Just days before the World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida, HøFSisters were granted an exclusive interview with Olympic silver medallist Vicky Thornley. The 6’3 former equestrian rider and model came to rowing through the World Class Start programme, which aims to identify tall talent regardless of experience – some may never have sat in a boat before. She went on to win gold at the 2009 World U23 Championships, raced in the women’s 8 at London 2012 before winning a stunning silver medal with Katherine Grainger in the women’s double scull in Rio 2016. On Monday she will begin her campaign to become World champion in one of the toughest categories, the single scull. We asked her about her motivations, ambitions, making the most of her height and, of course, fashion! Read the full interview below.
You’ve succeeded in turning your height into your greatest attribute. How did you feel about your height growing up?
I have always been taller than everyone else, even throughout school. Until I was about 15 years old I did struggle with it. Kids would sometimes say nasty things about my height and would call me names. All my friends were “normal” height and they always had boys wanting to go out with them but that wasn’t the case for me. Girls generally grow earlier than boys anyway so I was heads above all the boys in school. I used to get upset about it and my Mum was always so good at making me see the benefits of being tall and telling me to stop worrying about something I couldn’t change. She said it was a great asset and never let me slouch! I know now she was right and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
We understand that you came to rowing through British Rowing’s World Class Start programme. Can you tell us a little bit about this and how it has helped your career?
I had taken a year out before University to pursue a modelling career. I had been scouted when I was 14 but my Mum sensibly wanted me to finish all my exams before trying to become a model. I was doing some work around Manchester, mainly fashion shows but I was never going to make it “big time” as the agencies in London said I was too tall! As you can imagine this was a shock as I honestly believed that modelling was what I would use my height for and I was gutted when I was told I was even too tall for that! In 2007 my Mum saw an advert in the paper for “Sporting Giants,” trying to find tall people for certain sports with the goal being the London 2012 Olympics. I was the height they wanted the guys to be so I thought it was worth giving it a shot. I wasn’t particularly fit but had always been sporty at school and very competitive over the years so that was already in my nature. They got back to me and said they wanted to test me for rowing. I literally had no idea about rowing at all, I didn’t even know being tall was beneficial, so I went in totally blind to it all. Without the “Sporting Giants” initiative I would never have taken up rowing and my life would have taken a totally different path. And I most certainly wouldn’t be an Olympic silver medalist. Once on World Class Start I was assigned to my coach Paul Stannard. Without Paul I would not have progressed as quickly as I did. Yes, at times he could be difficult but he knew how much to push me and he guided me so well through those first few years. I have a lot to thank him for.
What advice would you give to other girls thinking about a career in rowing and how can they get started?
Give it a go! It is a great sport for so many reasons. One thing that stands out to me are the people you meet and the friends you make. I have made lifetime friendships from rowing and generally the people who row are driven and motivated. It is those people who also help drive me to be my best. There are rowing clubs all around the country so just go along to your nearest one and have a go. If you’re 178cm or taller you can sign up for testing for British Rowing’s World Class Start programme. You don’t have to have rowed before to be considered for a place on the programme, but if you meet all of the requirements you will be given access to world class coaching and facilities on your way to becoming a potential Olympic rower.
You’re competing in the single scull at the World Championships this month, often considered one of the most physically and mentally demanding of the racing categories. How do you motivate yourself when you’re on your own?
One thing I love about the single scull is the different challenges it presents to the crew boats. One of those challenges is having to be totally self-motivated. It really is as simple as wanting to be the best in the world and therefore needing to be the best in the world at self-motivation. I believe if I am going to do this sport and make the sacrifices it demands, I am going to do everything in my power to make the most of my ability and to not leave any stone unturned.
Before you started rowing, you were a successful equestrian rider and a model. Why did you switch to rowing?
Horses and showjumping were my number one passion from as far back as I can remember and I was very lucky to have my parents support to enable me to compete at the level I did. However, my showjumping days were always going to end and it wasn’t what I wanted as a career. After modelling didn’t work out as expected and the “Sporting Giants” opportunity came along I didn’t look back. In my gap year I was struggling with not having a real focus, I never deal well with not having a goal to work towards, so taking on the challenge of getting to the London Olympics was a good one!
