Riding the world’s oldest bike race, by accident

This is a new personal project I’ve been working on. Please let me know what you think, share with anyone who might like it and have a look at the charity link.

Climbing 100 Climbs

Chalkpit Lane (117), White Lane (16), Toys Hill (20), York’s Hill (15)

Many of the 100 Greatest Climbs have gained that status because they are the venues for club hill-climb races, which take place towards the end of the summer season. Those planning to ride them on a recreational basis would do well to take this into account.

Looking to add a little variety into my training, I spot a cluster of climbs in the Kent Downs and plot a 45km route to take in four of them, criss-crossing the same ridge just west of Sevenoaks.

Putting a metaphorical pin in the map, Oxted looks a good starting point so I park up in the town’s underground station car park. On a weekday I imagine this is rammed with commuters; on a Sunday morning the cavernous space feels like a scene in Mad Max but it’s as good a place…

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“I’ve been in a boat 11 days and I’m gonna win” – Olympic medal hope Graeme Thomas on how he started rowing


Graeme Thomas is remarkably calm and confident as he prepares to make his Olympic debut in Rio, aiming for Great Britain’s first ever Olympic medal in the men’s quad scull.

I spoke to the 27-year-old from Preston when the team was officially announced in Henley back in June and the full interview is in the latest issue of Rowing & Regatta magazine. There wasn’t space there, though, for some of the great chatty bits, of which there were lots.

In this audio clip he talks about first getting into the sport at Agecroft RC in Manchester, and about his attitude to pressure in his first Games.

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What’s The Rowlup all about?

Four months ago, I sent the following draft for a rowing blog to a friend who runs clothing company Hugga. He was looking for a feature to bring regular traffic to the company website and I was looking to do a bit more writing and blogging (as I did across a range of sports at the BBC a few years ago).

The blog was eventually named The Rowlup – a rowing round-up – and that first draft became the first post of the series. The format has changed a little as we’ve gone along but it remains a way of collating the rowing news and views that appears all over the internet now but maybe don’t get the sort of audience it deserves.

Obviously the format isn’t original. I enjoy reading Ollie Williams’ Frontier Sports Olympic links and drew some inspiration from it.

The Rowlup isn’t a place for spurious gossip. What appears has either been published elsewhere, is first-hand (ie published on social media by the person involved) or I’ve sourced and checked it myself.

There isn’t a lot of original content in there, admittedly. Original content takes time and therefore costs more money. I work on the assumption that people may have seen some of the content in there but – unless they’re glued to social media all the time and know all the nooks and crannies I’ve peered into over the last few years – they won’t have seen most of it.

If you haven’t seen The Rowlup before, please give it a click. It was published weekly through the British season but has moved fortnightly for now. We’ll make decisions on its future regularity in September.

As with any blog, it thrives on being shared so if you enjoy it, please tweet, like or share with like-minded people. You can also sign up to receive the blog via email.

And please let me know what you think – either here, in the comments on each blog or on Twitter. There’s also now a Facebook page to promote my journalism, where you can leave comments.

I’m always keen to hear suggestions for stories from readers. Dan Spring spotted the photo of the coxed Kiwi pair that led the 1 August blog and Rory Copus dropped me a line with his coxing video from Henley Royal which featured in the last issue. If you have an idea, please get in touch.

The next issue will be out on or around 28 August, with the action already under way at the World Championships in Amsterdam and finals weekend looming.

The Rowlup

Eyes were on Caversham last weekend, where the GB Rowing Team competed in their final set of selection trials for the year. Unfortunately spectators weren’t allowed at the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake, to the annoyance of some after the crowd-pleasing 2012 trials at Dorney.

There are reviews of the event on the British Rowing website and BBC Sport, which mentions “cold but sunny conditions” but not the raging headwind and forecast for worse on Sunday, which saw the event squeezed to three races in a single day and many male heavyweight scullers taking more than eight minutes over the 2k course.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning were reunited in competition for the first time since winning Great Britain’s first gold of the London 2012 Olympics, and they won in emphatic fashion.

Meanwhile, for the first time in nine years, neither Pete Reed nor Andy Triggs Hodge came away with victory in the men’s pairs. Moe Sbihi and Alex Gregory pushed Hodge and George Nash into second, while Reed pulled out through illness.

A few Molesey members took exception to club stawart Sbihi being pictured in a photo gallery named “Leander at Henley” and staged a black ops raid on the pink palace’s Facebook page.

Olympic bronze medallist Alan Campbell crossed the finish line third in the single sculls but was disqualified, having arrived late to the start then false-started.

Meanwhile Constantine Louloudis was able to raise a wry smile after capsizing in the B-final. After his Boat Race success a Standard reporter had mistaken his mention of a single scull as an aim for the Rio 2016 Olympics, rather than a route to selection for big boats.

