My partner Emily and I have three children, Jasper who was born in October 2009, our daughter Daisy born in August 2013 and most recently Jesse born in January 2016. As a dad I must balance family life with a career as an athlete, a challenge I relish but certainly couldn't do without the constant support of long suffering Emily!
I'm certain that being a dad has given me a perspective over what is important in life and has provided me with a balance that allows me to perform on the water and to fulfill my role as the dad I want to be.
Our aim is to provide a fun active life for Jasper and Daisy which is why we are often found in the woods, climbing trees, making dens, lighting fires, camping and swimming in rivers. Possessions are short term, experiences last a lifetime; this is a philosophy we aim to live by as we embark on more and more adventures together.
First day at school, take two!
I don't understand where the time has gone. I'm sitting in the living room at home, the house is quiet. Our youngest is upstairs having her essential post lunch nap (lucky girl) sleeping off the ogre tendencies teething has given her. I'm looking at the picture hanging above the fire place and it's really making me think. The picture is one of those large canvas prints of a photo we took a while ago. It's one of our very favourite pictures and it's of our son Jasper, who was perhaps 18 months at the time. His back is to us, he's climbing up on a fence and his head is turned slightly showing us the profile of his young, sweet, innocent face. He was enjoying an afternoon in a pub garden, calling to us in those simple newly formed words that were so often funny because they were usually wrong. His tiny squeaky voice rings out in my head now and the image of his unstable tottering steps, giggling as he goes is etched into my memory. But he's not like that any more.
He's a big boy now, at school. It was his first day this morning, well actually it was his second first day, which sounds complicated, because it was. I won't go into the complexities of it all but it's been a slightly frustrating process getting him into the school we wanted him to go to. Thankfully just this morning he started at a fantastic village school up the road.
I've not really had too many worries on the school choosing method. I've felt pretty laid back about it all and of the opinion that he would be fine wherever he ends up. That hasn't changed, I'm sure he would be fine wherever he goes. I know he's an intelligent lad who enjoys life, is relatively well behaved, gets on well with people and importantly to us is kind. Two weeks ago to the day he nervously posed for his first day picture at the front door, standing proud in his box fresh uniform. I was excited for him but could sense the nerves he was feeling inside. He was stepping into the unknown and would be spending the day with not one single person he knows. That's all very well, we all do that at some point in our lives and it's a good character building process. As he clung to my hand all the way to the classroom door his grip tightened as we got closer. He was excited, he wanted to be there, to experience it, but was daunted by the scale of it all. We had been talking about it for a while, getting him interested and excited about the next phase of his life and it had worked, but he was also scared. It breaks my heart to think how brave he was trying to appear for our benefit, the reality was clear. We said goodbye to his watery little eyes and left him for the day.
Emily cried, and at the time I felt proud but fairly unemotional about the situation, it's just part of life, and it would help him out in the future. In the afternoon we both picked him up, excited to hear how the day went. Apparently it was 'the best day of my entire life', well that was a good result then! But was that really the case? We could sense he was saying those things again for our benefit. The next morning was a bit of a strain with tears and a 'really terrible' sore throat. Even the morning after that wasn't much better with legs that didn't work followed by stomach aches and exploding heads. The fact that he came out of school happy enough each day showed that there wasn't anything wrong, it was just he wasn't excited about going.
Monday of the second week was somewhat telling. A conversation in the car on the way to school indicated that he was already counting down the days until the weekend. I'm aware that school isn't everyones favorite place to be, I remember clearly looking forward to the weekends, and who can forget that sunday evening feeling where school the next day looms over you, but in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, at four years old he should be looking forward to seeing friends and most definitely still be enjoying life. Two weeks into a new, exciting routine he shouldn't be wishing it away, dreading it or wanting to be somewhere else. We had ended up accepting a place a good village school close to our home but where not one of his pre-school friends had gone. Not necessarily a problem but this meant at 4 years old he was having to try to make new friends in a group of kids most of whom were already friends. A difficult and daunting prospect at any age in any walk of life. He spent one lunchtime sitting on his own in the corner of the playing field with no one to play with, telling me this while trying to hold back tears as he didn't want me to see how much it hurt him, hurt me. I don't believe this should happen in a child's first few weeks at a school.
