Varese was a difficult training camp for many reasons. The training itself is tough, three long sessions a day on the water, miles upon miles sitting on a tiny wooden seat that cuts into your behind with every stroke. The skin is pulled from your fingers and raw flesh rubs into the wooden handle of the oar, making each stroke uncomfortable. The weather was some of the worst I have seen there in the nine years I have been visiting. Continuous, heavy, cold rain driving horizontally into you, guided by the icy wind blowing from the snow-capped peaks in the distance. But it’s the wind direction that causes the real problems. A cross-wind is a rower’s enemy, the boat is uncontrollable beneath you as it is bashed to and fro in the rough water, making balancing impossible. The technique suffers, it’s impossible to make technical changes to the stroke despite our best efforts, and each session becomes a huge battle. But this is what makes training a challenge and separates those who can from those who can’t. These are all difficulties that are simple to overcome and block out, it’s just a matter of getting on with it. The physical aspects of the sport are so straightforward, which is why I love training. The weather is something we cannot control, so there’s no point complaining – we just have to make the best of it.
The real difficulties came as we embarked on our new challenge together as the coxless four. This was the first time we had trained officially as the four, so suddenly the pressure was on. It came mostly from within the boat. We wanted everything to work straight away and to be immediately fast, for the boat to move effortlessly and to be in total control over our actions. This was hope more than anything and, in reality, we were just not where we wanted to be. We struggled for two weeks to find our feet. We worked on all aspects of the stroke to bring us together, combine our individual strengths and join us to form one efficient crew. But progress was slow. We could see and feel changes, we were heading in the right direction, but the boat was sluggish and heavy in the water. Our speeds were not easy to come by and, on comparing our practice race pieces to other boats in the team, we were way off the mark.
The beauty of being in such a strong team is that standards are so high. Every boat in the men’s team has a good chance of not just an Olympic medal but a gold, so we are comparing ourselves to some of the best in the world. However, we should be at the top of the team but, right there on the waters of Varese, we were not.
When you try so hard and feel like you are doing everything you can to make something work but the results are not showing, your mental strength is put to the test. It is my philosophy in sport to try to stay calm with everything I do. With our first public appearance looming at the World Cup in Belgrade, this was the time to test my ability to do this under pressure. I was finding it difficult, I didn’t know how to make us go faster and I knew that if we raced the way we were training, we wouldn’t win. I made certain that I was positive at all times around the other guys as I believe that is one of my strengths to bring to the boat. We discussed all our issues and worries and kept things very open between us and coach Jürgen. It was a great time and one that has set us up so well for the coming months. We have learnt a lot about each other as we pushed through our problems, and we all knew we had to persist with what we were working on, trust one another and have enough resilience to get through this difficult patch. After all, it was early days in our project and in any other year this would simply not be an issue, just the inevitable forming process of a new crew.
We ended the training camp with genuine belief that we had put everything into place to get the result we need at the first World Cup. Now it is time to put that into practice.