I couldn’t have asked for a better end to a year. It’s very rare in rowing to have an unbeaten season, something I’ve only ever experienced once before. We finished our year at the World Championships in Amsterdam with a commanding win over the rest of the field, with USA and Australia winning the Silver and Bronze respectively. This result wasn’t unexpected based on form from previous events but there’s always uncertainty at the World Championships.
I’ve talked a lot before about pressure, expectation, what that means to me and how I deal with it. This World Championship final found us under pressure. An unbeaten crew in the season meant that if we didn’t win, it was likely we had done something wrong. I found the way to deal with this was simple: it was a case of knowing that through focused training for the last 11 months we had each proved ourselves worthy members of the crew. Through consistent performances as individuals and as a crew we knew we were good enough to win. This proof of speed and capability is a great source of strength at times when doubt may creep in. It didn’t combat the nerves but it reassured us all in our own ways that we didn’t need to do anything special. Sitting on that start line I knew that if I rowed the way I had been rowing for months, the opposition would have to do something they had never done before to beat me. We knew that if we all did what we had shown we were capable of time and time again, we would go fast.
Since the last regatta, at Lucerne in July, we had been through a demanding physical period. A mere three days after flying home from Switzerland we were back on the plane heading to our annual mountain retreat, Silvretta in Austria. As it often is at 2,300m altitude, the weather was unsettled and generally cold and miserable, making the long mileage tough and uncomfortable. The boat was running well from the start, however, and all four of us were performing excellently on the ergo and in the boat. This camp gave us an exciting chance to improve on our already great season, and finishing the two weeks there we were even more confident and excited to race.
One night at home to change kit, say hello to the family, then before any of us were able to blink we were as far away from the mountains and their unpredictable weather as it’s possible to get. Suddenly we stepped off another plane into the oven of the Portuguese summer, with temperatures rocketing up to 38 degrees. After the 5 degrees we had become accustomed to, this was a serious shock to the system. The coastal wind that blew was welcome on the face but not on the boat and we constantly had to battle with a persistent cross-wind for the duration. This was a very different camp, it’s designed as the sharpening final preparation camp where the mileage is really reduced and the speed work intensifies. After nearly 11 months of training, there’s not much more fitness we’ll gain at this point, it’s about holding that fitness and remembering how to move quickly!
For the first time since being selected in this crew we had our first wobble. After a week in Portugal, we had posted a really good time for a two kilometre practice race but there was still two weeks before the championships even began. We started looking for things to improve on that weren’t necessary and changing things that didn’t need changing. We started over complicating simple issues and found ourselves in danger of overdoing everything; we were losing the plot. A few days into this complication, with mounting frustration and the boat feeling tense and stressed we sat down and discussed what was going on. Jurgen was a fantastic mediator between each of us, who shared our frustrations openly. He forced us to look at what we had done already in the camp and the season, confidence in what you are doing is everything. He has absolute confidence that his methods and training programme works, we have followed his programme to the letter, we are a great crew, so with those factors together there is no reason change anything or look for more. Following this very open, honest discussion we gradually came together again and the boat started to run much more naturally once again. We were climbing out of our dip and thankfully moving to the other side.
I’ve raced in Amsterdam twice before. One terrible year in 2005 I blacked out during the final of the under-23 World Championships and another extremely forgettable World Cup event, the result of which I don’t even remember. My experiences and memories of the venue were certainly tainted and I was hoping to put that right this time. As we pulled up to the racing course for the first time, however, a feeling of despair came over me. The rain was teeming down, the wind was strong, it was cold and miserable. Taking to the water was an experience too; the contrast to Portugal where we had been the day before was vast. This was a small 2km-long lake, seven lanes wide, with crews of different sizes from all over the world circulating, which creates extremely uncomfortable water. It was lumpy, swirly and far from perfect. There was nothing we could do, this was going to be the reality, we just had to knuckle down and get on with it. Five days after arriving in Amsterdam we had become accustomed to the weather and water. We raced our heat, winning it comfortably. The same in the semi-final saw us lined up in the final as favourites and the crew to beat.
The pressure was on us, after this unbeaten season and the fastest crew at the championships so far, we still had to perform. George told me how nervous he had felt before the semi-final, a feeling I had in exactly the same way. As we waited to race we talked about how we were feeling, how nervous we were, what it meant and we laughed about it. We laughed at the strange situation we had found ourselves in and concluded that if we were given the chance to take seventh position but to have it all over and done with we would! Of course we weren’t serious about this but it helped to calm the nerves. It’s useful to understand how others are feeling at times like those and in a strange way I enjoyed the agonising wait to race.
We raced really well, it was nearly the perfect finish to the year. Our best start to date got us out ahead early and we controlled the race from the front. The US crew were strong and put us under pressure but we were able to hold them off and enjoy the run into the line in the fast tailwind conditions. As always there is an element of relief when crossing the line. Relief that we had met expectations, risen to the occasion and performed as we should. The over riding feeling for this win though was happiness. I was pleased that together as a crew we had managed to do something rare, something we all hope for in those dark painful days of winter. It’s a fantastic feeling to achieve something as a unit and for it to work in near perfect harmony.
My son Jasper was there in the stands watching so I was looking forward to seeing him. It’s not going to be for much longer that he’ll be able to watch his dad win medals so we are trying to make the most of that opportunity while he can. Having been away for nearly eight weeks, he was far more interested in playing with me than watching, but it was great to have him there.
So that’s it, another year over. My fourth World Championship title was a very special one in an incredibly enjoyable year. I’ve learnt over the years that putting the work in early means the rest of the year can be far more straightforward and rowing is so much more enjoyable when it’s kept simple. I’m currently an Olympic, World, European, National and Henley title winner, which is something that’s never been achieved by a British male rower ever before. As I move into the next season my target is to retain those titles!