Heather Stanning, Olympic rowing champion, on returning to the army

By Lawrence BarrettoBBC Sport
Glover & Stanning win first GB gold

When Heather Stanning put down her oars, slipped back into her military uniform and joined her former unit for training on a cold autumnal morning it was like she had never been away.

After all, her army base remained at Larkhill in Wiltshire, most of her former colleagues were still in her battery and the training was equally as demanding.

But something had changed. She was an Olympic champion and not just any old one. She was the first - along with rowing partner Helen Glover - to win gold for Great Britain at London 2012 when they triumphed in the women's pair.

The enormity of what Stanning, 27, had achieved, two months on from that balmy day at Eton Dorney, has seemingly still yet to sink in.

"My first day back in the army was great," said Stanning, who was commissioned from Sandhurst into the Royal Artillery in August 2008 and holds the rank of Captain.

"All the soldiers remembered me which was lovely. I didn't take my medal with me to training, I didn't even think about it, so I got a lot of grief for that and got sent back to my room to get it."

For the next two years, she will hardly spend any time in the boat - instead focusing on her army career which will involve a stint in Afghanistan next year.

"There's always a battery on tour there and I'll slip back into the cycle with them," she said. "Afghanistan is such a big part of my peer group in the army and it is important for me to have exposure to that."

It is perhaps that sheer determination to achieve her goals which produced the solid foundations on which to launch an audacious bid for gold back in 2010.

For that was when she first teamed up with Glover, a PE teacher from Cornwall, in an attempt to become the first British woman to win rowing gold.

The pair were both coached by Paul Stannard before former Cambridge University rowing coach Rob Williams took over when they became a pair two years ago.

Since then, the duo have been near inseparable, spending every day together training, sharing a room on training camps and heading to the cinema should they get some free time.

Stanning's decision to return to the army after London could have been the end of one of British rowing's most successful partnerships, but according to Stanning walking away completely was never an option.

"As the season developed, I realised Helen and I have a lot of potential," said Stanning. "We've not been in the squad that long in comparison to a lot of people. We were still on a learning curve and still improving season to season.

"I realised that the Olympics was my best race to date, but there was a better race in me. So I thought maybe I should carry on for a bit longer."

For Glover, the decision on her future was also an easy one.

"I knew the whole time that I wanted to continue because I don't think I've peaked," Glover told BBC Sport. "A lot depended on Heather, but I got the feeling that she wanted to continue. When she told me for sure, it was brilliant."

The path each of them take to Brazil will vary. Glover, who returned to training last month, will continue her TeamGB programme, rowing alone or paired with someone.

"I have had two months off since the Games and have barely been in a boat," said Glover. "In my first couple of sessions back, I was regretting not doing anything. I was in pain - but I soon got back into it.

"There won't be much pressure on me over the next year or so and I'll just row to enjoy it. When Heather returns, we can really knuckle down."

Stanning, meanwhile, will carry out a bespoke training programme while she is with the army to ensure she remains in peak physical fitness.

Stanning said: "The rowing team have been understanding but we want to make sure my body keeps up with training without having to be in a boat everyday so I've got a land based programme until I return."

Glover and Stanning "overjoyed" at gold

And when will that be? "If you work backwards from Rio, the boat has to be qualified in 2015. To be competitive in the World Championships in 2015, I have to be racing in 2014 - so my aim is to be back racing in 2014.

"In an ideal situation, I would row all the way through but going back to the army is something I want to do."

Stanning and Glover won world silver at their first attempt in 2010 and repeated the trick in 2011. But that was the last time they tasted defeat as they won gold at three World Cups before taking Olympic gold this summer.

What has been the secret to their success? "We just love rowing together," said Glover. "She's my best friend - we have a sisterly relationship - but I guess that comes from living in each other's pockets."

Stanning added: "We joined the squad together and we have never fallen out as we get on incredibly well. So I think our success has been a combination of coming at it a bit later in life and a more mature approach."

Two years out of competitive sport is a long time, especially in a sport as demanding as rowing, but if Stanning has proved anything in a short career, it's that anything - including gold at Rio 2016 - is possible.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning are given a tour of Buckingham Palace