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Rower Stanning soldiers on after Helmand stint

AS might be expected, Heather Stanning MBE is taking her omission from the British team for this week's European Rowing Championships in Belgrade like a trooper.

Heather Stanning will miss the European Championships but is confident of returning for the World Championships Photograph: EPA
Heather Stanning will miss the European Championships but is confident of returning for the World Championships Photograph: EPA

Of all Team GB's gold medal-winning heroes and heroines from London 2012, few have had a more intriguing post-script than Stanning, who in her day job is an army captain with 32 Regiment Royal Artillery.

While many conducted a lengthy circuit of TV studios and panel shows, including Helen Glover, her partner at Eton Dorney, where they won the women's pairs to become the first British female rowers to win an Olympic title, it wasn't long before Stanning - born in Yeovil but brought up in Lossiemouth and Edinburgh - was conducting an alternative tour: based at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

As helpful as the on-site rowing machine was, a year-long absence from the water rather mitigates the British selectors' decision to leave her out of the squad for Belgrade in favour of Polly Swann, another English-born rower who has spent most of her life north of the border.

Stanning makes light of the matter as she and Glover beat Swann and Jessica Eddie in the trials last month, and she remains confident she will be back partnering Glover come the end of August at the World Championships in Amsterdam. The long-term goal remains a tilt at defending her title in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

"It wasn't a surprise. I was given advice by the medical team and it was something we sat down and discussed with the coaches," the 29-year-old said. "It is not that anything is drastically wrong with me, it is just to make sure that I finish the whole season and don't burn myself out.

"We do a lot of mileage during the week - it is all about endurance - but because I came back to training later, I had a bit of catching up to do. I'm not bouncing back from sessions the way I would expect to. It is just taking my body a bit longer.

"We jump in and out of different boats all the time so it is no surprise that Polly can row great with Helen. There are two World Cup regattas, one in June and one in July, then there are the World Championships at the end of August and they are the races I am going to target this year.

"At the moment the plan is for me to be back in the pair with Helen ... or at least as far as I am aware. But we will need to take every week as it comes and see how they perform. The priority is that I am fit and healthy and ready to race again soon."

With women still banned from "front line" combat, Stanning's time in Afghanistan was mainly spent behind a desk. Now, with the flexibility of one of a dwindling number of army athlete posts, in theory at least she can give herself a clear run through to Rio before returning to the armed forces after 2016.

"I guess last year was very different for me than it was for Helen," said Stanning, whose father Tim is a retired Navy lieutenant commander and whose two brothers have also both been on tours in Afghanistan. "It was a bit surreal just going from the Olympics back to my normal day job but it was something I chose to do.

"It was effectively an office job, managing the guys who fly the unmanned air systems and the planning for their sorties. We work 24/7 so I spent my first three months working the night shift. And when I say desk job, you are obviously well aware of the environment you are in so you don't become complacent.

"Obviously it wasn't the same as being at home, but Camp Bastion had every amenity you needed. And everybody spends their down time watching movies on a Sunday or in the gym anyway.

"I was able to keep in touch with the team and did some training, albeit at very different levels. I did a fair bit on the rowing machine but I also enjoyed doing some spinning, cross fit and assault training to keep my aerobic capacity as high as possible. I am very happy in my career choice: when you join the army, you are a soldier first, and everything else is secondary.

"Unfortunately with the armed forces shrinking, the army can't support the same amount of people they did 20 years ago but I am very lucky to be one of those people and I definitely don't take that for granted.

"For me, the thing that stayed with me most was seeing guys in a different environment working together for a shared goal. Also, with the British Lions tour and the Tour de France on TV, watching how involved the guys got with that even though they were 1000 miles away from home made me realise how lucky I am as an athlete and how much pleasure you bring to other people."

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