It was a passing conversation that made us aware that a space was available at the school we had originally wanted Jasper to attend. It was the school his group of friends was going to, friends he adored. Suddenly a big decision faced us, Emily was distraught. Having been a teacher she has strong ideals when it comes to schools. Her instinct is good, or it's right for her and our children. She had been very worried about Jasper, and was feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation. This gave us an option but how harmful was it going to be to pull him away from somewhere we had been persuading him to enjoy. We made the decision to test it out, give him a trial day with his friends and see where we stood after that.
Monday morning arrived and instead of pretending to look forward to school, instead of desperately trying to be brave Jasper dressed up in his uniform, stood in front of the front door proudly for the second round of first day photos and help up his thumb. His smile was genuine, he was looking forward to seeing his friends. He was no longer worried about who he'd sit with at lunch or who to play with at break time because he'd have his friends there for support. This was a big day for that tiny squeaky little lad looking over the fence in the pub garden, who's just grown up. He's now happy, looking forward to the next chapter of life not dreading it, that's how I want it to be for him, and thats how it should be. There are going to be plenty of opportunity in the future to wish time away, that time is most certainly not now!
By Alex Gregory
I missed the birth of my daughter. Unfortunately it's a phrase I'll have to live with for the rest of my life. I was not there when my little girl took her first breath of air, I didn't hear her first sounds, those tiny bleeting cries in reaction to life. I was not one of the first people to touch her and hold her close, far from it. When my little girl was getting accustomed to the outside world with it's strange touch and sensations, I was 5000 miles away curled up in my bed trying to get a good night's sleep.
In my profession I'm accustomed to missing things; birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals, just about anything and everything that a person may wish to be apart of in life. It's the deal with being a full time sport's person and although frustrating at times it is my choice. Many call it sacrifice but I'm doing it because I enjoy it, it's my job and something I have to do, to get to the level I want. I'm not making a sacrifice by not attending these events, I'm choosing to do what I do and thankfully, I'm good enough to be a part of it.
Ever since my partner Emily and I first met I have been training 7 days a week, 350 days a year. To us that is the norm so it was no surprise when we discovered that the due date of our second child - a daughter, co-insided with me being away at the World Championships which were to be held in South Korea. I doubt it's normal to accept so readily that one parent will miss the birth, but we have become so accustomed to these clashes that the discussion was minimal. Of course, if the baby came early she might be born before I had flown, or late, and I would make the birth on my return but this was just wishful thinking. Some may call it bad planning, but when is a good time? We try to live life and as much as possible not let it be dictated by what I do, so, there I was trying to sleep before the opening race of our World Championship campaign knowing that Emily was on the way to hospital with birth imminent.
It must have been around 3am that the harsh sound of my phone ringing shocked me into consciousness. Silencing it as quickly as possible I stumbled out of the darkness into the corridor so as not to disturb my room and crew mate Dan. On the other end of the line it was Emily's mum who was there supporting in my place. She happily told me the news, Daisy had been born through C-section as planned, tiny and beautiful. Still half asleep, in a slurred voice I told her how pleased I was and to send my love...I couldn't think of anything else to say. It was a very short conversation, there in the hotel corridor at 3am in my pants. I suppose I didn't have a grasp on what was really going on because moments later I was back in my bed fast asleep.
The true realisation of what went on in the night struck when I awoke the next morning. It's normal on race day, to wake with a surge of adrenaline but this day was something else. Computing everything, it dawned on me that I now had a daughter, a second child, a beautiful little being waiting for me at home, but one I still wouldn't be seeing for a week. Over breakfast I told the rest of the crew my news, it's a tricky situation, we are there in Korea to do our jobs. The most important part of our year. The culmination of 12 months of training 7 days a week, it's a serious situation and I couldn't show signs of distraction. But the support I was shown from my fellow team mates was astounding. It didn't seem like a distraction, in some ways it felt like a boost for us, a little snatch of happy energy surging through the team. For us on our opening day of the World Championships it couldn't have come at a better time.
A few hours later we raced with heart and energy. We won the heat posting a fast time showing our serious intentions on these World Championships. Five days later we crossed the line in the lead to win the World Championship title in the men's eight, the first time this has ever been done. It was a historic day for Rowing in Great Britain, a proud day for us all, one I'll never forget.
I was ready to get back to meet my daughter. Having only seen tiny pictures of her on my phone I badly wanted to hold her. The journey home couldn't happen quickly enough. Alas it was the slowest journey I have ever experienced. Long, painful delays, every minute keeping me away from meeting my new family, it was incredibly frustrating. Eventually after 22 hours of travelling I arrived at the front door and walked into the living room to find everyone fast asleep. Jasper, strewn hap-hazardly across the sofa in the way only a four year old boy could. Emily was squeezed into one corner and down there, on the floor in her bed a tiny baby. This baby was so much smaller than I had imagined, her hands and fingers so delicate I dared not touch them with my big clumsy blistered rowing hands. Her breaths were so small they were barely audible, I just knelt there for a while, in the quiet of the sleeping room, my family finally all around me.
