Interview with Naomi Riches

30th March 2017 by Guy Horchover

I met with Naomi Riches the other week and had the opportunity to hear about her story and how she came to become a gold medallist in the 2012 Paralympics in Para-Rowing. This is all the more amazing given that at school she was given no support in sport because of her visual impairment, but outside school time she was swimming, doing outward bound etc. and getting great support from her parents.

When she first went to college she tried rowing briefly; she didn’t have to see to row, it is all about feel and sound but she, “only dabbled a bit at that stage”. It was only in her second year at University she got a phone call out of the blue from a Royal Docks-based rowing coach who needed women to row in a four. With her friend already in the team Riches said, “I thought I would try it out.  It was a new disabled sport that might represent GB in the near future”. 

She didn’t look back after that. Four months later, Riches was at the World Championships and won the Mixed Coxed 4s – adaptive rowing event (the name before Para-Rowing). This category was for individuals that had disabilities but could who still had use of their legs, trunks and arms.

The lake was in Spain, the same as the Barcelona Olympics. Naomi says, “It is my favourite place to row. I’ve been there 21 times in total, to compete and on training camps; it is a stunning 2k lake by the foothills of the Pyrenees.  My first World Champs were there in 2004. I was able to get Development funding in 2005, however it wasn’t until my first Paralympic Games in Beijing 2008 that we truly full-time and fully funded and with the backing of the full-time coaches, strength and conditioning etc. It was a real step up to High Performance sport. Chad King, our coach from 2005-2008, was a good coach and he worked hard to bring us into that high performance environment. At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics we won Bronze and we were shattered. We didn’t anticipate the work other squads from other countries had done to overtake us, and we didn’t deal with the pressure of being favourites.  We went in expecting to be ahead of the field; this in hindsight was arrogant and stupid”.

 

Shock

Riches says, “Two people from the 2008 boat retired. I stayed on. I was determined to increase my effort and not be complacent. Everything needed to be more professional; we now had full funding from UK Sport and full support from the EIS including psychology and physio.”

 

More Shock

“Then in 2010 a new rower turned up and the level of competition went up. I was frightened – what would I do if I messed up in the trials? I did mess up by putting too much pressure on myself and the new rower went to the World Championships in NZ. I lost my place in the boat.”

 

Determination

“I was determined however to row in the 2012 Paralympics - home water, home games, every athlete’s dream!!! I knew I had to dig deep to get back into the squad without the support team around me.

My funding was cut from Podium back to Development funding. I was having to get buses instead of taxis to save money as I don’t drive, always running the risk of colds and infection, it was a worry. When you train you ‘tear your body up’ in order for it to rebuild stronger and your immune system is low, the chance of infection is greater.

I had a lot of encouragement from Marlow Rowing Club, my home club. I focused on training in my single scull; every day I was getting faster, lighter, fitter and technically better. I was not in my preferred environment; I was not in a team but every day I knew I was improving; doing everything on my own helped me become highly self-motivated and my self-confidence grew. I focused on what I was good at and not what my competition was good at. I could not change what they could do, I could however change me. London 2012 was my goal. When I lost the trial in 2010 it was by 0.5 of a second. When I came back in 2011 to trial I won that by 5.5 seconds. I got my funding back, was back in the squad environment and I was once again on track to getting a seat in the boat for the 2012 Paralympics”.

 

The 2012 Paralympic Experience

“Dorney Lake – people were shouting for us; in Beijing you could hear the noise but couldn’t understand or hear what was being said, but this time you could. “Come on GB!” – the spectators want you to make them proud. The ‘pride of Britain is resting on your shoulders’ and the expectation can weigh heavily on you as it did in Beijing, but this was different.

We focused on us, where we were strong – middle 500 metres - and we had really focussed on holding that speed for the last 250m. The Germans were fast out of the blocks but we knew they couldn’t sustain the speed. We were focussed on sustained speed. We worked as a team; 5 opposites, individuals with different backgrounds and experience but using our strengths to work together for the same thing:

  • Cox - Lily van den Broecke has a 6th sense - she really understands what people are thinking, how the boat is feeling and what we can do as individuals to make that technical difference.

  • Bow - Pam Relph – a great rowing technician, such a natural talent who is incredibly determined.

  • Two - Me – The stalwart of the crew according to the 2012 race commentary.

  • Three - David Smith – really strong with long levers, aggression delivered in the right way and was able to really push us.

  • Stroke - James Roe – consistent, dependable and gave us no surprises, Jimmy always delivered.

At the end of the race I was not aware of where we finished. I couldn’t hear the other crews, Lily our cox or the finish line buzzer because the ‘Dorney Roar’ what not just a sound, it was making my bones shake!

Visually impaired/blind rowers have to wear blacked out goggles to stop us seeing anything during the race, level playing field I guess, so when I take them off everything is blurry and so bright… nevertheless, standing on the podium was a dream and still, to this day, does not feel real. 

I carried on after London for one more year, winning my sixth world title in South Korea; it was amazing, I was again overjoyed and proud.  The thing is, just a few hours later I wanted to be at home, the fire in my belly was no longer there for this brilliant sport.  I think that the 2012 Games was it for me, I had been aiming for that since London won the bid to host the Paralympics.  I had achieved my dream and nothing could ever be better than winning on home water! 

 

Still in Sport

Riches says, “Now I’m working for Thomas International – we are the largest independent global provider of psychometric assessments and the only provider to have a Sport Specific division. I had done some of these assessments during that low point in 2010 and they had helped me focus on what my strengths were, what motivated me, how I like to communicate. This enabled me to get more out of myself and more out of the people around me. It was a chance meeting not long after I retired from rowing in 2013 that led to me becoming an Associate for Thomas International; now I am employed by them as a Client Development Consultant in sport and education, as well as in business. I love our assessment and what we do as they can really help people get greater clarity about themselves and improve their performance”.

Naomi is also a motivational speaker in her spare time.

I found my interview with Naomi Riches a really inspiring experience. This is a great story about fighting back from adversity from a number of different perspectives and achieving personal goals. I wish Naomi all the best for the future and thank her for giving me this interview.