I missed the Olympics
I was in the Irish National Rowing Centre in Cork in March, getting ready to go on the water, when I heard that the Olympics were postponed. That was on a Tuesday. I needed a plan. I’m a junior doctor; I’d taken time out of medical training for rowing. I got straight on the phone and asked if I could come back to work the next week. Within two hours, I had all the forms filled in. I was on the general medicine ward in Daisy Hill hospital in Newry the following Wednesday.
I was doing medicine long before I ever rowed. I gave rowing a go in my second year at Queen’s University in Belfast. I started winning British university titles. I posted good times and came 15th in the men’s single sculls at the World Cup 2018. But you’re not going to make your name coming 15th. I was ready to leave rowing behind me. After my final year of university, I gave the Irish trials one last lash. My coach suggested Ronan Byrne and I would be good double sculls partners. We decided to give it a shot.
We had a short period to work together, starting in April last year in Cork. We’d a half-day off every week. I couldn’t drive home and back in that time so it was a massive decision to train full time. I didn’t see my friends, gave up a relationship and had to leave my mum, who is on her own since my dad passed away five years ago. It was validating when we qualified for the Olympics representing Ireland at the World Championships in August. It was something to bring back home and say to people; I went away, I’m sorry but this is what I did.
Initially I thought I’d be happy just going to the Games for the T-shirt and the experience, but when we started producing results, I realised we were contenders.
When the Olympics were postponed, it felt like another year lost. I’m supposed to complete my first 12 months of medical training within a three-year window and I’d already given up a year of that to full-time rowing. I couldn’t change the Olympics postponement, but I could complete my foundational year in medicine before the Olympics in 2021.
It was daunting coming back to medicine. I knew I’d be returning to a different healthcare system than the one I left. I’m on the general medicine ward; it’s been very busy. It’s good to have a purpose and to go back to something that is appreciated by the public. I still train every day on a rowing machine in the garage and, since lockdown eased, I’ve been back out on the water. But medicine is my job; when rowing stops this is what I do. My passion is emergency medicine. I love those situations where you have to act now. I’ll finish on the ward in December and go back to rowing full time ahead of Tokyo 2021. We want to win it.
We missed our wedding
Niamh McManus and David Bennett
Niamh: We got engaged in Sicily last year. We didn’t want a long engagement. A year felt like enough time to stress about a wedding. We had all the hard stuff done and we had eight weeks to go when it all fell apart.
David: Niamh’s mum rang me in early March. She asked me: “Is Niamh out of the room?” She didn’t want her to hear what she was going to say. She thought there was a very good chance the wedding would have to be called off. I was heartbroken, but she was right.
Niamh: I knew the wedding wasn’t going to happen. Pulling a wedding apart is not any fun at all. We are mindful of much bigger problems in the world, but this meant a lot to us. I was looking forward to those special moments you get to have with people, like the dress-fitting with my mum. Dave is a personal trainer and a musician; he has a music project called Short Pier and the session musicians who play with him were due to be our wedding band. We had to cancel that. We had guests who were travelling from Nigeria and Australia.
David: When the cancellation emails came through, it was difficult to take. But we still hoped to get married in the registry office. But when the registry office cancelled, I’d had enough. I said to Niamh, we have our rings, you can wear a nice dress, I can wear something nice. We can go to the river in our neighbourhood where we can exchange vows and rings and, in our eyes, we’ll be married. Nobody can cancel on us because I’m not going to cancel on you. You’re not going to cancel on me. We went ahead on 21 May, our wedding day. And it was magical.
Niamh: It was just ourselves. Two dogs watched. A photographer friend came down and took some photos and we got a Thai takeaway afterwards. Our families were a bit sad, They’d love to have been part of it. A lot of people sent cards or rang, which I really didn’t expect. That meant an awful lot. It was so nice to know that in the middle of all their own problems people were thinking about you as well. We’re not legally married so hopefully we’ll be able to do it all together next year. But I feel married now, actually.
David: I do, too. Absolutely. Niamh’s my wife.
I missed my live comeback
I was always a songwriter and dancer. So when my dance track, Hideaway, became a hit in 2014, it gave me the opportunity to do both. I was performing every day for two years. It became my life. I went from playing open mics in front of five people to being on the stage at Wembley, six months later.
I had started writing my next album when I was in a car accident in July 2017. The Uber I was in was knocked off the road. I saw the car coming, curled into a ball and was thrust forward. I suffered a traumatic brain injury. That was the end of that era for me.
Brain injuries are painful in ways you can’t explain. I lost balance on the left side of my body. To begin with, I fell down stairs, I had bad headaches and problems with digestion. It’s an injury that no one can see. I had to stay home all the time. If I went out, I would come home in excruciating pain. I could barely do anything.
When I first started in music, just getting a song out was a huge milestone. Coming back, it is very different. Last year, I went on this tiny acoustic tour. I kept it small. I gave myself a few months to get my stamina up and I surprised myself. It was amazing. So from there it became about setting new milestones.
