Athletics: Golden start fulfils a golden dream

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: BATTEN AND LINDSAY
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The Independent Online
Athletes the world over would understand the tension welling up inside Miriam Batten on the eve of the double sculls final at the world rowing championships in Koln. That rising flow of panic, anticipation and fear which champions channel into a surge of strength and which submerges mere mortals. Batten, a bronze medallist in the 1991 world championships and a stalwart of women's rowing through the Nineties, had never dispelled the sense of a talent unfulfilled and, at the age of 34 with one aborted retirement behind her, time was running out.

Nerves, she would admit, had been a problem. But several things had happened in her life to bring added purpose to her quest for the ultimate recognition of a gold medal. Her mother had died from cancer earlier in the year, in the summer she had become engaged and there was that brief retirement. Every day, in the autumn of 1996, she would run past the boat club near her house and ache to be back on the water. The return of Mike Spracklen, the guru of women's rowing, to Britain and the prospect of teaming up with Gill Lindsay, a strapping Paisley girl, all prompted Batten to give it one final push. Last year, the pair had won silver at the world championships without reaching full throttle.

So, on the Friday evening in Koln, and the next day on the team bus to the water, Batten talked herself into becoming a champion. Sitting in the scout hut outside Marlow, their winter base, three months on, she recalled that intense and private battle. "After Atlanta, I was so upset because I felt I'd given my rowing so much and I'd not done it. I knew I was better than that. I've rowed for a long time and I know that opportunities don't come along very often. I knew too that this was a golden opportunity, literally.

"In the past I had got very nervous, but this time I prepared myself for the pain. The temptation when it starts to hurt is to ease off and come back on again. But I told myself: `I'm going to have the race of my life, I'm going to hurt myself, I'm going through the pain barrier, each stroke is going to be harder than the last and I don't care if I'm dead at the end."

Other factors sharpened the competitive edge. Through endless head-to- heads in single sculls up and down the Thames, an unspoken trust had developed between the two women. Each had plumbed the depths of the other's resolve and knew that it matched their own. Once Lindsay had been transferred to the stroke seat, unleashing her power, the combination had shown instinctive speed. Then there were the Dutch, their main rivals, who put names and faces to the dreams of gold.

The Dutch had beaten the British girls earlier in the season. A kick up the backside, the coach had said. Batten and Lindsay vowed it would not happen again. They trained with a new ferocity. The start was isolated as the problem, so the first 500m received special attention. On the day before the worlds, they had a practice start, full out for 750m. "That start really clicked and it stuck in my head through the race," Lindsay said.

Conditions on race day were good, though a nasty cross-wind kicked in for the final stretch. The British pair were two seconds faster than they had ever been off the stake and had a comfortable lead by half distance. "I was thinking: `Blimey, this is the best place to watch the final from'," Batten said. But still there was the pain. In the stands, the rest of the British team thought they had blown it.

With 500m left and the other crews edging closer, Batten made the final call. Neither girl can remember the precise wording, but sitting up and going for it was the gist of the message. "We began to fall apart a bit," Lindsay said. "It was only a minute and a half to the finish and we had talked a lot about this last quarter. But we could feel the bows of the other boats. We both thought, `Why give in now?' " There was still a length in it at the line. Miriam's sister, Gwyn, swam out from the pontoon and nearly capsized the boat in the celebrations. Miriam just managed to raise a champion's hand in salute.