As a girl, Debbie was an extraordinary athlete. Before she even began to row she was a British judo player at junior level, not to mention being an international and county level 1,500 metre and cross-country runner. In her arsenal of sports, shot put was also to be included.
However, Debbie wasn’t very good at rowing. Her timing, balance and rhythm left a lot to be desired. One thing she didn’t lack, though, was the drive to succeed.
She managed to persuade her local all-boys school to let her hold a key for their boathouse, committing herself to practising her technique and improving her times.
It was some time shortly after that Debbie was ‘spotted’ by a successful and respected coach called Alec Hodges.
Alec promised devotion to Debbie and didn’t once let her down. Not only did he put coaching time into her, he personally drove to Yorkshire from London with a boat so that she could train every day. At the weekends, she would travel down to London and be coached by Alec, while during the week she would train on the river near St. Thomas’s College, her school in Bradford. As she had very little money, Debbie couldn’t afford to stay in a Travelodge or bed and breakfast; instead she opted for the cold, damp floor of the boathouse.
Despite the endless training, Debbie continued to fail to show her true promise. Then her first big break came. Alec had spoken with the GB chief junior coach, Mark Banks, a couple of times, and had tried hard to convince him to take Debbie on. Mark was unsure, but seeing as Alec had been working with Debbie for some time, and had never made such claims about anyone else, he agreed to pop down to watch her.
It was just a couple of weeks later, while Debbie was training locally, that Mark came. It wasn’t one of Debbie’s better rows.
Mark got straight to the point. ‘Thanks for the opportunity to come and see you train. Alec has been twisting my arm that you’re worth the work that’s needed for you to make it. You are strong but your rowing is awful — you have a lot to do.’
Nevertheless, the GB chief coach agreed to be her trainer. Mark offered the opportunity of a lifetime: coaching, support and experience, with the odd bit of cash to cover costs.
The months that followed were grueling. Under the watchful eye of Mark, Debbie was getting into great shape. He was a hard taskmaster, but Mark drew out the very best of his young trainee. Her development was vast. No longer was she shaving off mere seconds from her race times, but minutes.
Born and bred in Guiseley, near Leeds, Debbie is a Yorkshire lass through and through. ‘Yorkshire is like no other place on earth and I love going back there, to drive down the country lanes and over the moors’, she says. Her arrival into the world was tinged with sadness, however. Debbie was a twin — one of two girls — but, sadly, her sister Christina died at birth.
Being brought up by parents who were both teachers, education played a huge part in Debbie’s life. Her mum and dad were ‘born again Christians’ and felt that both education and religion should play a central part in one’s life. Each Sunday, Debbie and her younger brother Barry would head off to the local Baptist church in Guiseley with their parents. Debbie recalls: ‘Christianity was a part of my life in the sense that I went to church on Sundays and I believed in God. I said my prayers and I prayed for anyone who needed it, but I didn’t really fully understand that it should affect everything I do and who I am.
‘It was around the age of 17, I guess, that I realised there was something more. God was not just an abstract being to meet up with at weekends. He was interested in every part of me, including my rather ropey rowing. God had given me some great gifts and abilities — it was right that I should use them for him, and not just for my own pleasure. No longer was I to drift along in life, with religion being an added extra. Instead I was convinced, from what I was taught from the Bible, that I needed and wanted a real friendship with my Creator — God.’
Debbie realised that she could have a personal, real and meaningful friendship with Almighty God.
‘It was all made possible because God made the first move. As I looked into the Bible I agreed with it totally, as it described how awful human beings really are. I was only just entering adulthood, I suppose, but even then I knew my life fell far short of what it should be. If that was my own opinion, then it had to be the opinion of a God the Bible described as “perfect”, “holy”, “pure” and “without sin”.’
A guilty conscience swept through Debbie. The responsibility lay completely with her. She had, for 17 years of her short life, rejected God. She had been doing her own thing, her own way, and she was now beginning to understand the consequences.
‘The Bible talks frequently about those who love and trust God as their Saviour having a personal, permanent relationship with him that goes beyond this life into eternity, and the great gift of heaven. It does, however, also talk plainly about those who continue to reject God and the consequences this leads to. No one will be excused, the Bible says in Romans 1.20, and therefore if I was to continue shutting God out of my life I would ultimately be held responsible. I knew what this meant. I knew that actions have consequences — crimes require punishments. Looking back, there was no specific time I can remember where I can say, “That’s the point I became a Christian”. I can, however, say with absolute certainty that I am a Christian — a person who has acknowledged my sin in the eyes of God. I admitted to him that I had rejected his way for my own, and I had made a complete mess. After all, he is perfect, allergic to sin, and there was me, my life covered in the stuff. I’m just so pleased that he is big enough to forgive me, that the punishment Jesus went through on the cross enables me to go free.’
She says that since she acknowledged Jesus and put him first in her life, ‘he has given me more than any sporting success could ever give me. I am as competitive as I have ever been, and more than most. It’s just that there are things in life that are more important to me now’.
Mark knew that Debbie’s potential would be realised soon, and was excited at the prospect. She was slowly edging her way past people in the rankings. An outsider with ‘no chance’ was making her mark, proving that Mark and Alec had been right about her.
Over the months that followed, with the help of a large Lottery grant, Debbie began to move up the ranks. Winner’s medals trickled in and before long Debbie was rightfully earning the respect of her peers, including the British rowing selectors.
‘Wow, to be an Olympian was a dream come true’, says Debbie. ‘But, for me, it’s not about the fame and success. Apart from making me busier, it has not changed my life. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be the best, and win every race I enter, but for me what’s most important in my life is my relationship with Jesus Christ.’
There is a temptation to believe that Debbie, and other successful sportspeople, have it all. Peruse Debbie’s Facebook page and you’ll see photos of her at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, chatting casually to Sir Steve Redgrave and rugby star Jason Robinson — this girl is a star, with so much going for her. The sponsorship deals and competitions around the world all seem rather appealing. However, life isn’t just one big high, even for a sports star.
Those that watched the Olympics in Beijing would remember the utter disappointment of Debbie and their crew as they missed out on the elusive gold medal by 1.3 seconds. However, as a Christian, Debbie knows that whatever wins or losses come her way, Jesus is with her, supporting her. He has never let her down and promises never to let her go.
This article is an edited extract from Everyone A Winner by Jonathan Carswell with Emma Newrick, published by Authentic Media (ISBN 978 1 850 787 808, £6.99), and is used with permission.
This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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