All in a knight's work: the Olympic dream rubs off on the wannabes

Athens 2004: The Mentors
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The Independent Online

Thankfully, at least he didn't snub the honours system, a man whose feats have made him (albeit reluctantly at times) a serial awardee. God knows, Sir Steve Redgrave CBE scarcely needs further testimony as to the exceptional nature of his accomplishments in sport. Yet what can be easily ignored when the oarsman is lauded for his five Olympic and nine World Championship gold medals - garnered during a career which was recognised by his recent receipt of the BBC's Golden Sports Personality award for winning the poll of the last five decades - is that he achieved what he has from such unpropitious beginnings.

Back in the early Eighties, there was no great history of Olympic success in rowing, and no one from his sport, nor any other, to accept the role of Sherpa and guide him through the initial perils of preparing for Olympic competition with the benefit of their own experience.

That, at least in part, explains why Redgrave accepted so readily the opportunity to become a mentor to five Olympic and one Paralympic aspirants - Daniel Caines (400 metres), Nicole Cooke (cycling), Leanda Cave (triathlon), Richard Mantell (hockey), Paul Goodison (cycling) and Jon Pollock (wheelchair basketball) - under the Team Visa initiative. The scheme also funds the training and travelling expenses of the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. With the vision of Athens, and all it represents in August next year, dominating these six young minds, it is perhaps appropriate that the original Mentor should have originated in Greek mythology, as the character in whose guise Athena appears to the young Telemachus and acts as his guide.

"These days, any young successful sportsman has his advisers, his coaches, his psychologists - and now his mentor. And rightly so," says Redgrave. "There was nobody to unlock the door to my success. I am not complaining. It was the situation at the time. I did come through, despite that - and learnt some important lessons along the way. Others might not have done so."

Redgrave adds: "There were perhaps two or three people around, including Chris Baillieu, who had been an Olympic silver-medallist, who could have helped me; not so much on technique, but on psychological preparation. I found it quite frustrating that they didn't. I had a lot of potential and ability, and had an excellent coach at the time, Mike Spracklen, but we were both learning. We didn't know how to be successful. The truth is that it's easier to follow someone than to be a pioneer."

In the build-up to Athens, Redgrave makes himself available to support and counsel his charges, individually and as a group. He receives all manner of questions. He recalls Caines, the 400m runner, asking him: "I was at the last Olympics, made the semi-finals in my event and the final of the relay, where we came sixth. This time I'm going for a medal. What am I going to feel like the night before? How am I going to cope with that situation?"

Caines, 24, is coached by his father, Joseph, but the Birchfield Harrier believes that Redgrave's input can complete his full package of preparations. "Steve's been there, not just once but five times, and he's got a wealth of knowledge you can tap in to whenever you want to," says Caines. "For me, the important thing is: how did he survive the pressure of an Olympics? It doesn't matter that he was a rower and I'm an athlete. The difference is that the pressure on him when he was going for his fifth gold was absolutely immense. If he could handle it, there's no reason why I can't."

He adds: "Champions like him have a certain persona. They're not weak, they're not foolish; they're single-minded, strong people, and if I'm around someone like that and he's in my corner, it'll rub off on me. With someone like Steve to help with the mental aspects there'll be nothing left to chance going into Athens. I feel that regardless of what is out there, I can deal with it."

Jon Pollock, 26, the wheelchair basketball player whose talent took him from the Oldham Owls to Spain and CD Fundosa Grupo, is currently based in Milan, where he plays for the Tabu Cantu club. He concurs with that view. "It was such an incredible feeling being selected [for Team Visa]," he says. "I felt invincible as soon as I heard. Just being part of it really made my training feel more worthwhile."

Pollock, a member of the British team who finished fourth in the Paralympic Games at Sydney, represented his country last year in the World Championship Gold Cup. Britain lost in the final to America, although his compensation was being named in the World All Star Team.

"It was strange, really. When we first met, Sir Steve asked me what I did the night before that final. I couldn't remember a thing. I was probably on my PlayStation, or just chilling out. Yet he could remember everything about the night before his Olympic final, and the four Games before that. It just showed me what kind of focus he had.

"I watched the documentary about him recently, and there was something about his eyes as he strode out to get in the boat. It told you about the mentality of the man. I really believe I can benefit from the experience he brings."

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