You have shown that you adapt well to new challenges and environments. What do you put this down to?
My upbringing. I have had great opportunities but my parents always made me work hard for what I wanted and never let me take anything for granted.
Beyond lycra and sports gear, we imagine it can be a struggle to find clothes to fit your tall frame. Where do you like to shop and which fashion brands do you love to wear the most?
Yes it can be challenging! Also, having a rowing physique makes it difficult to find things that fit correctly in certain areas. But I am a huge lover of fashion and I have a very full wardrobe! I love Levis jeans. They do a select few designs that are long enough in the leg for me and they fit like a glove! They also last forever and a good pair of jeans is so important. For dresses I am a fan of Ted Baker and Karen Millen.
How would you describe your personal fashion style and do you have any rules which you apply to your wardrobe?
Classic with a side of alternative. In terms of my wardrobe, I think it’s important to have good quality staple items such as jeans and a LBD. I also have a few favourite dresses that no matter when I wear them I feel great and most importantly confident!
What advice would you give to tall girls who are perhaps struggling with their height or just want to blend in?
Never blend in! Being tall is a great gift. For one thing you can wear flats and still make a dress look amazing! I do love wearing heels though even when it makes me over 6’6”. The worst thing you can do as a tall woman is slouch. Walk tall and be proud of your height. I get so many more positive comments about my height than negative, and any negative ones I have no time for.
We all love to share tall girl dating stories! How have you found dating over the years as a 6’3 girl?
I dated a guy who was about 5’8” and when we were at a club he stood on the pole that was under the bar to kiss me. I liked how confident he was and didn’t care that I was so much taller than him. I am now lucky that my boyfriend is 6’7” so I can wear my heels and I am just about his height rather than a head above!
You are in peak physical condition – exercise is clearly an essential part of this, as is diet and lifestyle. Can you share with us a few of your top tips on health, diet and/or lifestyle?
Find an activity/sport that you enjoy that keeps you active and gets your heart rate up. Our modern lifestyles mean that we spend a lot of time sitting down, in cars and in the office, and standing still on escalators (always take the stairs), and its leading to a very unhealthy population. The human body is an amazing thing and we should look after it and not take it for granted. You will feel so much better in every way for being physically active. It improves physical and mental health. In terms of diet, don’t waste your time on “diets.” Diets do not work. Yes people lose weight but most then put it back on once they go back to “normal” eating. It has to be a lifestyle change for it be a change for life. There is so much education out there about healthy eating and it really is fundamental to a long and healthy life. Also eating well doesn’t have to be boring. There are so many Instagram accounts bursting with amazing recipes using healthy ingredients so you really don’t have to look far for inspiration and ideas. I’ve also started my own website (www.victoriathornley.com) to pass on my fitness, food and lifestyle tips. There are loads of healthy but delicious recipes on there, so why not try a few out?
What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not training, rowing or eating healthily?
Getting dressed up, going out for dinner, drinks and a dance. However, I don’t get to do this very often due to my rowing commitments and the lifestyle it demands. I get my nails done every few weeks and going to the beauty salon for a facial is something I love. As I spend a lot of time outside, looking after my skin is really important to me.
WORLD CLASS START
World Class Start are looking for women aged between 14-22 who are over 178cm (5’10) to sign up for testing. The majority of people who get accepted onto the programme have never sat in a rowing boat before, so complete novices are encouraged to apply. They’ve had over a dozen athletes go from the Start programme to become medallists in the Olympic Games, including Vicky, Helen Glover, Heather Stanning and Karen Bennett, to name a few. You can find more information and sign up for testing HERE.
Follow Vicky’s progress at the World Rowing Championships HERE.
Follow Vicky on Instagram HERE.
For health and lifestyle tips visit her website: www.victoriathornley.com
All photos by Naomi Baker.