Some interesting stats and discussion afterwards on the relative strength in depth of the men’s and women’s pairs. Women’s coach Paul Thompson boated his strongest combo while Jurgen Grobler split the talent, so is it any more than a statistical exercise?


Some statistical suggestions too in this Rowing Magazine article offering 10 tips to get your novices up to speed. When coaching newbies on the ergo, how about using watts rather than 500m splits?

“Watts are easily understood—more is better—and they are easier to compare. The difference between 1:59 and 1:57 splits doesn’t seem as significant as the gap between 203 and 218 watts.”

Sunny Sarnen

As we come to the end of the training camp season there are plenty of videos around, and some outstanding scenery in this montage of Westminster School’s trip to Sarnen in Switzerland.

We found that on RowHub, along with this challenge to find your rowing name. I’m Sloppy Swimmer, which is true but not really rowing-related.

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Twenty four hours away from the sporting spotlight

Even though it is just 10 miles south of Chester and 35 miles west from Stoke-on-Trent, Farndon Sports and Social Club feels about as far from civilisation as it is possible to be.

It is certainly a long way from mainstream sporting civilisation this weekend. Eyes are on the second Ashes Test at Lord’s or the Open golf at Muirfield.

Most cycling fans are watching the Tour de France, which will finish on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening, after a three-week race that has covered 2115 miles. The top four riders around Farndon will combine to cover 2110 in the next 24 hours.

We’re at the Mersey Roads club’s annual 24-hour race, which first took place in 1937 and which again this year doubles as the national championship. There are 91 individuals and three tandems set to start at one-minute intervals from 1pm on Saturday, with a long day, night and day ahead of them.

Riders mill around the sports club car park, eyeing rivals’ carbon frames and solid wheels, bantering cautiously on a humid morning. I’m part of a support team for Simon, who is taking part in his fourth 24, and our itinerary looks like this:

  • Sit by a roundabout for six hours, in the middle of a 40-mile out-and-back circuit that starts 16 miles away from race HQ in Farndon.
  •  Move to another roundabout for four hours, at the tip of a smaller circuit keeping riders away from the evening traffic.
  • Head back to the original roundabout while the riders go up to five times around the 40-miler again through the night
  •  North to the smaller circuit for six circuits during the morning rush
  •  Further north to HQ and the finish circuit on Sunday morning

That’s going to be pretty arduous in itself, and we’re not even on a bike.

George Berwick

George Berwick is still competing aged 72, 39 years after his first win

There is a sign on a small road just east of Farndon that reads “Wilko 525.07 miles”, marking the finishing point for the record-holder, Andy Wilkinson, in 1997. He  also set the national record – 541.17 miles – on a Sussex circuit in 2011.

Normally 500 miles is enough to secure victory but it soon becomes apparent that there are more candidates for victory than in a normal year. About 10 riders start quickly enough to be in with a chance but the lead man is Sean Childs of Royal Navy & Royal Marines CA who three hours in, is averaging 23.9mph and going like a train. “He’s about on course for where he wants to be,” says one of his support crew.

Stops for the top riders are infrequent. Some are followed by support vehicles but most have a bottle or bag passed up from the roundabout every hour while they roll on. Simon stops with a loose tri bar after a couple of hours but we fix it quickly and he’s back on his way.

Not everyone is in it to win it, obviously. George Berwick won in 1974 and is still going at the age of 72, although he now rides as stoker on a tandem as his eyesight isn’t up to going solo.

Why do they do it? George Mallory’s line about Mount Everest seems most apt: Because it’s there. Some do it because they’re good at it, some for the sense of achievement, some for the sense of fellowship that is obvious throughout.

As it gets dark, we see fewer riders out. Already 10 hours in, perhaps they’ve stopped to sleep, ready to have another go in the morning. One rider is being supported by his wife in a campervan. Approaching midnight, she shuts the door and goes to bed, leaving his food and water on a chair outside.

Why do the riders do it? Because it's there

Why do the riders do it? Because it’s there

The night hours are what count, says John Warnock, a former winner who is supporting Simon and another club-mate this year after injuring his thigh in a fall from a mountain bike. You might go out hard but if you can’t push on at a good speed through the lonely night it will all come apart.

As a supporter it’s difficult to keep up with what’s going on. Riders, understandably, are struggling to stay alert. The timekeepers – posted at regular intervals around the course – ask them to shout out numbers as they approach in the dark. Many shout it at anyone, timekeeper or not.

A supporter springs to life as a rider passes, dashes to the road and shouts, “Well done Michael.” Then admits, “Oh, it’s Stephen.”

At 2am, John and his rider fumble a bottle exchange. The rider shouts “next time” but John – with his injured thigh – sprints across the roundabout to meet him successfully on the other side.

“You wouldn’t see me doing that if I missed mine,” says an onlooker, whose rider promptly passes unnoticed. “See?”

I opt for a bit of a snooze in the back of the transit van and miss Spiderman. One supporter has decided a costume change will help keep his rider mentally alert in the middle of the night and crosses the roundabout to hand a bottle up as the webbed wonder.

