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Tokyo 2020 Olympian Matilda Horn Talks to St Mary’s - Part 1

Matilda Horn far left, team gb rower centre, and Karen Bennett far right, rowing in eight boat
Image: Matilda Horn (left) coxing a Team GB Women's Eight with fellow St Mary's Alumna Karen Bennett (right)
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We recently caught up with alumna of Sports Rehabilitation at St Mary’s University, Twickenham Matilda Horn whilst she was on a pre-Olympic training camp with the Women’s Team GB Rowing Team in Italy.

We spoke to the Tokyo 2020 Olympian about preparing for the Games, her rowing career, her time at St Mary’s, and what is means to be a cox.

Hi Matilda, thanks for joining us today! First, we’d love to know how it feels to be selected for Tokyo 2020?

Just a bit overwhelming! You think and dream about the Olympic Games, and I honestly don't think it's settled in yet. I’ve rowed since I was at school, and I’d never really thought about the Olympic Games as being on the cards, or like being my end goal at any point. I just always looked at these amazing people that went to compete as a spectator and thought it was just incredible.

So, I think overwhelming is probably the best word. I really feel that it's just that pinnacle of competing. It's about being the best, but it's also about being involved in your sport and showcasing it to the rest of the world, which is the most important thing to me. I think being out on the water with so many other amazing women is just really special, the eight is a huge boat and we have six crews lining up side by side in a race.

You used to row before becoming a cox, what was your favourite boat to row in?

I sculled a lot; my favourite boat was a quad. When I was younger the double was my favourite, I enjoyed just working with one other person and having so much impact. When I got a little bit older, I just absolutely loved the speed of the quad. I rowed for nearly 10 years before I injured my back and I just decided it probably wasn't worth it the risk.

How did you first get into rowing?

I started rowing when I was at secondary school. We rowed once a week at Dorney Lake, and I got the bug and got completely hooked on rowing. I then joined Dorney Lake Rowing Club, but it wasn't very big at the time, and I wanted to do it a little bit more seriously. I then I moved on to Eton Excelsior Rowing Club. I spent most of my junior career at Eton Excelsior, before joining Marlow Rowing Club.

So, who was your rowing icon when you were growing up?

To be honest I had a few! When I was 11, I didn't really know who to look up to and Ellen MacArthur (who is not really a rower but somebody that really inspired me on the water) came into school just after she sailed around the world. She told us about being on out on the water, about the challenge of sailing around the world, and doing it all on her own. I just thought that that was the most inspirational and incredible thing I’d ever heard. She was probably the person that inspired me in sport.

When I was younger, I think probably the person that I looked up to the most was Katherine Grainger – she was just this huge inspiration. When I finally met her, she was everything I imagined she would be. She's unbelievably kind, unbelievably clever, and just completely in love with the sport. 

I really feel that it's just that pinnacle of competing. It's about being the best, but it's also about being involved in your sport and showcasing it to the rest of the world, which is the most important thing to me

You're out in Italy now at a pre-Games training camp, can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing to prepare?

We've got all of the women's team out here training. The men's team were here too, but they've just moved on to train in Austria. We're out here for three weeks doing a hot water/weather training camp, to help us get used to the heat before we then go to Tokyo. We’re just spending our time getting the miles in and doing all the hard work now so then we can fine tune and be ready to race in a few weeks. We’re doing about 30-36 kilometres a day on the lake at the moment.

You are a Cox, please could take us through what your role is?

My main job is to get the eight people that are sat in front of me from a to b safely. A cox steers the boat, so I've got a rudder that's just underneath me and there are wires that are next to me. I hold those in my hands in these little handles to steer the boat. I also have a microphone that's linked up to the whole the whole crew so everybody can hear me give instructions.

I have readouts of the speed and the strokes per minute. This help me to interpret the speed that we're doing and how I can keep the crew on the strokes per minute that I want them. It’s a constant feedback loop going on, so that the crew have a clear idea of what we're all doing.

My second job is slightly like being a coach, but also being an athlete at the same time as you feel so much in the cox's seat. I think of it almost like having a toolbox. In that toolbox you've got the three or four different tools you can bring out to help the crew during a race. I guess the best comparison is like in formula one, I’m like the person that comes on the headset to the driver that says, ‘you need to box now’, or ‘keep pushing’, or ‘okay Lewis Hamilton overtake now’. You're similar also to a jockey in that respect; guiding, motivating, and pushing, but in a very technical way.

As a Cox, how do you prepare for a race and what do you focus on during the race?

Before the race I make sure the crew get warmed up. I make sure the athletes have all the prep that they need done in the right amount of time so that they don't have to worry about how long we're spending out on the water before the race.

During the race I am constantly making sure we're going in the straightest line possible and guide the crew through the race and motivate them if they need it. I also need to be looking across left and right to see where we are compared to the other crews and update my crew so that the rowers don't have to look. I then use this information to make the tactical decisions as to when we need to make a move when we need to respond when we need to make up the momentum turn the race in our favour.

I've learnt so much about the body from my degree and I was so interested in it. I think that it's hugely helped how I look at the athletes, and how I look at the rowers and just my ability to pick up on the right muscle groups and know what they're loading and understand that if I put myself in that position what might I feel

So, what do you do when a race isn’t going to plan?

This is the hardest bit of being a cox because when you know it's not going so well, the rest of the crew probably also know it's got not going so well. It’s my job to make them realise that they can change what they're doing to turn the race around.

So, for me it's all about calming the situation down. I have to be very factual and very clear, so that they can make a change and they can turn it back around. First, I help them get rid of their inner voice that's telling them that it's not good enough and put it all into facts so that they can turn the race around. Then I work to help them overturn the race in small amounts, not trying to bite off more than they can chew by trying to gain a whole length in three strokes and tiring out again. We work to take an inch and then a chair and build the distance piece by piece until we’ve turned the race around.

You studied Sports Rehab at St Mary’s, do you ever get to apply what you did in your degree through what you do as a cox or when you're coaching?

I think instead of acting on my knowledge in a rehab way, I use it as a tool to understand the body. It's been so useful for me just to understand how the athletes move and the biomechanics behind it, especially in the weights room. I can then translate what they do in the weights room, or on the rowing machine, onto the water. I've learnt so much about the body from my degree and I was so interested in it. I think that it's hugely helped how I look at the athletes, and how I look at the rowers and just my ability to pick up on the right muscle groups and know what they're loading and understand that if I put myself in that position what might I feel.

Check back next week for Part Two of our interview with Matilda where we find out more about her time at St Mary’s and training alongside her studies.

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