Alex Partridge: A new golden vision inspires oarsman who missed the boat

You might say he is the fifth Beatle of rowing, but this determined competitor will soon be back in the band.
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The Independent Online

"The most important thing I have learnt from all this is to enjoy the experience. Even on the really shitty days. Enjoy the people you are with now, because for those that aren't carrying on, you will not get the time with your friends ever again. Ask yourself: 'What does it mean to be here?' and 'How much does this crew mean to me?' Then you will remember that the Olympics are special and that special things happen at the Olympics."

"The most important thing I have learnt from all this is to enjoy the experience. Even on the really shitty days. Enjoy the people you are with now, because for those that aren't carrying on, you will not get the time with your friends ever again. Ask yourself: 'What does it mean to be here?' and 'How much does this crew mean to me?' Then you will remember that the Olympics are special and that special things happen at the Olympics."

Alex Partridge, Men's Coxless Five, 2004

It was just before travelling to the airport to bid farewell to the Great Britain coxless four as they departed for their altitude camp at Silvretta, in the prelude to the Athens Olympics, that Alex Partridge unburdened himself of his emotions and scribbled those words. They are an extract from his last epistle to the Corinthians of rowing: Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams.

"I wrote that letter to the soundtrack of Gladiator," recalls the man they left behind. "The music's powerful stuff and I was really pumped up. You see, the Olympics is really like going into battle. That's how it all started, didn't it? With soldiers competing against each other. You're basically smashing the crap out of yourself to win."

Partridge continues: "I wanted to tell them how much it had meant to me, and how cool it was that they were going. To remind them that it wasn't about Matthew's fourth gold medal, or James's second, or compensation for all that Ed had been through, or Stevie not making it for Sydney. The fact was that they were going to the Olympic Games and going as this four and it was a great opportunity."

Even as he speaks nine weeks on from that climactic confrontation between Britain and Canada on Lake Schinias, you can still detect the frustration in his voice that his name was not a greater part of the drama unfolding than being painted on the front of the victorious boat. A bilateral pneumothorax, or to give the condition its rather more ominous name, a collapsed lung, had decreed that.

What is absent, though, is the barest hint of resentment that, for him there was no podium to break the fall of his tears, no eucalyptus crown, no hugs from team-mates and girlfriend. Just a TV screen in a Radio 5 Live studio in London, where he had been invited to comment on the coxless fours final, was all that connected him with the fulfilment of an ambition for Pinsent, Cracknell, Coode and Williams, but which had been wrenched so cruelly from him seven weeks earlier.

He confesses: "When I did a link-up with the guys through the BBC's Olympic Grandstand, all I wanted to do was reach through the TV and give them a big hug."

You suggest that his feelings at witnessing the medal ceremony must have been, at the very least, ones of ambivalence. And even last Monday, when Britain's gold medallists paraded through the centre of London, hadn't he felt miffed about missing that particular bus?

"I didn't win a gold medal in Athens. Matthew, James, Steve and Ed did; I didn't compete in any of those races. So, I can't say I would have won a gold medal. Of course I wished I could have been there, but I felt no angst. No, I was incredibly proud that they had won," he says. "But for me, the moment those guys crossed the line first meant 'this is finished now. I'm no longer injured and not going to Athens'. It's a new era. Everything now is about the next Games in Beijing."

There, in 2008, he aspires to row in the pair or four, but admits: "I can't make that decision. That's not how rowing works. I just hope to perform well enough over the winter so that the boat, whatever it is, is built around me rather than me being the guy coming in to a top boat built around other people. I want to be the guy in control."

For the moment, Partridge's only responsibility is to himself and his own fitness. He was given the medical all-clear before the Olympic final, but now has the onerous task of rebuilding atrophied muscles around his ribs.

We speak at the Leander Club, adjacent to Henley Bridge, after Partridge had undergone a morning's training on a static cycle at Bisham Abbey national sports centre. He is not yet ready to return to the water. On the previous day, for the first time since his injury, he had been out cycling on the roads. "It was raining, really awful and I was desperately tired," says Partridge. "I was on a slight hill and my legs were burning. But I thought, 'this doesn't hurt as much as not going to the Olympics, or what I have been through'. I thought, 'Keep going. Nothing can hurt you now'."