It’s 3am and we’ve lost a rider. He was due through about 15 minutes before Simon but hasn’t shown. Could be anywhere on the northern 20 miles of the course, in any kind of state. We hop in the van to see if we can spot him, which is a thankless task. Only the areas around the three roundabouts are lit; otherwise the pitch black is broken only by bike lights at regular intervals, and the occasional huge HGV powering along the A41. Stopping for a cup of tea we get a call to say he’s turned up on schedule; must have just missed him as he passed by last time.

Night time may be tough but dawn must be pretty bad mentally, as riders realise they still have another eight hours to go. As an extra treat, it has started to drizzle. We head for a fry-up in a huge truck-stop cafe that has stayed open all night for the event, and several of the riders do the same.

Scores for the first 12 hours are available at about 9am and the leader is Alex Kirk from Dulwich Paragon CC. Those results were compiled by 3am though and things look very different in daylight.

Simon appeared off the pace in 10th but by our reckoning is sixth now, having kept plugging through the small hours. Sean Childs has just taken 87 minutes to get around a 13-mile circuit and it just one of those now sporting a thousand-yard stare.

“Well done Steve,” shouts John to one rider. “Seventy-five,” he replies.

This circuit took about 35 minutes last night; this morning it’s more like 42. Last year’s winner, Ultan Coyle, is looking strong, as is Stuart Birnie of Willesden CC.

Car drivers on Sunday morning appear pretty bemused by the massed ranks of supporters in laybys, even without knowing that they have been in similar positions for the previous 20 hours.

There is a road race taking place around Farndon during the morning but once that has finished, the time trailers are routed north to the finish circuit. Marshalls are placed every two miles around it; riders are logged by each and their 24-hour score is taken from the last one passed, plus a calculation based on average speed for the extra few hundred yards.

There has been a friendly atmosphere throughout but it is here that the camaraderie between supporters and riders is most obvious, as every rider past HQ receives a cheer and many respond with a smile and a wave.

“What a charming bunch of people,” commented one rider on a forum afterwards.

Simon Bever

Riders slump in the car park at race HQ after 24 hours of racing

“Virtually everyone who passed me had at least a friendly ‘dig in’. Some of the spectators became people I looked forward to seeing each lap. I won’t ever worry about being ‘unsupported’ again because it turns out I was supported all the way.”

Less serious riders stop at HQ as their finish time approaches. Others roll in from around the course having clocked their last few miles. We find Simon slumped next to a parish church, pretty confident of a new PB, and head back to Farndon, where the car park is full of riders slumped on deckchairs, staring into the middle distance.

Two riders have topped the 500-mile mark, Birnie’s 518.372 trumping the 513.655 ridden by Coyle, who won last year with 25 miles fewer. Lynne Taylor wins the women’s event for the 13th time after covering 423.428 miles.

We make it home in our transit van just in time to see Chris Froome cross the finish line in front of the floodlights and flashbulbs in Paris. But the fulfilment of competition is the same at whatever level you compete, and whatever distance you cover.

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What was your #rowingmoment2012 ?

After an outstanding year of rowing, it’s tough to pick just one moment out as better than the rest. Katherine Grainger’s victory with Anna Watkins would probably edge it for me as the pick of the Olympic regatta, just ahead of Great Britain’s first ever women’s rowing gold – for Helen Glover and Heather Stanning – a brave bronze for GB’s men’s eight in their all-or-nothing battle with Germany and Alan Campbell’s gut-busting push for bronze in the single.

There was more gold for GB at the Paralympics, though, and an action-packed domestic season, including the debut of schoolgirls at Henley Royal Regatta and the Diamond Jubilee Rowing Championships, a forerunner of a new, beefed-up Nat Champs.

Here are a few of your top rowing moments of 2012 from Twitter. Please add yours using the hashtag #rowingmoment2012 or leave a comment below.

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My highlights from the summer of sport

As the nights draw in and the weather worsens, the glowing summer of sport already seems a long time ago. The video montages will display the headlines and big names but – like no British summer before it – the last four months will have left every spectator with their own set of personal memories.

I’ve spent some of the summer working and some of it as a fan in the stands, cheering for Great Britain and many of the athletes I’ve encountered over the last few years.

Here are my personal highlights – please let me know about yours.

Henley looks to the next generation

Over 170 of Great Britain’s rowing Olympians, going back as far as 1948, attended the final day of Henley Royal Regatta – and it can be pretty disconcerting when the scruffy bloke you’ve been working with all week introduces himself to someone else as Britain’s oldest living Olympic rowing champion – but the focus of the week was on the future as none of the Brits bound for 2012, and very few from other nations, competed over London’s last Olympic rowing course.

The latest group invited to the Henley party were schoolgirls, competing in quads for the first time and surprising some with their quality. Henley RC won the inaugural title and dealt with the media attention like professionals.

