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:
“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.”
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.”