It was in a different rowing life that I last visited Lake Aigubelette in France, a short drive to the east of Lyon. Then I was a skinny, young sculler heading to my first senior World Championships. This used to be the location for the final pre-World’s preparation camp for the GB men’s heavyweight team before the French realised the true virtues of the beautiful lake and threw us out. Despite a disappointing result at those 2007 World Championships in Munich, where we failed to qualify in the boat class for the Olympics, my memories of the camp remain strong and very positive.
It truly is a beautiful lake; deep turquoise water, warm to the touch and surrounded on one side by a towering tree-covered cliff rising at least 500 metres and stretching far beyond the water’s end. We access the lake from the village, a small spattering of houses along the water’s edge shrouded in trees. I was really looking forward to getting back to this place, racing out on the clear-glass water and hopefully improving on our performance from the European Championships a couple of weeks previously.
This event was to take on a slightly different format to the one we’re used to in a world cup regatta. The standard heats would be replaced by a ‘time trial’ that would ‘seed’ the next race. This is fine in principle if the number of entries to the event allows for semi-finals. For us, with a relatively small entry of only 10 nations, the time trial meant we were racing for no reason at all. The result of the time trial wouldn’t change anything, it was nonsensical and, we discovered, optional. The reason was to provide practice for the officials. If weather conditions at a major competition like the Olympics become unfair, it’s possible that everything will have to be done in this time trial format. It would be a disaster if an Olympic final turned out to be a time trial with no side-by-side racing, as it would change the sport – but it is possible. We decided to use this extra (unnecessary) race to practice our start sequence and first quarter. We would then ease off and row the rest of the distance at training intensity. In our minds there was no need to expose ourselves and show our true cards and it was worth ensuring we were fresh for when the real racing started. As expected, we posted the slowest time, with some crews putting together a full race. Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to practice what we need to be able to do blindfold come the final of the World Championships in August.
The following day the regatta started properly for us. We were drawn in a heat with crews we hadn’t met this season, with Canada the strongest on paper. Pushing off from the landing stage to go out to race is always a nervy time, it’s our final link to the land and, I suppose, communication with others. Jurgen never says much, maybe a word along the lines of “enjoy”, but this time, nothing. He bent over to pick up our shoes as we pushed away, free from the land. As we paddled out further onto the l ake and headed up towards the warm-up zone, I found the nerves fell away. We were moving into our realm, the place where as a four we spend most of our time. We were comfortable in this 25-foot-long, one-foot-wide, 5mm-thick boat shell. As we got closer to the race start area, the water became rougher and rougher. The lake opened up to our left, exposing around two kilometres of water open to the wind. By the time it reached us, the swell had risen to a very uncomfortable size and we were thrown from side to side. This made rowing tricky, to say the least. With no warning, the boat lurched down to one side, then the other. There was very little consistency from stroke to stroke and it was impossible to predict where the boat would be in our movement pattern. The only thing you can do in that situation is to keep your body relaxed, let the boat move the way it is forced and make the best of it. Water like that is not something we enjoy rowing on, particularly during the essential warm-up of an important race, but it’s not uncommon and we know now how to handle it. Despite the water, we were physically ready for what was to come.
Sitting on the start line 40 minutes after pushing away from land, we were called to attention. Ready to race, poised but relaxed, watching the traffic light, waiting for the starter to call ‘go’ and the light to change to green. The water had died down a little by now, our start was strong, long and powerful. It felt great to get moving and immediately I had a good feeling about what we were doing. We won the race comfortably over Canada, showing that we were really aiming to take on this event. We posted the fastest time of the two heats in a race that didn’t stress us too much physically. It was a good sign.
It’s rare that any of my family come and watch me race as most are abroad. My parents both have jobs, so time away is difficult to come by, but this time Mum and Dad managed it. It was great to have them there, especially in such a beautiful location. They spent a week walking beforehand, preparing their cheering voices for the inevitable battle on land of the loudest-cheering nation. The difficulty was finding time to catch up with them once in the race routine, as there’s so much to do before and after a race. This time I managed to jog down to the stands to catch them and spent an hour on the lake side, watching racing while chatting in the sun. It’s great to be able to enjoy rowing with them. For so many years I was miserable after a race, wanting to hide away and not speak to anyone. I suppose it was a feeling of embarrassment, frustration and failure. I felt like I let myself down time and time again and would feel disappointed that my parents had come to watch me perform badly. Thankfully, for now, here in France things are different. Those miserable times in the past allow me to appreciate what I do so much more and enjoy the good results when they come.
The day of the final was upon us. Australia posted the next fastest time to us the previous day, with USA close behind. They were the crews to watch, but none could be underestimated. The water was perfectly calm with very little wind. The wash from the umpire launches spoiled this pristine surface, they really seemed to make things harder for us as they stormed up the lake following every race. It was a shame, but something we just had to accept. I was nervous on the start line, but also very calm and confident. I truly believed we could win, but it wasn’t just about winning, but about developing our way of rowing and putting together more of the pieces that make up a really good race. It was about finding the rhythm that no other crew can keep up with. I was less nervous about the result and more about getting it right.
We got off to a good start – not our best, but it was fast and very quickly we eased our bows into the lead. I could sense we were ahead, but the USA and Aussies were hanging onto us. Moving through the 1000-metre marker at about three minutes in, Moe called for a squeeze and we applied the pressure through the stroke together. It’s something we practice a lot and is best described as an undetectable squeeze of power through our oars in the water. Barely visible from the outside, our bodies shouldn’t change, but our hull should lift as we hopefully increase speed. This move worked well, very well, and we quickly opened up a clear water lead on the field. It had worked, but the race wasn’t over. We hadn’t needed to sprint in any race so far. With 500 metres to go, Moe made another call, another squeeze and we felt our boat lift again. It wasn’t such a dramatic move this time, our legs were really burning, our lungs rasping but we all had to commit. 250 metres to go, about 30 strokes, Andy took up the rate, we were sprinting hard, but we weren’t pushed. We crossed the line five seconds ahead of the Aussies, a great feeling.
We took our second gold of the season in a race we were pleased with. I think we all agree there’s more to come. We had probably rowed parts better in training, but that’s all part of the challenge: to transfer the skills from training into the pressure of racing. The next few months will be crucial in getting that right. We’re under no illusion that those other crews are the finished articles yet, either. Both the USA and Australia have recently come over to Europe, both crews will be adjusting to time changes after long flights, and both had substitutions on board, so were not at full strength. We really can’t rest on our laurels – we’re currently in a good position, but we must be quicker!