I hope you enjoy reading my posts below, please feel free to leave your comments, suggestions and questions!
I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a Criticaleye member dinner recently. Criticaleye is a peer to peer board community that specialises in improving high performing business teams through utilising the skills and experience of its members. It's a huge network of leaders from the business, public, voluntary and academic worlds and provided me with a unique opportunity to share some of the insights I've learnt along the way to this wide ranging, highly experienced audience. Click on the article below, have a read and see what you think. Please do make a comment and start a discussion!
I have a new challenge, and I'm looking forward to telling you all about it...
NOMAN raises awareness about the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) related cancer epidemic in men and women, and campaigns for universal HPV vaccination, while challenging participants to extreme endurance races across the world. I’m getting involved in the 2017 rowing challenge for a number of reasons and I’m incredibly excited about what lies ahead. It’s obviously an important cause with a whole host of inspiring passionate people driving this forward. I want to do everything I can to be a part of NOMAN and raise awareness of how we can prevent the 5% of cancers caused by HPV while undertaking this exciting endurance challenge.
NOMAN's Barcelona - Ibiza race pits teams of rowers against each other in a three day race across the Mediterranean. Rowing across an ocean is like no other sport - it is as much about the crews' ability to cope mentally as it is about technique and physical strength. No prior rowing experience is necessary which makes this a fantastic challenge accessible to anyone with the desire and will to get involved. Being part of a team with a multi faceted goal is exciting to me and I’m looking forward to getting on with the process both on dry land and out at sea.
Click on the picture to check out the 2017 NOMAN ocean rowing event promo here:
More information will come in due course and I'll do my best to keep you all updated with progress and preparation here and on Instagram & Twitter. Please do have a look at the NOMAN website and see if it's something you'd be interested in supporting! There are a couple of spaces still remaining if you want to join the challenge!
Facts about human papillomavirus (HPV)
• HPV is responsible for 5% of cancers worldwide.
• HPV infects virtually everyone – 80% of the population will have HPV at some point in their lifetime. The majority of people infected by HPV will not experience any serious health issues, but if the virus does not resolve, it can lead to other, more serious diseases.
• HPV can lead to cervical, anal (both genders), head & neck (both genders), penile, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
• Over 2000 men a year in the UK are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer.
• Both men and women are affected by HPV and the cancers it causes. In 10 years’ time, more men than women will develop a cancer caused by HPV.
• HPV-related oral cancer is the fastest increasing type of cancer in healthy men in many developed countries. Michael Douglas tried to raise awareness about the HPV connection with regards to his oral cancer in 2013, but the showbiz media covered the issue poorly.
• HPV can be prevented by a cheap, safe, and effective vaccine (there are actually two, Gardasil and Cervarix). Gardasil also prevents against genital warts (caused by non-cancer causing strains of HPV) and is the vaccine is used in the schools vaccination programme in the UK.
• One of the barriers to eliminating this virus is the falsehood that HPV is a female-only virus. This is due to its association with yearly gyno smears, and the fact that vaccine is given to women only in most countries. HPV doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we when we decide who has access to the vaccine.
• In most countries, boys are not routinely vaccinated against HPV, but this is changing. An increasing number of countries are now recommending vaccinating boys, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Israel, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland and the USA. In recent weeks, Italy and Bermuda have announced the decision to vaccinate boys.
• In the USA, we successfully advocated for the vaccine approval for males, but vaccine rates are still below 50%.
• A gender-neutral virus needs a gender-neutral vaccine
It’s no secret that I’m an outdoors loving wildlife enthusiast so of course I jumped at the opportunity to take a stroll around a Habitat First Group estate with resident ecologist Dr Phoebe Carter. I’m absolutely not an authority on British creatures. Having loved all things great and small from my early childhood I know a few things but I’m very much an enthusiastic amateur. To get the chance to spend time with an expert who has devoted her life to ecology and the natural world was a real treat and after an hour and a half walking the countryside with her, I came away having learnt a huge amount.
I met Phoebe on a cold, cloudy day in January at the Lower Mill estate near Cirencester. I’ve had a connection with Habitat First Group over the last 18 months, their support towards my Olympic campaign has meant a huge amount to me and as a proud brand ambassador I’ve managed to spend a little time there with my family. Leaving the family at home this time, I was eager to find out more about the site’s local wildlife and how it’s managed in terms of protection and welfare.
The whole ethos of Habitat First group is to create a luxury holiday home environment for residents with minimal impact. From the human side, it’s a beautiful place to stay and a wonderful way to spend time with family, truly bringing people closer to nature. Large glass windows fill the properties with light, through most of which there’s a waterway, lake or woodland view to admire. The latest ‘Habitat’ houses are on another level aesthetically and eco-wise, with impressive wood and stone structures topped off with sloping wildflower roofs which create even more habitat opportunities for wildlife. It certainly doesn’t feel as thought there are 340 homes on site, but as the development is coming to completion there won’t be any more new building taking place in the years to come.
Of course, this all must come at a cost. You can’t build a house without having some sort of impact on the environment, so what is done to mitigate against this alteration of the landscape?Well, Phoebe is employed for a start. One of her roles is to create rolling 5 year environmental plans which put in place the work needed to develop and maintain the waterside ecology. It’s a detailed analysis resulting in a programme of work that creates an environment friendly for people alongside the flora and fauna. The success of her work is immediately evident without even knowing the specifics of her studies. Stepping out of the front door of the incredibly beautiful show home you’re immediately immersed in nature. Trees grow everywhere and you’re never more than a couple of meters from some cool clear lake water or trickling stream. Phoebe starts by telling me about the otters that have made their home on the site, thriving in the clean water, using the nearby streams and tributaries as their motorways. We start looking for Otter spraint (poo) as apparently it’s smell is really pleasant!? It’s something I’ve never come across so I’m pretty enthusiastic in the search.
As we walk, we talk about other mammals that have found the habitat to be perfect. Water voles, along the banks, badgers in the woodland, foxes and the invasive Mink. It’s starting to dawn on me what an incredibly huge task it is to come up with plans to ensure as many species as possible are thought about. Water voles for example need the river bank foliage to remain fairly long to allow for discreet movement away from predators, but that’s not the best conditions for some of the plant species that require a little more light. Aesthetically it’s good to have some grassy banks on the lake and river sides for the residents so the plan is complex and all encompassing.
Still on the lookout for the elusive otters we walk on, further and further away from the houses which is where I start to realise what a tiny part of the estate the homes actually play. The area is a vast 300 acres of nature reserve, with two SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) one a lake and another a grassland. Large open meadows, thick hedgerows, lakeside woodland, open pastures and kilometre after kilometre of water. It’s a calm day and I can’t help but think how good it would be to get out there on the water in a rowing boat. My thoughts are interrupted by a blackthorn hedge that was planted with the intention of helping the brown hairstreak butterfly. Searching for eggs that remain throughout winter on the bare wood and hatch in the spring, I find myself engrossed. I could spend all day doing this, it’s fascinating and I don’t even really know what I’m looking for! In the end we abandoned the search as there was still so much to talk about, but those eggs were there for sure.
