17 August 2008 – second edition
Inspiration on the rowing lake: it happened in Athens in the very last stroke and at 1500 metres at Beijing’s extravagantly built Shunyi Centre.
A whole length down on a rampant Australian crew, Britain’s men’s four of Tom James, Steve Williams, Peter Reed and Andy Hodge needed a final 500 that would make even the watching Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent wince. Now James, Reed and Hodge have gold medals, too, and Williams is in the double club.
At the line they were a decisive three-quarters of a length and 1.28 seconds in front of the Australians, with the French another second and a half back in third. So in those closing, sun-scorched, oar-heaving 500 metres the British four had taken almost three seconds out of the Australians, an achievement that master coach Jurgen Grobler later described it as the best finish of all his crews. A high accolade, but goodness they had to earn it.
“It was a bit ugly,” said Williams who had lain back, utterly spent, into James’s lap at the finish. “The emotions are sending messages to the muscles but it becomes beyond skills. It is like flying blind, something primeval.”
To follow where Redgrave, Pinsent, and James Cracknell have been and make this a third consecutive Olympic gold for Britain’s four was always going to be a tall order and all of this crew confessed to serious nerves before the start. “One moment I was calm and back in Caversham,” said Hodge. “The next it was panic. Some of it was horrible.”
For spectators, the opening quarter of this straight, wide 2000 metre course was reasonably worry-free. GB, who had been the most impressive of all the semi-finalists, began well enough from their number four berth, going through the first 500 only 0.2 seconds behind the Australians. But grandstands, particularly specially designed new ones, are easy places for expectation. On the lake the Australians were extending things. At the 1,000 metre mark GB were more than a full second adrift and the Slovenians had edged them back into third.
Then in the third quarter it had got worse – a full length behind the Australians and a growing concern that this was not to be, that the much-interrupted preparation which had seen the British four finally come together only six weeks ago, might be showing up, that history was too heavy a load.
“At 500 I could see the stern of the Australian boat,” said Hodge. “I knew that we had to keep our heads and bring out the final gear but it shocked the hell out of me. I remember really vividly thinking with 250 metres to go that we might not get this, then I thought ‘actually I want that medal’. I will die happy now.”
Watching a rowing finish when your boat is closing is a strangely agonising experience as the craft move comparatively slowly despite all the efforts being spent. But when you realize that your crew have the momentum, the belief and joy rise to the most thrilling crescendo. We could see that GB had the bite on the Australians. They began to close. They drew level. You looked for the line and, quite gloriously, you realised they were going to make it. Then they were through and the swinging animal of the boat was suddenly just four broken men slumped on the water line.
“We really paid for that with our souls,” said Williams afterwards. “Athens was an epic journey but this has topped it. All of us have had back injuries in the past 12 months and there have been many low moments, but if anything it has pulled the four of us together. That and Jurgen’s belief in us. He has been the most massive inspiration and last night said ‘there is no magic speech, the magic is what you have done in these last four years’.”
The man who masterminded Redgrave and Pinsent in the glory years looked on with a smile of satisfaction. “In those last 100 metres,” he said, the German still strong in his voice despite all those years in Henley, “there has to be a huge brain still sending a signal and not letting things go even if it is going into darkness.”
For Grobler, there was another happiness. “Everyone asked what would happen after we lost the great heroes, [Redgrave and Pinsent] whether this would be the end of men’s rowing. Today showed that it isn’t.”