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Same Difference By Pam Relph

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At school, I was one of those really sporty kids who was in every team, staying after school every day to practice. Basketball, netball, badminton and, if you can imagine it, trampolining – I did them all, not necessarily to the highest standard, but I would have got an A for enthusiasm.

 My parents were driven around the bend (and pretty much everywhere else in Buckinghamshire) trying to keep up with watching basketball games or picking me up from cold and muddy football pitches and forever washing my P.E kit. Something about being part of a team and working together with my fellow school mates really appealed to me. I think it was a combination of being the youngest of three immensely competitive sisters – that and being blessed with freakishly long arms.

 I continued this enthusiasm for team sport into the sixth form. Rugby was by now my sport of choice, having played since before I can remember, only to get to secondary school and find it wasn’t a sport offered to girls (this is another subject area for my blog, to be addressed at a later date!) I was delighted to discover rugby, for both sexes, was the most popular sport at the sixth form college I attended and that the girls on the rugby team were sport mad and happy to get their hands dirty, just like me. I felt a camaraderie on the pitch and loved playing as part of a larger team where everyone had their unique roles.

University saw me put my experience chucking the other girls over head in line outs towards an equally gruelling sport which was Cheerleading. Yes, you read that right. Cheerleading. I can tell you that the three years I spent on the Birmingham Pussycats Cheerleading Squad were some of the hardest three years of practice I had ever done.

 Many of the closest friendships I have were forged through the sisterhood of sport. So when I started rowing, I was sure that I knew exactly what I was getting myself in for. I was wrong.

 The big difference?

 I had never competed with men before.

 There are just a handful of mixed-gender sports at an international level, a large body of which are Paralympic sports. Part of this, I believe, is due to tradition and the fact that for a long time it wasn’t deemed ‘ladylike’ to be running around, getting covered in mud, sweat and tears and especially not in front of men! However, times are changing.

 The Paralympic Games is at the forefront of changing people’s perceptions about disability and also challenging the status quo of men and women needing to compete on different fields of play.

 Equality between men and women in sport is a hot topic at the moment, and one I am keen to support. What does not get spoken about is the immense differences between the sexes in the sporting arena. My experience of these differences in training and racing is probably one of the most challenging aspects of my rowing career.

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Men and women approach training very differently and in a sport like rowing where, to be successful, everyone needs to do the exact same thing at the exact same time, this can present difficulties.

Stating the obvious, the physical differences between he and she are profound. As a rule of thumb, the fairer sex do not have the horse power of their slightly uglier counterparts and I am in no way ashamed or embarrassed to say that. On the water, trying to row the same stroke as a 6ft 5 inch man who can take your flat out best effort over 2k in his stride for 18k, takes a heck of a lot of skill, determination and some pretty funky rigging.

 I came into para-rowing having never picked up a blade before so I didn’t realise what an oddity it is to row in a mixed crew.

 Having wanted to join the Army from a young age and spending countless hours in ‘team building’ or ‘leadership’ situations during my time at Welbeck (the Tri-service Sixth Form College for aspirating military officers) and university, I was very used to working alongside my male counterparts.

 However, training and racing side by side with blokes is a whole different ball game. I noticed that I change the way I approach situations based on who I am training with. When I am training with the guys, I almost naturally adopt a much less emotional and more functional approach, with, for example, a lot more lighthearted mickey-taking.

 It’s the almost exact opposite when I get the chance to train with an all-female crew, I have a more precise and analytical mindset and the jokes and wisecracks need to be kept in check.

 In my experience, women are naturally more sensitive and need a more supportive environment. Please don’t read this and view this as a negative. It is within such a supportive environment that women are willing and able to push themselves to the limit day in, day out, for the good of the crew. I have never trained with athletes with more guts and eagerness to suffer than the women I train with now in the para-rowing squad.

 Brace yourselves for some harsh reality, but vomiting after ergos with lactic acid levels over 18 are a weekly occurrence (a lactic acid level of 2 is deemed normal for steady state training). That’s the level of commitment and fortitude I’m talking about here and what is required to win and keep winning.

 Obviously, the guys train with as much intensity as us women and somehow seem to make it look a lot easier. I think the environment of lighthearted banter I spoke about earlier plays a part in this, with whatever happens in a training session getting left on the water, and I really value this element of mixed gender crews. I know that if I have a disagreement with one of the guys in my crew about anything, it is forgotten almost instantly and the affinity remains.

 In some ways I feel that these different approaches to training make the athletes better, be they male or female. I also think that the learnings an athlete can get from looking at the way the opposite sex approaches training are vast. The relaxed, enjoyable focus of the men I train with paired with the precise and uplifting attitude of the women make us a force to be reckoned with.

 These lessons make me proud to be challenging this common perception that men and women should be separate in sport. When the athlete is prepared to learn from another’s training mentality, a greater level of symbiosis with each other will lead to the individual becoming a better athlete. 

Despite the differences, every athlete I have worked with regardless of gender, has one unmistakable similarity; the willingness to suffer for the good of the cause.

That is what separates us freaks from the rest of society.

That and really long arms.

Follow Pam on Twitter @PamRelphMBE

Check Out Pam website at www.PamRelph.com

Photos By Robert Treharne Jones

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