It’s not often you get to encounter a real beaver. I still haven’t, they were all asleep, but there is a beaver family on Flagham Fen, held within an enormous enclosure. They have a whole lake and wood to themselves and interestingly the maintenance work on and around that particular lake is non existent. “We haven’t had to do anything” Phoebe told me. Where the groundsmen are busy cutting back the fast growing Alder and Willow and coppicing the hazel in other areas the beavers do it all for them. They are woodsmen, natural guardians of the land and so a real help to the staff here. It excites me thinking about what these mammals are capable of and how they and we could live together. We’re obviously far from allowing beavers free into our waterways country wide outside of the small experimental pockets that exist now, but it’s fascinating to hear first hand the benefits they bring. We didn’t get into that debate, there are pro’s and cons for sure, something for another day but perhaps they will be a regular sight in years to come.
As we looped back to the estate we were conveniently on the subject of bats. Only a few weeks previously I’d been on a ‘bat walk’ with my eldest son Jasper in woodland not far from home. It was such a fun thing to do, using a bat detector - easily found online, we walked listening for clicks from the machine. As a bat swooped over our heads the frequency of the clicking would increase until the bat grabbed it’s prey. We could only see millisecond glimpses above us but through the detector you could build up a picture of what was happening in the aerial acrobatic hunt! Bats were fresh on my mind so I asked if there were any around. Phoebe surprised me with the extent she and her team had thought about bats. There are garages spaced at intervals that house the rubbish bins around the housing estate. In each of these there are attics which have been adapted for bats of different species. The bat entrances have to change to accommodate the flight patterns of bats entering their roosting site so on each garage there’s a slightly different bat entrance. I was so impressed and wondering how I could adapt the roof of my house to accommodate for the swooping flight of the lesser Horseshoe bat. Sadly I’m not sure our landlord would be too keen on the house adaptions I was contemplating.
As we walked towards the final cotswold stone arching bridge back to the start and the prospect of a hot cup of tea, Phoebe suggested having a last look for the elusive otter poo under the bridge. I was sceptical, with houses all around and only a tiny stream the chances were so slim. With miles and miles of hidden wooded streams and lakes why would they be here? Seconds it took, seconds to find what we’d been looking for. On all fours under the low bridge the both of us were peering down and smelling otter spraint. Phoebe was right, it’s not a nasty smell at all, it’s musty, floral and strangely sweet, shining with fish scales. What a find! Now I know what I’m looking for I always keep my eyes peeled and according to Countryfile the other night, there are now otters in all our rivers countrywide!
The afternoon drew to a close far too quickly. There are endless plant, bird and animal species to mention that are encouraged, supported and thriving on the site. It was fascinating to pick Phoebe’s brains and have such an in depth insight into how the process is run. Marrying a holiday home development in an environmentally conscious and eco friendly way is not an easy task, but here at Habitat First Group, it’s an essential and valued part of what they do. Quietly, without fuss, the hard graft is done and the results speak for themselves.
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Well, that’s it, it’s all over. My life as I’ve known it ever since I can remember has now changed forever and really, honestly, unlike others before me, there’s no coming back from this! (shoot me)
Ever since I can remember I have been pursuing something far out of my reach but something grand. Over my life of 32 years the targets have moved, the goals have been altered and the disciplines have changed but the constant was consistently there - to be the best I can be. I feel now after 32 years on this big blue planet I’ve reached that point in sport and much to my relief I’m satisfied, happy and content. There’s probably more I could do, certainly improvements to make and I’m in no way the best in the world at rowing, far from it, but I’ve reached my limit and this is as far as I’m prepared to go.
I’ve had a great innings and have been extraordinarily lucky along the way. When I discovered rowing at 17 I quickly knew I wanted to take it as far as I could, but the path was rocky with some huge gaping chasms of failure and disappointment along the way. I nearly gave it all up so many times, but it was the people around me and this little burning flame inside that kept me going. I’m so pleased I did because once I finally discovered the way to piece everything together my fortunes changed.
One of the aspects of rowing I love the most is the reliance on others. You have people relying on you but you must also rely on others and work together to get anywhere. In the last 16 years I’ve been so lucky to be in and around boats with some truly amazing people who at times have made my job very easy. I do want to write some thanks here and acknowledge serious influencers from my journey. This may take a while so bear with me, but it will be my only opportunity to do this, so it’s now or never...
Alex Cook (Cookie)
Alex is a good man through and through, the best of men. He’s a school mate who introduced me to rowing and first got me down to Evesham rowing club. I had no intention of starting rowing until Cookie turned up at school one day suggesting I give it a go. Brushing it off (I was a swimmer after all) I thought nothing more about it. But Cookie kept on at me about it, pestered me until I finally relented. He knew me well and was right, I loved it. Still a good mate, Cookie has always supported me and wished me well, I’ve always been blown away by that. If it wasn’t for him it’s doubtful I would have ever stepped in a boat, so in many ways I owe it all to him. I can’t pay him back in any other way than to say thanks mate!
My very first rowing coach from Evesham rowing club. Keith was a volunteer at the club and had been for many many years before me. He accepted me into the group, took me on, and showed such dedication and enthusiasm to us young rowers it became impossible to leave! His drive was infections and gave me the springboard to take rowing on seriously. I’ve never really thanked Keith properly for all that he did for me in those early days so I hope he reads these words and understands what I’m trying to say.
My very first weights coach from Evesham rowing club, but so much more than that. Dave is unbelievably knowledgable in all things physiology and training. His thirst for new trends and knowledge sees no end and for as long as I’ve known him he’s been reading up on the latest methods and techniques. His sensible approach not just to training and sport but to life as well makes Dave a very special person and infact a life mentor. I value his friendship very much but again like Keith haven’t shown him the thanks he deserves. A truly amazing man.
Mark was a history teacher at my school - Prince Henry’s High school in Evesham. A non-rowing state school that just happened to be close to the river Avon. One day a tall, lanky, dorky kid walked into his office and asked if he would teach him to single scull. That kid was me. After hearing Mark was a rowing coach at Bristol university I jumped at the opportunity to use his knowledge and needing more time on the water to get better, before school was the only chance. Mark kindly, amazingly agreed and so 5 days a week we met on the river bank in the dark to go out sculling. That combined with the evening sessions with Keith meant my progression was speedy and my entry to the GB junior trials possible. Mark and I continued working together for 6 more years within the British Rowing Start programme moving onwards and into the GB senior team together. In no way did I make his life easy over those years failing to reach my ‘potential’ at every opportunity! Mark stuck with me through all of that, he never indicated anything but total belief supporting and encouraging me through every failure. I wouldn’t have got to where I got to without his support. I owe him a great deal.