This year was set to be a big milestone for me. I was getting back to dancing. I’ve been dancing in my new music videos. I’ll dance and then I’ll crash for three days afterwards because my brain is so tired. I navigate my career based on the injury. I was set to open for my friend Lindsey Stirling this summer on her tour. I wasn’t ready to do my own headline tour but I wanted to tour so bad. I knew I could do a 30-minute set if I started rehearsing and building my stamina up. I’d planned to dance and sing in the show. The pandemic ended those plans.
I was at home in Toronto when I heard from my manager about the tour cancellation. I wasn’t shocked because by that point almost every tour in the world had been cancelled. But it would have been a big stepping stone on my road to recovery. As hard as it was to hear that the tour was cancelled, I understand the need to keep people safe during the pandemic.
It simplified the way I look at the world. When people get bad news they fall fast and hard. I don’t fall any more. I stay on level ground. My health is good now. Each day I’m stronger. I have no idea when we are going to be touring again. My life isn’t the same without it but I look at it this way: I have more time to be a better performer. So when we do tour again, I will be able to do a full show. That will be amazing.
Kiesza’s album, Crave, is out on 14 August
I missed my 100th birthday party
I celebrate my birthday every year. It’s no different turning 100. I just like parties – I like my friends. It was awful not having one this year but I’m saving it up. I’m going to have one as soon as we can get going.
I usually have a bit of a bash. I always have a party with my friends, my second cousin Roger and his wife, Sharon. I have only a few remaining relatives. With this one [during lockdown], I thought, “Oh well.” It was a quiet one, a bit subdued. All my carers came and stood out in the road on the day, 3 May.
Oh, it’s awful right now but when we get free it will be lovely. The first thing I’ll do when it’s over is go for a long drive, up and down the moors. My friend takes me. I love the moors. I was brought up in the New Forest and the drive is as near the New Forest as I can get. It’s like being home.
I was born in Croydon. My mother died when I was three. I didn’t know her. I never saw a photograph of her. It would be nice to see that. I had a lovely stepmother, she was wonderful. I’ve been in Devon most of the rest of my life. I had a dairy herd and was a Land Girl on my farm during the war. Then I joined the Women’s Voluntary Service, working in Germany.
It is like the war now; you can’t do what you want to. But we got used to it then, the same as we get used to it now. I do miss church. I’ve been going to St Mary’s Church in Mariansleigh for 50 years. I never miss a Sunday. I did my own shopping until a few months ago. I still do my own cooking. I do have carers, but I don’t like other people doing my cooking for me.
I missed my graduation ceremony
I heard in May that we would be graduating in absentia. It’s a disappointment. You don’t go to Cambridge just to graduate, but there’s a real sense of closure that you get in that moment. You get to be with your friends and be aware that you actually finished a Cambridge degree. That’s quite a solid moment. To have that taken away was deflating.
I did my degree in music. I have my gown, so I’ll take some pictures in that. It would be nice to spend some time with my family. I was hoping to have my grandma, Joyce, at graduation. She’s the only grandparent I have left. She came to England from Jamaica in the 1960s and she did everything she could to give her children and her grandchildren a better life. She used to drive me to piano lessons; she always loved me to perform. Being her first grandchild to go to university was a big deal for her. I’d hoped that graduation would have been a moment we could have shared.
Graduation offers a sense of closure. I was the only black girl in the music faculty throughout my degree. A lot of the time at Cambridge it was easier to not think about how I stood out and felt isolated. Now, it hits home that I did the whole thing on my own. Graduation would have been a big moment, especially considering some of the things I’ve experienced in the music faculty.
At a dinner in my first week at Cambridge, I had a conversation about rap and hip-hop with an academic who told me that black music was noise. I’m a big fan of musical theatre. It’s what I’d like to do as a composer. I talked about how Hamilton is a hip-hop musical. He said, yes well, it’s not very good. I decided to put up a fight and said maybe hip-hop is poetry. You may as well start as you mean to carry on. This person got the idea; I wasn’t going to back down.
Teaching in my faculty wasn’t necessarily gendered or race specific but my course focused a lot on white men. It’s isolating to not see anyone who looks like you or to know there are histories that aren’t being talked about. I wanted to open the academics’ eyes to something new. I wrote my dissertation on Amanda Aldridge, the black woman who music forgot. She was the daughter of the first black Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge. I’d never heard of her – there was very little written about her work as a singer and composer.
I come from an educationally privileged background, which I am aware of and grateful for. I got a scholarship to a private sixth form, which really helped push me towards Cambridge. In an ideal world, a younger black girl would have seen me graduate and perhaps thought, maybe I can do that. I was the only black girl in GSCE music, the only black student in A Level music, so I knew Cambridge would be difficult, being the only person like me in that space. But I got there.