Overtaken on the Thames, Fours Head - Nov 30th 2013

I was pretty excited about getting into a quad, a boat I haven't rowed in since my devastating 2008 season. I had been suffering from reoccurring rib stress fractures all season and with the final chance to qualify a GB quad for the Beijing Olympics looming I just had to be fit. Unfortunately a mere two weeks before we were due to fly out to Lucerne for the qualification regatta I took a dodgy stroke during a training session and searing pain shot through my ribcage. I knew I had just reignited a problem that had only recently gone away and I was in trouble. I was taken out of the boat, my chance of going to the Olympics was over. That was the end of my Olympic dream and I was a hair's breadth away from giving up rowing for good.

That was my last experience in a quad, so five years on it was a pleasure to get back in that boat class and start again. I was stepping into the seat of the recovering Pete Lambert who has been out of a boat recovering from a slight back problem. Pete has been with us at Leander and in the GB squad for a year now and I am pleased to call him my friend. Pete is a great character, fun to be around, extremely popular and a very impressive athlete who, despite his relatively small frame, pulls his weight above and beyond. This was highlighted last August when Pete stroked the GB quad to a historic bronze medal, the first World Championship quad medal for GB ever. He is a classy athlete and someone I did not particularly want to replace, a hard act to follow.

In the years since my sculling days I have kept a close watch on what has been happening in the sculling world and I truly admire the crews out there winning medals. It was something I could never manage, or even get close to in those days so I have always watched with interest the techniques and rhythms of the top crews of the world. I was excited to try and put into practice what I had imagined over the years and in the stroke seat of the Leander quad I was given this opportunity. Backing me up in the boat was Charles Cousins, a phenomenal athlete, who I truly believe over the next few years will develop and grow into one of the world's best scullers. Johnny Walton, another very skillful athlete relatively new in the team and with the heart and racing ability to match anyone out there, someone I could truly trust to put everything he has into the race. Finally Matt Langridge, one of the most natural rowers I have ever had the pleasure of rowing with. All in all a great crew, this was going to be fun. We would be racing one of Tideway Sculler's 'Great' boats (amongst many others) and I was really excited about coming up against the current world's best single sculler Ondrej Synek, the World champion quad stroke man Valent Sinkovic from Croatia, the Azerbaijani sculling star Aleksander Aleksandrov and GB's very own Alan Campbell. There was no doubt we were up against it, with me having not sculled for 5 years coming into the stroke seat, we would take the challenge by the scruff of the neck and give it our best shot.

The few days we had to prepare for the race were fantastic. Training on the river at Henley we put in some good mileage and had some solid sessions. The boat felt good, we gelled well from the start and most importantly to me we had fun. It was not only a break from routine, we were excited about going out to race and discovering how we fared against some of the best in the world.

A view of the race course from around the half way mark, looking through Hammersmith bridge towards the finish.

A view of the race course from around the half way mark, looking through Hammersmith bridge towards the finish.

We set off first, crew number one. It was soon clear that the tactics of Tideway scullers super crew was to chase us down close behind. With barely clear water between us through the start line we were under pressure from the word go. We had discussed this possibility before the race and had decided we would stick to our plan, stay calm and cool whatever they did. They were soon upon us, clearly moving faster through the water and as we settled into our race rhythm they made a push and very quickly moved alongside our boat. All credit to the two steersmen of both crews we were centimetres from a clash at one point which was thankfully avoided. Sticking to our steady race rhythm, which was supposed to see us build in speed over the length of the course, the Tideway crew were able to move ahead of us and therefore control the race from the front, the position we had so quickly lost. I didn't feel at all demoralised, I believed we could still pull together a good strong race and really wanted to push them more and more down the course and hopefully keep the gap they had on us to a minimum. Once we were through the first marker of Barnes bridge the water really became pretty rough, we struggled a little and caught a few crabs here and there which upset our rhythm and we performed poorly in this section. Once we turned the bend and the water flattened out we came onto something that felt good, sustainable and on the higher tempo we had planned. From here we had lost the Tideway crew and were racing ourselves. There were some good motivational calls coming from inside our boat, we kept pushing right to the line, but of course we were way down on a much faster crew.

Personally the result wasn't totally unexpected. What was disappointing was how quickly they had over taken us. In hindsight I think we should have been able to adapt our plan in order to react to what other crews were doing. If we had done this I don't necessarily think we would have beaten them but I'm sure we could have held them off for longer and given them a proper race over the first half of the course. We should have done everything we could to stay ahead for as long as possible and deal with the consequences of that further down.

I don't row for the 'Fours head of the River'. I am in rowing to compete internationally with my main focus on World Championships and Olympic games. I attend events such as this one to proudly represent my club and to have fun, to race for the enjoyment of the sport with less pressure and to take things a little less seriously. These events are important for our sport at national level and I go to them to enjoy whatever the outcome. Obviously the idea is to win but if that doesn't happen I don't dwell on the result. I had fun preparing for the race, with guys I enjoy rowing with in a boat class I am not used to but loved improving in. Our race wasn't ideal but I enjoyed the event and revised some important lessons in racing, all in all the week has been a positive one. Fair play to the winning crew they were a class act and I need to do a lot more sculling if I want to get closer to them in the future!

Alex GregoryComment