03 December 2022

Rower Zoe Lee: Team work and respect was key to Olympic success

January 24, 2017

Zoe Lee stroked the women’s eight to an Olympic silver medal at Rio 2016 – the first ever won by Britain in this event. Looking back at the momentous occasion, Zoe explains to Sportsister how important team work and mutual respect was to achieving success.


Everyone was always really ambitious to win a medal – you don’t train that hard without that as your ultimate goal. We went in as European champions, but we still had some of the big powerhouses to overcome. Even still there was a real expectation that we should be on the podium.

With that expectation came added pressure. Everyone deals with the pressure differently so that could have caused problems for us. But one key thing that kept us strong was that we had an incredible team spirit and mutual respect for our differences. We were not just the sum of our parts.

Some people really rise to the pressure, but others just need to put one foot in front of the other without extra pressure. So for us it was a case of working out how to manage all those different personalities.

We are also best friends

We learned that it was really important as a team to recognise and accept differences rather than fight against them. Once we had all learnt that, we were able to really function as a team and become really great friends. Once we had that, it unlocked so much, we were able to truly work as a team. Everyone gets along, everyone has a common purpose and that translated to faster boat speed.

8 people equals a lot of different dynamics. Ultimately you don’t have to like each other, but you do have to respect and trust each other to make it work.


On the start line of the Olympic final that team spirit really made the difference. I am one of the really nervous people but we had all developed these little routines to help us deal with it. I had this thing where I would turn around, look at the girl two seats behind and she would look me in the eye and say I’ve got you. And that was the over riding sense I felt, sitting on that start line, in that moment, that there was no one else in the world that I would rather be with at that moment. We were all in it together, whatever happened. It was a really positive feeling.

That self-belief and confidence was also really important during the race because at half way we were in last position, but no one freaked out because we all knew we had a strong finish. That was our trademark. We kept our heads down and nailed the third 500m.

I couldn’t see how we are doing as I was the stroke (first seated rower, at the back of the boat)). I just looked at the cox and listened to her words, there was no distraction by seeing the other crews.

When we went over the line, Zoe (Zoe de Toledo, the cox) made it very clear that we had won a medal. But she also said very clearly that we hadn’t won gold and we had to wait to find out the official result.

There was disappointment at not winning gold, that was my first thought. However we were elated to win the silver and do something no other crew had done. When we stood on the podium it was an incredible feeling of achievement.

Afterwards there was an undercurrent of sadness that that was the end of our journey. None of us wanted to acknowledge that though.

What’s next?

The crew is now disbanded, there are two of us back training and others are taking time out. Some will retire. It will be a new crew that races next and there are a load of very feisty, determined women who have watched what we achieved and will want to do the same or better.

For me, I just want to be in a fast boat, so I am getting my head down and training hard and we’ll see what comes out of it. The coaches will be watching our data and analyzing our results to work out the most affective combinations.

The data is really important and in many ways takes a lot of the emotion out of choosing crews. It gives us confidence that we’re the best combination. Of course there is an art in working out combinations that will work and personalities that will work too – that’s where a good coach really works his magic.

I have learnt a lot about what makes a team work well and hope to be able to carry this forward into whatever I do next, but I know I still have more to achieve in rowing and that includes my ultimate aim of Tokyo 2010.

Danielle Sellwood, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

Zoe Lee was speaking on behalf of SAS – the leader in analytics software and services. SAS is the Official Analytics Partner of British Rowing and the GB Rowing Team at www.sas.com.





You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Select a sport

Find out how to get started, training plans and expert advice.