<
>

Warzone break solidified Stanning and Glover's golden bond for Rio

Heather Stanning, left, and her rowing partner Helen Glover celebrate European gold last year. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Determination and focus are prerequisite attributes for an Olympic rower. You have to be extremely driven and disciplined to wake at the crack of dawn day after day, week after week, month after month in pursuit of a dream that can ultimately only be realised once every four years.

Sometimes that single-mindedness can result in an athlete taking on a challenge that many would find too great. Heather Stanning is not the only British gold medallist from London 2012 to have taken time away from sport, but she is in the minority of one to have spent her sabbatical in a warzone.

Having claimed Team GB's first gold on home soil four years ago, thanks to a dominant performance alongside Helen Glover in the coxless pair, Stanning returned to her other love -- the Army. Part of her year back in the military was spent at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, an experience that helped to convince her to defend the Olympic title she won in London.

"Having a year away really solidified in my mind that I wanted to carry on to Rio," Stanning tells ESPN. "I wanted to come back into the team and earn my seat back in the pair with Helen."

The break certainly hasn't diminished their success on the water, and they remain unbeaten as a pair since the 2011 World Championships. However, becoming Captain Stanning once more did present a problem, as in her absence, Glover won the World Championship with a different partner, Polly Swann.

"The fact that Helen had built a partnership with someone else and become world champion with someone else meant that I had to beat a world champion to get my seat back," Stanning adds. "So, that was a massive challenge."

Indeed, it is the kind of test that most would find too daunting to even attempt. Stanning, who spent her time at Camp Bastion as an operations manager of an unmanned surveillance unit -- "an office job in a hostile environment," she jokes -- is no ordinary person.

"It was very much an office-based job," she says, "but at the same time you have to be fit and ready to fight."

Her work in Afghanistan impressed her superiors enough to help ensure she was promoted from captain to major on Sunday, despite having focused her energies on rowing full time since November 2013. And according to Stanning, it was not only her day job that benefited from her time away from the water.

"What it did do for us as a partnership, it gave us a bit of our own identity," she continues. "Up until 2012 everything we'd done we'd done together, and actually a massive strength of our team is the fact that individually we're very strong.

"Helen is literally the best athlete you could ever dream of wanting to be in a boat with because she can get in a boat with anyone and make a boat go fast. I'm incredibly lucky to be that person she's in a boat with but I also bring something for her I'm sure [laughs]... I hope I do anyway.

"So, it was quite empowering to see her build a partnership with someone else and win, and then for me to know that I've got to raise my game to match her if I want to be back in a boat with her."

Since reuniting with Glover at the start of 2014, the pair have not looked back. Having returned from the World Cup event in Lucerne in May empty handed -- Stanning was too ill to start the final -- the pair restored order by winning the next round in Poznan, in June.

It was a typically polished performance, as the pair held off a late challenge from New Zealand, and gave them a 36th consecutive win. But as the clock ticks down to Rio, and rowing returns to the spotlight, is there more pressure to repeat the success of four years ago? "There's more external pressure," Stanning says. "Internally, it's pretty much the same as it's always been.

"We've always expected high standards of ourselves, and that's changed year on year as we've got better, we then expect more from ourselves.

"But I suppose the big difference for us is we're no longer inexperienced Olympians. We're defending champions and we've been to the Olympic Games and we know the format -- we know how it's run, we know how to win races.

"Whereas in the build-up to London we'd won regattas, but we'd not won a major championship. So, in that sense it's quite different."

Stanning puts the pair's success in the boat down to the foundations laid by Paul Stannard, the man who discovered them both while at Bath University. "Essentially our experiences in rowing have been very similar and we've been coached by the same people throughout our career, and we've developed as athletes together," she explains.

"By being taught the basics by the same person you've got similar thought process. So when you're being coached something you're approaching it from the same angle essentially."

Those foundations have been built upon by current coach, Robin Williams, who has worked with the pair since 2011. "We know a formula that works, but that formula is based on hard work and working together to achieve it."

"At the time of year it's going to be very different to when Zika first came into the headlines." Heather Stanning on travelling to Rio

"So, we'll just keep doing that," Stanning adds with a chuckle that is neither cocksure nor arrogant. It is the statement of someone who knows that a second Olympic gold medal is within her grasp, yet who is also well aware that she and Glover will win nothing without giving their all day after day.

Defending their title in Rio is the goal that is driving them on to do just that, and it is clear that nothing will get in the way of them achieving that dream. Not even the threat of the Zika virus, which has convinced a number of stars from various sports to reconsider their own participation in the Games.

"Personally, I don't have concerns about travelling to Rio," Stanning says. "The Zika virus is a concern but is it a concern for us as a group of athletes going to Rio? I think Rio itself is fairly low risk and certainly at the time of year it's going to be very different to when Zika first came into the headlines.

"If we're sensible, like we would be in any place we go to where there are mosquitos, we would take precautions against being bitten, and we'll do the same in Rio.

"It's highlighted issues in the country we're going to, which I suppose is only a good thing because the world is talking about it and things are being done about it."

It is perhaps unsurprising that someone who has experienced war first-hand would take such an approach to the situation, but it is also telling of the dedication that it takes to reach the pinnacle in sport. You get the feeling that Stanning doesn't feel she's quite reached hers yet.