Naomi Riches MBE is an adaptive rower who was part of the British mixed coxed four team that won gold at the 2012 London Paralympic Games and bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.

An interview with Naomi Riches MBE

Interview by Neil Young, January 2013

Here she describes the growth of the relatively new Paralympic sport of adaptive rowing.

Naomi Riches speaks about winning her gold medal at the 2012 London Games

Extract from the above interview with Naomi Riches soon after she won gold in 2012 at the London Paralympics

What is your specific disability?

When I was eight weeks old I was diagnosed with an eye condition called cone dystrophy which means that the cones in my retina don’t work so I’m – basically my whole world is like a black and white film slightly over-exposed, slightly blurry. So I’ve got no colour vision at all, my detail vision is poor and the brighter it gets the less I can see.

How did you get into rowing?

I was swimming and then I went away to boarding college – the College for Blind and Visually Impaired People in Worcester where I went from being the most disabled person in the school to suddenly having the least visual problems out of everybody there. So, that was quite a turnaround. I went from being the least able to the most able. I didn’t really do much more in terms of swimming. I was pretty active – I was always running about doing stuff but had a go at rowing – a brief sort of try.

I went to Leander Rowing Club in Henley for Midland Television, I think, in 2000 to row with Matthew Pinsent, Steve Redgrave, Steve Foster and Ed Coode with a few other kids from the school and Matthew Pinsent said: “Have you done this before? You’re all right you are. You’re not bad.” And I completely ignored him and didn’t do anything about it for years and then in the second year of university where I was doing a jewellery and metalwork degree – of all things, do that when you can’t see very well, it’s really, really clever [laughs] but, you know…..

I got a phone call then from the then coach of Paralympic Rowing – or adaptive rowing as it was back then – who said: “I hear you’re tall, you’re registered blind and you like rowing. In which case you tick three boxes and we’d like you to trial for the team.”

That was in April 2004 and in July 2004 I was sat on the start line of the World Championships going: “What, what happened? [laughs] What happened there?” There was me being a university student, you know, student-union-snakebite-a-pound- a-pint-before-eleven-o’clock – all well and good – and then suddenly I’m at a World Championships for a sport I’ve only done for four months. It was a complete whirlwind.

So what happened in those four months?

I travelled backwards and forward to London quite a lot. We trained at London Docklands and when I could I would take myself down to the gym to get my fitness a bit better to be honest.

I was just an unfit average student-kind of person so the idea of doing elite sport was a little bit bizarre.

But I would say back then we weren’t really elite, we were all disabled people – Paralympic rowing or adaptive rowing was very new and the standard wasn’t all that high back then.

So as long as you had a bit of an idea of what you were doing and you had a bit of determination and a bit of strength you could kind of get away with it. I have been really lucky to have been in the system since 2004 because that’s nearly nine years and I have seen huge changes over those years and I feel I’m very lucky to have been part of that.

To go from right the way when we were back not really knowing what we were doing to now being, you know, a highly respected elite sport that’s working alongside its Olympic equivalents in training.

Talk us through the day that you won gold at the London 2012 Paralympics

In London everything was going great but we were very aware of how close people were to us because we had raced the Germans at the World Cup in June and it was a photo finish and we knew they would have improved as well. So, we knew not to sit back and chill. We would have to put in a damn good performance.

So 2012 was a very different kettle of fish to 2008. Firstly we were a lot more professional and we had raced together as a crew in exactly that order in 2011 and done really well at the World Championships in Bled, in Slovenia. And so we knew we were good and we knew we were capable of winning but also knew we weren’t going to take for granted that fact. We’d come so close to the Germans in the World Cup. We didn’t know how much they had improved by in, you know, the three months in between. We knew we’d improved – they might have improved more, they might have improved less, we don’t know.

But they weren’t in our heat so we had the crews that we weren’t sure of in our heat and we didn’t know what to expect from them. There were some quite new crews there: the Chinese that had just got together the year before and qualified for the Paralympics at the Bled Regatta at the World Championships. And new crews will develop a lot quicker so we didn’t know how much better they would be than the year before: an awful lot of unknowns.

So we went in just knowing that we were doing one more thousand-metre piece on the water – that was all it was. We’ve done thousand metres in training over and over again. We were doing one more piece and it just so happened there were five other boats trying to get there first before us.

But other than it was just do what you know, stick with what’s familiar and what you’ve rehearsed over and over and over again.

 And if you do that and you do that the way you’ve done it before you can only be happy with your result: so that’s what we went into the heats with.

We won the heat so we didn’t have to race the reps the following day and then we went into our final, which seems like so long ago. It was only, what, six months but honestly it feels like years – so much has happened since it has been a bit mad really.

So on the Finals day we went for our pre-paddle before the late close for racing. We were the last race of the day – before us we had the women’s arms only single skull; final A women’s arms only single skull, final B; men’s arms only single skull A, men’s arms only B; mixed double A, mixed double B and then there was our race. So the race had to close fairly early and then we had quite a little while to sit and chill and eat and listen to iPods and stupid music and wind each other up about various things and generally enjoy each other’s company whilst being terrified and nervous all at the same time.