British Rowing and the GB Rowing Team
My aspirations early on were to become a part of the Great Britain Rowing team and to represent GB on the world stage in Rowing. This is simply impossible without the backing and support of this team in all it’s many forms. Over the 16 years I’ve been rowing, 12 in a GB vest there have been so many people from these organisations that have helped me and supported me through thick and thin. It was through the Start programme that I was brought on and given all the support I needed, I just had to figure out how to get across that line first! So to the coaches, management and support staff, and I truly wish I could name everyone, here’s a huge thank you for all the continued hard work. I’m out now, but the train keeps rolling, there are plenty more coming through!
Evesham rowing club on the banks of the river Avon was where I first started rowing, it’s where I call home and hopefully I will be able to visit from time to time. An amazing club where junior rowing is at it’s core, it’s where I came from and many more have and will.
Reading Rowing club - While at University I spent much of my time training from the club as it was the ‘Start’ centre that myself and Mark Earnshaw was based at. Those were my hard years, successes, failures, late nights, early mornings, tough training, studying and a little partying. Very difficult to fit it all in and it hurt, but Reading Rowing club will always be entrenched in my memory for that. Very supportive of me then and now which I appreciate immensely.
Reading University Boat Club - I’m very proud to have rowed for this club and to have been a part of it’s rich history. I remained a member for three years after leaving University because it felt right to represent them and pay them back for their encouragement and support. There’s a long line of GB internationals who have come through this club, I’m extremely pleased to be one.
Molesey Boat Club - I must mention this club because I spent a memorable summer training and racing in black down at Molesey. It was everything I hoped it would be, it was an education and the memories from that summer and that crew will last a very long time. I’ve recommended the club to others over the years, it’s where ‘the better Gregory’ (my brother) as they call him raced and it’s a club that is fantastic for the development and competition within British and International rowing. Proud to have been a member and to have made some fantastic friends there.
Leander Club - I have just ended my two year captaincy at Leander club which is something I’ve been very privileged to do. I can’t ever thank them enough for trusting me to hold that position and lead the athletes through the final years of an Olympiad. There’s no club like it in the country and for development and support of current and aspiring internationals it’s absolutely the place to be. Having been deeply involved especially in the last two years, it’s amazed me the efforts and time that goes into supporting the athletes and finding now and innovative ways to do this. I will be a supporter of the club for the rest of my life as they have supported me through my most crucial years in Rowing.
I’m proud to have represented these 5 clubs in my 16 years in the sport and look forward to now supporting them from a very different position - dry land.
Well where do I start. You could write a book about Jurgen and still not get anywhere close to what this man is really like. It was daunting turning up and rowing in front of Jurgen for the first time way back in 2004 but he quickly put me at ease. He has this clever way of making everyone feel equal even when quite clearly you are not; I certainly wasn’t when I first turned up! I’ve learnt so much from this great man who’s reputation will live forever more in the world of sport. It’s brought an enormous sense of pride calling Jurgen my coach for so long, perhaps that’s all part of his secret to success. Trust, belief and respect lies at the bottom of it all and I’ve always believed he’s trusted, believed in and respected me. How or why I don’t know but thankfully he has, and that’s a significant part of why I now have two Olympic gold medals on a shelf at home. In 2008 he threw me a life-line which stopped me from falling over the brink and walking away from rowing forever having never won a race. That was a turning point right there.
It’s been a privilege rowing under Jurgen’s eye, being tested and pushed to my limits and beyond, every day for many many years. Knowing he’s done the same to my heroes before me is something that has always driven me on. I’ll be sorry to leave this culture and regime where performance is everything but it’s time now to do it on my own. To Jurgen a huge thanks for the opportunities and guidance which has set me up well for future life. Now finally I can rest and have a weekend!
The Old(er) greats
We are so lucky in this country to have a long history of role models and sporting heroes all of whom have lead the way and mapped out a course for the generations to follow. A few names have really stood out for their kindness and support of me personally. These are all people who have gone out of their way to speak to me, encourage, help and be kind to me. They all continue to do so which means a huge amount.
Matthew Pinsent has been so generous with his time and advice. In a time of crisis he stepped up for me and a fellow crew mate, calmly passing on his wise words and sharing his experiences. He continues to do so and I continue to look up to him as an example of how to do many things.
James Cracknell has been good to me, in person and over commentary. In terms of moving away from sport and watching the new comers filling up what was once your seat must be a strange feeling. I hope I can be like these gentlemen because supportive and constructive words form these guys really does spur you on.
Steve Williams is someone I’ve been lucky enough to cross over with in our rowing careers. Watching his approach to training and racing was pretty interesting and I aspired to be a little like him. Quietly getting on with the hard graft, no fuss, no complaints. I didn’t come close but his kindness to me as a young whippersnapper stood out and I won’t ever forget it. He always gave me the time of day and in 2012 when I stepped into what was his seat at the previous Olympics with the same three guys in front of me, I found the pressure was on. He supported me with a few words here and there and I’ll never forget that. Steve my friend, thank you!
Tim Foster, cool as cool. The mystical rower who could move anyone across the water and across the line seemingly with ease. In a boat everyone wanted to be like him including me. He coached me for a while and always, always made me feel equal. He spoke to me like I was on his terms despite his fame and reputation. Every time I speak to this eccentric funny guy I enjoy the conversation and want to hear more.
All of these people are brilliant role models and ambassadors for our sport. If I can come close to being like any of these men in the future I’ll be happy.
Colleagues, mates, friends, partners, work horses and donkeys. Whatever you want to call them I’ve had them and I love them all. Tom Dyson (now head of GB Paralympic rowing), Colin Smith, Simon Fieldhouse (monkey), Sam Townsend, Matt Langridge, Alex Partridge, Ric Eggington, Tom James, Pete Reed, Andy Triggs-Hodge, Moe Sbihi, Constantine Louloudis, George Nash just to name a few of the hundreds of people I’ve been in a boat with through my time on water.
This to me is one of the best things about rowing, one of the beautiful things about our sport, I literally couldn’t do it without people like this. It’s what makes this game so much more fun, exciting, challenging and stressful but rewarding beyond belief. Bonds are formed in those long long hours out on the water 7 days a week, or in those dark dirty rooms on training camp when you start hallucinating because of the altitude/fatigue cocktail. Winning alone is good, winning together is magnificent. Only the 2, 4 or 9 of you in the crew know what you’ve been through to get across that line first, that long painful journey. You will never be able to explain to others even your most articulate effort won’t cut it. But inside you know and that’s the important thing. It’s something I have with all of those guys and many more and it’s something that I’ll never lose. I may not see any of these guys for 20 years, but when we do meet again we’ll still have that bond. To me that’s pretty special and something very cool. Thanks for pulling me along boys and getting me across the line first!