Over the next few days I gradually grew accustomed to life back at home which always takes a while. It's such a stark contrast to living with 25 other men 24/7, where manners barely exist. But this time it took me longer to get used to having a new baby. When I arrived home she was just an object, certainly something I loved and wanted and had been looking forward to meeting but, she was just there, a sleeping tiny thing in my house.
When Jasper had been born four years earlier I lived that birth with Emily. I had been there every step of the way, hand in hand through one of the most stressful, long drawn out and worrying times of our lives. It had been in no way a straight forward birth and ended with an emergency c-section after 50 hours of labour. Emily had of course done everything, all the hard work, been through the pain, survived and succeeded in bringing us a healthy little boy but at least I had been there watching and doing my very best to support. I saw him being pulled from her, I looked into his eyes seconds after his birth and I heard his first cry. This time I had been absent, I didn't have that connection, that link between a bump and a baby.
It took me four days but the moment will never be forgotten. I was giving Daisy a bath, kneeling on the floor, holding her tiny little body in the warm water, I looked into her eyes and suddenly it was there. Like a flash I realised she was mine. She will always look to me for love, support and affection, I will always be there for her and despite missing those important first seven days, I think she's forgiven me.
Alex Gregory is the golden boy of British rowing. After gaining his first GB vest in 2004, Alex has gone on to win two World Championship Golds, and Olympic Gold at Eton Dorney in London 2012. He lives in Henley-On-Thames with partner Emily and his gorgeous 4yr old son Jasper. He has taken time out of his hectic schedule to talk about his amazing career, and most importantly, about being a Dad.
So Alex, why rowing? What first attracted you to the sport?
I was a competitive swimmer from a very early age but at 16 I was given the opportunity to try something new. It was a friend of mine from school who invited me down to the local Rowing club (Evesham) to give Rowing a try. I had never watched Rowing, I had absolutely no interest in the sport but for whatever reason I decided to take up this chance opportunity that had been presented to me. Thank goodness I did because I immediately loved it, I loved being outside, on a river, as close to nature as it is possible to be and away from the dreaded chlorine water. One thing I try to pass on to any youngsters I speak to now is to take every opportunity that you get to try something new. It may turn out to be the one thing that you want to pursue for the rest of your life!
Training must play a huge part in your life though, how would you describe a typical day?
Training takes up most of my life! It is the nature of the sport, training is necessary to get the gains we need to be able to compete at the top level. A typical day involves a 6.15 alarm. My little boy Jasper asks every evening for me to wake him up so we can have Weetabix together. It's a precious time and a perfect way to start the day. We eat our Weetabix, play cars and chat then I'm out the door at 7 on the dot. It's a drive over to Bisham Abbey, English Institute of Sport where we have our first session of the day - Weights. 7.45 we start lifting and finish at around 9.15 depending on the session. Back in the car and drive 20 minutes over to Caversham and the GB Rowing team lake. I will sit down for second breakfast, porridge and cereal or a cooked breakfast and it's on the water at 10.45. We train on a 2km long lake so it's round and round for a couple of hours to cover 20km then off for lunch. I will eat, take a short nap or lie flat on my back and allow my spine to recover from the sessions. Recovery is vital in this sport as we are constantly pushing ourselves to the edge of illness and injury. It's a balancing act and something that comes with experience of knowing your own body. Then its back on the water or onto the Ergo (rowing machine) for the final session of the day, 16 km with a grimmace every stroke for an hour. Each and every session is painful, there are so often times when I wish I could stop, when I'm desperate to stop but that pain is short term. The satisfaction of completing a hard session, day, week, month, year, Olympiad of training is incomparable to anything I know.
What would you say the benefits would be from rowing? How would you sell the sport to youngsters?
Rowing is the ultimate sport for fitness as the rowing stroke works every part of the body from the neck right down to the toes. If you want to get really strong and fit then take up rowing! It can also be tailored to suit your personality as it can be an incredibly satisfying and unifying team sport where the bond between team mates is unrivaled. Yet you can also be an individual out on the water on your own with only you to rely on, there is something for everyone. There is not much better than getting onto the river in the early morning with the sun just starting to light up the sky and mist rising in twists around you. You glide over the water before most people are even considering stepping out of the house. There is an enormous amount of enjoyment to be gained whilst out there on the river and once in doors, warm and changed the satisfaction is immense!
