James Cracknell: Back from the brink, this man is ready for a fight in Brussels

The Olympic gold medallist and endurance hard man talks to Paul Gallagher about his chances in the European elections
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The Independent Online

James Cracknell has never given up on anything in his life – and he is not about to start now. Whether it has been the years of sacrifice and training required to win Olympic rowing gold medals two Games running, tackling the world's toughest extreme endurance events, or battling to recover both mentally and physically from a life-changing brain injury, in achieving his aims little has stood in his way.

Facing him in what he calls his toughest challenge yet – to become a Conservative MEP for South West England at the European elections on 22 May 22 – is the rumbling Ukip juggernaut. Even though he is replacing Giles Chichester, who is standing down as one of three Tory MEPs representing a region that extends from Gloucestershire to Cornwall, the former champion knows he has a fight on his hands, and is leaving nothing to chance.

"Giles had a majority of 8,000 – brilliant in Westminster, but not in the European elections, where the electorate is 4.3 million people," Cracknell says, as he travels through the South West on an official "campaign day". "A one percentage point swing here or there is going to make a huge difference. The problem I've struggled with, like most things since stopping sport properly, is that this is not within your control.If we'd had this election while the Maria Miller issue was going on, we might have got hammered. In sport, like many things in life, if you prepare well, train well and deliver on the day, then you'll get the result you deserve – not in politics."

Two Ukip and a Lib Dem currently hold the other three of the six seats in the South West. Far from being a famous name parachuted in to shore up the Tory vote, the 41-year-old has strong family links with Gloucestershire and Somerset. Based in Chiswick, west London, the family also owns a home in the Devon town of Croyde, after which he and his wife, the journalist and broadcaster Beverley Turner, named their son, the eldest child of three. The South West was the only region he wanted to represent.

"I went the same route as anyone else in the country to apply. I didn't get any favours. It was incredibly humbling when I was voted third on the list because people realise I have something to offer other than sport."

He admits his fame gets him more doorstop hearings – but then he's in the same position as any other candidate. "I maybe get one question for free, but then people want to know what I'm going to do. I think that's brilliant. It doesn't matter what you've done in the past, it's how you can deliver in the future."

Ukip has attracted many with its focus on immigration and the return of Britain's sovereignty, but he questions whether Nigel Farage's party can deliver. "The harder thing is fighting for the bigger issues: getting a cut in the EU budget, keeping our rebate, things like that. People want change on immigration, but there are other important issues, too."

He hammers the Ukip leader for his voting record: according to voting statistics Farage has participated in fewer than 43 per cent of votes, leaving him ranked 759 out of 764. Those below him include the Ukip deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, at 760. Bottom of the pile is Godfrey Bloom, who resigned the Ukip whip last year following his "sluts" outburst, and who sits as an independent.

"In spite of all his expense claims, Farage just does not turn up," Cracknell says. "Ukip may be getting the profile over here, but you've got to deliver on the things that make a difference, and Ukip won't be able to do that."

Cracknell cites his Olympic training as evidence of his talent for long-term planning and delivery, especially in a European Union of 28 member states. Arguably, the trickiest European Cracknell has dealt with to date was his former German-born coach, Jürgen Gröbler, who has coached British crews to gold at the last six Olympics, including Cracknell's teams at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. "If Jürgen didn't agree with what you said and you didn't agree with him, he'd pretend not to understand you, so I'm hoping that technique works for me!"

He says he is prepared to give much more than the usual stock party line on the issues he is passionate about, such as fisheries or environment policy. "The worst thing is when you know the answer a politician is going to give before they speak. You are not going to be a robot and get what you want in Brussels; you need the ability to challenge people and work in a team, but also be yourself. That's what people want, isn't it?"

He has already taken an unorthodox route to Westminster – a 125-mile canoe challenge from Devizes in Wiltshire to London with ex-Royal Marine and trainer Bernie Shrosbree in 2009 – but although a return as an MP is not ruled out, it will have to wait. "There's a job to do in Brussels. I haven't gone the traditional route into politics. Whatever route I take is all going to be new to me. Will the frustration be too much or drive me mad? I genuinely don't know.

"All I know is that in the next five years we will see a massive change in Europe and I want to be there to make sure Britain and Europe get the best deal. We're better off being in Europe if it's done the right way and at the moment it's not."

Two years ago, Cracknell co-wrote Touching Distance with his wife, detailing in painful honesty his road accident in July 2010 and its aftermath. A petrol tanker's wing mirror smashed into the back of his head at 70mph while he was cycling through Death Valley. His injuries left him with frontal lobe trauma, changing his personality for ever; both husband and wife refer to "the old James". He has also lost his sense of taste and smell, and can only identify foods by their texture.

Since the book's publication, Cracknell's health has continued to improve. In recent months he has finally begun driving again; the DVLA had withdrawn his licence. Having to rely on others for transport for so long has led him to empathise with the elderly, housebound or less mobile in the South-west, who struggle to travel at all.

"It was hard doing the hustings in the South-west without a car, so I know exactly what those without transport go through. But I've learnt you need to make sure that you make the most of every day – and that's what this is all about."