I had to learn to love racing. Even in the most recent years I struggled to enjoy it but got through knowing it was necessary - it was my job after all. Something that’s made it better though is getting to know those people I’ve been racing. It’s been a pleasure turning up at these international regattas the world over and seeing faces not seen for 6 months or more. A nod, a wave, a smile or a quick chat on the way to rig-up the boat has been a big part of it for me and something I’ve really looked forward to. There’s been this fantastic respect amongst my group of competitors some of whom I’ve been racing for 12 years! No matter the country, language is no barrier to friendship and respect and I’ve come to really value that. I have friends from many of the rowing nations and I hope they feel the same towards me as I do to them. We are after all the same sort of people doing the same sort of things day in day out to try to win the same race. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose. On the water competitors, off the water friends. That’s how I like to see it. I’ll miss seeing these people some of whom I may never see again but I wish them all well in their futures and thank them for giving me some bloody tough races over the years!
I’ve absolutely loved the interaction that social media gives and I can tell you, when you’re in some far flung place around the globe, ready to race a World or Olympic final and you read a kind message from a stranger back home the reassurance and motivation that can give can be enormous. I’ve really only ever had supportive comments from people on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, I’ve always tried to reply and keep up with whats going on but sometimes that’s difficult. Iv’e tried to give an insight into my life on and off the water and through this I’ve made some really good friends. Thanks to everyone who has supported me in this way, it’s been great fun. Let’s keep talking!
I don’t want to get too bogged down in emotion here, but a turning point for me was whilst sitting in the grandstand out in Beijing during the Olympics in 2008. I was spare man for the team and just happened to be sat behind Mark Hunter’s mum, dad and brother and as Mark’s Olympic final drew closer my eyes were drawn to this family. They were hugging each other, holding each other, tears of pride were streaming down their faces. Mark and his partner Zac raced in front of us and crossed the line first. They had just become Olympic champions and Mark’s family sobbed heavily into the arms of each other. It was a show of emotion I’d never witnessed before and it shocked me. It shocked me because I’d never really thought about what this all meant to my family, what I’d put them through all these years. It also showed me what the Olympics really meant. I was witnessing something very special.
Four years later on August 4th 2012, moments before my first Olympic gold medal was to be hung around my neck I glanced up into the crowd above me. There directly in front of me was my mum, dad and brother hugging each other tightly with tears rolling down their faces. In fours years that moment had come right round in full circle and I was finally paying them back for all the pain and heartache I believed I’d put them through. It had all be worth it. My family’s support has never wavered. I’ve never ever been pushed or pulled in any direction, they have always had my back and been there if I’ve needed it, quietly in the background. I have the most supportive parents I could ever have wished for and now, as a parent myself I realise it’s not an easy job. Needless to say I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without my mum dad and brother, my successes are theirs.
Living with a rower isn’t easy but Emily has done it for the last 12 years. As everyone keeps telling me she deserves a medal but in truth she deserves way more than a medal. As do her parents who embraced me from the start and have been a source of enormous support in so many different ways. We wouldn’t be here without them that’s for sure!
I’ve been very lucky that Emily has stuck around and supported me and what I’ve been trying to do all these years. When Jasper our first son came along in 2009 we didn’t know how everything was going to work with the unusual, unpredictable job I did. Times were very stressful, but we stuck it out and came through much better for it. It has always been our intention to keep our lives moving on alongside rowing and not to let my sport hold us back and prevent us from doing what we wanted to do. This conscious decision hasn’t made our lives easy in many ways, but we have been very lucky to raise three happy, healthy little people despite all this. Having missed the births of the second two children I owe Emily some serious time now and that’s something I’m 100% prepared to do! My family is the priority. I love them and thank them for putting up with me on this pursuit of Olympic gold, now it’s finally done we can spend some more time together and pursue something exciting as a family. Times have certainly changed.
That’s all I can write now. There are of course many more influencers along the way and as you can see, I barely did anything! I’ve learnt that you need people to get to where you want to go. embracing help is no weakness and looking back I’ve had a whole mountain of help. To everyone mentioned here and more, thank you! I’m done.
Alex is a five-time world champion rower who won Olympic gold in the coxless fours at London 2012. He will be writing a monthly column for Sport in the run-up to Rio 2016, giving a unique insight into the preparations and pressures faced by our Olympic athletes.
Little more than an hour before hearing the starting buzzer for an Olympic final, I nearly lost it. It would have been so far from appropriate to laugh. I had to control myself for the sake of those around me.
Helen Glover and Heather Stanning were stony-faced in concentration, an unbeaten British pair utterly focused on the job ahead of them. My three crewmates were pulling on race kit, preparing water bottles and releasing pressure with the occasional long sigh. The situation was so serious, yet all I wanted to do was laugh. Craziness was sneaking through the cracks, the enormous weight of expectation beginning to overflow. I’d had it under control. Now, I found it all hilarious.
I can’t say the days leading up to August 12 were easy. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon threw up one hell of a challenge, with some of the most unpredictable conditions rowing has ever experienced. Constantly changing, these waters – enclosed in an amphitheatre of jungle-clad mountains and high-rise city buildings – mirrored Rio’s eccentricity. Our first two races were postponed a day because of high winds and unsafe conditions (we sank in a warm-up). Days stretched out ahead of us in a seemingly unending mental battle.
Finally, we won our heat and semi final. The Aussies who won the other semi had posted a faster time – all talk was on those boys from down under, but that suited us. We knew we had cruised our races and had plenty more to give in the final. Game on.
Four years of training seven days a week, 350 days a year. Hundreds of thousands of miles in a boat, millions of hard strokes. Thousands of tonnes of weight lifted, 6,000 calories a day consumed. Hundreds of gallons of sweat lost, and raw, blistered hands every one of those painful days.
I’ve loved it all. I love the team, I love being one of the lads. I love how we train, how we interact and how we perform together when it matters. Everything we’ve put our bodies and minds through over four years was going to be judged in a single race lasting six minutes.
There’s no point in hiding it now. Anything less than gold would have been a disappointment. Four consecutive Olympic golds in the men’s coxless four for Team GB, and we were going for the fifth. It was imperative we crossed the line first.
I sit here now, just days after winning that race and having a second Olympic gold medal hung around my neck. It’s difficult to explain how I feel, mainly because I just don’t know yet. It was a perfect race; I wouldn’t change a stroke. And, for the second time in my career, I was propelled first across an Olympic final finish line by three of the strongest, most skilled athletes anyone could ever wish to be in a boat with. We had triumphed over the struggles and games our minds play on us.
On the podium, we stood teary-eyed, singing to the national anthem in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, the sights, smells and sounds of Rio de Janeiro all around us. For the second time that day, I wiped away tears and laughed out loud. We had done it.
