Perseverance Culminating in Shared Joy – Frances Houghton’s Journey

Photo courtesy of Matt Jessop photography, Cornwall

30 April 2021

By Linda Holmquist Mengelbier

British Olympic medallist and World champion Frances Houghton recently published Learnings from Five Olympic Games, a book on her road to become a successful Olympic rower. Swedish rower and former president of Malmö Roddklubb, Linda Holmquist Mengelbier, who has had an article published on HTBS earlier, has read Houghton’s book and found many mind-teasing issues when she read the book.

Frances Houghton is a five-time Olympian, three-time Olympic silver medallist, as well as a World Champion and world record breaker several times. She was a member of the British national rowing team for 21 years and was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her contributions to British rowing. Impressive achievements, indeed. I am truly “oarstruck”.

Frances started rowing at age 11. The fact is that her sister excelled at every sport they both had tried. Rowing was a left-over that her sister had not had a go at. Luckily, Frances could do rowing at the Dragon school in Oxford, where she was a pupil and her father was a teacher, so that is where it all started. Frances describes herself as an introvert and rowing was probably attractive to her already from the start, at the least from that point of view. She loved getting out in the boat to do her thing far away from everything and everybody. The rowing community also gave her an opportunity to form relationships based on the common interest in rowing. I can recognise myself in both.

First days of rowing at Dragon School, Oxford. The photo was taken by Frances’s father Robin Houghton, one of Frances’s greatest supporters. He passed away a few weeks before the women’s eight went to Rio in 2016.

It did not take long before it became evident that rowing was Frances’s thing, and a sport at which she could shine. When she was 16, she was captivated by watching the British rowing squad perform at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. This was when she made her first vow to “to do everything [she] can to get to Sydney 2000”. She accomplished that goal, but she was so thrilled by the experience that she made a second vow, “To be the first British woman to go to five Olympic Games in rowing. And to win Olympic Gold”. 

Frances in the single sculls in Varese, Italy. Photo courtesy of Jack Mercer

In her recently published book Learnings from Five Olympic Games, she open-heartedly reveals her records and wisdom from her journey towards becoming a five-time Olympian. Her written notes and the idea of a book started out as a wish to pay tribute to everybody that had supported her throughout her rowing career, such as coaches, teammates, support staff and family. She had the content all in her head by the time she went with the British women’s eight to her last Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

Learnings from Five Olympic Games and Olympic silver medals from Athens 2004, quadruple sculls; Rio 2016, eight; and Beijing 2008, quadruple sculls. Photo courtesy of Matt Jessop photography, Cornwall

After concluding her rowing career, she elaborated on how to present the content. In collaboration with local businesses in Cornwall, where she now lives, her handwritten drawings and notes were converted into a beautiful book on important aspects of rowing. Especially on “Creating Performance”, which is also the running title on the first page of her book. Based on her book, I interpret her rowing career to have been built on perseverance and the willingness to change perspectives, which culminated in pure joy in Rio when the women’s eight had been awarded their Olympic silver medals.

Pure joy in the British women’s eight as they have become Olympic silver medallists in Rio, 2016. Photo courtesy of John Carnegie-Brown

Accordingly, Learnings from Five Olympic Games is not a book on what sets you should do as strength training or what time you should strive for at 2K on the ergometer or an analysis of the perfect rowing stroke. It is a book beyond that. She has compiled her own observations of what factors are important for the creation of great team performance in rowing.

I am sure her book is, and will be, cherished by elite rowers and coaches, but also by rowers on all levels or anybody doing team sports. Undeniably, Frances’s wisdom can be applied to any aspects of life: school, family, sports, work, music bands, orchestras and so on.

Hence, from her book, you can learn how to lead yourself and others into common success. Since last autumn, I have participated in a leadership course through work. It is about leading yourself and others by developing your own version of a good leader, instead of trying to mould into predetermined formats of leaders. In her Learnings from Five Olympic Games, Frances eloquently describes the equivalent concept applied to elite rowers:

We didn’t need to be carbon copies of champions we looked up to – we would be our own versions. […] we are all our most powerful as our natural selves – refined, maximised – not when we are trying to emulate others. (p 74)

Further, from her rowing career, she has extracted some of the most important elements for success in any team: trust, vulnerability and honesty. If you are honest and dare to share your vulnerabilities with your teammates, then you have a good starting position for creating trust between the members of your team. In short, you have to get to know your teammates and learn how to communicate with each other. Frances is an observer and in her book, she handles how to value differences among teammates and turn each teammate’s unique characteristics, personality and physical as well as mental strengths, into one powerful joyful unit. She stresses the significance of self-awareness alongside taking an interest in and care for your teammates.

