Self-confessed computer nerds Lauren Rowles and Laurence Whiteley are poised to make history at this weekend’s European Rowing Championships in Italy, writes Rachel Steinberg.
The Rio 2016 gold medal-winning pair are among the eight athletes who will race in Varese as part of British Rowing’s inaugural para squad for the continental competition.
And the PR2 mixed doubles skulls duo are probably the only entrants as savvy at building their own PCs as they are at winning Paralympic gold on the water.
“When I first joined the team in 2015, I knew Europeans was around but it was something we never went to,” recalled Rowles, who turns 23 this month.
“And it’s crazy to think we’re now competing, [that] we’re part of history now, sending our first British team to the European Championships, and the para side of it.
“To be part of the rest of the team, and to be able to go and be part of that journey now is incredible. It’s a really special time for our side of the sport and to see where we’ve come.”
The British squad opted out of sending a team to the Covid-postponed 2020 European Championships in October, instead electing to stay at home, adhering to a schedule as closely resembling their pre-pandemic regime as possible.
"That was really important for us. Ultimately eyes are on the prize of going to the Games," said Rowles, who beat her own age group world record during British Rowing’s Virtual Championships in June, clocking 8:09.7 in the 2k race.
But the pandemic’s impact on international competition also led to a tricky boats-passing-in-the-night situation with the Netherlands’ Annika van der Meer and Corne de Koning, who were crowned European champions last year.
Though always on each other’s radar, the two PR2 mixed doubles skulls teams haven’t met on the water since Rowles and Whiteley edged out the Dutch duo by under three seconds at the 2019 World Championships.
Varese, then, will provide a crucial opportunity for the Brits to size up their biggest competition before they meet again at Tokyo’s newly constructed Sea Forest Waterway in August.
Both teams will be tackling a new Paralympic challenge after the World Rowing doubled the distance from 1000m to 2000m in 2017—the same length as equivalent events in the Olympics.
It’s one of the many considerable differences between these upcoming Games and the last for the British pair, who only met in 2015—the same year wheelchair racer Rowles switched to rowing. By 2016, they were standing atop the podium in Rio.
Now Whiteley and Rowles are veteran partners for whom, it seems, absence has only made hearts row stronger. They trained separately from May to September but were pleasantly surprised when they finally reunited.
Rowles said: “It was like just clicking back into old routines, like we’d never been away from each other, which was incredible.
“But we’ve also taken time to work on our own things, and I think that’s been really key to our development going into this Paralympics.
“We know ourselves more as athletes, and I think that’s going to be a real credit. I don’t think we had that before. We both know the right thing to do for ourselves, but each other as well.”
The crewmates’ similarities extend beyond their first names.
Avid gamer Rowles only had to look as far as the other seat in her boat to find someone who shares — if not exceeds — her own devotion.
The Worcestershire native upgraded her setup during lockdown, spending “hours fretting about cable management”.
“I feel like Zoom and lockdown has completely exposed me to my nerd life!” she joked. “I’m a massive nerd. I’m really into gaming, and a few years ago I built my own PC.
“I was really bored. I really got into it and then started getting into online gaming a lot. And Laurence is also very, very techie and he built his own PC [too].
“His setup is incredible. We’re talking very elaborate. Like four screens. He’s got two PCs that run simultaneously like, full job.”
The teammates now compete on both water and web. They started playing Call of Duty together, and quickly convinced fellow para rower Benjamin Pritchard to join them.
The trio and a group of coaches get together to play “almost every evening”, a ritual which could even pay dividends in competition.
Rowles said: “It really has built a real personal bond that side of training with all of us.
“We know each other really well. And it’s great because you don’t chat about anything but rowing, but ultimately we are work colleagues and we’re friends as well.”
Rowles and Whiteley know they’ll have to put down the controllers if they want to achieve their ultimate dream of holding the world, European and Paralympic titles at the same time and they’re more than prepared to make the sacrifice.
So watch out Italy — and Japan — here come the Paralympic Gamers.