Does the feeling of guilt ever leave you? I’m genuinely asking this because, as a parent and a bloke, I just don’t know. I can’t say I went into fatherhood prepared in any way. I had no idea what was coming and how it would change our lives. As it happened, because of my job, not too much changed straight away.
I spent the first six months of my son’s life sleeping on the sofa, which suited me very well. As a serious athlete, my social life had already been limited to one quick shandy down the pub every couple of months, so no change there. But, suddenly, I was responsible for another person’s life for the first time in my own. This is make-or-break stuff, and it can keep you up at night – but, back then, it didn’t. I was too tired from training, and that sofa was beautifully comfortable.
Six years on, and I am now a father of three; the responsibility has grown, the workload has become enormous, the bills have expanded disproportionately and I only know marginally more about what I’m doing than I did back then. I’ll be honest – my partner Emily makes most of the childcare decisions, and I’m fine with that. She knows more than me and she’s better than me at that stuff. I would only mess it up.
My role? To entertain and excite the kids, then fumble around trying to pick up the pieces after the inevitable carnage. I do it one way, and it makes me feel guilty; I do it another, and it’s even worse. Am I being too soft or too hard on these little people who I love? Are they going to hate me for it?
I flop through the door after six hours of training, but only then does my day as a parent start. I have no energy to go on a bike ride, jump on the trampoline for an hour, take my daughter to swimming or play hide and seek while holding the baby. But I do, because otherwise I’m racked with guilt. Guilt that I’m not the dad they want me to be, or the one my dad was.
But then I worry about the next day, when I have to retain my seat in the boat by physically performing, laying my body and soul on the line every minute I’m on the rowing machine or pulling on that oar. What is more important: something I’ve spent my whole life aiming for, or the approval of my three children in the short time I have left as an Olympic athlete? It’s a constant balancing act that sometimes I get right, but more often than not I get so very wrong.
Which brings me back to where I started: this guilt that I find at every turn. Will it ever go? Probably not.
Here's a quick intro to Silvretta, our mountain retreat...
The next time I cross a finish line, all being well, will be after my first race of the Rio Olympic regatta. We have no races left to test things out against our competition, no opportunity to right any wrongs in racing strategy.
We have met our competition, we have weighed them and we have measured them, so far we have got the better of them. But I know these guys. They are from Australia, Italy, France, Greece, all over the world and I class many as friends. I respect them and know what they will be doing in the next 46 days. I know because I will be doing the same. We are all after the same thing, we all have the same dream. It’s taken four years to get to this point, four years of testing day in day out, pain every day. Four years of uncertainty, not knowing if we’ll make it to this point, because you can never be sure.
But here I am, I’m in the best position I can be in leading up to the Olympics. My three crew mates are superb athletes who motivate me to be better. I’ve been in the winning crew at 5 consecutive major championships. This hasn’t happened by chance, this has happened because I’ve been doing what my opposition will now be doing. 46 days until the Olympics begin, 46 days to get it right. We’re nearly there.
Me and Constantine Louloudis not particularly wanting to head out to training in the torrential downpour whilst on training camp in Portugal.
Crossing the line first at our final Olympic trials a couple of weeks ago brings a tidal wave of relief. To win brings as much certainty as it’s possible to have of Olympic selection in the GB rowing team, and a place in a boat on the start line in Rio.
I talk loosely about certainty because nothing is certain: in sport, in rowing, and especially within our team. We have strength in depth like we’ve never had before in the lead-up to an Olympics, and there is no shortage of people wanting to step into my seat. There are plenty who would do a very good job there, too. The relentlessness of the day job continues.
No sooner had we crossed that line than attentions turned to the real opposition – and the reason I’m in this sport. I’m selected in the coxless four – a boat I’m happy to be in. It’s not just the boat in which I won gold at London 2012, but also that in which Great Britain emerged victorious at the three Olympics before that.
Way back in 2000, before I had ever held an oar, Sir Steve Redgrave won his momentous fifth gold in the coxless four. Sir Matthew Pinsent won his fourth gold on the warm waters of Athens in 2004, and in Beijing four years after that Team GB snatched gold from an Australian grasp. Three of the guys I would later race with in London were in that boat.
With every win, the pressure and expectation rises; we have put a stamp on this event, and we don’t want to break this growing tradition. I know the three guys I’m rowing with can soak up, relish and use that pressure to their advantage; I’m proud to be named in a boat with them. We want to keep hold of this event and fulfil the high expectations of the British public.
Our first test will be at the European Championships next week. It’s the primary stepping stone on the way to the Olympics, and an important gauge of early boat speed. Without wanting to jinx it, the start we’ve had is encouraging – and as a veteran in this boat class, I should know what I’m doing.
Rowing is all about moulding a crew together in movement and mind, and we have started in a good way. We’ll be put to the test from the word go, but I’m excited about sitting with my three mates on that start line. These are the guys who, in the months to come, I’ll do anything for. We’ll sweat, bleed and cry together, all for one six-minute race in Brazil. The season has begun, the Olympics are close. We’re on the way to Rio.
Read this column and more: http://www.sport-magazine.co.uk/features/alex-gregory-0
Final selection trials, something we as rowers go through every year, are fast approaching . They are the Marmite of our season: some rowers love it, some hate it. I have always been the latter – and this year it’s so much worse.
That’s because it’s an Olympic year. We’re 140 days from the biggest event of our lives, the pinnacle of our sporting careers. There, we will fight it out, gladiatorstyle, on the warm, murky waters of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, under the watchful eye of Christ the Redeemer. Shaded by the long, cool shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, we will be pitted against our sworn enemies (absolutely anyone from another country) and hold ourselves in the flames of burning agony just to cross that watery line a bow ball ahead. Even 0.0-something will do it, but ahead we must be.
Right now, however, none of this actually matters. I won’t even be there if I don’t get these next few weeks right. I’m not up against the enemy, either – I’m up against my mates, my colleagues, people I see seven days a week, 350 days of the year. I’ve spent more time with some of these men than I have with my three kids. I want to see them do well, but I must beat them.
Physically, it’s tough. But everything we do is. Not a day goes by during which I don’t at some point feel the need to stop. But it’s not an option to stop, so I don’t. None of us do. Yet the hardest part isn’t physical, it’s mental: coming to terms with this job, to take from my friends a place in a boat they want to be in. Lifelong dreams will be destroyed. Some will never experience an Olympic Games, never feel that medal hung around their necks. The pursuit of Olympic glory will not be realised and this life of physical and mental anguish will seemingly be for nothing. That’s the game we play, the rules we live by, and accepting what happens one way or another is part of that. As a team – and a damn good one we are too – I support those around me. If I’m beaten, I can deal with that and be happy for them.
For now, I have to do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity of getting in the boat with the best chance of gold in Rio. For six months of the year, that’s my task, proving myself to head coach Jurgen Grobler. The following six months is spent moulding individuals together and honing skills so we can take on the world.
