THRIVHER INTERVIEW: FRANCES HOUGHTON

Updated: Apr 26



Frances Houghton became the first British female rower to be selected for 5 Olympic Games and is the longest serving member of the GB Rowing Team.



Quick dive:

  • Can't start the day without: At least 8 hours sleep.

  • Most efficient time of day is: First thing in the morning.

  • Most effective productivity tool is: Planning the day with pen and paper.

  • Best reads are: ‘Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and ‘The Chimp Paradox’, by Steve Peters.

  • Recommended TED Talk is: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain.

  • Role models: A culmination of all the people around me who I have learned from.

  • Mindfulness habit: Is sitting still and closing my eyes in natural light.

  • Most afraid of: Not making the most out of my life.

  • Go-to for fun: At the moment it's a game of tennis - I'm learning!



Thrivher Moves:


When did you first begin your rowing career? I started rowing when I was 11 at school, and received my first payment from GB Rowing at age 17. While I was studying I kept it very simple and very disciplined in terms of timetabling everything out to make sure I fitted it all in. When I was 15, studying for my G.C.S.E.s, my entire day was absolutely regimented hour by hour. I had to work out daily how I could work for 8 hours, sleep for 8 hours, exercise for 2 hours and have an hour for food.


How did you become disciplined so early?

I was so hooked on the sport - I absolutely loved it. Before I was doing sport, I was doing music. I would go to music practice and then I went to school, so that started the discipline. I was obviously already in that way of living, and that was the kind of world I was creating for myself. Then when I was 15 I wrote down on a piece of paper, 'I vow to do everything I possibly can to get to Sydney Olympics'. So that was just the mantra I lived by. It was that overarching theme that made decisions really clear cut.


when I was 15 I wrote down on a piece of paper, 'I vow to do everything I possibly can to get to Sydney Olympics'

Coming up to your first Olympics in Sydney, was there anything that got particularly tough?

Definitely. I was in school until 1998 and from then I trained full-time with Debbie Flood, who I rowed with. Then my first year at university, the summer of 1999, I joined the squad. I took the next year out of university for the Sydney Olympics. It was a big step up in training, just the intensity of the training group. There were times when I was so tired I could barely function. I remember a time when I couldn't even pick up my fork, I couldn't eat because my hands were so sore. So yeah, it was so hard. But as I say to people, sometimes there's only that 1% in you that thinks you can do it, 99% thinks you can't, but it's that 1% that's pulling you through.


sometimes there's only that 1% in you that thinks you can do it, 99% thinks you can't, but it's that 1% that's pulling you through

How did it feel to compete in your first ever Olympics?

Before I went to Sydney, I said, all I ever wanted was to become an Olympian. That would be the pinnacle. That would be incredible! And I got to Sydney and that was an absolute dream come true. It was like dreaming you can fly… then waking up and realising it’s true!



What made the Sydney Olympics so special for you?

It was the people - the Australians being so into their sport. They were so excited about meeting any of us, for being Olympians, it didn’t matter if we were medallists or we had come last, they were just so appreciative and enthusiastic. I remember people would be hanging out outside the Olympic Village just to say hi and invite you out for a drink... I don’t think I bought a drink for 2 weeks!


Australia’s Cathy Freeman winning Gold in the 400m, I watched that. The stadium went completely quiet, it was dark and all you could see were the runners and camera flashes going off as she ran round, then the whole stadium just exploded. It was the most tense, most exhilarating Olympic moment.


Sydney was everything I dreamed the Olympics would be, it was the athletes’ games.



How did you set your future goals after achieving the Sydney Olympics vow?

A month after I came back, that was when I counted out on my fingers and thought I could fit in another four Olympics. No woman has been to five Olympics in rowing and so I set my goal there. It was a 16-year goal. Even when things got really, really tough (especially the years up to Rio Olympics, they were horrendous), I questioned myself every single day, should I be doing this? Can I do this? Do I believe I can still do this? But this vow, this goal that I made, it was so important to me so that’s when the 1% kept on pulling me through, to keep going.



What was the biggest turning point for you during your Olympic years?

There was definitely a significant turning point when it got to the end of 2015. In that summer, the Quad (rowing boat) that I was in didn't qualify for the Olympics and we felt that it was pretty much the lowest moment we could possibly get to. The Quad, for 4 or 5 years had been really un-functional, it just wasn't a winner - it just didn't have it. I tried everything but I thought, well, I've got this far so I'm definitely not going to retire with a year to go until Rio, so just shut up and get on with it. Later that year we fought it out to claim a seat in the Olympic qualified 8. I was selected and that’s what we went to the Rio Olympics in.



