belly.

When do you fly to Japan? We fly on 13th July. We spend the first three nights in a hotel in Tokyo, and we will train on the land until the venue and the village opens. We move to the village on 17th and train on the water on the 18th.

How will you feel when you arrive? I will be excited! It’s been a long time coming so when we finally land, I am sure it will feel great. It will be good to have a relaxed first few days training on land and to take it all in before focus ramps up once we hit the water.

The racing schedule has some early starts to counter the heat; are you a morning person? I am. Early races don’t bother me and as rowers we are used to early mornings. I’ll make sure I am up with plenty of time before the start of each race.

What are you hoping for at Tokyo? To be the best athlete I’ve ever been, and to deliver my best performance.

What drives you? To use this opportunity to be the best I can be, in the sport that I love. So many people have put a lot of time and energy into me over the years, part of my motivation is to deliver my best performance for them.

What sessions are you doing now? I had a big volume block since Lucerne. Now, three weeks out from Tokyo the volume is starting to reduce, and the intensity is increasing. The whole squad will do a 2km race before we leave for Tokyo.

Have you started to taper? The proper taper is still to come. We have ten days in Tokyo before racing and a lot of that will be adapting to environment and the time difference.

Do you like the feeling of a taper? I always get twitchy before racing but the taper to the Olympics is the only time in four years (or in this case five) that you truly feel fresh. It is a bizarre feeling for us rowers! It will be nice to have some freshness in the legs. I have at least four races at the games so that will keep me busy once racing starts.

Do you have any doubts that the Games will go ahead? No. None at all.

How are you feeling? I’m still focused on the day-to-day processes but the closer we get the more the excitement and the anticipation is building. As much as the result is important to me, I still want to enjoy the experience. It’s the final weeks of a five-year project and I have to remind myself to savour it.

There are many rules surrounding Covid-security; is this a concern? I am used to living in a Covid-secure environment; masks feel normal, as does testing. We have been very strict as a team to try and mitigate the risks where possible. There will be a lot of testing before and during the games, but it’s what’s required, it doesn’t bother me. And being a single sculler social distancing is pretty easy!

Beyond rowing, what Olympic sports will you follow? I love watching the gymnastics. They are incredible athletes; small but amazingly strong and flexible! I’ll dip in and out of the coverage. I’ll only watch it if I feel it isn’t compromising my down time. Team GB is a big strong team; you can definitely draw momentum and strength from other athletes’ performances. I suspect I will be watching a lot of Netflix and reading to switch off between training and racing.

*Katherine Grainger (2009) and Beryl Mitchell (1981) are the other two world silver medallists. Mitchell competed in the single at two Olympic Games; Moscow 1980 and L.A. 1984. Should Thornley place fourth or better, she will be the highest ranked women’s single sculler to represent Great Britain at any Olympic Games. For the past four Olympics Team GB has not sent a women’s single sculler; the last one was Alison Mowbray (Sydney 2000) .