It’s a tough old game. There’s no breathing space, but I love what I do. And, for the chance to stand on that medal podium in Rio, whether you like Marmite or not, you’ll eat the whole jar.
Read this column and more: http://sport-magazine.co.uk/features/alex-gregory
Habitat First Group is a family run development company which creates holiday home communities based on a deep love of nature. It’s this balance of reality and ideals that I love and why I’m incredibly proud to have a very special association with this forward thinking, ambitious business.
Family is a hugely important aspect of my life and Habitat First Group understand that. Everything they do is designed with family values in mind. The Lower Mill estate in the Cotswolds allow all ages to share and discover the great outdoors. Built on a 550 acre estate, surrounding stunning lakes and waterways it’s a place where families can enjoy nature and explore to their heart’s content. The vast lakes provide a playground and a blank canvass for experiences and adventure. Importantly for me, It’s a place where I can continue to train and prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics while my family enjoys a short getaway. This incredible support Habitat First Group are showing me and my family will be with me on the start line in Rio, to know I’m not there alone is a huge motivation. Thank you Habitat First Group!
I’m coming to the end of an afternoon off and I find myself sitting up high on a rocky outcrop watching the sun fall out of the sky. It’s an amazing view from up here, a snowcapped peak to my left and a vast mountainous landscape shrouded in pink mist to my right and all around. The sun is sinking lower every second and the pink orange colours of the sunset are growing more and more vivid in front of me; this really is a very good view.
I’ve been here in Sierra Nevada for two weeks, and today is the first time I’ve stepped out of the training facility to take myself away from everything we are doing down there. If I cast my eyes down the hill I see this huge silver box that has been our home for the last 13 days. The smell of the place is deeply embedded in my nostrils and it’s dust has filled my lungs. It’s damn good to get out and breathe this fresh, thin mountain air.
It’s difficult to appreciate this place when you’re stuck indoors but at moment’s like this I can sit back and reflect on everything that’s been happening. We come here every year, this must be my 10th year and it’s possibly my last. I’ll let you know right now, that despite this view, I won’t miss this place, for even the name now evokes the smell, atmosphere and constant nauseous feeling you get on this training camp.
For every hardship we go through (and I must stress here, I’m fully aware the word ‘hardship’ is relative, and is something I choose to go through. I know there are people going through true hardships in the world) there are huge positives and benefits. The training is brutal, every session is a strain on the physical and mental being and stresses us to our limits. I can’t and won’t bother trying to explain the battles each one of us goes through every time we step on the ergo numerous times a day. To add to this we lift weights more than once a day and each one of us takes the opportunity to push it, strain those fibres and dig deep inside ourselves to maximise each lift. These two disciplines, when combined, for many hours a day take us to a breaking point, but that’s not all. At altitude it’s difficult to sleep. I don’t know the science behind it, but when you’re in a room,trying to sleep, two foot away from your room mate’s face who’s nose is perpetually blocked due to the atmosphere, and he’s tossing and turning desperately trying to sleep too, the science is that you can’t. Sleep deprived, physically and mentally strained and exhausted, there’s a big challenge right there, but there’s something else. The food here is terrible, I’d go as far to say it’s appalling, which is strange for a training centre designed for world class athletes. To put it bluntly the kitchen staff just don’t care and/or can’t cook so we are probably under nourished too. This adds to the fatigue, stress and tension in this place and makes everything we do difficult.
But I like to see it as great training. If I can do all this on not enough calories, I may loose a few kilos here and there but I know I’m getting tougher and if I’m still performing, which I make sure I do, then I can certainly perform in top conditions which I know I’ll get at a World Championships or Olympics. Here the focus is on the mental as much as the physical training and in some strange way, I love it. I can’t wait to leave, but I’m loving what I’m doing. I hate the feeling in my body, but I love what it’s doing to my mind. I hate this place, but I love that we come here. When I leave for the last time, I won’t miss it, but I will miss this challenge and the strengths and confidence it brings me. Sir Matthew Pinsent said to me just the other day in a conversation on Twitter:
‘Rite of passage that place. Decades of medals won up there’
and he’s absolutely right. Jurgen Grobler has been bringing his teams up here since 1997 and the number of world and Olympic medals that can partly be attributed to the training done up here are too numerous to count.
So now the sun has fallen behind the mountain peak in front of me, my fingers are working at half speed from the cold. I need to clamber down from this rock before it’s too dark to see and get back to the dining room to gorge myself on burnt rice, unknown meat stew and soup that we think is actually dishwater. The challenge continues…
I'm a Wildlife enthusiast and have a love for all birds and animals. With aspirations of one day having a menagerie of my own, I must now settle for the Wildlife in the garden, a single small pet tortoise called Stanley, Roo and Tiggy the dogs and two naughty children!
I grew up reading and being told stories of adventure, discovery and exploration and have a deep rooted desire to push my boundaries and explore. In 2001 I was lucky enough to spend a month on the Arctic island of Svalbard before becoming fully committed to rowing which has not allowed for other such pursuits. One day in the future I hope to combine my passion for wildlife and adventure!
The last few months have gone in a frenzied flash of training, preparation and racing. Something I always say and something that always surprises me is how much relief I feel at the end of it all.
We started the season with a beating from Germany at the European Championships in Poland. It was a narrow defeat but a useful one because it gave us the kick up the backside we needed. We were reminded by Germany, Russia and all the other nations how the eight’s event is raced, and gave us the direction we needed to head. Only a few weeks later we found ourselves on the cool, deep waters of Lake Varese in Italy. It’s one of my favourite rowing locations holding many memories from training camps over the years. Under the Italian sun we changed as a crew, we discovered our stroke, we found the event and we turned that tight margin around. We beat Germany, coming from behind in the closing few strokes. It was a satisfying and crystallising victory for us. We were now the GB eight.
With new focus we turned our attention to Henley Royal Regatta, a firm favourite among most British athletes. With Germany claiming they were coming to our fine river Thames to take revenge on their recent defeat, we were buoyed up and ready to battle it out down the historic race track. As it turned out we were more up for it than even we knew and as the distance between us grew, the will of the Germans fell away. We ended up beating them by lengths in one of the greatest eight’s defeats Germany has seen in recent years. It felt good to do that on home water in front of our loyal home crowd, a great day for us all.
There was something niggling at the back of my mind after that win however. Henley is a fantastic place to race, it’s unique. There are always many external factors involved in Rowing but never more so than at Henley. It’s part of the challenge of racing there, everyone accepts it, but it’s there. So when we are aiming for World championship gold, a result at Henley is not always something to be relied on. As long as we all remember that, it’s all good.
