Olympic disappointment turns into Maldives opportunity
She may have swapped chilly trainings on the Thames for the holiday paradise of the Maldives, but Imogen Walsh, is still getting up at 5.30 every morning.
“Perhaps it’s the sadistic side of me,” says the two-time World Champion, six months after leaving behind the world of elite training with the Great Britain rowing squad to take up a development role.
“I still force myself to get up and go training.” That training has turned from rowing to running as Walsh tries a new fitness challenge.
Walsh was devastated when she didn’t make the squad for the Rio Olympics. It was a big setback for the woman who, one year earlier, had taken World Championship silver in the lightweight women’s single sculls and had two lightweight quadruple sculls titles to her name as well.
So when the chance came to be part of the World Rowing Federation, FISA’s development programme in the Maldives she thought it was a great opportunity to help – and to take a step back from the elite rowing that had dominated her life for several years.
The Maldives are a string of tropical islands to the south west of India and are one of FISA’s newer members, joining in 2010.
Traditionally, people rowed between islands for travel and trade, but Walsh says much of that has given way to modern technology like motor boats. And while rowing in the turquoise, clear waters sounds like a dream come true for many, it does have its challenges. One of the biggest is the heat, says Walsh. It also impacts on training times – anything in the middle of the day is ruled out.
There are 100 children registered on the programme, though not all of them row all of the time. By the time the heat of the day is over, it’s not unusual to have training start at 8pm.
Life on the island moves at a slower sped – particularly for Walsh who was used to the rigours of an elite training regime. “Much as it frustrates me that the pace of life is so slow I think it is good for me,” she says. “I needed a mental and physical break so it’s good to be taking a step back and having some other training and forcing myself to be at a different pace.” And she says she’s really enjoyed making a difference to the sport.
Walsh has also been working on developing another aspect of rowing on the island – rowing tourism. It’s something that’s been going on and off for the last few years but she’d love to see it well established.
“It’s a beautiful palace, the water is incredible,” she says. “Locals are used to it but I look at it and it’s clear and clean and turquoise and it’s full of sea life. It is such a resource that is not used enough.”
Under the venture, rowing tourists use coastal rowing boats to move between the many beautiful islands. They can experience some local sites and food – or maybe take a few days in one spot to go diving, fishing or cycling.
“I would love to see a different side of the Maldives offered to tourists - not just the luxury, westernised hotel world but the real Maldives.”
Walsh’s time is nearly done on the Maldives and she’s not sure yet whether elite rowing is in her future, so she has been keeping her oar in, just in case.
“There’s one (non-coastal) single there and I’ve been going out in that,” she says. “It’s not bad but it’s older than me.”
And life on the island is keeping her in good health in general. “There’s no alcohol – so that’s not different to life as a professional rower. There’s no cinema, no tv, so its early nights – pretty clean living really.”