An email conversation with James Cracknell: 'Is it only rowing that can satisfy my competitive urges?'

Rowing the Atlantic naked with TV's Ben Fogle, Telling Matthew Pinsent to lead from the front, Turning up late for dinner with the Prime Minister, Overcoming Olympic heartbreak to win two golds
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The Independent Online

Later this month you and television presenter Ben Fogle plan to row across the Atlantic in a small boat wearing nothing at all. Please convince us that this has not been set up by a woman's magazine, Cosmopolitan, perhaps, for whom you once posed naked? Being naked is, I'm afraid, for practicality rather than pleasure. As we are rowing across the equator it is hot. We'll be sweating loads and there will be loads of salt water flying about. If we're wearing clothes they'll dry in the sun leaving salt-encrusted clothes that will rub and over time leave sores that may become infected. So it's naked and sitting on a sheepskin seat-pad for us. Although I've made sure I'm sitting in the stern so I don't stare at his butt for 50 days at sea!

You wouldn't get Steve Redgrave doing this sort of thing, would you? Funny you should ask that. I was talking to him about the race the other day and asked him if Ben got injured would he jump in. He didn't say no!

You recently windsurfed across the English Channel. Why? I paddled across the Channel on a surfboard, raising money for a charity called Access Sport that I'm a trustee of. We broke the record, it took five-and-a-half hours and if anybody wants to have a go and break it they are welcome to it. It is the most uncomfortable way of getting anywhere.

You were planning to run this year's London Marathon in under three hours, but had to abandon your preparations after falling foul of a frankly barmy training schedule. Do you still plan to run a marathon? Yeah, I'd like to run London next year but it won't be possible if I go back to rowing.

Your wife, Beverley Turner, must be getting a bit concerned about what you will turn to next. Trekking to the South Pole? Space travel? Any thoughts? You're not wrong. She is concerned that I'll come back from crossing the Atlantic and do something else. It's been a great experience planning this adventure and I would love to do something similar. I've had quite a few offers to do some adventure races next year so her concerns may be justified.

While on the subject of your wife - you are going out to dinner at a new place. Who drives? Who map reads? Are any unkind words exchanged? I normally drive, she map reads and plenty of bad words are exchanged. We got invited for dinner at Chequers for which they give you no directions apart from right at the secret entrance. We got lost and were 45 minutes late. We pull up to the gate and the guard with his machine gun. I ask him if we're the first to arrive. He shakes his head and points us in the direction of the house.

In the troubled build-up to winning your second Olympic gold medal in the fours at the Athens Games, you pointedly called upon your team-mate Matthew Pinsent to 'come out of his shell' and inspire the team. Is that what happened? He'd won three Olympic gold medals at that stage and the team needed him to really stamp his presence on the crew both on and off the water. I think he'd admit to being not the most natural leader but it was important for him to inspire people who hadn't won a gold before that we were on the right track. I'd have liked him to be more aggressive but that's not his way. He rowed an absolutely amazing race in the Olympic final.

Your year out of rowing is almost up. Will you go back to it? I honestly still don't know. Is there anything else that can satisfy my competitive urges? I can't row across the Atlantic forever.

What car do you drive, and does it matter to you much? Are you one of these people who have an ideal car - or have you already got it? I am into my cars, but family and budget obviously complicate things. I always wanted a 1968 Mustang and shipped one back from the States. They're not that expensive but fuel prices make it a drain on the wallet. We're having an extension built so I think the Mustang is going to be traded in for a new roof.

What have you done outside rowing that has made you most proud? Being a dad is the most amazing thing, I feel so lucky to have such an amazing little boy. Although it is Bev who should claim most of the credit. Apart from his temper, which comes from me!

What has been the hardest race you have ever had, to date? How bad have you felt as a rower? It was going out for the final of the 2001 World Championships in the coxless pairs. We'd just won the coxed pairs and I was exhausted. I was telling Matt on the way to the start how great I felt - I don't think he believed me. We were fourth at halfway and rowed through to win by 0.02sec. Everything was very black for a while.

Is it necessary to hate your opponent in order to beat him? It's not necessary, but they are ultimately after what you've trained for four years to win so it is not a big love-in, that's for sure.

How did you enjoy your assignment providing running commentary for ITV on the year's Boat Race? I enjoyed the challenge of trying to get the huge numbers of people who watched the race to understand something about what the guys were going through and for them to get more enjoyment for the race as a result. It also made me realise how moody athletes are with the media.

In his book, Matt Pinsent recalls you sporting 'the most ridiculous haircut' any of the team had ever seen. Can you describe that for us - presumably you were proud of it at the time? Can you also explain the way your hair has changed colour over the years? In my defence I can only say that there is not a lot to do on training camps. The worst haircut was a double mohawk - not good. As for hair colour, again no defence. "Deep Plum" was a low point.

In that same book, Matt Pinsent almost glosses over the fact that he injured you in a rugby match in 1992, putting you out of contention for that year's Olympics. Can you explain the details - and was it ever an awkward issue between you? It was never an issue as he didn't mean to do it and stuff like that happens in sport, although to stamp on your team-mate's shoulder sums up his rugby prowess. If it had been the other way round I doubt I'd have heard the last of it, but if Matt is convinced he's right not a lot is going to change his mind.

You missed the 1996 Olympics as well because you got tonsillitis on the day of the Opening Ceremony. Did you ever feel the Olympics were not destined to happen for you? Atlanta was horrible. I'd learnt from 1992 and didn't deserve it. I felt worse for my parents that it was the second Olympics they'd bought tickets for and had yet to see me race. The way I responded to that situation and applied myself for the Sydney Games is what I'm most proud of. It would have been easy to walk away - I was in debt and had no funding.

You have named your son Croyde. Please explain. And were you even briefly tempted to call him something more conventional? Croyde is a town in North Devon where I sometimes go surfing. We liked the alliteration with my surname. Luckily he can pronounce his 'r's otherwise he'd have been in all sorts of trouble at school. He's only got Bev's surname as his middle name so he's stuck with it. I'm sure he'll make it his own.

Which three words best sum up your character? Driven, impetuous, competitive.

What is your favourite saying? Abraham Lincoln: "If I had five hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend four sharpening the axe." Think it's great, but unfortunately rarely obey the philosophy.

Attachment: The James Cracknell lowdown

* Education: Kingston Grammar School, Reading University (qualified geography teacher), Brunel (Msc Sports Science).

* Lives in Henley-on-Thames. Married to TV presenter Beverley Turner, son Croyde born 2004.

* At 14, described as a future Olympic gold medallist by his headmaster. Won gold in World Junior Championships coxless fours in 1990.

* Missed Barcelona Olympics in 1992 after Matthew Pinsent accidentally broke his shoulder while playing rugby. Four years later picked for double sculls at Atlanta Olympics but forced to withdraw by tonsillitis.

* Wins Olympic gold at Sydney Games in fours with Steve Redgrave, Pinsent and Tim Foster. Follows up with World Championship gold with Pinsent in coxless pairs in 2001, a title they retain the following year in new world-record time.

* Cracknell and Pinsent are beaten into fourth place by Australians in 2003. Drafted into a four for the Athens Olympics, which they win with Ed Coode and Steve Williams.

* Takes a year out from rowing in 2005. Preparing for Transatlantic Challenge Race which starts on 27 November.