Also determined to look to the future was Alex Woods, the Oxford oarsman who collapsed from exhaustion during April’s controversial Boat Race. His crew weren’t successful but it was good to see him back in action.

As reporter for the regatta’s news service it was also lots of fun talking to those around the boat tents, asking rowers and coaches about their secrets of success.

Wiggins’ Tour de Force

The view on TV may be better but Tour de France is best experienced after a lengthy road trip and a few hours by the side of the course.Final climb during the time trial in Chartres

A time trial at least lengthens the experience but Bradley Wiggins still ascended the final hill through Chartres in a flash, before punching the air at the finish to acknowledge finally that he would be the first Brit ever to win the Tour de France.

Lacking a big screen, I was struggling to remember schoolboy French while listening to the announcer at roadside. Surely he had not just announced Wiggins as 53 seconds ahead of any other rider at the second time-check, two-thirds of the way into the course. He was, and he won by 73.

Armitstead lights up London gloom

A day after Wiggins and GB’s men proved unable to deliver Mark Cavendish first to the finish line in the Mall, Lizzie Armitstead came much closer in a classic sprint with Dutch great Marianne Vos.

Soaked to the skin while on Box Hill, a large crowd made it to a local vineyard in time to watch on a big screen, joining the 7.6m people who watched on TV as the duo made a mockery of suggestions from some quarters that women’s road racing is more boring than the men’s version.

After taking silver, Armitstead touched on the debate that has appeared on this blog in the past, and world governing body the UCI recently approved a plan to promote women’s cycling more heavily. If you want to get involved, follow the Twitter hastag #FanBackedWomensTeam.

Girls come good with rowing gold

Dorney Lake was transformed during the Olympics into a cauldron of noise and Great Britain’s rowers played their part by topping the medal table.

Women’s rowing has only been part of Olympics since 1976, their events have only been rowed over the full 2km course since ’88 and Great Britain only won their first womens’s medal in 2000. Twelve years later, they won their first gold, and two more for good measure.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning kicked things off with gold in the pair, Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins ended Grainger’s 12 years of hurt in the double scull then lightweights Sophie Hosking and Kat Copeland crashed the party too.

Despite the tremendous physical effort required in the race, sometimes it looks easy when you watch from the towpath, but Glover gave an insight into the sacrifice required when she told me about a time before funding kicked in when she was unable to afford petrol and had to run between work and training.

A week later, the women’s squad’s Aussie head coach Paul Thompson was still smiling broadly and tremendously proud.

There were also two brave bronze medals, from GB’s men’s eight and from Alan Campbell in the single scull. As a junior, Matt Langridge from the eight once told his coach that silver was for first loser; his crew personified that attitude with a gold-or-bust approach desperate to take the title from Germany ending in exhaustion. The race also brought an end to Greg Searle’s storied comeback.

Paralympics comes of age

If anyone else was lucky enough to see Great Britain’s first gold of both the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, I would love to hear from them.

Action in the velodrome during the ParalympicsSarah Storey brought the first bling at the Paralympics, winning the individual pursuit on the track with a display of dominance she would repeat three further times, becoming in the process Britain’s most decorated Paralympian of the modern era.

Arguably the memory that will live longest from the Paralympic velodrome, though, was the sight of Jody Cundy exploding after being denied the chance to ride for gold in the 1km time trial. It banished any suggestion that Paralympic sport was purely about participation; it was never more clearly about competition at the highest level.

After a spectacular opening ceremony – with an overt political agenda that set it apart from what had gone before in the Olympic Stadium – the Paralympics also offered the chance to encounter new sport and lesser known stars:

  • Wheelchair rugby, originally known as “murderball” because of its regular bashing and crashing, with Great Britain’s mohawked attacked David Anthony.
  • Goalball, where crowds at the Copper Box arena had to be quiet during play so that visually impaired competitors could hear the bells in the ball. Known during the Olympics as the Box that Rocks, the venue became the Box without Vox.
  • Events in the athletics stadium that included the high jump for leg amputees, a fact you struggle to take in as competitors ditch their crutches shortly before leaping over the bar.

Cav on the cobbles

The Prime Minister heralded the end of a “golden summer of sport” at the athletes’ parade in London on the day after the Paralympics finished, but Mark Cavendish was determined to make it last one more week.

Marginalised by Team Sky and unable to capture Olympic gold despite the efforts of his team, he capped his season with victory in an uphill sprint over the cobbles of Guildford High Street to win the final stage of the Tour of Britain.

He was watched by thousands, with crowds eight or 10 deep on that final hill having to be content with screaming at the big screen after seeing the riders flicker by through a mass of bodies.

The other star that day was Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, winner of the Tour overall, before making an impressive senior debut for GB at the world championships in the Netherlands to mark him out as one for the future. The summer of British sport may be over but the sports themselves never stop evolving.


