Belfast Telegraph

How her family's love powers golden girl Holly to glory

 

By Steven Beacom

For Holly Nixon the 2016 World Rowing Championships in Rotterdam proved an emotional rollercoaster. The 23-year-old from Fermanagh was still coming to terms with the death of her beloved grandfather Mervyn Dane, a respected former editor of the Impartial Reporter newspaper, but inspired by his memory she helped the Great Britain Women's Fours crew to a glorious gold medal success.

It was an unforgettable moment for Holly and her family.

Today she is preparing for the 2017 World Championships, which start next weekend in Florida, with the aim to make the podium again.

Nixon, along with Olympic silver medallist Peter Chambers, ex-World Champion Joel Cassells and Rebecca Shorten, is one of four Northern Ireland rowers involved with the GB team out to make their mark in the USA from September 24 to October 1.

After coming through a difficult time last year, the bright and bubbly Portora Boat Club member believes anything is possible.

"Last year we lost my mum's dad just before the Senior Worlds," recalled Holly.

"I felt awful because I had only got home briefly, but at the time ahead of the World Championships the whole family were saying 'this is what granda would have wanted you to do and we are completely behind you'.

"In that Senior Worlds final I found something in myself that I didn't even know I had after everything that had happened.

"My grandad's initials are MAD. Mervyn Albert Dane. At the 1,000 metre marker I said go MAD and that was my thing to get me through the rest of the race.

"It was hard for my mum. She was in two minds about coming out but she came with my dad and that medal was very special because we'd had a really tough time. It felt like he was there with us."

Family means everything to Enniskillen woman Nixon. She describes dad Keith, a renowned rower himself, and mum Lily as an 'amazing couple' and adores her elder sister Carla and younger brother James.

"My family are incredible. They are so supportive. They have made many sacrifices. They have more rowing holidays than family holidays," she said beaming with pride.

"They ride the journey with me. They are there at the lowest times but are also there for the highs.

"I'd be on the phone to my dad nearly every day. He is walking me through this journey. He hasn't rowed internationally but he has rowed himself and he knows what it does to your body.

"I'm really fortunate that I have a huge family and a great network of support. They always send me lots of messages and that is really motivational. I'm quite emotionally driven when I'm racing. I would be thinking about doing certain parts of a race for certain people in the family.

"My driving force is to do my parents and family proud, to do Portora proud and to do Fermanagh proud because they have invested so much time in me and believed in me.

"I feel if I get to the Olympics it wouldn't be just for me, it would be for them.

"I'm a big believer in racing with your head for the first 1,500m and race with your heart for the last 500 because usually you are at a point where you are in a lot of pain. You have to find ways to push yourself to the line when that lactic acid is burning in your body. At races I've heard my sister shouting and that made me feel electric and that I could do anything."

Recalling how she started the sport, Holly said: "I began rowing when I was 12. My dad used to row for Enniskillen. He brought me and my older sister Carla (now Prentice) to Portora Boat Club. I insisted on going because I was at that age that anything my older sister was doing, I wanted to do too.

"We rowed through Portora together under Derek Holland who has had a massive influence on my career. If Derek hadn't pushed me when I was younger I don't think I would be where I am.

"My sister and I were probably among the first few women at Portora Boat club. I think there were five of us in that first year but by the time I had finished we had managed to build up a women's squad. There must have been around 40 or 50 girls doing events and now the club has even more which is great. Letting the girls come into the club has really put Fermanagh on the map in terms of women's rowing.

"I'm so proud to have come from the Portora Club. The facilities are amazing and the lake is fantastic. I believe it is one of the best places in the world to row."

After a highly promising youth career, which included winning silver in the 2011 Junior World Championships, Nixon entered the senior ranks competing for Ireland before switching to Team GB.

"It was a personal decision. I could never thank the Irish team enough but I ended up going to the States on a scholarship and what I learned from that experience was I really enjoyed a massive team pushing me on," she said.

"It was a case of did I want to stay with Ireland which would have been a smaller team or go to GB? I went with GB, they have a lot of funding and a lot of facilities. It was a tough decision to make."

Holly, who likes baking and cycling and is studying nursing part-time, has a strict regime which starts when the alarm rings at 6.30am with rowing sessions in and out of the water, weights and recovery.

The hope is all the work will be rewarded with another strong performance in the World Championships, where she will race in the quad sculls with Jess Leyden, Beth Bryan and Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne, a crew which won European Championship bronze in May.

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