lady smiling by the water Location: Regents Canal

Meet Lily

"I'm incredibly proud of my Paralympic gold medal, but with my family and friends I always refer to my gold medal as the happiest accident of my life."

Where it all began

"I started rowing when I was 11, and I was confident in the boat as well as talking to people so the job of cox suited me. Before 2012 Olympics came around, I had a place at university. The GB Coaches were keen to keep me active with the GB Squad during my studies but I was too young and inexperienced to compete with the Olympians therefore, they asked me to consider coxing for the smaller but emerging 2012 Paralympic Rowing Team. My instant reaction was that I don't have a disability, but I was told the rules allowed an able-bodied person to cox with a crew of people with disabilities, much like the sighted person who cycles in front of a blind cyclist.

I coxed a crew of two men and two women. Winning the gold medal was like a dream, but the biggest privilege was that it was the Paralympics. As a person without a disability I was in the minority and it was amazing to be part of it all. It was overwhelmingly wonderful to be learning about disability and living amongst disability to the extent that it ceases to exist because you’re all just athletes.

Interestingly, I always think how democratic water is because when you're coxing you're on eye level with the water - and I remember I often found that calming in moments of pressure because everyone is at the same level on the river or canal.

I know my thoughts shouldn't be drifting when I'm supposed to be concentrating on my coxing, but there’s always something bigger I think than you when you're coxing, whether it’s the crew or the weather, and that’s a nice feeling, a warm feeling.

Throughout my rowing career, coaches often told me I needed to be more aggressive but largely I feel uncomfortable asserting authority over anyone through aggression... it seems at odds to me… especially when I was successful not being aggressive and assertive. There's just so much beauty in rowing and being on the water and it's the way everyone engages with the sport that makes a crew. To lots of people rowing is a wonderful thing and I just didn’t understand how aggression should be the glue that binds them together. So it was a relief to know people no longer looked to me for direction after I made the decision to fully retire from rowing. Instead I could be an observer and it was a great sense of freedom to find other things in life other than coxing. I'm very proud of my Paralympic medal, that is a very vital part of my personality, but I'm so much more as well beyond it.

The Paralympic gold medal, the gold post box in my name, the MBE... It feels like it didn’t happen to me, it’s like I went on a holiday and then came back. It’s so weird, and sometimes I feel that people don't believe me when I tell them I’m a gold medallist because in a way I'm not very sporty! The cox's job is to coax people to move forward and the most satisfying thing is to see someone moving forward to the best of their ability. I didn’t need a pat on the back - the reward itself was to see someone perform their best."

What's next?

"I sometimes think it's quite difficult to be acclaimed for something that happened four years ago, and I often ask myself, 'so, what's next?' I know that there's something powerful within me, which sounds verging on arrogant, and I'm not sure where it's going to go yet, but I would really like to help people in a way that has a positive impact on their general mind set. I recently watched a film about one of the migrant passages (Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rosi) and that was a film that makes you realise what’s going on. I work now in film and I’d like to help film culture change in the UK to make people kinder to each other... I don’t know how I’m going to achieve that!

Now I don’t row any more I can sit by water and just watch. I think I'd like living on a narrowboat, being near water is part of the momentum of my life. My sister did this, but I am not sure if I could brave the winter! I think the Canal & River Trust is a charity organisation separate to sport, yet vitally linked. Canals are part of my life today, particularly where I live, and part of my history. Any water evokes nostalgia for me without a doubt, which I think is quite a privileged position to be in. I think from the ages of 10 to 20 the river was a symbol of where I was going with my life, my end goal was to win a gold medal, and getting on that river every day was a sure sign I was working towards it. But also the nature really got me into enjoying the outdoors and I'm so lucky now I live near a canal. Going down to the canal is very calming and tranquil, it feels like a safe space and I'm sure water just makes people feel happier.

I'm just Lily who can't really believe she got a gold medal... I remember I lost it once, it fell down the back of my bed, I think that's more me than winning a gold medal! As for the MBE, my father says it stands for ‘Mother’s Best Efforts’…"

Lily, London. Regents Canal