West London resident and Team GB cox Zoe De Toledo reflects on her #RoadToRio and how it could have all turned out so differently had she not got her lucky break in rowing…
Words: Bethan Andrews
Having grown up in London and attended St Pauls Girls School in Shepherd’s Bush, 28-year-old Zoe De Toledo was in the very fortunate position to be exposed to the sport of rowing from an early age, due to the close proximity of her school to the River Thames.
However, her journey to the river is about to grow quite significantly, having been selected, is in her fourth season as coxswain of the senior women’s eight, to compete in her first Olympic Games in Rio.
Quite surprisingly though, her rowing abilities haven’t always been top of the class, and she is refreshingly modest as she tells me that she certainly didn’t foresee her upcoming Olympic debut in Rio.
‘I wasn’t actually that good at rowing at first, but I got quite lucky. In my first coxing year when I was 15 at school, they wanted to take a rowing eight to the National Championships, which was in our school holidays. Everyone ranked above me, but nobody could go so they just kept going down the list until they got to me and it turned out that I was free,’ she laughs.
‘It was only my third ever race, but they talked me through it and we ended up winning and, from then, I stuck in the boat. In my last year of school, the GB selectors decided they wanted to send an eight to the Junior World Championships and, again, I got quite lucky and turned up in the right place at the right time. They all have a bit of a laugh now that I couldn’t steer straight or land a boat properly at first, but then we won a bronze medal at the Junior Championships, which was the first women’s boat to do so. After that, I just kept at it seriously and it became the central focus of my life.’
They all have a bit of a laugh now that I couldn’t steer straight or land a boat properly at first, but then we won a bronze medal at the Junior Championships
Once in university at Oxford Brookes, De Toledo began coxing for the prestigious Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames, home of Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. The club has represented the best of teamwork, commitment and success in rowing since 1818 and it is arguably the home of world rowing. Its rowers are proud to have won more Olympic medals than any other single sports club in the world, giving you an idea of just how good De Toledo really is.
‘I won Henley with the men’s eight and coxed at the Under-23 World Championships the following year where we won a gold – which was the first gold medal ever won by a GB women’s eight in any age group,’ she explains. ‘I worked my way into the senior development team and went to Oxford and coxed the Boat Race in 2012 for the Oxford men. It was from there that I got into the GB team and here I am now!’
The sport of rowing rewards perseverance, it’s not a saturated sport so if you put the work in and have a natural talent for it then it’s highly possible that you can take that talent as far as you’re willing to work. This is something that Leander Club is keen for people to realise and keen to reward.
De Toledo tells me how lucky they are to be supported by the club, and also to have the support of UK Sport and the Lottery Funding. ‘At international level, the support for women and men is equal, which is really great,’ she says. ‘There’s more of an awareness of women’s sport now and the women moving onto the tideway for the Boat Race definitely showed that.’
At international level, the support for women and men is equal. There’s more of an awareness of women’s sport now and the women moving onto the tideway for the Boat Race definitely showed that
De Toledo is also refreshingly honest about the pitfalls of sport and how to deal with adversity or what to do and how to approach situations when things go wrong. Having had a historically disappointing race in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (not only did the boat lose an oar, but one teammate collapsed in the boat at the end of the race), she maintains that it taught her a lot.
‘Now, I don’t really get nervous about racing anymore and one of the reasons behind that is because my 2012 Boat Race was so horrendous. I know that no other race I ever do will be as bad as that,’ she says. ‘I got a lot out of it in the long run – in fact, it actually brought me together with my boyfriend!’
The burning question is how does she feel ahead of Rio? ‘I’m really excited but I suppose that goes without saying – it’s the culmination of my whole rowing career and I want to have a good end to it! It’s been a challenging four years with some difficult things to deal with in both my private life and the sport, and this feels like this is the best part of it. I really feel that we are peaking and ramping up to it,’ she says. ‘I feel very confident in what we can do.’
Yet it still means a lot to her to row on the tideway at home on the Thames – perhaps a reason why the Boat Race starting in Putney was such a big deal for her. ‘I still go down to the river a lot at Putney and Barnes,’ she says. ‘I know the area so well and it will always be one of my favourite parts of London – I love all the waterways in the city, in fact. Little Venice reminds me of my childhood with my father, but I always feel like that stretch of the river by Putney is home for me. It’s the main hub of rowing in London.’
Not content with training seven days a week and committing to press appearances or interviews, De Toledo has plans to go back to Oxford to do her fourth degree after returning from Rio and retiring from professional rowing. And not just any old study either, but a degree in medicine.
With her grit and passion shining through, I leave Leander Club with every faith in the world for De Toledo and the GB team in Rio.