I'm writing this on the evening of Easter Sunday, the day after Moe Sbihi and I crossed the line to win our GB final selection trials. I have plenty to fill you in on from the past couple of months but while the event is fresh in my mind and emotions are still being felt I need to get this into words.
It's the biggest National event we compete in and by biggest I mean most important. It always feels to me like a mountain to climb, a hurdle of stress and worry, one that must be overcome if I want to compete for the reasons I'm in this sport - international racing. I have competed at these trials every year since 2003. Many have been a disaster, some acceptable, plenty pleasing but up until yesterday only one that was a success.
In 2009 I changed discipline from Sculling to Sweep rowing and was lucky enough to be put in a pair with Pete Reed who was fresh from his first Olympic success. We won the trial and this was the springboard I needed to get selected in a boat that would give me the best chance of winning a World Championship medal. Since then despite becoming both World and Olympic champion I have never made that top spot at our final trials and have become well aquatinted with second place. I was determined to change that this year.
Moe and I have had a fantastic couple of weeks leading up to this event. From the beginning of our partnership we felt a comfort and compatibility in the way we applied our power. Boat speed after all comes from what happens under the water so this was a good start. Delayed by a mild but lengthy illness on my part we quickly came together and posted some fast times in training. We held this speed for the two weeks on training camp in Portugal and returned to the UK confident in our chances. All we had to do was replicate what we had been doing in training and not make the mistake of trying too hard to do something special. The problem is, I wanted something special to happen here. I wanted to be able to show what we as a crew are capable of when it really matters. In training behind closed doors we can produce great speed time and time again; the pressure was on, it had to be done here.
As we arrive at the venue, The Redgrave & Pinsent rowing lake in Caversham, memories of past trials spring to the surface. Those disappointing years where I had 'potential' but couldn't produce the goods when I needed to. Those times on my own in a sculling boat when everything I did in life revolved around getting a good result at these trials. For weeks, even months beforehand I would wake feeling my heart hammering in my chest with nerves and worry. It was the fear of failure and letting people down. Those memories, however deep I have buried them over the years still bubble to the surface at this time of year, dull but irrefutably present.
Due to the forecasted high winds on Easter Sunday the trial was to completed all in one day instead of being spread over two. This was no big issue, in fact it would play well into our hands. We have both had a great winter of training, we are pretty much as fit as we could possibly be at this time of year so three races in one day, however tough were going to be OK for us. This would change nothing to our approach.
During the pre race morning paddle I couldn't quite shake off the tension I had been feeling. Its difficult to describe, but it's when your body doesn't quite move in the loose fluid movement it's used to. Tension in the muscles that can't be released, its almost a subconscious freezing of my inner core. Nothing to worry about but I just had to keep reminding my self to relax. We sat watching the time trials of the events before us battling against the ever growing wind. This headwind would make races long, correct pacing would be essential. I felt calm on the start line and every now and then I would get a wave of enjoyment. This would disappear as quickly as it arrived as I remembered how much I wanted to do well - the tension was still there.
Our start was clean, the first pair to race down the course meant we had an open lane ahead of us and we quickly settled onto a good fast rhythm. It wasn't quite what we had been feeling in training, but we were into the race and feeling OK. Calling a slight rise in the pace at the half way marker was spelling trouble for me. I knew we needed to raise our effort to maintain speed but everything was starting to get really hard. I was feeling the pain and knew that the upper limits of my capabilities in this race were quickly coming into reach. There wasn't much further I could take this and we still had a long way to go. Half heartedly making the calls as our race plan dictated we moved into the last 500m where my body started to lock up. It's as if your bicycle brake gets stuck down and is rubbing constantly on the rim. My legs felt like lead, my stroke shortened and I was clinging onto Moe's movements for dear life. Crossing the line was an absolute godsend and with blurred vision and searing pain through my body we paddled the boat back to the boat house.
