Arriving in Australia was everything I expected it to be. The heat hit me like a smack in the face, waking me with a jolt after 24 hours in an unhealthy, air-conditioned aeroplane cabin. After the winter we have experienced, this is just what my body is craving and I immediately start to feel my muscles relax.
We spent the first four days in Sydney acclimatising and slotting into the new time zone, which I managed with relative ease. It’s absolutely unheard of to have free time on a training camp but here, for these rare four days, the afternoons are ours. We finish training and head off to the chosen activity of the day; most popular is to get our pasty white torsos out on one of the local beaches. Sydney Harbour was a must, with a stroll around the Opera House and a meander through the city. I had the chance to meet up with an old school friend who I hadn’t seen for six years. Incidentally, he was the friend who first introduced me to rowing 13 years ago, so it was really quite an emotional moment meeting him and thanking him for doing so. However, this precious free time came at a cost, as Jurgen managed to squeeze in a sizeable schedule of painful gym work for us to complete before we could enjoy ourselves too much. With the promise of the beach in our minds, the daily ergo and weights were an accepted necessity.
These four days of enjoyment had to come to an end, so, after a three-hour bus ride south we found ourselves in the vastly contrasting town of Canberra. There was immediately a different feel to the camp; we were no longer tourists but here for business. We were here to compete in the first World Cup of the season; in fact, the first international event since the Olympics. I was competing in the men’s eight, which comprised a mix of athletes: two of my crew mates from the Olympics, a couple from the Olympic eight and two new members of the squad; Matt Gotrel and Lance Tredell were being thrown in at the deep end. This was to be their first senior international regatta and as an older, more experienced athlete, I wanted this to be a special and successful trip for them. These guys are both exceptional athletes and fitted into the crew extremely well right from the start. It was a pleasure to train with such enthusiastic guys, and from the first stroke I knew I could count on them. We spent 10 days in Canberra with a heavy programme of mileage on the water. It was an exciting boat to be a part of and started off with a very strong platform from which we knew we could build an effective race performance.
We were all thriving in Australia, and astounded at how much the weather can affect mood and attitude. Rowing in an all-in-one rowing suit, instead of three layers with leggings and a woolly hat, made life so much simpler. We weren’t restricted in movement and I found I was always ready to perform. My body felt constantly warm and so the physical effort of ‘warming up’ just wasn’t such an issue. I loved every aspect of being there and preparing to race.
As the days to the event grew closer and we travelled back to Sydney, I started to realise what this regatta meant to me. We were soon to be racing on the Sydney Olympic course, the same water that Steve Redgrave won his fifth and final Olympic title on. Since the summer of 2012 I will forever be a part of the coxless four history that he started, and now here I am, back on the shores of Penrith, about to race again. What’s more, the Sydney Olympics was the first time I had ever paid even the slightest bit of interest in rowing, as it was in that same year that I first stepped in to a boat, thanks to my friend Alex who I met on our third day in Australia. Everything was linked, everything was falling into place and it all felt good.
The venue met all expectations; it was how I imagined a grand Olympic course to look. Preserved in the Sydney Olympic spirit, it has been used solely for rowing ever since. We trained and prepared on the lake for a few days before our heat, but we were all raring and ready to go. This was fun, exciting, and there wasn’t the overbearing, crushing pressure I had felt the last time I raced during the Olympics. I really enjoyed the feeling; the result didn’t really matter. Would any race ever matter again? However, I wanted to prove that I could win in a different boat class. I wanted the new boys to be encouraged by standing in the middle of the podium with a gold medal hanging around their necks, and feel the pride that comes with that moment. We won the heat with relative ease. Pressure from a strong US and Australian crew in the first half meant we had to work to cross the line ahead, but it was a strong first performance. We came away with some clear ideas on how to improve our performance, but felt positive and confident.
The morning of the final was a little more tense. There will always be nerves from the uncertainty about what’s going to happen. I know how much every part of my body is going to hurt, and that makes me nervous. I will probably be sick afterwards and will definitely have a pounding headache for the rest of the day, followed by a cough that will last for weeks. However, if we win, it will be worth it. We attack the race from the first stroke; a fast committed approach sets us up well for the first quarter. I’m not used to the noise the start of an eight’s race brings. Six coxes screaming through their microphones at their crew, shouting instructions, motivating the rowers; the clunk of 48 oars across the lake and the spray flying from the blades, which slice through the puddles. Its an incredibly noisy place to be, but that heightens the senses and brings adrenaline pumping in excess. An eight’s race is fast, the markers come quickly and before I knew it we were extending our lead, stretching out past the half-way marker and ahead of the rest of the field. The race was over in a heart-pumping flash and we finished a good length ahead of the closest crew. This was a great start to the Olympiad and a perfect end to one of the best trips I have been on with rowing, but I was most pleased for our newcomers who achieved their first international victory. The racing season has begun.