Athens gold is the ultimate goal as Cracknell relishes new challenge

Fame has not blunted Sydney winner's competitive edge as he builds promising partnership with Pinsent
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The Independent Online

Sitting by the window in the Members Bar of the Leander Club, watching the Thames slide by in bright morning sunshine, the powerful young man with the cocked shades, gold highlights and diamond stud earring is at his ease.

As well he might be. The first training session of the day has been completed on the glinting water outside. An inhumanly large breakfast has been consumed in the clubhouse restaurant, enough to keep 6ft 4in and 15st 10lb body and soul together for another few hours. In the words of Gorillaz, one of his recent CD purchases, the future is coming on ­ and James Cracknell is ready for it. Bring it on.

At 29, this former Kingston Grammar School boy is already, securely, history ­ one of the four which delivered Britain a cherished sporting moment on 23 September last year in winning the Olympic rowing gold that took Steve Redgrave's personal collection to five. Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell and Foster. Hurst, Moore and Peters. We're in that territory.

The achievement in Sydney, by Cracknell's own admission, has changed his life. Tabloid newspapers lionize him as one of Britain's top sporting hunks. He is on the telly a lot now ­ guesting on Children's BBC, advertising Lucozade along with England rugby union scrum-half Matt Dawson, or, recently, appearing as a mystery owner on Through The Keyhole, where he displayed to the world a smart house in Henley furnished with settees of questionable taste. (The latter, it transpires, were a gift from a great aunt).

Imminently, Cracknell plans to move to another house in Henley which he will share with his girlfriend Beverley Turner, the ITV sports presenter.

Later this month the BBC will show an update on the Gold Fever documentary which followed the four's fortunes in their Olympic preparation. (The last of those episodes, which featured a traumatic defeat at the Lucerne regatta, drew four million viewers; expect the glorious finale, and subsequent re-shuffles for the next Olympic challenge, to attract more).

Meanwhile a lucrative calling as a motivational speaker beckons Cracknell ­ a hundred halls heave with businessmen and women keen to shake his hand, assure him that watching That Race had made them proud to be British, and seek the golden touch for their own commercial and personal transactions.

Was he not, one wonders, even faintly tempted to follow Redgrave's belated example of retiring from the unremitting grind of training seven days a week for another four-year Olympic period? After all, both Matt Pinsent and Tim Foster required a little time for reflection before returning to the water.

The answer is: No. Not even faintly. Behind his laid-back manner there burns within this competitor an ambition that is as fierce as Redgrave's.

Cracknell took just four weeks off after the Olympics before plunging back into full-time training and began the year by proving he was in the best physiological shape of the whole squad. "I won all three of the rowing machine tests and the pairs trials," he said with a faint grin. "A grand slam."

But there was method to Cracknell's fanaticism. It was part of a strategy to help convince the British coach, Jürgen Grobler, that he was the right man to join Pinsent in the pair which would challenge for Olympic gold in Athens in 2004.

That new configuration required him to switch from the stroke side of the boat to the bow, a task akin to learning to write left-handed.

Cracknell uses the analogy of the England football team. "England have no left-sided player, and if you've got Beckham wide on the right and you play the same position you've clearly got to try and move to the left," he said.

"Jürgen had the same problem after Sydney. So when he asked me to swap I thought: 'There's obviously a big chance I'm going to end up in the pair with Matthew and that's going to be, profile-wise and performance-wise, the boat to be in'. By winning everything I could on the land, it made it easier for Jürgen to back me."

What normally takes rowers six months, Cracknell accomplished in a month and a half. "I had to fast-track my way there," he said with a grin. "Luckily I have a very good partner which makes it easier."

In April he and his very good partner won their first international race at the World Cup in the United States. Next weekend (from 14-16 June) they will compete against an even stronger field in the second World Cup race. They expect to win again.

Cracknell's respect and liking for the man who has just emerged from Redgrave's shadow after a career that has already brought him three Olympic golds of his own is patent.

"Matthew has got a very consistent level of morality, which is nice to be around," Cracknell said. "It's good to have that reliability and security in someone you are going to race with." But trust is not the only thing this new pairing has going for it. The two men have physical power enough to get themselves out of any trouble; they also have an innate understanding.

"When you're in a crew it takes a long time to get the stroke profiles right," Cracknell said. "Otherwise the blades don't come out at the same time and with the same sort of power, so the boat will wobble.

"But our stroke pattern is so similar having rowed together in the four for so long, especially as I have followed Matthew's blade, matching it. We have a head start as a pair."

There is, too, that other essential ingredient of any successful sporting combination: internal rivalry.

"In a way the person I'd least like to lose to is someone I know," Cracknell said with another smile. "So beating Matthew is probably one of the best things I can do. That gives me the most satisfaction because I know how good he is and I see him every day and then annoy him with it every day. I'm sure he hates to lose to me as much as anyone. Deep down, on a one-off test, he'd have his money on himself. And I'd have my money on myself. His confidence is that he doesn't need to do it every day ­ whereas I quite like winding him up every day.

"I think some people would say I was anally competitive, a bit like Steve. He's competitive in every possible situation and I guess I'm pretty similar to him. It's the same goal ­ it's just a different way of getting there. Having a mix of people like Tim and Matthew and me and Steve is why we were able to train together all winter in different boats and still be able to race together in the summer. If it had been four people like me we would probably have killed each other by then.'

Cracknell ­ if you hadn't guessed ­ is a bad loser. After the traumatic defeat in Lucerne he had to be talked into doing the sporting thing by Redgrave.

"Steve had to have a word," Cracknell recalled. "He told me: 'Be as good a loser as you are a winner'. I'd rather have just gone and not shaken the Italians' hands, because I didn't believe they were better than me. From about the 16th of July to the 23rd of September that defeat was was never far from my mind."

Even at the moment of triumph in Sydney, his first reaction was one of disappointment that they had not beaten the Italians by a length and a half, but by the uncomfortable margin of 0.38sec. "Still sitting in the boat, I knew Jürgen wouldn't be happy with that. It didn't feel quite right," he said. "The fantastic feeling came about three seconds later..."

Now the future ­ with all its fantastic possibilities ­ is luring him on again. And his personal agenda is very clear. "Obviously we want to win in Athens," he said. "I'll always be on a loser if I try to compare myself to Steve and Matthew, because I'm never going to catch them up. But if Matt and I win every world championships between now and Athens, I'll end up as third most successful British athlete of all time. And that..." He searches for the appropriate phrase. "That would be pretty cool."

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