On returning from our first win in Belgrade, our confidence had risen and we started training the next day with renewed vigour. Jürgen pushes us hard in the three weeks between the World Cups and we fly out to Switzerland with heavy legs and aching bodies. Lucerne is without doubt one of my favourite places to race and luckily one World Cup is held here every year. The preparation is straightforward this time with no surprises from Jürgen, so we spend a day training, acclimatising, recovering from the journey and fuelling up for the days ahead.
On the morning of the heat we arrive at the course early for our pre-race outing with simple focuses to loosen up and prepare our bodies. The warm-up is pretty standard, the boat feels ok, it doesn’t feel better or worse than anything we have been doing in training. We have been working hard on technical points and have seen improvements but all of us agree the boat is still not yet feeling how we want it to. This doesn’t bother us, however, as we know we can still go fast and it is just the stage we are at. We come off the water and wait – it’s the waiting that’s a killer, the nerves, uncertainty, the built-up energy and adrenaline. It is hard to contain and everyone deals with it in slightly different ways.
The heat includes three crews we have not yet met this season, New Zealand, Canada and a new German crew, so we can’t simply expect to beat anyone and must race hard from the start. There was nothing different here from the start to any other race. I felt relaxed, slightly nervous, excited to get going. We could feel a strong consistent tail-breeze straight down the lake and I’m sure everyone was thinking it could turn into a fairly quick race, especially as the water wasn’t too rough. Andy turned round to me on the start and said “Alex, have a look at our time through the 1000m, if it’s quick let’s just keep going…” Andy’s words confirmed my thoughts and the adrenaline surged.
We started racing. We rowed reasonably well for the first 1000m and were ahead, but with New Zealand overlapping us. I made the call to move at the half-way marker as planned and we just took off! For the first time since getting in this boat it felt like we were really rowing together, long, loose, hard accelerated strokes. Everything we had been talking about over the last couple of weeks fell into place and the boat was finally flying. We moved way ahead of the field and just kept going. It was a dream second half to a race. With 500m to go Andy shouted “keep moving”, so I relayed it to the crew and that’s simply what we did. We pushed for the line but nothing special, no huge sprint or surge, we just maintained the good rowing we had. It’s very difficult to time yourself in rowing as markers are nearly impossible to judge accurately from the boat. We knew we had rowed a fast race but the indication just how fast only came as we rowed passed the grandstand. There was an enormous cheer as we paddled past, which was strange. The crowd is never usually so excitable for heats, there were supporters from other nations cheering for us too, really strange! Someone from the bank shouted that we had just got a world best time so we stopped, I laughed, we turned and congratulated each other, then continued our warm down as usual.
It was a really strange feeling. I remember feeling surges of emotion, I was ecstatic inside but didn’t want to show it outwardly – none of us did. Jürgen met us at the landing stage and hugged us each individually, a rare show of emotion from the tough German. We learned that we had not just beaten the 10-year-old record but broken it by nearly four seconds and 5.37.86 will be etched on my memory for years to come. That day was certainly a proud one for me.
The heat was great but it was just a time, a fast time, the fastest time in history over 2000m in a coxless four, but we were here to race and to beat crews, not times. In the second heat the Australians had been faster than us to the 1000m. Our overall time had been much quicker than theirs, but they had won their heat comfortably too and for all we knew had taken their feet off the gas before the line. The job was far from over.
Our final was not as well rowed as the heat. We planned to stay with the fast-starting Australians, not to let them get away from us then push through them in the latter stages of the race. We held on to them well but our new-found rhythm from the heat was not really there. The rowing felt short and the rate was high, not the long effective strokes we had done previously. All credit to a top-quality Australian crew – they maintained their lead for 1750m of the race until we sprinted past them in the closing 250m to cross the line ahead. It was a huge relief to win, having set a world record in the heat. We confirmed our position that weekend in Lucerne as the top coxless four despite not rowing our best and we overhauled a very fast crew in the closing stages of a tough race. It was yet another important building block in our Olympic campaign and we came away from Lucerne in a very positive position after a good weekend’s work! The job is far from over, but we are moving in the right direction.