8 August 2004

Beautiful places, brutal truths: next week Matthew Pinsent and our rowing team are facing the Olympic challenge in Athens. This week they were on a gorgeous cliff-lined, meadow-ringed lake 50 miles east of Lyon; facing backwards but going directly into the pain. At the end of each row they were even measuring it.

Not just in the gasps and grimaces as Pinsent, James Cracknell, Steve Williams and Ed Coode, the controversial new crew of our gold medal-aiming men’s four, slumped on their oars after powering 1,200 metres up Lake Aiguebelette on Wednesday morning. Within a couple of minutes they had paddled back to the jetty where three members of the medical team squatted beside the boat to take a file of blood from the ear lobe of each rower. The task was repeated for each of the six crews in action. The results later that day would give the lactate build-up of each rower, an analysis of strain.

From a distance it was the most idyllic scene imaginable. The sweet smell of newly cut hay on the meadows, the huge cliffs towering 800ft on the eastern side, a large fish jumping with a heavy splash on the lake across which come a succession of skimming craft, men’s arms extending into long elegant oars dipping so precisely into the water. Up close, you could see man like nature, in the raw. As the professional `leeches’ went to work on the men’s quadruple scull, one of the crew got out of the boat, walked two steps to the side of the jetty and was noisily and horribly sick.

Rowing is like that. These men have been putting themselves through it all the way from the last Olympics, and have topped everything off with two extra-tough high altitude weeks at Suvretta in Austria. To do it they have to be hard on themselves. And they need someone to be hard on them. That man sits sturdily in front of us now, barking out `bang’ as the skiffs cross the finishing line, watching intently as they paddle back to the start line for their second run. He is the legendary Jurgen Grobler, the chief coach who came over from the Eastern Bloc to mastermind the Redgrave glory years. He is the man who this year did the unthinkable – he told gold medallists Pinsent and Cracknell to get out of their boat.

Or, to be more exact, to get back in the `four’ which was their Sydney success along with the now retired Sir Steve Redgrave and Tim Foster. It is recent and sore rowing history how in February Grobler decided that even though Cracknell and Pinsent were ergonomically our strongest oarsmen, their prowess as a pair did not gell as perfectly as it should; how he put them into the four, ejecting Rick Dunn and Toby Garbett into the pair, prompting Dunn into the memorable statement that watching the four was now “like watching your girlfriend sleeping with one of your best mates”.

“It was the most difficult decision of my life,” says Grobler, his crumpled face philosophical about the memory. “But I am the coach. I have to think of the whole team. In some conditions Matthew and James did not seem to adapt; in the four their strength will shine through. I think this gives us the biggest medal chance.”

In front of us the luckless Dunn and Garbett paddle away whilst between the marker buoys, Pinsent was a huge scarlet-faced demon driving himself and his crew through the last 10 strokes before Grobler’s shout saw them slumping once again on their oars. “That was good,” says Jurgen. “They are making progress. Maybe it all comes together.”

The reference, of course, is to the jinx which seems to have hit the four since Pinsent and Cracknell got in it. Cracknell twice having to miss out of vital races because of injury and illness, and then Alex Partridge having to quit with a collapsed lung, seeing Coode switch from the eight to sit behind the massive Pinsent back and shoulders in the craft on which our main medal hopes have to rest.

Coode is to talk afterwards of the sacrifices he has made, of the injuries he has overcome, but of the extraordinary experience of being with Pinsent in a boat. “In mid-race you might be going through a bad period and feeling a bit sorry for yourself,” he says, “and then this astonishing power in front of you just comes ripping through the boat. It’s awesome.”

By now, 12 years on since his first gold at Barcelona, Pinsent has a natural aura about him as our most recognised current Olympian. He is a vast, 6ft 2ins, 16½ -stone, ruddy-faced bear of a man. Back on shore he comes over to talk with the easy directness of those who do not have to boast. “Of course things have been difficult,” he says of the crew rearrangments which mean that the present four have only raced just once together. “This was not the way we had planned. But given the position we are in we have to make the best of it. And one of our strengths could be that we are no longer overwhelming favourites.”

But the more he talks, the more you realise that only gold will do. He talks of being in physically stronger shape than at any time in his 33-year-old life, of the need to keep his moods under control, to “cut the others a bit of slack” as tempers sharpen under pressure, above all of the readiness to go through the fire. “It’s going to be really, really hard,” he says with almost dreamy recollection. “It’s a long racing week, starting next Saturday. It will be 40 degrees and we will make mistakes. But we will learn from them and when I said I would go on from Sydney it was just to get to this situation. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.”

In his latest book, Every Second Counts, Lance Armstrong writes of his belief that “suffering was essential to a good life and as inextricable from such a life as bliss.” Watching Pinsent and his colleagues on their waterborne rack of pain this week was to see living hopes of Olympic bliss. What could be more beautiful than that?

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