Those are my personal highlights from the sports that hit the headlines in 2012. Please let me know about your favourite bits – there is so much to chose from.

My real summer highs, though, came from the performances of the rowers I coached over the season. I don’t blog or write about them because I think doing so would compromise the coach-athlete relationship, and because they haven’t grabbed any headlines, yet at least. That’s why I am about to start doing far more coaching than writing, hoping to play a part in more sporting highlights to come.

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Should Locog get more people jogging?

Have London 2012 organisers failed to deliver on their promise to “change the face of British sport” when the Olympic Games were awarded to the city seven years ago?

“Legacy” and “participation” were the watchwords in the 2005 presentation that won Lord Coe and London the Games.

The new age of austerity has hit some of the more high-profile initiatives to boost those, such as the £162m Schools Sports Partnership in England but – as this straw poll in January hinted – governing bodies and clubs  have realised that the Games provide an unmissable opportunity to promote their sports.

That, according to athletics great Steve Cram, is exactly what they should be doing.

Steve Cram“I don’t think the Games should or will have a remit for developing legacy,” said the 1984 Olympic 1500m silver medallist when I spoke to him a fortnight ago.

“I don’t think it’s [London 2012 organising committee] Locog’s job to get people jogging. The Olympics are about elite sport – a showcase. Locog has got too much else to do.

“I would look to local sports clubs and say, ‘You’re in the shop window; what are you going to do?

In 2006, funding body UK Sport made requirements of governing bodies before cash was released, forcing each to have a clear performance pathway, showing that funding meant to produce Olympic medals would go towards just that, with grassroots funding for sport development a completely separate issue.

The performance goal looks likely to be achieved, with one study forecasting 27 gold medals in 2012 – from a nation that won just one in 1996.

Perhaps the separation in approaches has helped to make clear that participation is just as important as performance. In programmes such as Back to Hockey and Explore Rowing, governing bodies seek to promote enjoyment, opening their sports up to those who may be put off by a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Cram was speaking to me as an ambassador for independent website Findarace.com, which aims to help potential competitors discover running, cycling, triathlon and swimming events that are nearby and suit their level of competition.

He has witnessed the explosion of mass participation in his own sport over the last 20 years and does his bit by organising the Marathon of the North in his home city of Sunderland.

Many more people want to get involved in sport, he reasons, but don’t know what to look for. It is easy for those within a sport to forget how complicated it is to get involved in the first place.

The 2012 Olympics will provide the shop window to attract new competitors to each of the 26 sports. Then it will be up to clubs, governing bodies and enterprising initiatives like Findaraceto get them involved.

“It’s important that youngsters see a sport and want to go to their local club, whether it be athletics or canoeing, taekwondo or boxing” said Cram.

“I hope that in 10 years’ time there will be people on the podium who say, ‘I saw the sport for the first time in 2012.”

Do you agree with Steve Cram – should clubs and governing bodies be responsible for promoting their own sport or should London 2012 be doing more? Please let me know what you think – either here or via Twitter to @martingough22

Posted in athletics, olympics, participation | Leave a comment

More from Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter is the latest interviewee for the rowers’ roots series I’ve been writing for Rowing & Regatta magazine. As always, there were plenty more words available after the interview – at Poplar Blackwell & District RC back in March – than a magazine feature will allow.

Here are a few more from the Thames waterman who went from finishing 13th on his Olympic debut in Athens to becoming the first British lightweight rower to win Olympic gold, with Zac Purchase in the double in Beijing.

The interview was arranged through British Airways, the official airline of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which supports Mark by flying him around the world.

On the difficulties of training on the Thames in Poplar:

“I didn’t have my wellie boots when I first came down, I had some trainers. They got covered in mud because you had to wade in so I learnt a lesson straight away.

“Out on the water you’ve got to deal with pleasure craft, waves and the tide so you grow up very quickly on your watermanship and knowing where you need to be and what you need to do.

“When I was doing Henley with the Windsor boys [a composite that won the Fawley Cup when he was 18] they came down and we all went out in our singles. I’ll never forget, paddling back from the Tower of London, a ship came past and they froze, wouldn’t move, didn’t know what to do. I just started laughing and sculled away.

“It’s not somewhere most internationals would come to because everyone’s up at Henley and the glamour part of the sport. Here it’s old school. There’s nothing glamorous in training down here.

“It was frustrating. You’d be in the middle of a piece and [the river bus would] go flying past and I’d be soaked. But that’s where you learn your skills and grow up very quickly. It’s not beautiful out there, it’s going to be challenging. When it comes to racing in rough water, that’s what you thrive on.

“You saw how rough and windy it was [at the 2010 World Championships] in Karapiro and we just took the event apart. If it’s like that, we’ll deal with it in the same way, which will be exciting.”

On taking up rowing in his early teens, coached by father Terry, who taught at a nearby school:

Mark Hunter overshadowed by photos of Doggetts winners at PB&D RC“He introduced me like he did any sport. He’s opened so many doors for me in trying different sports but this was a sport he’s passionate about and it’s the one I fell in love with.

