Four years of pain worth it for six golden minutes

Alex is a five-time world champion rower who won Olympic gold in the coxless fours at London 2012. He will be writing a monthly column for Sport in the run-up to Rio 2016, giving a unique insight into the preparations and pressures faced by our Olympic athletes.

Little more than an hour before hearing the starting buzzer for an Olympic final, I nearly lost it. It would have been so far from appropriate to laugh. I had to control myself for the sake of those around me.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning were stony-faced in concentration, an unbeaten British pair utterly focused on the job ahead of them. My three crewmates were pulling on race kit, preparing water bottles and releasing pressure with the occasional long sigh. The situation was so serious, yet all I wanted to do was laugh. Craziness was sneaking through the cracks, the enormous weight of expectation beginning to overflow. I’d had it under control. Now, I found it all hilarious.

I can’t say the days leading up to August 12 were easy. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon threw up one hell of a challenge, with some of the most unpredictable conditions rowing has ever experienced. Constantly changing, these waters – enclosed in an amphitheatre of jungle-clad mountains and high-rise city buildings – mirrored Rio’s eccentricity. Our first two races were postponed a day because of high winds and unsafe conditions (we sank in a warm-up). Days stretched out ahead of us in a seemingly unending mental battle.

Finally, we won our heat and semi final. The Aussies who won the other semi had posted a faster time – all talk was on those boys from down under, but that suited us. We knew we had cruised our races and had plenty more to give in the final. Game on.

Four years of training seven days a week, 350 days a year. Hundreds of thousands of miles in a boat, millions of hard strokes. Thousands of tonnes of weight lifted, 6,000 calories a day consumed. Hundreds of gallons of sweat lost, and raw, blistered hands every one of those painful days.

I’ve loved it all. I love the team, I love being one of the lads. I love how we train, how we interact and how we perform together when it matters. Everything we’ve put our bodies and minds through over four years was going to be judged in a single race lasting six minutes.

There’s no point in hiding it now. Anything less than gold would have been a disappointment. Four consecutive Olympic golds in the men’s coxless four for Team GB, and we were going for the fifth. It was imperative we crossed the line first.

I sit here now, just days after winning that race and having a second Olympic gold medal hung around my neck. It’s difficult to explain how I feel, mainly because I just don’t know yet. It was a perfect race; I wouldn’t change a stroke. And, for the second time in my career, I was propelled first across an Olympic final finish line by three of the strongest, most skilled athletes anyone could ever wish to be in a boat with. We had triumphed over the struggles and games our minds play on us.

On the podium, we stood teary-eyed, singing to the national anthem in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, the sights, smells and sounds of Rio de Janeiro all around us. For the second time that day, I wiped away tears and laughed out loud. We had done it.

A couple of moments after crossing that line. One I won't ever forget.

A couple of moments after crossing that line. One I won't ever forget.

Alex GregoryComment