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Jun 15, 2019

Physiotherapist Laura Penhaul talks about her life and rowing the Pacific

Physiotherapist Laura Penhaul talks to Tony James about her life and career in sport

Here’s a pub quiz question: What do tennis number one Naomi Osaka, round the- world cyclist Mark Beaumont, and the British Paralympic team have in common with the rowers in a pink boat called Doris?

The answer is that their goals, mental and physical preparation and ultimate triumphs, were managed and motivated by a 34-year-old dark-haired Cornishwoman who has an almost mystical insight into the mindset of athletes and the challenge of extreme situations.

And that’s because Laura Penhaul, team leader and motivator of the first all-female crew to row the Pacific Ocean, has been there, done it, and got the T-shirt.

Laura is one of the most respected physiotherapists in sport but that’s only half the story. It’s her gift for what is called in the jargon, PM (performance management) that brings highachievers to her door in search of that elusive factor which turns excellence into legend.

Basically, PM creates an environment which enables people to perform to the best of their abilities and if Laura can’t solve a problem she will know someone who can. Currently preparing the GB Olympic sailing team for next year’s Tokyo games, she has experts in every discipline on hand to address every area of performance.

Doing the epic 9,000-mile Pacific row with what was unblinkingly called the Coxless Crew, and succeeding against all the odds, was something Laura had to do before she felt justified in guiding other people’s lives and careers.

“It was a sport I had never done before,” she says. “It was an environment where I would be faced with probably wanting to give up. I wanted to experience that.”

Laura was born near Redruth and now divides her time between Cornwall - she’s a crew member of the St Agnes lifeboat - and the Olympic sailing team’s base in Weymouth.

“Cornwall is a very special place,” she tells us. “I hold it very dear to my heart.” Indeed, as a distraction from one violent storm during the Pacific row, she imagined she was driving home to Cornwall. “I thought about the scents, the sounds and what I would see along that special route, and it mentally took me away to a different lovely place.”

Laura was only 12 when she knew she wanted to be a physiotherapist. “My mum was a nurse so I got to see the working environment of the hospital, which made me want to get into the medical profession.

“Eventually I did work experience and got totally hooked on physiotherapy. Every decision I made was geared towards how I was going to establish a career in physio. While doing my degree at Oxford, I worked in rugby and realised that being a sports physio was what I wanted to do.”

After qualifying as a physiotherapist, Laura joined the Oxford NHS trauma centre dealing with patients with life-changing injuries. “That’s what started to show me a difference in people’s mental attitude - how some push to get the most out of themselves in contrast to those who can only see negativity.

“As a physio you can be a great clinician but if you are not working with people who want to do better and who are willing to work with you, then you need to address that first and foremost in order to treat the person as a whole.”

Already the urge to understand, and improve, the human mindset, especially in athletes, was born. Laura worked with the British ski team, and the UK disabled ski team for Vancouver 2010 - her first Paralympic games.

“This carried me into London 2012. I started working with British Athletics as lead physiotherapist on their Paralympic programme for Rio, where we did amazingly well and exceeded everyone’s expectations by coming second in the medal table.

“It was the best Paralympics GB had ever achieved. The atmosphere was great and I was incredibly proud of the athletes.”

Laura says her passion to lead and performance-manage developed while working alongside Paralympians.

“As a physio, you are trained to do the clinical side of things but when you are working in elite sport you are very fortunate to have access to leading experts in all other disciplines -doctors, performance analysts, psychologists and many more.”

For instance, when she began working with world number one woman tennis star Naomi Osaka, Laura found that although she had the best possible coaching team, Osaka had never been exposed to any elements of performance training, nutrition, warm up and recovery time - basics that are usually taken for granted.

“I brought in specialists in all these disciplines. It’s all about doing everything possible to get the very best out of an athlete.

“It’s also a question of having a close understanding with the people I work with. When I worked with marathon runners and triathletes, I did a couple of marathons and three triathlons to understand what they were going through and get into their mindset.

“It’s the mindset that enables us to overcome adversity and not give up however bad things get.”

But Laura realised it was a mindset she could not completely share unless she literally put her life on the line. “How we react when something is not our choice is something we’ll never know until it happens. I wanted an environment with risks that I had never faced before.”

She found it in 2016 on a 9,000 mile nine-month row across the Pacific Ocean from America to Australia with an all-girl crew in a pink 8.5 metre pink rowing boat called Doris, breaking two world records and raising a massive amount of money for charity.

The organisation came naturally. This involved identifying the challenge, working with the charities, selecting and training the team, sourcing experts to ensure that they were best prepared, managing the design and construction of the boat and securing sponsorship.
It was in waves the size of a twostorey house, in a boat which at one point was simultaneously sinking and on fire, never sleeping for more than two hours and knowing that whatever happened no help was at hand, that Laura finally discovered what it takes not to give up.

“Every time I felt like my body had nothing more to give, it surprised me with its ability to dig even deeper, its ability to heal and its ability to adapt, even in intense heat or through severe sleep deprivation.”

There was a crew of six with four on the boat at any one time. They rowed in two hour shifts, snatching sleep in a cabin the size of a twoman tent. The row was expected to take six months but it took nine.
“This meant we had to ration food and there were other difficulties. I lost two and a half stone. About 500 miles offshore there was flooding and fire in the electronics and we had no lights or beacons.

“We had to make the tough decision to turn round and row back to mainland America to get the problems fixed. It was a pride thing - we’d all worked so hard to make sure we didn’t look like a bunch of girls who were floating around and then gave up after ten days.

“We got over it when we were back on the boat and on our way again.”

Laura continues to challenge herself in extreme situations. In 2017 she became performance manager for Mark Beaumont, who broke the world record for circumnavigating the globe by bike in less than 80 days by setting a target of 240 miles a day for 79 days. Laura was behind his physical preparation, travelling with him and co-ordinating all his nutrition and medical logistics to optimise his performance.

“My job was literally to keep the wheels turning, and keeping him in the best possible mindset. That meant managing everything - whether he needed gloves or a jacket, what he should eat, how long he should sleep - and arranging for videos of his children to be sent from home to keep his morale up.

“No detail is too small when you’re trying to get the absolute best performance out of someone.”

Laura says the people who inspire her most are those she has worked with. As she says: “If someone with one leg can climb a mountain, then I can row an ocean. Everyone has their own Pacific Ocean to cross. You just need the confidence to lose sight of the shore.

“People who inspire me just crack on…”

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