“When I was at school no one else knew what rowing was so that was something unique for me.

“I dabbled in football but knew I wasn’t going to be a pro at that. I did swimming and knew I wasn’t the right size and shape to be good at that. Rowing was ideal.

“I went to Peterborough Regatta. It was the first time I’d raced on a multilane course. I went in not having any expectation as a J14 but ended up winning in a course record for that event.

“I’d been doing a lot of team sports until then and got frustrated with people being lazy, not putting the effort in. In the single it was all about me. If I trained, got the result it was because I put all the hard work in and that’s what really captured me.”

On his sporting relationship with his father, who is now head coach of the community programme at Dorney Lake, which sees 4-500 children a week row at Olympic venue:

“He’s brilliant at bringing kids on, developing them and getting the best out of them while they’re juniors.

“What I loved about him was that he said, ‘You’re moving on now,’ rather than trying to keep me to himself, which is where a lot of youth coaches go wrong; they don’t let talent blossom.

“It’s a special relationship. You have your good days and bad, your arguments, your fun stuff and your bad stuff but there was something unique and very special, He was the best person to coach me at that point.”

Terry subsequently told me:

“It’s special but you’re with them 24 hours a day so it can be intense, and there comes a point where you have to let them go.

“At 23, he turned to me and said, ‘Other coaches tell me the same thing but I listen to them and I want to argue with you,’ so I said it was time to move on.

Mark on the differences between his background and the public school element of the rowing scene:

“When I was a junior it was more apparent. When you go to junior training camps there’s Eton boys, Radley boys; they’re from a very different environment to you. But most of them haven’t got any banter so you can make them look stupid.

“The sport is very different now. It’s great we have the Boat Race but people will perceive that as what the sport is, which is not what it is at all. It’s great we have the race but that’s why people think it’s a sport for posh people, because of Oxford and Cambridge, and that’s the event they see every year.”

On the decision to move to lightweight, which he did not take until the age of 23:

“People said I should try lightweight but I wanted to try and make it as a heavyweight. Unless you’re a natural lightweight its quite dangerous to try too early and also it affects your life outside rowing. I was quite happy to keep developing and enjoying life.

“After the Sydney Olympics, I decided to go lightweight. I’d finished at Under-23 and I gave myself two years to make it as a lightweight. I went straight in to the team within a couple of months but it was challenging to learn how to lose weight, how to perform. Some of the things I did then I would never do now – the amount of running I did was insane.

“It’s not easy because I’m not a natural lightweight, I have to work hard and diet. There are challenging times when you have to lose weight, it’s exhausting but that’s part of the lifestyle I chose and I love that.”

On dealing with his Olympic struggles in Athens, where his lightweight four finished 13th overall:

“I wanted to prove to myself as well as everybody else that it could be done and that I was better than being 13th for the Olympic Games. I think that’s why people enjoy listening to it because it shows you can be at the bottom and turn it around.

“It doesn’t matter what part of life you’re in, whether you’re in a business that’s struggling, doing the right things and looking to improve in certain areas, it’s the same as an athlete, looking to get to the top and looking to get better.

“Even when I was getting knockbacks and it wasn’t going well, I knew I had to work harder and just be a better athlete; that would carry me, I’d find somebody else and then it would work.

“I wanted to succeed, I had to succeed.

“I was very fortunate that Zac came along at the right time but that’s the way unique combinations are. You can’t predict when it’s going to happen. It could have been with someone else but it might not have been so successful. Fate awaited my time. I had my disappointment and now it’s all come good.”

Purchase and Hunter are in action together again this summer

On taking a year off in 2009 to coach at the University of California in Los Angeles, and a possible future in coaching:

“I learnt an awful lot. I’d coached part-time before but to be in charge of a group properly for a whole year was massive. To tell an athlete, ‘You’re not going to be in a crew in this one,’ was so hard. But with the experience I had I knew the things that were going on in their heads so I could jump on them and say, ‘I know you’re thinking this,’ and they respected that.

“I loved that opportunity to give something back and teach. I love coaching and maybe afterwards that would be a great thing for me to stick and get to the top of.

“You need to do your apprenticeship. I don’t think you just jump into the high-level coaching, you need to do your grassroots coaching, learn and make your way up, like you do as an athlete. Then you’ll have the respect of your peers and athletes and have the background of knowledge to not just get there but stay there. That’s what I’d love to be able to do one day.”

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Braced for Boat Race week

Last week in a charity auction, a single seat on a launch following this year’s Boat Race was sold at auction for £500. By that mark, I’ve had few thousand pounds-worth over the last few years but this time I will be on dry land for the annual joust between Oxford and Cambridge.

Maybe it isn’t as historic as the first radio broadcast of the race in 1926, or the first live TV in 1938 – in part because others have done it before – but this year’s live text commentary on the official race website will hopefully be pretty special.

