Alison Mowbray – from sporting disaster to Olympic champion, and beyond

There are few self-confessed sporting disasters that go on to become Olympic champions – but Alison Mowbray is just that.

Throwing, running, cycling, hitting, swimming, catching, kicking. They had all been ruled out through years of school PE failure and Mowbray's focus on her studies, which now see her as a doctor in genetic engineering – a degree forged at Cambridge University.

Yet there was one activity Mowbray did enjoy after leaving school. One that, after turning 26, she was encouraged to develop from occasional exercise into friendly competition.

And, seemingly still to Mowbray's amazement, that took her all the way to two Olympic Games and a memorable silver medal in Athens.

The Derby rower's Olympic memories are as vivid as ever – and that is why she believes the London Games this summer will mean so much to so many.

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'It will be so special,' Mowbray beamed. 'Being at Sydney and Athens was amazing. The people in the street so proud they were hosting the Olympics. People were grabbing me asking, 'Is it good? Are we doing all right?'

'There was just that sense of it being a shared responsibility, so if anyone can put on a sporting event and get really passionate about sport then it has got to be the British. I'm sure it will feel like that here.'

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Mowbray made her mark as part of a quartet, and over recent years has played her part in the 2012 bid team's success – bringing the Olympics to Great Britain as she encourages others, young and old, to be inspired by sport.

It was a task that recently took Mowbray to Norwich, awarding a SportsAid grant to Wymondham cycling starlet Imogen Buick.

But all the talks, advice and shared experiences are just small parts of the giant entity to be unleashed in this country and beyond come July.

'When the bid was on I was a bid ambassador, and you'd jump in a London taxi and people are going, 'What will the Olympics do for us?' and I always think of it as a million opportunities,' said Mowbray.

'It doesn't give you anything unless you get in there and get stuck in, but it is that – for people to do things they wouldn't normally do or wouldn't normally experience and it's a fantastic showcase for our country and our sport.

'I work a lot in schools and it has already done a massive amount both in terms of inspiring people to take up and continue sport, but also just in enthusiasm for funding and passion for taking up sport and taking it on.

'Take Imogen – she's not a contender for 2012 but it has inspired a number of young people who are looking ahead to the next Olympics and the one after that. And then the ones who watch 2012 and will be far too young, but it will be their first Olympic memory and will inspire them.

'The Olympics is not just about kids, but that it inspires all of us to be a bit more brave and a bit more ambitious in our lives – that is what I hope it gives to us.'

One thing Mowbray is banking on is atmosphere: full stadiums, roaring crowds and the kind of buzz only sport can provide.

'There were a lot of people coming back from the Beijing Olympics with the feeling of 'Oh my god, how can we ever compete with the that?' – all the money that was thrown at it, the opening ceremony and stadiums,' she said.

'Actually we will do something very different, but it can be more special. The stories in Beijing of people having to be bused in from the countryside to fill the stadiums. It's a weird thing but as an ambassador for the bid, one of the platforms I was passionate about was that Britain would fill every stadium regardless. Even if they were sports people had never heard of between countries they barely knew existed, and still they would be full.

'I remember when the tickets went on sale and there was a real disappointment people hadn't got them, but actually for me there is a huge amount of pride that it came true.'

It is a special time to be a British sports star; the greatest event on earth coming home is a once in a generation experience – and while Mowbray is not worried London arrived too late for her, she knows colleagues who have put off hanging up their oars for a shot at London.

'You don't get to choose what Olympics you compete at,' she added. 'The Sydney Olympics was phenomenal, and then to race at Athens was just a bit special. I was actually pretty glad when I joined the team because of the trips away.

'But it did turn around a bit because going to Sydney and Athens, that really did make me realise how special it would be to compete on home soil.

'That will be something quite a lot of Olympians who might have retired after Beijing – and I know some of the rowers have kept on for a further Olympiad to have that experience, who would have retired but they don't want to miss out.'

Mowbray will be volunteering as part of the rowing set up at this summer's Games.

She carries one story with her from the Athens Games – not focusing on her own success, but an insight into why she cannot wait for summer.

'We were sat in the stadium to watch Paula Radcliffe in the 10,000m after she had crashed out of the marathon,' recounted Mowbray. 'In front of us was a Portuguese man and his wife, who was a Portuguese marathon runner – and he told us how she had competed in the marathon which finished in the stadium, full of British supporters waiting for Paula to come home. But of course, she didn't make it.

'Her husband was his wife's sole representative and he got talking to the British fans around him, and after waiting for two hours, the story of his Portuguese wife spreads through the stands.

'So when this woman comes into the stadium her husband stands up and the people around him join in with him. There was no Paula so they've got a lot of cheers to get rid off and they start chanting this woman's name and jump up, and it spreads.

'She finishes the last two laps of her marathon with all the British fans cheering her name – that was her Olympic medal moment, even though she was halfway down the field.

'They were so touched by that they went to the stadium for the 10,000m to cheer Paula on, one because Paula was her hero and two, to say thank you to the British supporters for making her Olympics special.

'That is why this is going to be such an amazing Olympics – because we will fill those stadiums, we will cheer and we will give everybody a unique experience. We can do that for everybody.'

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