Tom James: Meet the Lionel Messi of rowing

Tom Peck meets a member of the men's coxless fours, who will race for gold this morning
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The Independent Online

Ever since a newspaper reporter called 28 year old Welshman Tom James the "Lionel Messi of rowing", the comparison has both flattered and embarrassed him.

"I'm good," he says. "But I'm not the best in the world. I wouldn't put myself in the Messi category."

The reporter was making the point that James, at merely 6ft 3, relies on perfect technique rather than brute force in his role as "boatmover" in the men's four, who will race for a gold medal this morning, the hand of history firmly on their shoulders.

But the comparison stretches further. Both men won Olympic gold in Beijing, and both are haunted by giants from their country's sporting past. With Messi, it is Maradona, with James, well we know who it is.

It is Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Mathew Pinsent's boat that James, along with Andrew Triggs Hodge, Pete Reed and Alex Gregory will row up the lake at Eton Dorney this morning. Great Britain haven't failed to win gold in the event ever since Redgrave, Pinsent, James Foster and James Cracknell crossed the finish line in first place in Sydney twelve years ago.

"You can't get away from it, it being Pinsent's boat, Redgrave's boat," he admits. "It puts a big expectation on you. People watch this race, they care about it a lot, but that's why we do it.

"You feel more pressure, you get more nervous, but it's an ego trip. You've got to want to be part of the big thing.

"I know if we win, it'll be historic. Look what we could achieve. Four gold medals in a row. But if we fuck it up, it's a bigger loss, and it'll hurt. But that's part of the risk, and we're the gamblers in this. There's pressure, but there's a massive upside."

I first met James ten years ago, when I was beginning my final year at university and a guy arrived in the first year at my college in Cambridge - Trinity Hall - who was apparently quite useful at rowing. It would be fair to say the ladies were rather keen on him, but then, everyone was.

It would only be a few months before he was in the number six seat in one of the more famous boat races in recent years, when in 2003, Cambridge reeled in an exhausted Oxford crew all the way down the final reach but lost by a foot, the smallest winning margin in the race's history.

For months, he refused to watch the race, until months later, bored revising for exams, we sat him down in my old bedroom and forced him. Most of us had watched the footage on the BBC website many times, so the entertainment here was in watching Tom, who sat ashen faced, frozen in horror, repeating over and over, "I can't believe we lost it from there. I can't believe we lost it from there. I can't believe we lost it from there."

He took the following year off university and stroked the men's eight at the Athens Olympics, but the crew was beset with problems, never truly came together and exited the competition at the repechage stage. He lost the boat race two further times too, before winning it at a fourth attempt in 2007.

It is "useful preparation", he says of it now. "There's pressure there too, and that feeling of being watched, by hundreds of thousands of people. But the preparation is very different. It's just one opposition, one race."

The final moment's preparation for this morning's race will follow a well established pattern.

"You have to have a routine. We will get up at about six o clock, have a small breakfast, have a little bit of a paddle, loosen up, and then get in the right frame of mind. You can't not think about the race, and this is the right time to be thinking about it.

"Then you get off the water and try and relax and forget about things. We will get down to the course a good hour or so before we race, and do we what we all need to do individually. Whether it's stretching, have a go on an ergo, or listen to music with headphones on. Then we'll have a team talk. Then we're ready."

It was not that long ago that he looked like he might not make it to this point. JUst before Christmas he was badly ill, and eventually diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, where the pumping of the atria in the heart become out of sync. "We thought it was a bug at first," he says. "But I couldn't walk up the stairs without feeling terrible. Two weeks went by, my heart rate was doing crazy things.

"A cardiologist told me I had AF. It's very common if you're 60 or 70, overweight and with a sedentary lifestyle. But not so common with people like me."

He took pills to put it back in sync, but it took several weeks, and he keeps the pills with him if it should happen again. Last week he was forced to sit out a training session as a precaution, when his heart rate was abnormally high, though it was never a threat to his participation. It would have taken quite something to keep him out of a home Olympics.

"It makes it even more significant. We're right in the thick of it. In China we were in this bubble, we had no idea what people back home were saying. We weren't even sure if the people watching us race had been told to go.

"Now, it's very different. We're so proud of the facilities. The athletes feel responsible, like ambassadors rather than guests. We're not turning up and saying ‘Oh this isn't good, that's not good.' We care what people think and what the other athletes think. It's a bit odd too. I only live twenty minutes from the course, if I forget something I just pop home and get it - can't do that in China. And when the phone rings, I just pick it up without worrying about the bill."

James and co will have to beat a very strong Australian crew, featuring triple gold medallist Drew Ginn, if they want to walk away with the gold. The bookmakers had Australia down as favourites, until Great Britain beat them in the semi final. At 28, James could potentially have many more Olympics ahead of him, but is inclined to say only "let's just get this one of out of the way first". He is also considering a move into consultancy.

It is so often said that winning a gold medal changes your life, but when I first met Tom, ten years ago, he did a lot of rowing, he's since won a gold medal, he might yet win one more, and he still does a lot of rowing.

"It's true," he says. "You don't necessarily become a different person, but you're the best in the world at something, it is internationally recognised, and no one can take it away. It changesthe way people perceive you. Sure you can win the world championships at rowing, but what does that mean to most people? The Olympics though, that is something different. You'll be remembered. Everyone knows what a gold medal is. It will define you for the rest of your life, and when you pass away you will have it written on your grave stone."