You were spare man at Beijing in 2008 that must have been so disappointing, what inspired you to the success you’ve achieved since?
I was spare man in Beijing which was disappointing but it was also an incredible opportunity for me. I had had an injury plagued year so I was actually very lucky to even be given the chance to travel with the team. I did the best job I could do for the guys, I was there fit ready to race if I was needed but thankfully the team all remained in one piece, I wasn't needed. I spent the time during the regatta in the stands watching and learning from the best rowers in the world. I was sitting with my team mate's families feeling their emotion, soaking in the importance and pride they had for their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. I came home with renewed vigour, enthusiasm and very clear goals about how to get myself to the top of the sport. This involved locking myself in a gym with a load of weights, I doubled my calorie and protein intake. It made the difference, within a year I was World champion for the first time and well on the way.
Your son Jasper was born in 2009, the year you became World Champion, how has being a dad inspired you?
A few weeks after the World Championships in 2009 where I won my first title Jasper was born. It was an incredible couple of weeks/months and a real turning point in our lives. Suddenly not everything was about rowing and the focus changed in the most dramatic way. Emily had a very long difficult birth resulting in an emergency C section but as soon as Jasper was there a sense of calm settled over us all. I returned to training that day (no paternity leave in Rowing!) and the birth put everything into perspective. I was performing well on the water, my results were improving and once I drove away from the lake at the end of the day I could switch off from the stresses and strains of training and focus on something so completely different. I feel we adapted well to being parents and I have no doubt it has helped balance my life out resulting in me becoming a more rounded athlete. There were and still are difficult times but I see these as challenges and I am proud when these challenges are met and overcome. I have discovered that the body can do more without sleep than I ever thought possible so it has shown me new levels of mental ability!
Fellow rowers have described you as a joker, reliable, levelheaded and uncompetitive….how would you describe yourself?
Its always hard to describe yourself. I hope I come across as reliable and consistent in what I do. One of the major things that has motivated me to achieve in sport is that I always grew up thinking and being told that you had to be ultra competitive and aggressive in the sporting arena. That just isn't me, never has been and never will be. People used to think I was a 'softy' because I was always smiling, this was all fuel on the fire to prove them wrong. Being externally tough means absolutly nothing when it comes down to those last few agonising meters in a neck and neck race. It's all about mental strength and resilliance, it doesn't matter what you do on the outside! I hope I have shown this summer that getting an Olympic Gold can come to those who don't try to put up a front and feel they have to look tough to win!
You list talking to animals as your hobby – do you see yourself as a regular day Dr Doolittle?
I absolutley love the concept of talking to animals, I really wish I could! I do love animals and wildlife and always have. I used to have a bedroom full of pets from birds and lizards to frogs and cockroaches. I think it's a good interest to have and can teach youngsters many lessons in life. I will allow Jasper to have animals if he wants them and if he looks after them responsibly and with care. I'm trying to instill the importance of caring for our country's native wildlife too as so much of it is under threat. At the moment we have a family of hedgehogs living in a hedgehog house Jasper and I made ourselves in the garden. We feed them and watch them in the evenings together as a family. Once my rowing career comes to a close I hope I can move into something that involves animals whether its keeping them or watching them!
Your event has an amazing heritage, being made famous by Sir Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, these were big shoes to fill, did this put any extra pressure on your shoulders?
The Coxless four event does indeed have a history to it in our country. After winning this summer we have done something no other nation in rowing has ever done before which is to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics. It has become 'our' event which means the British public expects us to win! This heritage started in Sydney 2000 when Sir Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic gold medal. Mathew Pinsent and James Cracknell from that crew joined forces with two new crew mates to win again four years later in Athens. One remaining crew member from Athens, Steve Williams formed a crew with my three crew mates to win gold in Beijing 2008. For London 2012 I was replacing Steve Williams and joining the Olympic champion crew. This meant the pressure was on for me - all eyes would be turned in my direction if we failed to take the Gold. To add to this Pressure Jurgen Grobler our coach has won a gold medal at every Olympics he has coached at, a record not matched by anyone ever before. This was to be his 11th and I really didn't want to be the one to break his string of golds. It's safe to say that before the Olympic final I was nervous.
