This was to be the first time I’d ever competed in the European Championships and I was really looking forward to it. The Europeans are never on our racing schedule. Normally held later in the summer, they don’t really fit into our plans for World Championship preparation, but now the event is earlier in the year it’s a perfect fit for our first international race of the season.
I was excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was held in Belgrade, Serbia, which I first visited back in April 2012, the first world cup event of that Olympic season. It was a nerve-wracking time, but my memories of the place were very positive. It had been scorching hot, the water was surprisingly clean and clear with a long beach extending on either side of the 3km stretch of water with restaurants and bars strewn its edge – the atmosphere was electric. Even the nudist beach at the far end of the lake provided some entertainment, so as I’m sure you’ll understand, I was looking forward to getting back there! The second reason was the boat. I was selected in the coxless four following our extensive trialling period. It’s the top boat and a change from being in the eight last year. In many ways it feels like I’m coming home, back into the boat I spent four years racing in leading up to London 2012. I know the way a four should move, the way the opposition tend to race, I feel confident and experienced in the four, so was really excited to get racing. Finally, right from the first day of this new project we had been going really well. I’ve talked a lot in the past about how crews gel; some do, some don’t and some just take time. Thankfully, this new crew worked well right from the start and we immediately found good speed. It’s always such a relief when getting in a new crew for the first time – expectations are high and when it works, a real wave of excitement hits and you just have to ride it. This was one of those crews and as the three weeks we had to prepare for the event passed, the anticipation grew. I couldn’t wait to get out there, test ourselves against true opposition and put our new speed into action.
In preparation for the first event of the season every year, the whole team takes part in a ‘speed order’ where every selected crew races 2,000m and the times are all compared against each other. It’s a whole team affair and we can indirectly compare ourselves to any of the crews – men, women or lightweights. This comparison is done by working out percentages of world record times, so a ranking across the team can be accurately measured. We put together a great race and managed to come out on top in a pretty fast time for this early part of the season. This was the first test, an excellent start and a good indication that we were doing well.
When I arrived in Serbia I was eager to get racing. After a short illness the previous week, I was thankful to be there, fit and ready. Belgrade was just as I remembered it, decrepit high-rise flats surrounding run-down industrial areas plastered with graffiti. Around another corner there would be a tree-lined street with large town houses, bars and shops. It’s a strange city with continuous reminders of its turbulent past. The lake is perfect for rowing: long, wide plus plenty of space for warm-up and warm-down areas. We rigged the boats and soon became accustomed to the water and its subtle differences to the water at home. I would say that every lake or river around the world has a slightly individual feel. Water is water, of course, but temperature, sediment levels, proximity to the bank and many other factors each create different feelings and perceptions of speed and connection. It takes a while to adjust.
The following day it was time to race. Time to put all the questions behind us and prove to ourselves that what we had been feeling in training was accurate and our speed was genuine. Lining up on the start line after a really strong warm-up, I was feeling nervous but in a very good way. I had confident nerves. Our start was strong and very quickly we found ourselves way out in the lead, clear water ahead of the closest boat. Sitting in the bow seat has the potential to have a great view of the race unfolding you, but sitting in front of me was the man-mountain Mohammed. It’s dark in my seat, he blocks out the sun and so I’m forced to focus firmly on a small patch of his back. I’m aware of where we are in relation to the rest of the field, but trying hard to concentrate on getting things right in my seat. We cruise home, lowering the intensity gradually over the last part of the race, it’s a really good start with a new European record time to go with it.
We find ourselves in a very similar situation the following day in the semi-final. We were critical of our performance despite the win in the heat and the need to improve on certain aspects of the stroke and race plan. We went out with commitment and intensity, streaming ahead early and gaining a clear water lead in the first quarter. We raced hard, but at the halfway marker (1,000m) we were in a quandary. We didn’t need to push on and damage ourselves physically before the final, so as discussed, on Moe’s call we controlled the power we were exerting, held the speed and didn’t push right to the finish line. The result was another clear water lead and this time we’d improved slight mistakes we made in the heat. Everything was going well.
After racing we ensure we properly warm down. Even though we didn’t put in a full race, including the sprint to the finish line, it was still a huge strain on the body. It made me sick and the lactic acid tends to make standing difficult for a while. We walk, row on the ergo, then walk again, during which time we replenish with plenty of recovery foods. Then it’s back to the hotel for a meal, time to unwind in our room, shower, lie down and rest the body. Each evening we take another walk to keep the blood flowing in our legs. It also serves as an exploration of the surrounding area. Before we know it it’s time for the final meal of the day, the evening crew meeting with Jurgen and early to bed.
The day of the final dawned and we left for our early morning outing, warming up the engines after a night’s sleep. We were all feeling positive and confident because of what we had already achieved that weekend, but eager to get everything right. The wait is always the worst part of any regatta. Sitting around watching the clock, willing time to pass. Eventually we found ourselves on the start line and were off.
It was the final of the European championships. You must never underestimate your opposition, but we felt we should win this as long as we didn’t make any major mistakes. We took the lead early just as we had done in the previous two races and extended that lead right through to the halfway marker. As we came into the second half of the course, we squeezed on the speed, and with burning legs and grating lungs we surged forward, extending our lead just a little more. I felt in control of the field – someone would need to have done something incredible to have got back on terms with us now, but Greece was on our heels and not going away. We pressed hard on the legs right through to the finish line, something resembling a sprint taking us over the line, but by that point our win wasn’t in question. We are all European gold medalists for the first time, and it was a great feeling. It turns out the time was another European record despite the fact that we weren’t really pushed by the opposition. It was a really good sign that we could produce these speeds at this time in the season, a very pleasing end to the first regatta of 2014.
To top off the weekend, I managed a first in British men’s rowing. I became reigning Henley, national, European, world and Olympic champion, which is something that as far as anyone can tell has never been done before. It’s a record I’m very proud to hold and great motivation to keep the results coming!