Two days after the Henley final we flew off to Lucerne for the final world cup regatta. We really needed to prove that we could repeat the result and head off to the World Championships on top. My thinking was correct, Henley was a strange result and we certainly didn’t get the same margin on Germany as we had on the river a week before. We broke out to a lead in the race but were drawn back in by Germany in those closing few meters of the race. They have one hell of a deadly sprint when they need to use it! We were far enough ahead and were able to hold the first place across the line, but it was close, very close. 0.8 was the margin. It doesn’t really matter what margins are, as long as you get across first, but that was a little too close for comfort.
All that was left was the big one, the World Championships. There was about a month from finishing Lucerne before flying to France. In between a couple of weeks at altitude in the Austrian alps followed by a roasting in the Portuguese sun. Before we knew it, race day was upon us and everything we had done in the year was to be put to the test.
I don’t think we did anything wrong, I think we finished the year with our best race. Our start was good, everything was calm and under control. We were aggressive in the right way and when we found our rhythm we were strong. It was our strong efficient rhythm that really made the difference.
We were going for GB’s third consecutive world title in the men’s eight, no mean feat when only three years ago we won the World championships in the eight for the first time ever. As Germany tried their super fast sprint, bringing with them Holland and the young New Zealand crew we maintained our lead and pushed our bows over the line first. We had done the job and we had done it well under the great pressure and expectation that rowing in one of GB’s top boats brings. It was a very pleasing end to a very satisfying year of racing.
With three slightly different crews over the last three years we have managed to stay on top when it matters and now GB starts Olympic year as current World Champions in the men’s eight event. It’s a fantastic position to be in leading towards the Olympics, theres a confidence it brings and a sense of assurance that it is possible to win. Not a single member of our squad however is under the illusion that the job is done. Three years of this Olympic cycle has gone past and only now does the job really begin.
Jurgen has already indicated that this Autumn with be tough, ‘Hot’ as he puts it. But I already know this, it’s Olympic year and it always is. Competition within our squad is unrelenting, every day it’s a battle to get on top. If you’re on top it’s a battle to stay on top, to maintain your position, fitness, strength, and chances of being selected. There is no let - up, not a single day where you can back off that mindset because if you do, someone will sneak ahead and take your place. I’ve now trained in the GB Heavyweight team through three Olympiads, each one from a slightly different position. This one will be the hardest for sure. Maybe this will be my last so there’s no question I’ll be doing everything I can to be there, racing and winning in Rio.
Time for a break, a very short break. London 2012 seems like yesterday, now Rio seems like tomorrow!
I was lucky enough to receive a royal invite in the post recently. It was for a reception at St James’s Palace where members of the British Exploring Society would gather and hear from the Patron in Chief, The Duke of York. As a recently appointed patron myself I was thrilled to be invited and interested to discover how the society has changed since I was part of it way back in 2001.
I was a 17 year old lad heading off on an expedition with the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) as it was known back then. I spent a month on the Arctic island of Svalbard, a place I had previously known nothing about. It was four weeks packed with memories that will never be forgotten. The experience was unique, in-fact life changing and I treasure the time spent on that frozen Island very much.
The whole philosophy of the British Exploring Society is to provide young people with an experience they wouldn’t usually get, give them a unique opportunity to travel to unusual places of the world and without realising it learn to cope and thrive in unusual or un-natural surroundings. Whilst doing this projects are run conducting scientific research in an array of different fields depending on location. It’s not a holiday, far from it, its a trip of discovery, adventure and improvement. It’s a challenge, a huge test of commitment, self drive and tolerance. I have no doubt that my time as a young adventurer has helped me to achieve goals and complete challenges I have set out for myself in my life since, and will continue to do in the future.
Meeting the young explorers excited at the prospect of heading off to a far flung, remote location of the world pleased me. It brought back the feelings I had before my trip, the expectation and uncertainty of the unknown. I knew they would come back different people. Of course they would be the same on the outside, perhaps a little dirtier, smellier, sun burnt or frost nipped but on the inside they would be changed. They won’t realise it straight away, it may take a week, a month, a year or even a few years but they will feel it. Small things they encounter in their lives will be overcome in a fashion not possible before. They will set goals and succeed because they know they can, or fail and overcome it because they will have done that too. Having spent four weeks sleeping in a tent with three other people, studying the diurnal fluctuations of a glacial meltwater river, taking measurements 24 hours a day you learn to cope, work together, tolerate others in difficult environments; It’s an amazing thing.
One girl I met is already feeling and seeing the changes. Last year she was a young explorer after previously dropping out of college. This year she’s returning with Brit Exploring as a mentor and young leader, has re-enrolled at college and has her heart set on university. The society has changed her path for the positive. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have found this route another way, she is obviously a motivated individual with drive, but somewhere she lost her way. I know it would have taken courage to embark on this experience, the opportunity was provided and she grasped it. Now she is turning her life around. This is the beauty of the British Exploring society and as a new patron I think this is now my role, to encourage young people to take up this challenge, this exciting adventure and see how it changes them.
To find out everything you need to know about the society visit: www.britishexploring.org
We took a trip into the Cotswolds the other day to a place I’ve been wanting to visit ever since watching a program about the crazy guy who started to collect crocodiles in his garden. This chap Shaun Foggett had crocs of various different species living in sheds down his garden path. The program followed Shaun and a few mates he managed to persuade help him move these to a new premises which was the birth of ‘Crocodiles of the World’.
A few years down the line this place is a whole lot more than a rickety wooden shed with a plastic pool down at the bottom of the garden! This is the only dedicated crocodile zoo in the UK and from the first instant it’s awesome. These crocks are incredible things and as you pass the Chinese Caymen floating motionless in a pool at the entrance you realise this is going to be something special.
The whole place isn’t huge, which is useful with kids. As we walked form enclosure to enclosure and stared open mouthed at the prehistoric eyes glaring right back at us it’s hard not to be amazed. You really do get up close to these cold blooded beasts and probably for the first time ever I came away with an appreciation and genuine fascination for these things we think we know so well. Running around with a 5 year old and a crazy little nearly two year old who would think nothing of climbing over a fence into the gaping jaws of a 10 foot alligator didn’t make for a relaxing visit. I definitely didn’t absorb as much of the information as I (animal geek) would want, but still it was excellent.
The staff hold talks and displays at various times of the day, very informal in the corner of the centre. Basically it’s a bloke holding a crocodile or alligator and telling us about it. The kids then get an opportunity to touch the beautiful thing under the sole rule to avoid the mouth. Of course Daisy our toddler terror was the only person to go straight for it’s teeth, typical. Heading over to another building we were off to watch the feeding of thirty five Nile crocodiles. These beauties live in a large, murky swimming pool. Each one was about 3 foot long, mere babies, but expect to grow significantly larger over the coming years. The keeper holds a morsel of chicken in a metal grasp on the end of a very long stick and hovers it a couple of feet over the surface of the pool. One at a time the crocs surge up out of the water and snap the chicken down in one. It’s exciting to watch and really interesting hearing the guy talk about the how, why and what of feeding and crocodile husbandry in general. I could have stood there watching and asking questions all day, alas Daisy was trying to grab an alligator again.