The project uses the blueprint for interactive live text coverage championed by the BBC (where I was normally producer rather than writer, except on rare occasions), the functionality provided by Cover it Live and some great work by Riskpoint, designers of this season’s relaunched Boat Race website to make the whole thing look and feel smooth

Reporters Libby Richards and Oscar Schonfeld will be on Twitter throughout Tideway week (contributing respectively to the @CUBCSquad and @OUBCSquad feeds) and will be my eyes and ears around the Putney Embankment on Saturday, while I’m based in front of a large plasma screen at the Mortlake Boat House, where the crews will end up.

And I hope we will get some good input not only from the 250,000 pairs of eyes lining the course for the race but also the seven million or so watching on TV, who will be able to send comments via the live console or get in touch on Twitter using the hashtag #theboatrace.

Perhaps unlike text commentaries of a decade ago, this isn’t just for people unable to watch or listen elsewhere; it should be a perfect complement on a laptop or mobile, whether as a “second screen” for TV viewers or a useful guide for those on the towpath as to what is going on further along the course.

And it will also be about the entire day, from the moment the crews arrive in Putney at 1130 BST, through the race at 1415 and reaction afterwards, going on until 1530.

The live text page is already available so please bookmark now and join in on Saturday.

I got a chance to visit the Oxford squad in Wallingford during training a few weeks ago, and put this video together for the West London Sport website. Fleming Boathouse is like nothing I’ve seen outside the GB HQ in Caversham, near Reading.

In fact it’s far prettier than Caversham, which is where the Great Britain team on Wednesday will reveal their line-ups for the first World Cup of the year, in what is likely to be an almost-finished draft of the Olympic crews.

There are lots of rumours flying, the obvious one being that Pete Reed and Andy Hodge have moved into the men’s four but also suggestions Alan Campbell has given up on the idea of competing in the double scull and will stay in his single.

All will be revealed on Wednesday but in the meantime it’s worth having a look at The Squad, a web series commissioned by British Rowing to introduce all of Great Britain’s to a wider audience.

The GB squad system in place now would have been completely foreign to national crews in the 1960s, but then (aside from a single medal won in 1964 by a four including Campbell’s coach Bill Barry) so was Olympic success between 1948 and 1972.

That was when GB’s Czech coach brought the country’s top rowers together and won the Olympic medals that marked the beginning of Great Britain’s rise to being one of the world’s top rowing nations.

I was engrossed last week in “Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians” the new book by Chris Dodd (who I work with on the Rowing Voice online magazine).

Look around on Tideway week and you’re likely to see a few of the characters from the Janousek years still lurking (as well as plenty of boats built by Bob after he gave up coaching).

Westminster schoolboys might enjoy the tale of their head coach Bill Mason being ordered to have a haircut by the GB team manager, John Tillbury, while part of the Thames Tradesmen “Beatle Four” in 1973.

One morning Tillbury caught the tradesmen crew coming in a 830am and asked them where they had been.

‘To an all-night party,’ said the boys, ‘and we had a fantastic time pulling girls who fancied us because of our long hair.’

Actually they had been for an early morning paddle on the best water at the best time of day – a practice unknown to the British team until then. Tillbury went mad and pulled them up before the management.

There will be more from Chris, more on the Boat Race and more on the Great Britain squad announcement in the next issue of Rowing Voice, which is out at the end of the week.

Oh, and the new Rowing & Regatta magazine is out this week, featuring an interview with Annabel Vernon – the only Women’s Boat Race blue in the Great Britain squad – about her rowing roots.

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Katherine Grainger in her own words

The latest Rowing & Regatta magazine, which came out on Monday, features a 1,600-word feature on Katherine Grainger’s roots; her route from reluctant recreational rower to four-time Olympian.

The original commission was for 800 words but I had to ask for an extension. I could have produced four times that, and much of it would have come from Katherine herself.

In squeezing all the information in, it was difficult to include Katherine’s stories on each subject we touched upon, or to convey fully the gentle sense of humour that runs in tandem with that grittiest of determination. Here are some of the out-takes.

On taking up rowing at Edinburgh University:

“We’re six months out from my fourth Olympic Games and I never saw that coming, it was never the game plan. It wasn’t me growing up thinking: I want to be an Olympian and a multi-Olympian.

“I didn’t start rowing until I was at university. I really wasn’t good when I started. I spent about two years being quite awful at it but I loved it!

“I went to university to get a degree. I started rowing because someone said I’d be good at it (and there was probably free beer or something) and I stuck at it because I loved the people in the club.

“It was one of those clubs that trained incredibly hard, considering it was just university, in your free time but also had a very good attitude to enjoying it. Every session was balanced, we’d go out for a drink afterwards or some food, or make a weekend of it. The personalities there are some of my best friends, people who know how to work hard, play hard and make the most of anything.”