There is a suggestion of the Californian beach bum about him, not least in his accent. Aged 23, Partridge was born in San Francisco of British parents. "I can't wait to get back here [Henley] and into a boat again and training with the group," he says. "I've got so much motivation and enthusiasm, I'll probably fry myself by Christmas."

You can comprehend that desire. The symptoms of his injury had become apparent before the last World Cup regatta of the season, in Lucerne. In a year of regular upheaval within the four, Partridge - originally a member of the eight - had been selected in April by head coach Jürgen Grobler to replace Josh West. The coach had already reinforced the four by bringing in Pinsent and Cracknell from the pair.

Partridge, a technology management graduate of Oxford Brookes University, who rowed initially as a means of keeping fit for his preferred sport, rugby, adds: "I was lucky. I had been really focusing hard because I was worried that maybe I'd get kicked out of the eight. Fortunately, it pushed me the right way. I'm pretty motivated, and very vocal. That probably had something to do with my selection. I can bring the best out of a lot of other people."

It later transpired that, by the time he rowed at Lucerne, he had a stress fracture of a rib. "On water, it wasn't so bad, but off water it was getting increasingly painful," he says. "But you carry on, because you're under a lot of pressure, knowing that the Olympic selection comes after that regatta."

He adds: "During the racing, I was totally focused, but I knew there was something going on there. After our heat, I was retching. When I lined up for the start of our final I felt quite light-headed. I was in trouble very early on. I couldn't get the oxygen into my lungs that I needed." The four finished third.

Soon, after a training session on water, he was unable lie down, on his back or side. "Everything hurt. It was just becoming unbearable," admits Partridge who decided to seek leading medical opinion at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. "I saw the top radiologist there, Dr [Jerry] Healy, and underwent a really powerful ultrasound. He saw the rib fracture straight away," says Partridge.

"I thought, 'Well, if it's a rib fracture I won't be in the four, but I can handle that. I'll do two or three weeks on the bike, some intense physio, have some cortisone injections. Then I might get into the eight." That was until Dr Healy organised a CT scan. "He told me it had shown up a bilateral pneumothorax and added that it was a really dangerous condition." Partridge barely heard that. All he could take in were the words: "I suspect your Olympics are over."

The oarsman adds: "I was gutted, although the major thing was that I felt I'd let a lot of people down; not just the four, but a lot of guys in the eight, because they'd be losing Ed [Coode, who replaced him]. That was the hardest thing to get over. Fortunately I did a lot of work with our team sports psychologist, which helped a lot."

In the ensuing weeks, he attempted to support the crew, albeit mostly from a distance. "I phoned and texted them what I was feeling. Things like, 'I'm ready to go and beat some Canadians now'. Though I understood that they couldn't constantly think about me, or how I was, naming the boat after me is the biggest gesture they could have made. It made me realise they did actually care."

After Athens, he met Coode for dinner. "I just wanted to see him, and say 'well done'," says Partridge. "I imagine in his mind, he thought 'maybe Alex doesn't like me any more'. But that wasn't true at all. I was incredibly happy for him. I got on with Ed before any of this happened. If anybody was going to take over, I wanted it to be him."

Coode, who has announced his retirement, has realised his dream. For Partridge, it is still four years away. Does he imagine what Beijing will be like? "Yes, I think about it," he says. "But I've got to get there first."

And as this oarsman can testify all too readily, there is absolutely no certainty of that.


Alex Partridge

Born: 25 January 1981 in San Francisco.

Lives: London (with girlfriend Georgina).

Club: Molesey BC. Coach: Steve Gunn.

Boat: Men's sweep squad.

Major events: World Championships - 2003 (bronze, eight); 2002 (6th, eight); 2001 (bronze, coxed four). World U-23 Regatta - 2001 (silver, four); 2000 (gold, coxed four). World Junior Championships - 1999 (silver, four); 1998 (bronze, coxed pair).

Also: first rowed at school in Bath, before going to Oxford Brookes University where he gained a degree in Technology Management.

Other hobbies: climbing, surfing, fishing.

Career low: selected for Athens 2004 but ruled out with collapsed lung.