Let me take you back to London 2012, Eton Dorney, crossing the finish line as Olympic Champion. Describe that feeling?
I was sitting in the bow seat of the four, I was the first man across the line of an Olympic final, thats the stuff of dreams! But at the time there was no joy, no excitement, no immediate happiness. The first few minutes were filled with pure and overwhelming relief. It was such a relief to have finished, to have crossed that line first and to have not let down the other guys, Jurgen and to have met the expectations of the nation. I hadn't realised how much pressure we had been under and how nervous I had been. I had somehow managed to block it out. The experience of the other three guys in the boat had been invaluable to me as they had all done it before which filled me with an incredible amount of confidence, but on crossing the line this all came flooding in. It was a strange time, a huge cauldron of emotions and a whirlwind afterwards. My main happiness that day came from knowing i had finally achieved what I had been working towards for 13 years and had finally paid back my long suffering family.
If there was any case of getting carried away with it all that was to stop very soon when I bent down and presented Jasper with my medal. Surely this was to be my proudest moment as a dad so far; I handed my medal to Jasper and said
" Look what I won for you"
he took it in his hand, turned it over and with a look of disgust, threw it on the floor and said
" It's not chocolate!"
You have won Olympic Gold, and 2 world championships in the last three years, and won world cup gold in the men’s eight in 2013 and was awarded an MBE in the New Years Honours List…..where do you go from here? What’s left for you to achieve?
Winning gold this summer has been fantastic and everything I could have dreamed of in my sport but there are always new challenges and I don't believe I've reached my peak in rowing. I always had it in my mind to carry on rowing for another Olympic cycle whatever the result and so that is exactly what I am doing. I'm aiming to really enjoy these next four years, I'm fully aware how lucky I am being a full time athlete and so really want to make the most of the opportunity I have to do so. It's easy to do it once, the real challenge is repeating it! It's tough as we often travel abroad for 3 week stretches for training camps and races throughout the year so I have missed patches of Jasper growing up but when I'm home we make up for that and use our time as quality family time doing as much as we can together. We are actually expecting a baby girl in August when I am away in South Korea racing at the World Championships! Bad planning there but thankfully Emily is an incredibly supportive and understanding partner and we are staying relaxed about it - easy for me to say!
You are helping to train 2 amateur rowers in a bid to cross the Atlantic for BCC, how did that come about?
It was purely by chance that I was made aware of Nick and Ed who are planning to row across the Atlantic in December in the Talisker Atlantic rowing race. Nick went to the same school as one of the guys at rowing and got in contact to see if anyone was willing to help. I took up the offer and took the guys out on the river for a couple of pointers. Neither of them had rowed before so it's going to be one hell of a challenge for them. Nick's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and has since recovered but Nick and Ed feel strongly about raising a lot of money for Breakthrough Breastcancer. Their aim is to raise £250,000 for the charity. It's a great cause and I will be supporting the guys in any way I can. To donate please go to http://breakthroughatlantic.com/
How has being a dad changed you?
Becoming a dad has given me a far more balanced life. It allows me to fully switch off from the day job and takes my mind off any pressures and problems I have there. I enjoy and appreciate my time away from rowing more and although I get less rest, I am a much better person for it. Everything is now about my family, my results are important as they affect other people not just myself. Sport is not a safe, secure financial environment. My funding is performance related so I now need to perform in rowing to feed the family. It would be nice to be more secure but it does provide a serious motivation. I have certainly 'grown up' but I enjoy the responsibility and I am proud of what we have achieved as a family so far.
If Jasper wanted to follow in his Daddy’s footsteps and become a rower, how would you feel?
I would feel very proud if Jasper wanted to follow in my rowing footsteps however I certainly won't be pushing him towards that career. It's a tough all consuming lifestyle with very little time for anything else. There is very little funding, it's difficult to make a living from it! I'm trying to get him to swing a golf club at the moment but he doesn't show much interest in that. I will let him find his own way as my dad did for me. What I do want to teach him is the importance of working hard and trying to be the best he can possibly be at whatever he chooses sport or not.
There are so many to choose from, but what would you say is your proudest achievement?
There is no question that my proudest achievement has been watching Jasper grow up into the fun happy little boy he has become. Having Jasper has put everything I have worked towards and achieved in my rowing career into perspective and made me realize what is really important. Medals are what we work towards but they don't really matter. What does matter is knowing that Jasper is going to wake up and have a day that he enjoys and goes to bed happy and tired at the end of the day.
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