At first thought, the sports of rowing and horseback riding couldn’t be more opposite. But how can two Olympic sports that have the same pronunciation of their past tense (“rode”/“rowed”) be so different? The truth is, they’re not, and I’m calling in an expert to prove it. Enter: Victoria Thornley.

Growing up in Wales, Thornley was an avid horseback rider. Despite her tall stature of 6’2”, the Brit quickly climbed the local ranks from Pony Club, to affiliated jumping, to senior jumping, with appearances at Hickstead, Olympia, and Horse Show of the Year. When it came time to decide between a professional riding career or university, Victoria’s education took priority. But despite the end of her professional riding dreams, during university, a new sport opened up the second chapter in Thornley’s competitive life: rowing.

“When I look back on it, there are a lot of things I learned from show jumping that made me a better rower and enabled me to progress in rowing faster than the average person.”

As a rower and a rider myself, I know first hand-that rowing takes years of practice and repetition to perfect, and Thornely has done just that. Through a mix of natural talent and unflappable determination, she’s achieved a result that less than one-percent of the world ever wil—winning an Olympic silver medal. In between rowing sessions, we sat down Thornley to learn about her equestrian upbringing, her introduction to rowing, and how riding applies to her current Olympic pursuit.

NF Style: What was it like growing up as a horse-crazy girl in England?

Victoria Thornley: I started riding when I was three years old but loved horses from the moment I was born. Every opportunity I had, I would go to the yard and look after the horses to prove to my parents that I could [care for] one of my own. I’ve always been quite tall, and my first horse was only 15.2 hands. His name was Marquist and he was 14 years old—he was a proper tough horse and absolutely bomb-proof. We had him until he passed away; he was basically part of the family.

I knew horses would always be a part of my life, but show jumping at that level was over.

I thought I wanted to go into eventing, but I found the dressage to be a bit boring. I set my sights on doing show jumping, but once I got to a reasonable level, I realized most of the work is on the flat. I did juniors until I was 15 years old and switched to seniors a year early, since I was too tall for ponies (I was 6’2” when I was 15).

How did your horseback riding career lead you to rowing?

I’d reached a level where I was thinking that I’d either turn professional after school, or this part of my life was done with. I knew horses would always be a part of my life, but show jumping at that level was over. We sold all of our horses, except Marquist, and I did my exams. During my gap year in 2007, a national Talent ID search came out called, Sporting Giants, and they were looking for people of a certain height and age range to get tested for sports with the goal of competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I applied to volleyball, but they tested me for rowing instead. I made it through two rounds of testing and was selected. I was in university for a month at that point, but the coach I was assigned to was in Bath, so I left school [as] it was a now or never opportunity. We started training from scratch—I was in no way an athlete! My coach was amazing and gave us big, yet achievable goals. When I started, it was four years and eight months until the Olympics in London. So we didn’t have long to go from complete novice in a boat to the elite level. I went to the Under-23 World Championships in 2009 and won in the 8+ and in February of 2010, I joined the elite team. I made my elite team debut in the 8+ in 2010. Then, my first Olympic Team in 2012, where stoked the 8+ that placed 5th.

“With rowing, there’s a lot of pain in training, and with the horses, I’d often get thrown off. But no matter what, you have to get back on and crack on.”

What lessons do riding and rowing have in common?

Both take dedication. With the riding, I’d finish school and go to the yard to take care of the horses no matter the circumstances. That taught me a lot about resilience. With rowing, you’re controlling the boat, and it’s all on you. With horses, you have another mind to control.

I also learned about toughness. With rowing, there’s a lot of pain in training, and with the horses, I’d often get thrown off. But no matter what, you have to get back on and crack on. I had to learn how to take disappointment from both sports. You learn the most from disappointment, not from winning. I’ve had so many more bad times in rowing than good, but they’ve all led to being better in the long run. When I look back on it, there are a lot of things I learned from show jumping that made me a better rower and enabled me to progress in rowing faster than the average person.

Although I know you’re focused on Olympic Gold for Tokyo in rowing, do you have any riding plans for future?

Although winning Olympic Gold is the ultimate goal, I will definitely be riding in the future. Unfortunately, I don’t ride when I’m training for rowing due to the possibility of injury, but after each Olympic Games, I take a few months off to ride. Once I retire from rowing after Tokyo, I definitely plan on having a horse of my own again.

-Photo credit: Nick Middleton Photography. All photos courtesy of Victoria Thornley.