Skip to main content

Home News News Sport

Lauren Rowles wants to be the person she needed growing up

Exclusive: Being diagnosed with a rare neurological condition as a teenager wasn’t the end of Lauren Rowles’s sporting career, it was just the beginning

By Alastair James

Lauren Rowles for Attitude 101
Lauren Rowles leads the Sport category for Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley (Image: Lauren Mustoe)

Sport has always been a constant in the life of Lauren Rowles MBE, the two-time Paralympic gold medallist. “My earliest childhood memories are of running in school sports days and feeling like the fastest person on the planet because I beat all the other kids,” she shares as she leads the Sport category for Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley. “Running was always my biggest passion. I remember watching the Beijing Olympics and wanting my moment on the podium in the GB kit singing the national anthem. I remember writing in my diary at the time that I wanted to be a professional runner at the Olympics. That was it, the dream was set.”

Being diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological condition, at the age of 13 could have been the end of Rowles’s sporting ambition. However, she remained steadfast, motivated by a desire, like any teenager, to hang out with her friends. “At that age, you never think anything bad is ever permanent. In a way, it gave me a resilience to get through the next six months of living in hospital and rebuilding my life.” 

Losing sport left her feeling adrift. After her diagnosis in 2012, Rowles was taken by her mum to the London Paralympics, something the young athlete hadn’t had much exposure to before then. Watching athletes compete with significant impairments and disabilities gave her a renewed purpose and a way to still achieve her dream of a podium finish. 

“I spent every day from the age of seven working towards that moment”

Then 14, she took up wheelchair racing and for two years forged a successful career, before making it into the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Team GB as the youngest athletics team member, aged 16. But her passion for racing began to fade. After being scouted for the British Rowing team, she convinced her mum to drive her 100 miles from Birmingham to Reading to try out for the Team GB coaches. “When I arrived for my first session, I thought I was going to try canoeing. I got in anyway and rowed as best as I could. As they say, the rest is history.”

A year after taking up rowing, Rowles competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games, earning her first gold medal. Rowles seems unfazed by the unheard-of feat, as she explains, “I spent every day from the age of seven working towards that moment. It was everything I envisioned and more.” Rowles views winning gold in Rio as “the most special moment in my life” — alongside the day she found out she was going to be a mum with fiancée and fellow Paralympian Jude Hamer. The baby is due in March.

After winning gold, she was awarded an MBE for her services to sport later that year. Rowles repeated her success at the Tokyo Games in 2021, becoming the first woman in history in her rowing event, the mixed double sculls, to achieve this accolade. She’s now a two-time European, World, and Paralympic Champion, as well as a world record holder across multiple distances. Looking ahead to Paris 2024, Rowles hopes to become the first para-rower in history to win three back-to-back Olympic gold medals. “Paris is going to be such an incredible moment in my career,” she says.

“I never thought I could be open about my sexuality growing up”

Incredible indeed. It also comes at a time when Team GB has probably the biggest roster yet of LGBTQ+ athletes around the world. The Tokyo Games saw a record number of LGBTQ+ athletes take part, with 135 participants from 25 countries across 26 sports. That was more than double the number for the Rio Games four years earlier. Still, representation could always be better, and the same can often be said of other fields too.

“Sport is a strange place,” reflects Rowles. “In some places it’s not the most inclusive, and in others it feels like the only place you belong. I have had fantastic coaches and teammates that have opened up doors for me to belong and achieve in this world. I’ve also had barriers due to my differences, whether it be because of my identity or disability. That’s why we need to work together to make more spaces accessible to those that need a space to feel safe and achieve their full potential.”

Rowles admits to having struggled with her identity in the past. “I never thought I could be open about my sexuality growing up, mostly because I didn’t want to accept it myself,” she shares. “I grew up surrounded by homophobia and transphobia and so I didn’t want to subject myself to that.

 “And I suppressed the thoughts and feelings I had until my late teens.” Talking helped and also enabled Rowles to work through things. “I realised a lot of my struggles stemmed from my lack of self-love but also the lie that I was telling the world that I was this straight feminine woman. So I decided to come out and really start living life.” 

“I choose to be visible for me, not for anyone else”

Sadly, Rowles still encounters homophobia online, but remembering why she chose to be visible helps her deal with it. “I choose to be visible for me, not for anyone else. I let go of pleasing others a long time ago.” 

She continues: “The reason why I’m so proactive on talking about my differences is because there will always be a little Lauren out there that will grow up not seeing herself in this world and thinking that she doesn’t belong. If I can help her realise there’s a space and that she doesn’t have to struggle, then I’ve been the person I needed growing up.” 

Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley is our list of the year’s 101 most influential LGBTQ+ people.

Attitude 101
Attitude 101 returns in 2024 to celebrate 101 LGBTQ trailblazers (Image: Attitude)

The 10 categories, each featuring 10 individuals, are Media & Broadcast, Film, TV, and Music supported by LA Tourism, Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM), Third Sector & Community, Financial & Legal, Fashion, Art & Design, Sport, Travel, Business, and also The Future supported by Clifford Chance.

The full Sport list, supported by LA Tourism of Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley

Attitude 101
The Sport list of Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley (Image: Attitude)

Lauren Rowles – Paralympian

Diana Nyad – US swimmer

Caster Semenya – South African runner

Heath Thorpe – Australian gymnast

Jakub Jankto – Footballer, Cagliari Calcio

Tomás González – Chilean gymnast

Robbie Manson – New Zealand rower 

Lucy Clark – Football manager, Sutton United

Kevin Maxen – NFL coach

Justine Lindsay – Cheerleader, US National Football League

This feature appears in issue 357 of Attitude magazine, available to order online here, and alongside 15 years of back issues on the free Attitude app.

Andrew Scott on the cover of Attitude issue 357
Andrew Scott on the cover of Attitude issue 357 (Image: Ramon Christian/Attitude)