When you dip your toe into the waters of British rowing, it does not take long for the ripples to wash against the mighty figure of Steve Redgrave. It is more than a decade since Britain's greatest Olympian last sat in a boat in anger but his influence stands strong among his successors.
Mark Hunter sat in front of the family television on the Isle of Dogs in London's Docklands in the summer of 1992 and watched Redgrave and the Searle brothers row to Olympic gold in Barcelona. It was the Searles, Greg and Jonny, who inspired him first. "I saw them on the podium, the emotion and excitement, that's what captured me," says Hunter.
Then Redgrave took over. That winter he came to the Poplar and Canning Town rowing club, a featureless rectangular building that squats on the bottom of the island – as it's known in the east end – looking out over the grubby end of the Thames, a world removed from the popular perception of the rowing community that inhabits plusher banks upriver. "I got to see his gold medals," says Hunter – there were three of them by 1992. "I held them and that was that – I said I want one."
That morning before we meet at his old club, Hunter had taken his medal into a local school, where a friend teaches PE. "You see that little twinkle in people's eyes when they see it. They're like, 'Yeah I want one of those.' That's great."
Redgrave has five of them to Hunter's one, and for a time one seemed enough for Hunter. Rowing at this level is gruelling – "Hell" is how Hunter describes the months leading up to the Games – and time consuming, life consuming in fact. After winning Britain's first ever lightweight gold in Beijing with Zac Purchase (pictured, below right) he had had enough. It was not quite a Redgrave "If you see me in a boat again shoot me" moment, but close enough. Like Redgrave it was not to prove the end of the line either.
"After Beijing I was quite content," says Hunter, who headed to the US, first for a holiday (where he bumped into Michael Phelps in a Las Vegas casino) and then to work. "I didn't need to go again. I didn't exercise for nine months apart from running on the beach to enjoy looking at the LA eye candy – I was having a great time, totally enjoying life, relaxed. I had a dream job of coaching rowing, working in the sunshine and I loved it."
Hunter's boss in Los Angeles, where he coached at UCLA, was Amy Fuller-Kearney, herself a former Olympian who first retired after winning a medal at the 1992 Games. The lure of a home Games – Atlanta 1996 – proved too much for Fuller-Kearney and it was she who persuaded Hunter to get back in a boat. "She planted the seed. It was her stories of how you don't want to miss a home Olympics. I owe it to her really, otherwise if I'd be out there, I'd have probably carried on the life I had."
So he came home and resumed the hard slog of training for an Olympic Games, taking up once again with Purchase, the chalk and cheese, or perhaps smoked salmon and jellied eel, partnership that proved so effective four years ago. "A London games – it's full circle," states Hunter, who turns 34 in July. We are sitting in the Poplar clubhouse on a spring afternoon, Hunter looking out over the Thames. Black-and-white photographs of dockers in singlets and hefty boots clutching oars decorate the walls. The ceremonial red uniform of a Waterman, those hardy souls who work the Thames, sits in a glass case. Among it all there's a small picture of a young Hunter and his dad.
"I started here, went away and now I'm coming back. It's incredible when I look at the area, see the way it's changed. We used to do a run, the Queen's Head run, to a pub at London Docks. The pub's not there any more, it's a restaurant with apartments on top. It's completely different."
Hunter grew up here, the son of a teacher, grandson of a Bethnal Green fitness instructor, and although he now lives on the other side of London for easier access to training, he is attached to his roots. He is a West Ham supporter, happily nurtured on watching Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee at Upton Park. In-between he lived island life. "We used to go to the Turkish baths in Canning Town – the stuff that used to go on in there was comical, proper Del Boy, East End. It's so unique coming from the East End. I love it. You become streetwise, very savvy early in your life."
But, as a distant generation of Americans were once advised, the young man had to go west to prosper. He was training to become a Waterman when he received an invitation from the Leander club. "I was working on the boats out there," he says. "In the winter it was hell because when the boats were not running you're up at the yard painting and refurbishing – so cold.
"[Leander] was where the greats were and I needed to learn from them, see what made them the best. It was a massive culture shock. Everything there is catered for the athlete so you can train, recover, perform. Down here it's a kind of workman's club isn't it? You come down and train after work, go home. It took me a long time to adapt."
It was linking up with Purchase, a former public schoolboy, in 2007 that began the transformation from something of a lightweight makeweight to Britain's best bet for Olympic rowing gold. In the lead-up to Beijing they won every race and were expected by one and all to do likewise in China.
"Some combinations aren't, but we are friends," says Hunter of his pairing with Purchase, eight years his junior. "We're very different individuals, completely different backgrounds. But we are a great team. [Going into Beijing as favourites] was tough because I'd never been in that sort of situation before and nor had he at an Olympics. We'd gone from being potential medallists to being favourites before we went to Beijing. So we've dealt with that pressure. Being a home Olympics, it's slightly different. That's what we thrive on as a combination, to deliver ourselves. But also everybody expects us to do well – that's exciting. It's better than people thinking, 'Oh god, not them, they're useless'. It does give us a buzz."
It is that buzz – the high that blocks out the agonies of training (the pair are currently at a camp in Italy) – that brought Hunter back. They have won the last two world championships and remain the boat to beat in the lightweight sculls. He says he rarely thinks about winning in Beijing – the ability to compartmentalise lives is a common factor among successful sportspeople – but ask again about actually standing on that podium and his gaze switches out the window, over the river, and there's that twinkle.
"I felt complete, content. I didn't have to prove myself any more. I'd been searching and striving for so long and that moment of standing on the podium... I'd dreamt about that since I started rowing. To have that gold medal around your neck and stand there watching the flag being raised, that was special. The biggest personal moment was going into the crowd and seeing my parents and my brother, sharing it with them, everyone was in floods of tears."
Has it changed him? "Me personally? No. I'm still the same person. I tell the same terrible jokes or do the same silly things. But the way you are perceived outside is different because you have that title of Olympic champion. You get invited to different things, speaking at functions – I've got a story to tell about coming last and turning things around." He shrugs and smiles. "But to me, I'm nothing special. I worked hard to achieve something but I am just a normal person."
British Airways, the official airline of London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is proud to support Mark Hunter by flying him around the world as he prepares for London 2012
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