Were there any times that you would question what you were doing?

Every day, Oh my god, every day. Yeah, that is the case with so many athletes because it's so hard being an athlete. It's so stressful, you're out there every day, you're absolutely knackered, you're mentally knackered and you're on a firing line. Every single day you're being measured, as well as being measured against other people. You're constantly conscious about whether you’re going to get that seat or not. You've got to be obsessed with this goal to be able to endure that and there's great synergy in that too.


When I rowed at my club in London, sometimes I just wouldn't turn up for a week so I could reset. But when I got to the centralised GB squad I just didn't have the option. This was massively unhealthy, and I got a lot of physical injuries, which I think were the manifestations of emotional stress. I think it was because I wasn’t listening to its signals, it physically injured me listen. So I would only stop for serious injury. Ironically at that point, you've got no expectations because you've been injured, you actually have a sense of progress and a sense of control, because you're outside of the main training program. That can be a refreshing reset time. So actually, the lowest points often bring about a spur to move forward as well. I'm very conscious now of the value in pressing pause.


the lowest points often bring about a spur to move forward as well. I'm very conscious now of the value in pressing pause.

Did you have any practical strategies in place to keep you going through the tough times?

Habit, especially if you've been doing it for so long. It's just easier to get things done. Just tick it off, don't think about it, don't give yourself the option - I think that's a big thing for endurance athletes. It's the ability to endure mentally. It's something that I've not struggled with, but I definitely have had a big comedown after finishing. It’s been almost an outpour of all that stuff that I really didn't want to do, even horrible dreams about freezing cold water and terrible conditions. At the time we didn't think about it, we just had to go out and do it. It's like following these instructions to take yourself out of the reality of it.


It's also the routine and schedule you just follow and you keep. I'm a practical person, I would separate logic from emotion, from feeling ‘oh my god, I really don't want to do this’, and then I think practically about it, ‘if you don't do this now, you’ll have to do this later so just take an hour and a half and do it’.



Do you have a top pinch yourself moment?

I would say being in the Olympic village in Sydney. We could see the Olympic flame from our window, and underneath the window there was a path around the village - athletes were just doing their jogs and I was watching them thinking, ’Oh my god, they're the best athletes in the world’.



How did you feel when you had finished with rowing and coming up to that point?

I felt completion, definitely completion. Sadness that it's over, a kind of fondness and love I have for all things Olympics. But I've done it five times now, so felt like I got my fill.

I made a conscious effort in the last couple of years leading up to Rio to make sure that we were getting the most out of the crews that we were in. Our absolute goal and drive was to win a gold medal, and that was what I believed we would get to. But the value I placed on the relationship building, the journey together, the openness and the honesty of it all including the ups and downs was at the essence of it.


When we crossed the finish line in the 8, it was a photo finish, we knew we hadn't got gold, but it was bronze or silver and soon revealed that we got the silver. In that moment, the girls in my crew didn't really know how to feel about it because we hadn't won the gold, and I said to them ‘this is fucking amazing, we’ve just won an Olympic medal, this is incredible, we're going to stand on that podium and we're going to jump up and down, and make memories that we're in the Olympics and then we’re going to celebrate and it's going to be amazing.’


I know my crew had the most amazing Olympic experience which is what I really, really wanted us to have. So I think that was what the completion was all about, to have come full circle in myself. Not to be like, fuck I haven't won or the whole thing was a failure. It was to actually redefine what I saw as success, or the ultimate experience as what it could be, and to have achieved that was a goal in itself.




Thriving and Kicking:


What’s next for someone who has achieved so much in their life journey already?

At the moment, I'm trying to thrive as a human. In sport, you compete as a human, rather than as an innate athlete. I've come to that point because of what I learned through sport, that your best performance comes from you as a person, being in a thriving place, as a whole balanced human who really knows why you are doing it. At that peak point, you have incredible relationships with the people who you are performing with, which leads to the ultimate performance, and the ultimate experience in sport. It's taken this understanding to know how I’ll thrive in my afterlife.


your best performance comes from you as a person, being in a thriving place, as a whole balanced human who really knows why you are doing it

What skill are you still trying to master?

I want to learn tennis…. I'm also just trying to be a good person. I'm a really selfish, introverted person and the skill I'm trying to master is to go with the flow.



What three personality traits do you have that's contributed to all your achievements?

Philosophical, focus and passion.



For the women reading this, what would be your career life advice for them?

Know why, just keep asking yourself why, why you're doing something and knowing the bigger picture.



Is there any advice you wish you'd known in your twenties?

Invest time in yourself as a priority, not a luxury.


Photo credit: Nick Middleton Photography



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