The centre is dedicated to breeding endangered species with the hope of releasing some of the most critically endangered back into the wild in the future. (I’ve always thought those small cotswold rivers have been lacking in something). It’s a serious venture, with a team who are super friendly, knowledgable and passionate about these animals and who want to educate us all and change our perception of crocodilians*.
In a couple of hours we were done. It’s a brilliant place and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the natural world and a hankering for the prehistoric.
Website: Crocodiles Of The World
*Crocodilians - a large predatory semiaquatic reptile of an order that comprises the crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharial. Crocodilians are distinguished by long jaws, short legs, and a powerful tail.
It’s usually a matter of grabbing a couple of hours here and there whenever we can to do something outdoors. It’s rare for me to have a whole day off at the moment so we make the most of it when we can. Last week Jasper and I decided to head up to this little pocket of beech trees we are lucky enough to have close to home. It was a cool, dreary, damp British summer’s day so we needed a plan of action to keep us moving and entertained in the drizzle.
A few weeks before we had built a den in amongst the low hanging tree branches. It was simple, old rotten sticks propped up against the growing arms of the tree, nothing more than that but it seemed to work. Jasper (5) worked hard for a hour hauling logs to the building site, the result was a very breezy mish mash of rotten logs that you could squeeze underneath and have a vague sensation of being sheltered, perfect. There was a main entrance, an emergency escape route in case of invading baddies and a hidden escape hatch that was for sneaking out and raiding the enemy. All very well thought out and explained in detail as we worked.
A number of weeks on and it was still standing as we arrived with a thermos flask of hot chocolate, a bag of marsh mallows and two soggy, panting dogs. Crawling through the dripping entrance way we sat huddled on our designated log seats and cracked open the flask of hot chocolate. Too hot to drink, Jasper was off out the emergency exit looking for the inevitable storming of his den by the army of baddies we had heard on the way. I was happily wedged into a tiny gap between two branches. If we had been invaded then I’d be done for. Jasper was content climbing in the swinging sweeping branches that hang down nearly to the floor, chatting away as he does. I didn’t mention to him that his nattering would actually attract this fictitious enemy. Our youngest puppy Tiggy kept coming in to see me hoping for a swig of hot chocolate or to find a loose marsh mallow, she’s the greediest dog I have ever come across, if in doubt swallow seems to be her motto in life.
A couple of cups of hot chocolate later Jasper came back into the den only to find the dregs of the flask remained. He dunked his mallows, downed the last of the chocolate, we collected the dogs from various holes and ditches and headed back in a homewards direction.
We both came home with smiles on our faces. It was only a quick trip into the countryside on a miserable day but the effect it had on us was refreshing and satisfying. If we ever need a breath of fresh air and an activity to keep us occupied we have plenty of holes to patch up on the den!
Time has slipped by and I haven’t written here for ages. Life is busy at the moment and I often find myself at the keyboard with good intentions, only to feel my eye lids drooping and a comfy area of desk beside. I wake up a while later, out of time, un-productive with something else I have to do or somewhere I need to be. So here I am, sitting in my room in Varese Italy, with time and energy. Make hay while the sun shines….
The windows are open wide and there’s a warm breeze blowing in. We are staying in ‘The Grand Palace Hotel’ which in it’s heyday must have been incredible. It’s a seriously huge gothic style hotel perched right on the top of a hill in the centre of Varese. The views are amazing all around, one side looks down over the vast Lake Varese which is where we go to race. The other looks over different parts of the town and beyond onto the mountains and forested peaks in the distance. It’s the prime location in the city for views that’s for sure! I’ve spent many, many weeks here in the past, this used to be one of our regular training camp locations and I will always have memories of this lake. Much blood and sweat has been spilt over the side of my boat here, the lake is a part of my rowing history.
This time we’re here for the second of this year’s rowing world cup events the first of which was held a while ago in Bled, Slovenia. Unfortunately we didn’t race there, we chose to attend the European Championships in Poznan which was our first International event of the year. After a very slow start in the heat, we woke up, sharpened up and raced well in the final to come in second behind Germany. Were we disappointed with that? I see the dissatisfaction in people's eyes and hear it in their voices when they ask me, but honestly no I wasn’t. Perhaps that’s the wrong attitude but It’s the way I see things. In the GB rowing team we are always expected to win. If we come away with anything other than gold then generally we haven’t performed. In reality that’s not a realistic expectation. Of course I would love to have been through my career unbeaten, to win every race I have ever done, that would mean I was the very best there has ever been right!? Well the truth is that if that had happened I wouldn’t be who I am today. I use those hundreds of times I was beaten, thrashed and failed, daily in my training and racing. It’s an important part of me and I treasure it. So yes, a couple of weeks ago in Poland I would have liked to have come away with the gold medal but it’s useful that we didn’t. Instead I came away with a very positive feeling and a clear idea of where we need to go.
We are a relatively new crew, formed a couple of months ago once our trials had finished. We had prepared for the race in our training but never alongside another crew and certainly never alongside another eight. We went into the event with the boat feeling OK but nothing very special and that showed in our heat. We were beaten comfortably by a number of crews most of whom had raced at other events previously in the season. It was the kick up the back-side we needed, we hadn’t done anything particularly wrong, we had in fact been replicating what we had done in training but it just wasn’t fast enough. So we talked about it, raced again and put it right. From the heat to the final, comparing to the other crews around us we made up around 9 seconds over those three days. That was enough to put us into the silver medal position. A very positive change, learning experience, lesson, and confidence boost. Nothing but positivity came out of our trip to Poland.
On the lake here in Italy a few weeks later we are a different crew. Same athletes but different approach, ethos and feeling on the water. The boat is starting to move in a way we want it to. We are beginning to hook up the work and use our physical strength in the right way. We are starting to get some efficiency of which we were lacking in Poland. Training has been going well and we arrive here with confidence that we can put in a good performance. In no way am I saying we are the finished article, far from it. I don’t even know if we will hold our silver medal position from a couple of weeks ago. There are new strong crews here widening the field and increasing the intensity of the event, but we are in a good mindset and eager to test ourselves. Yesterday the heat went well, we won it taking us straight through to the final. Tomorrow (21/06/15) we race again and that race will be tough. It will no question be a race right to the line, a real battle and a test to see if we can hold everything together under pressure. If we do then great, if not then no panic. We will go away and keep working on things. There’s only one race this year that we must get right - the World Championship final.
I’ve written plenty for now, my job for the rest of the evening is to rest up and prepare my legs for tomorrow. I’m excited about racing on this beautiful Lago de Varese again, it may even be the last time I ever float on it’s waters.