Racking the boat as quickly as possible I had to run. Blood was pumping behind my eyes, my temples felt like they were going to explode. Diving for a quiet corner I slumped onto my hands and knees and wretched loudly producing a stream of vomit. It took 10 minutes for this extreme reaction to abate, my insides were strained and empty, my eyes were bloodshot and watering. This is the reaction I often get after a morning race, it's normal for me although this was an extreme example. It was probably the tension and nerves which contributed but I always find the sickness is like a pressure release. I immediately feel looser, more internally relaxed and although my body has been severely irritated and I have suddenly developed a cough that will last for two weeks, I feel so much better. After a long warm down to flush out the huge levels of lactic acid, a big meal and a short lie down I was ready to face the opposition again in the semi-final.
The results of the time trial had been released, we had been beaten into second by the crew we were expecting to be closest to. George Nash and Andy Triggs-Hodge are both excellent athletes, so we knew they would threaten us. They proved they were going for the win with that opening performance but after an honest discussion with Moe we knew that we hadn't yet produced anything near our best. We had fallen into the trap of wanting it too much, trying too hard and over pacing the race on my part cost me physically. Despite still feeling terrible I knew I would now be able to perform to a far higher standard after releasing the tension inside. Lining up on the start line of the semi final there was one thing on our minds. Row naturally and row our own race. The start was clean despite the rough water and we quickly moved to the front of the pack. Easing out to a comfortable lead we simply maintained our pace right through to the finish line. No need to show our cards, we had command over the field behind us, control over our speed and most pleasing for me I had control over my body. We were back on track and warming up for the final.
One of the most difficult things about having three races in a day is the time in between. Roughly three hours between each race allows for an hours warm down and quick snack. Re-fuel for 30 minutes leaving an hour quiet contemplation which for me was spent desperately trying to ward off sleep. The lethargy I felt was difficult to control after the adrenaline high, the body's reaction to intense physical exercise and mental stimulus which seemed to multiply tenfold in the come down. I needed to lie down to fully relax my body but as soon as I was horizontal whatever surface I was lying on, the softest mattress or the coldest concrete it felt like the most comfortable place in the world. When the time came to change and prepare for the final this feeling remained but I was ready to get the job done. I was ready to show what we could really do and looking forward to having this stressful nerve wracking day over and done with. I didn't know what was going to happen, but was sure that if we reproduced what we knew we could, we would win.
Sitting behind Moe on the start line of this final I was feeling calm, still slightly lethargic but filled with excited nerves. The wind was strong on our backs with the water bouncing up around us. The words of Moe's prayers drift back to me and has become strangely comforting. His words in Arabic have become the norm and tells me he is prepared and ready to face whatever we come up against. I know Moe is feeling good, he hasn't used up everything today, not even close and he turns to let me know that. I'm in the driving seat here, I hold the reins. If I say 'GO' he will respond and it's my job to stay with him. Once again get off to a good clean start, the pace is instantly high and we move together just as we have been in training. I see nothing but Moe's back as I count strokes. After 250m I look up to see we are in the lead, it's a great feeling. You can't win a race off the start but you can lose one. We haven't done that here, we have started well.
Our rhythm develops through the middle part of the course and we extend our lead to clear water over Andy and George on our left. There's a larger gap to the other crews on our right but I don't allow myself to look over. Through the 1000m marker, we slightly increase the pressure, the boat lifts and I'm feeling strong. The other pair comes with us and as expected they start to apply their pressure. The race is on, its all about holding it together now for the final three minutes. I know Moe has plenty more to give but how much more do I have? I need to be able to go with him and add to the boat as the rating increases. I hold off making another pressure call, they come back level with us, perhaps edging their bow ball ahead with 250m to go. The move has to come now, I force a sound out, Moe knows what it means, and we push hard under the water. With everything we have we increase the boat speed, the rating rises and we surge ahead again. I'm putting everything I can in to hold the boat straight, I'm willing the finish line to come. We are back in the lead and I'm sure we are going to win this, everything we have done in the recent weeks tells me we have the speed needed to hold off the opposition, in training I must now trust. Eventually 0.83 of a second ahead we cross the line to win.
It's incredibly satisfying to have won this race, it's cemented my position at the top of the team for this year and although in the grand scheme of things it means very little, the confidence this gives me in my training and technical ability is invaluable. We will all have to go through this process two more times in the following years leading up to the next Olympics. Positions will change, I will have to work even harder to hold my standing ahead of the others in this incredibly strong squad, but for a few days I can enjoy the result.
Link to the GB Rowing team write-up about this event: