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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Talking to Paralympic gold-medallist Erin Kennedy: Competing at Tokyo 2020

Caitlin Murray interviews Paralympic gold medallist Erin Kennedy.

Fresh off the plane from Tokyo, Paralympic gold medallist, two-time World Champion,
European Champion, and current World Record Holder coxswain Erin Kennedy took some
time out of her busy schedule to talk to me.   
  
Erin, alongside her teammates Ellen Buttrick, Giedre Rakauskaite, James Fox and Oliver
Stanhope, took home gold for Team GB in the PR3 Mixed Coxed Four at the Tokyo 2020
Paralympic Games, extending GB’s 11-year unbeaten record in this boat class.   
  
Erin’s first introduction to the art of coxing began whilst studying at Oxford. Having
participated in drama and theatre studies whilst at school, Erin decided to give coxing a go
for the first time as a fresher at Pembroke College.   
  
“In freshers’ week I went down to the boathouse, as everyone does. I knew about coxing as
a concept and was interested in trying it out.”  
  
Very quickly Erin became “hooked on coxing” and soon got her first exposure to more
professional, serious training. 
  
Erin’s hard work and dedication to the sport was rewarded by being selected as coxswain
for the Oxford boat in the 2014 Women’s Boat Race. Erin and her team won in a record-
breaking time, and it is an experience that she considers very valuable in preparing her for
the Paralympic games.  
  
“The boat race set me up really well for the [Paralympic] games. Ultimately, for both the
boat race and the Paralympics, its one event, and whatever you do, what you’ll be
remembered for and judged on is this one race.”  
  
Particularly, Erin credits her experience of the Boat Race in helping her to prepare mentally
for the rigour of elite sport, citing that it taught her to “not to sweat the small stuff until it
really matters” and to be able to have “tunnel vision” as the race approaches.   
  
Both learnings would have proved incredibly valuable as she and her team navigated
preparing for a Paralympic Games that at times didn’t look likely to go ahead at all. 
  
It appeared on the water that the delaying of the Tokyo 2020 games had no impact on this
Team GB boat, securing the nation’s third successive gold medal in the PR3 Mixed Coxed
Four. However, the run up to Tokyo 2020, as Erin Kennedy explains, was far from
straightforward for the team.  
  
The boat’s 2020 training schedule was severely altered because of the ongoing COVID-19
pandemic. Like the rest of elite sport in the UK, Erin and her team had to stop training in
March 2020.   
  

Five months of at-home training followed, with daily Zoom workouts and drop-in sessions
replacing conventional in-person gym sessions until the team was allowed back out onto the
water in August 2020. That said, virtual training was not without memorable moments for
Erin.  
  
“Tanni Grey Thompson joined us for a training session which was really cool!” she recalled.  
  
However, preparations did not get any easier for the Team GB boat as the world began
to open up in Spring 2021. Although the team were back together and out on the water,
Erin and her teammates had to remain as COVID-cautious as ever, desperate to prevent a
COVID outbreak amongst their boat.  
  
During this period, Erin’s perception of risk “went through the roof”. 
  
“We knew, because we are a team sport, if one of us was to test positive [for COVID] from
June onwards, we wouldn’t be able to go to the games,” Erin explained.  
  
As a result, she made the tough decision to ask her husband, who is in the army, to move
back in with his parents for three weeks before their training camp.   
  
“One of my teammates moved in instead and we isolated together up until training camp,”
she recalled. 
 
Naturally, given the sacrifices she made just to get to Tokyo, Erin could not wait to be
reunited with and celebrate her gold medal achievements with her family and friends.  
  
Not being able to have family and friends cheering her on in Tokyo made being reunited
with them even more special and has given Erin a renewed appreciation of the role of her
family in helping her to achieve her dreams… 
  
“You realise how much it means to [your family] too. They have made all these sacrifices for
you, it’s not just a case of you as the individual working really hard,” Erin reflected.  
  
Being able to have her family and friends by her side is one of the factors motivating Erin as
she looks ahead to Paris 2024.  
 
“I still love the sport and I don’t want to stop. This has not been the games or build-up that
I expected, and Paris is basically a home [Paralympic] games for me anyway!” Erin noted as
she explained her motivators for the next Paralympic cycle.  
 
Regardless of the unique games she has been a part of, Erin Kennedy has cemented herself
as gold-medal winning Paralympian, and she will no doubt be looking to replicate her
success at Paris in just three years’ time.

Image via Christy Kennedy.

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