27 July 2008
He brings his reputation before him – the greatest and longest-serving coach of modern times. But first you feel the warmth, then the strength, and then the technical mastery of his subject. No, not Sir Alex Ferguson, although the same three attributes apply, but Jurgen Grobler.
Every Olympics since he took the East German skuller Wolfgang Guldenpfennig to bronze at Munich in 1972, Grobler has masterminded a rowing gold. First it was with his formidable fellow countrymen and women. Then, since moving to England in 1991, he has mentored Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the pair at Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, the two of them with James Cracknell and Tim Foster in the four at Sydney, and finally Pinsent, Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams in Athens four years ago. Now with “zat Mazzew”, as he always calls him, just a supportive knight, Jurgen has prepared another four to take his Olympic record to an unprecedented nine golds on the trot.
The achievements are daunting but the man is not. The eyes are what first strike you, just as they did Pinsent and Redgrave at their opening meeting with Grobler at the Goodwill Games in Seattle in 1990. They are blue, humorous, clever and interested. “Coaching,” he says with a shrugging smile, “is a hobby job. To be with highly motivated young people is a wonderful ‘zing’. [The Ts still become Zs despite 17 years in Henley]. And to be with those guys who have done it, you have to ask – was it just their talent? Where is your part of the success? To try it again is a big challenge.”
A fit, compact figure, 62 years old next Thursday, he sits at a laptop behind a partition of the boathouse for the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake at Caversham. The rowers are recovering from the rigours of three weeks’ high altitude training in Austria. But when they speak of their coach it is with a mixture of respect, affection and awe.
“The thing about Jurgen,” says Andy Triggs Hodge, the massive blond-haired presence that strokes the men’s four, “is that he doesn’t try to change you; he tries to make you better. Some coaches have an ideal athlete, they try to change you from an A to a B. Jurgen wants you to become an A-plus.”
“Physically he will keep pushing you to find your red line. Sometimes he will take you over it just to prove you can break it. We are pretty self-motivated guys but the last 10 minutes of a half-hour ergo [rowing machine] can be so painful and he will sit down beside you and in that deep German voice will say, ‘You can do it, you are so strong, yah, so strong’. Yet if he’s dominant in the gym, he is passive on the water, trying to soak up every bit of information so he can take the decisions on strategy and, of course, the thing that really hurts him, having to tell someone that they are out of the boat.”
Williams was in the winning four at Athens, although only after Jurgen had bluntly ended his and Cracknell’s delight at semi-final triumph by telling them that if they rowed like that again they would lose the final and let down the rest of the crew. In March this year Jurgen went one step further – he showed him the latest test results and told him that Rick Egington was going into his seat. “I left the room with the very intense feeling that this was a defining moment,” says Williams, “that how I responded would decide if I made it back. Three and a half weeks later, I got the nod. With Jurgen, nobody should take anything for granted.”
Except perhaps that he will get you to the competition in the optimum shape of your life. Williams, Triggs Hodge and the others all talk in wonder of Grobler’s training programmes and of the juggling act to get four different athletes to peak at the same time. Grobler himself is very clear. “You know,” he says, “that there is no other day but the 16th and 17th of August. If you are a top coach you must know your sport but you must have a vision for four years’ time. Training has got more and more scientific but you must look over the fence so that you develop the guys for that day.”
Suddenly you could feel it. All the wisdom accumulated from that opening five-year course at Leipzig University through the East German supremacy and then the Redgrave/Pinsent glory years was uplifted by this tangible passion to get a set of athletes to taste the ultimate fulfilment of the Olympic dream.
It is not a flame that will snuff out easily and the shining memory of that morning in the Berkshire boathouse was that while the current four-year vision now reaches its moment of truth in China, the next one has already begun. “Ah yes,” he says, “London 2012, zat is another big challenge. Zat would be very satisfying.”