On her first outing at Clydesdale RC, several years before university, with sister Sarah, who is 18 months older:

“Our next-door neighbour Gordon said, ‘You must come rowing!’ Their son Colin would come round and show off the blisters and calluses he’d got from rowing. It’s not very attractive to a girl in her early teens!

“I wasn’t convinced rowing was my thing but they persevered and one day I went down with my sister and two other friends. We did one session on the river but I thought it was a bit rubbish and a bit cold and I wasn’t that good.

“A few years ago my mum finally confessed that Gordon had come round and said, ‘Your daughter’s actually got real talent for this’. I said ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I could have been even better at a younger age’. And she said, ‘It wasn’t you, it was Sarah he was talking about’.

“My big sister lives off that, thinking if she rowed she’d be even better than me.”

On joining the juggling club at university freshers’ fayre, before being nobbled by the rowing club:

“I still have my membership card. When I went to university, everyone said it was an amazing opportunity to try so much. I went along to the usual freshers week fayre. Things you didn’t know existed, had clubs. I learned what korfball was and ultimate frisbee.

“I never went to a meeting. I don’t even know if there were meetings. If juggling was an Olympic sport that could have been mine. I might have had three golds!

“During university, when I was studying for exams, I found juggling quite relaxing. I still do it sometimes. There was a great shop in Edinburgh where you could buy flaming batons, clubs, knives and all sorts of things. I’m still at the two, three, four balls level.

“Maybe post-rowing, there’s a career waiting for me there!”

Here’s a clip of the interview, filmed for the British Rowing website

On her first rowing pot, in a university all-sports match between Edinburgh and Aberdeen:

“We were rowing in a four and one of my clearest memories was that we were waiting to boat and one of the girls cracked out a huge slab of milk chocolate and out coach was horrified.

“But we went on and won anyway. It was chaos, there were blades everywhere, a lot of passion and enthusiasm and no idea what we were doing.

“That’s how rowing started and should be – it was fun and the high of winning, four of us loving it and finishing first.

“My pre-race strategy is a bit different now.”

On realising she could row for Great Britain:

“In my fourth year my coach Hamish [Burrell] came up to me on the ergo and said: ‘You should go for Great Britain trials’.

“I genuinely nearly fell off the ergo. I thought he was joking. To me the GB team was massively on a pedestal, just after the 1996 Olympics.

“I went down [to national trials] in a pair thinking it was going to be embarrassing. All the GB team were there – people who were legends as you come through the ranks – just standing around chatting casually. I thought it was the most incredible thing.

“I did reasonably well at the trials and I was walking behind a group who were the top women at the time. Dot Blackie had been captain at Edinburgh University before I was there and when I was there her photo was everywhere and she’s made it in the British team and just come back from the Olympics. Mid-conversation, she very casually took one step back and said, ‘Well done Edinburgh’.

“Dot Blackie spoke to us and she knew who we were! It was amazing! The door started to open to GB rowing and from then on I had some part in the team.”

On who she will celebrate with if she wins Olympic gold, after three successive silvers:

“The first person will be Anna [Watkins], who will be there and she will have crossed the line ahead of me.

“Then there will be so many people, almost too many to name.

“The first people you want to see is immediate family – the people who have been there your whole career, who know you and get you.

“I had an incredible emotional reunion with my mum after the podium in Beijing. You can see them from the podium but you can’t get to them. We had to put the boat away, go for drugs testing, there was quite a delay and we finally met up behind the stands and were both in floods of tears.

“I think as a parent you just want to take your child away and make it all OK. It’s tough but if it all goes right, they deserve the most because they’ve certainly helped me through the dark periods.

“Within hours of the silver medal in Beijing, my mum had said, ‘I want to see you in London’.

“I hadn’t made the decision then and I wouldn’t for a while but knowing that someone who is so important to me absolutely believed in me and wanted more for me made the decision a lot easier.

“I’ve gone through a very unconventional route and they’ve just been so supportive, inspiring and inspired.

“For my sister it’s not been easy. She got married a couple of years ago. That was her special day and yet I didn’t know if I’d be in the country. You don’t want to be selfish but so much of my life is rigid and inflexible and it’s not my choice. And that impacts on everyone around you.

“I’ve got some fantastic friends who I first rowed with at university who are a rock solid support. They get it, they know me, they know what it means to me. They’re the people I can go to if I have a bad day and can escape. They make me laugh and I can forget about it for a while.

“It’s been a long career of highs and lows. There’s a lot of people who have been through the highs and lows with me. That’s why for so much more than just me, if the ending’s the happy ending and the right result, a lot of people deserve it more than me. They all will just heave a huge sigh of relief.

“That medal isn’t down to me, it isn’t down to me and Anna, it isn’t down to me, Anna and our coach Paul [Thompson], it’s down to loads of people through my whole life who  have had influence over me, have helped, led, guided and advised me.”

Posted in olympics, rowing, women's sport | 3 Comments