Frances Houghton 1021

Frances Houghton is one of the most medalled Olympians in British Rowing history, but her name often flies under the radar. She participated in an astonishing five Olympic Games, winning three silver medals, and four World titles along the way.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Houghton has not always been in the spotlight, but she has contributed enormously to the sport behind the scenes. She retired after the 2016 Olympic Games and World Rowing caught up with her to find out what she is doing now.

Just after the Rio Olympics, Houghton made the decision to move from Henley to Cornwall, where her partner runs a tennis club.

“I was just getting used life down here in Cornwall,” says Houghton. “I did a course in coaching and mentoring and at the same time I dabbled in cooking. It was a small amount, once or twice a week, with weddings and some festivals on the side. It was a nice balance.”

As a trained chef, it was logical to work as a cook.

“It was a really good way of transitioning because it was a ‘doing thing’. For many rowers, you want to use your brain after so many years of training, but you are so used to being part of a team and being given instructions. For me, the instructions, ‘chop a crate of lemons,’ I knew I could do that,” says Houghton. “And,” she adds, “there are so many parallels with performing in sport – teamwork, pressure, creativity. It was amazing to experience those in a different context.”

But she also knew it was not what she really wanted. So rather than diving into one singular focus, after 20 years of rowing as a singular focus, Houghton took a courageous path.

“I lit lots of sticks, put them in the fire and tried to see what kept burning and which to take out. I gave myself permission to do that and I’ve been fortunate to be able to. I was really fearful of being stuck in something I didn’t like, when after five Games I really needed to decompress and just work out what I was about and what life was about,” says Houghton.

It was not the easy path, especially for Houghton who was used to routine and structure since childhood. Her parents ran a boarding house where she grew up. Routine and discipline were paramount, which worked well for Houghton when she started her 20-year rowing career. But when she retired, she found the lack of structure hard.

“It has been really overwhelming,” says Houghton. ‘At first every day I questioned everything from ‘what time should I get up in the morning?’ to ‘what should I do with my life?’

“But I thrive on autonomy. And I think that’s something that a lot of athletes struggle with – to go from a singular focus and something you really, really care about to not having that clear focus that easily prioritises every decision in your day.”

So Houghton got busy investing in many different projects, including writing a book – Learning from Five Olympic Games. The inspiration to write and to pass on came from her father, a teacher for 54 years who passed away just five weeks before Rio.

“He said there are three phases in our lives – formulation, experience and the value we leave behind. So having had an incredible experience in rowing, I wanted to make sure I left something of value behind.”

She started with notes that were kept in her phone, meticulous notes from her years and years of rowing. Houghton wanted to tell a story that was completely true, not something made for a target audience. After gathering it all on her computer, she was stuck and she turned to a local editor who gave it structure. From there it went to a local graphic designer, who helped bring it to life.

“Inititally I only got 25 printed, I just wanted to send it to these people who had helped me in my career to say, this is what I learned, thank you very much,” says Houghton.

The book landed in the right hands and someone encouraged Houghton to share her story to a wider audience. Houghton’s book has now made it around the world.

So looking back on all those years of rowing, what did Houghton take away?

“Number one, it’s ok to believe in yourself. Secondly, being an introvert and not that great at making friends – sport was an amazing vehicle for me to get to know people, to express myself and to form relationships with people. Most of the time we are all really competitive and it’s an intense environment, but having moments when you really get each other and support each other is incredible. I appreciate it even more now – it’s actually quite hard to make that level of relationship when you’re out of sport,” Houghton says.

Houghton plans to continue using her experience to help others through mentoring, coaching and projects together with UK Sport.

For more information about her work, or to buy Houghton’s book, click here: