For Team GB it isn’t yet a gold rush, but it’s finally a start. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning ended a nation’s gold medal drought by cruising to victory Wednesday in the women’s pair rowing event. The duo also made history in the process. They are the only British women ever to win Olympic gold in rowing.
Speaking to a BBC film crew just moments after the historic win, 27-year-old Stanning said that she—and her body—was in shock. “It wants to go into shut down, but it can’t,” she said. “It’s too excited. I want to collapse. I’m just so overjoyed.”
Glover, who had won back-to-back silver medals at the world championships, seemed shocked they had held off the defending world champions from New Zealand. “I don’t even remember smiling, as I never ever thought, ‘we’ve got it,'” she said.
The pair’s route to gold was an unusual one. Four years ago, Glover, a former field hockey player, had never even rowed. But in 2008 Glover, who previously ran cross-country internationally, came across the Sporting Giants initiative. Set up by U.K. Sport, the government body that invests around £100 million ($156 million) into Britain’s top athletes every year, it sought to find tall athletes who could plug gaps in handball, rowing, and volleyball. A committee tested 4,500 athletes in all. Glover passed a series of tests, underwent intensive training, and eventually earned the right to compete at trials for the national team. She was paired with Stanning after both women failed to make the women’s eight. An unexpected silver medal at the worlds followed in 2010.
Expectations for the pair were immense. That might explain why, within six minutes of their victory, U.K. Sport issued an extensive press release detailing Glover’s journey from Sporting Giants applicant to Olympic champion. “We are absolutely delighted that Team GB has secured its first gold medal, but everyone at U.K. Sport is even more delighted with this particular medal, as Helen was first discovered through Sporting Giants,” U.K. Sport Chief Executive Liz Nicholl said in that statement. “It shows just how a proactive approach to talent development can pay dividends.”
Sporting Giants has already led to the creation of six other scouting initiatives like “Girls4Gold,” which sought to find highly competitive sportswomen with the potential to become Olympic champions in events including cycling, skeleton, and canoeing, and “Fighting Chance,” which offered high-level combat athletes from all kicking-oriented martial arts the opportunity to try out for a place in an elite taekwondo academy. By the end of June 2012, those searches had yielded 99 international medals.
Today they finally yielded Olympic gold.