In my best teams, I was curious about my crew mates rather than frustrated that we were different. (p 23)

Frances with her book in Cornwall where she lives and where Learnings from Five Olympic Games has been produced in collaboration with local businesses. Photo by Frances’s partner Steven Askey.

Frances achieved her goal as a five-time Olympian, but she never won gold. Not winning gold is what makes this story particularly interesting.

After four Olympic Games, she had won two Olympic silver medals. She had one more Olympics to go. How did she cope with the fact that she had obtained two Olympic silver medals but no gold? Gold being part of her vow from the year 2000. Eventually, she did not cope. She describes how her frustration transformed into injuries and mental exhaustion. Between the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Frances’s injuries culminated in a burnout. She needed to recover both physically and mentally. The set time triggered the gathering of all her thoughts, and it was a wake-up call when she realised that she needed to change her own interpretation of both success and her vow to win an Olympic gold in rowing. Up to that point in her career, she had defined winning gold in the Olympics as her measure of success.

In 2014, Frances was building up for training again after her burnout. At this time, tragic circumstances, described in her book, evoked thoughts in her about the true power of sport, how it goes beyond winning medals, to encompass the bond you make with others. We all have them. Friends from rowing. Whether you row or not anymore, you have friends for life through rowing. From those reflections, she concluded that: “I still believe I could do it, but winning was not everything.” Yes, it was important to stick to the belief that you could win but “not necessarily that [she] would win”. Her increased self-awareness initiated a transformation of her rather inflexible mindset into a flexible and softer mind-set. She reminds herself of the original meaning of the verb ‘compete’. ‘Compete’ derives from the Latin word competere, which means, “to strive together”. It does not mean to win or to beat. She redefined what success meant to her:

To stand on the Olympic podium with my arms around my teammates sharing what we had created together – and feel joy, not relief. (p 93)

Joy at the podium after winning Olympic silver in the women’s eight in Rio in 2016. Photo courtesy of John Carnegie-Brown

She learns to adjust her own character to embrace everybody else’s characters and to channel this into the fantastic achievement of winning silver, not losing gold, of being the first female British eight to win a medal at the Olympic Games. Crossing the finish line and feel joy and pride as opposed to relief. The story of the Rio eight epitomises the evolution of Frances’s change of mindsets.

I knew I loved working with others to create great performances. I loved the experience and the bonds we formed along the way, whether we won or not. Understanding just how much I valued that transformed my last two years in sport. (p 92)

Frances’s joy at being a five-time Olympian and a three-time Olympic silver medallist. Photo courtesy of Nick Middleton photography, Henley.

In Learnings from Five Olympic Games, there are brilliant pragmatic components and personal anecdotes from her career. Frances describes several powerful tools on how to deal with, for example, racing nerves and how to connect your daily training with your goal and, not the least, actions for how to stick to your race plan during a race and so much more.

Although I have not raced for a long time, there are certain races that come to mind again after soaking my mind with wisdom from Frances’s book. One race that I have felt the most joy over is when we became silver medallists in the women’s four at the Swedish Championships in the beginning of the 2000s. We did what we had practised, and we moved the boat just the way we wished. What a joy. At the same regatta, we raced in the eight as well, and there were expectations that we would perform well. We did believe that we could win gold in the eights. At trainings, we performed well, but then during the race we could not repeat our pattern. My interpretation is that our nerves made us think about our opponents, the uncontrollable. We were thinking, not concentrating. We did not stick to the plan. These analyses are easy to make in hindsight, especially after absorbing Frances’s learnings. I wonder if we would have raced differently in the eight if we had had the chance to absorb Learnings from Five Olympic Games beforehand.

I have very much enjoyed reading Frances’s book because it has evoked so many thoughts about my own life both to do with rowing but also other aspects of my life. I am sure it will trigger that in other readers as well. It is a book to return to repeatedly. Each time I reread a section new things come to my mind.

I work as a cancer researcher at Lund University, Sweden. I read many scientific reports. The format of Learnings from Five Olympic Games reminds me of a scientific report, or the IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) format. The format makes the content accessible and it is easy to return to favourite sections or anecdotes. What I have highlighted in my “report” here is a selection of what is discussed in Frances’s book. There are so many more mind-teasing issues that you will discover once you read Learnings from Five Olympic Games yourself.

To read more about Frances Houghton and to order your copy of Learnings from Five Olympic Games, go to her website here.

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