So we did our pre-paddle and it was incredible how many people had already turned up at Eton Dorney at that early in the morning. It got to the point where our coach had to stop coaching us cycling along the towpath because we couldn’t hear her through the radio because the crowd was already so loud in the grandstand before the race had even started – it was absolutely amazing; it was just magic. The atmosphere down at Dorney was just incredible. They had turned this very two-dimensional landscape – this two kilometre-long lake and boathouse at one end and nothing else and suddenly there were grandstands and big screens and this overhead camera – which they didn’t use for us anyway – but, you know, this incredible almost rowing stadium that they created.

And the crowd were just, they were brilliant, they were absolutely brilliant, they just brought the whole thing to life. So to go out for your pre-paddle and almost be able to hear your mum and dad shouting at you from the grandstand it just makes you feel proud and makes you feel nervous because you want to do what they want you to do. Nervous because you want to do what you’ve practiced with the coach over and over again. I, for me, I was terrified that I’d be the one to do something wrong and let my crewmates down. You know, there are so many different emotions going through the system at once, and it’s just you get your pre-paddle out the way you can chill out then a bit. It’s kind of like: “OK, if something was going to go wrong it would have gone wrong then – it’s fine.”

Saying that we got on the water for our final and we heard the race results of our men’s arms only single skull who won the gold medal in Beijing, who had been unbeaten in every race he’d ever entered in six years and he’d just come fourth.  “OK, right so. That’s not

good but you’ve gotta leave that, you can’t dwell on that. You are going for your Paralympic final, you can’t think about it.” And it is so hard to get that out of your head so we then got a

hundred metres down the warm up lake at Dorney and there was a bit of tinkling coming from my rigger and so I called to Lily, our cox, to stop. And one of the bolts on my rigger to my right-hand side had just come completely loose. So the bolt was there but the nut and the washer underneath were gone. So we had to row in pairs, just the boys rowing, up to the thousand metres to the cut through to the main lake and yell to the umpires that we needed a spanner. So they sent us through to the repairs pontoon who got us a spanner, who fixed our rigger and they then let us warm up in our lane on the lake, on the racing lake. Which was kinda cool because we got to see what the conditions were exactly going to be like for our final which was a good thing.

 

And then whilst backing on to the start we got a little bit tangled in some of the buoys. I’ve got these goggles on, I can’t see what’s going on – my blade got stuck in the buoys. So Dave, who was in front of me had to take my blade out of my hands and manoeuvre it out.

And we’re starting to go: “oh God, oh God, we’ve only got two minutes, the race starts in two minutes – we’re not attached – oh my God” – starting to panic but trying to keep calm.

We got on the start, there’s about thirty seconds to go so we didn’t have time to get nervous. We just sat there and then we were off. Suddenly I was like mayhem of the first two hundred and fifty metres. Such a huge amount of noise because there was crowd right the way down to the start at Dorney so there were people shouting and then there were the five other coxes and then was our cox and there was all the other boats you could hear, all the oars coming in and out of the water there was just so much noise. And when I’ve got these goggles on and I’m just trying to focus on what I can hear it’s quite hard to drown everything else out.

But two hundred and fifty metres, OK, that’s gone, that’s fine: where are the Germans? Right, we know they’re fast, we know they have a, you know, their first five hundred is always quick. Right they’re in the lead. OK, fine, they’re in the lead we knew that might happen. Our rhythm got to think about what we know. What do we do at this point? The middle five hundred, that’s our killing ground, this is where we make our move, this is where we stay solid, we stay together. Five hundred, the Germans are up. How much by? Half a boat length: shit, so now what? Now what? I can’t hear the cox. The noise from the grandstands was so unbelievably loud I could feel it, I couldn’t just hear it, it was in every part of my body and I just knew that we were going to have to dig deeper with every single stroke and for me I was just hoping that the Germans weren’t going as fast as us because I honestly didn’t have a clue where they were. I couldn’t hear Lily; all I could hear was the crowd and I really do feel that that crowd rode every stroke with us. It was almost as if they were in as much physical pain as we were but they wanted us to win so badly, you know, 99.99% of that crowd were shouting for GB. I know there were some Germans there because my friend was standing right behind them.

And we came across the finish line. I didn’t hear the buzzer, the finish line buzzer. The only reason I knew to stop rowing was that Dave, who was sat in front of me, collapsed backwards onto my feet so I thought we must’ve finished but I didn’t know where we’d come. And so I then collapsed backwards onto Pam’s feet sat behind me and I said: “where did we come?” and then the words that I’d dreamt of hearing since I knew that the Paralympics were going to be in London which was “we’ve won” from Pam. And I just started crying. It was just relief that we’d actually done it. That race was almost, there was almost desperation: we knew that there wasn’t much we could do we just had to put everything we could possibly conjure up from the depths, we had to put everything in, and just hope that we were going to be faster than the Germans and we were.

And then we went to the media pontoon, did the media interviews and I tried not to cry. And then when we got onto the medal pontoon, I actually started to enjoy it and hearing your national anthem with those medals round your neck is just brilliant, absolutely fantastic.

It’s not something that’s ever going to be able to be repeated – absolutely incredible experience.

Download a pdf of the transcript here