Life after gold man river brings redemption on the water

The Ed Coode interview: Rower whose heart was broken in Sydney is picking up the oar Redgrave laid down. Andrew Longmore found out why
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The Independent Online

On a sleepy terrace overlooking the waters of Lac d'Aiguebelette in the Savoie, the British rowing squad gather before another outing. One by one, huge figures emerge from the shade of the hotel, ambling to a table neatly laid out with bread and jam. It is tea time for the giants.

Two are instantly recognisable, Matt and James, Pinsent and Cracknell, members of the four which bore Steve Redgrave into Olympic history 10 months ago. In the World Championships this week in Lucerne, the first major test of the post-Redgrave era, they will race for gold in both the coxed and coxless pairs, a prized double which eluded the five-times Olympic champion. Success would mark a spectacularly definitive transfer of power both on the water and in the record books. After an utterly dominant season, the clock is the pair's only worthy opponent. The finals of the two events are a mere three hours apart.

But, in the peace of a sweltering summer's afternoon, the outline of an equally precious legacy is being etched. Out of nowhere, a new British coxless four has emerged who have the potential to be quicker than their much decorated predecessor. Though all in the new crew are world champions, only one could claim a public profile. Ed Coode lost out in his personal duel with Tim Foster for the final place in the Redgrave four, but his dignity in defeat – a loss which cost him gold – brought a telling balance to the BBC series which documented the four's road to glory. Not everyone wins.

Coode did not like the final post-Sydney episode. In fact, he shed his usual diffidence just long enough to object to one sequence in which Jürgen Grobler, the head coach of the men's squad, was pictured talking about the Redgrave four over a background shot of his new pair, Pinsent and Cracknell. "The coxless four project is finished," Grobler says to camera. Not for Coode, it isn't. Nor for Toby Garbett or Steve Williams or Rick Dunn, who will line up in Lucerne happy and ready to steal some of the pair's thunder.

There is a whole cargo of disappointment and frustration aboard the explosive new four. Garbett and Dunn were spare men in Sydney, ready to row if anyone was injured, yet banished to a strange limbo once the serious racing began. As soon as the eight had rowed their first stroke in the Olympic final, his watchman's job done, Dunn was ready to down his first beer. Moments later, he was hailing the champions and trying to sift joy from despair. Williams had lost his seat in the eight at almost the last moment. Around them now they see nothing but gold medal winners, which makes life easy for John West, their coach. "Mentally, I don't have to worry about them," he says. "They're fit, they're strong and they're very tough. They won't need any motivating. Quite the opposite, in fact."

For Coode, the progress of the four has been a source of redemption and a voyage of discovery. One more unprofitable season and the temptation to head for the City or back to the west country where he was born and brought up might have proved too strong for the quietly spoken Old Etonian. Sacrificing whole swathes of your youth for the unguaranteed prospect of gold is a delicate demand at the best of times, but in Sydney, the whole precarious scaffolding came tumbling down. Coode and Greg Searle were rowed out of a medal in the very last strokes of the coxless pairs. Coode was distraught; Searle angry and philosophical, aware suddenly that missing out on bronze was even worse than missing out on gold. Nothing to show for four hard years, except a part as the warm-up act for the Redgrave four.

Months later, sitting in a Canary Wharf restaurant, Coode was still uncertain where his future lay. "If I continue rowing," he said. "What have I got to look forward to? Four more years of feeling exhausted." But he went back to work, uncertainly at first, then with increasing conviction as he fell into the company of fellow travellers. "I took a long time to pick up enthusiasm for the sport again," he says. "I look back and think I made the decision to start rowing again, but I didn't. I just realised I wasn't totally happy not rowing. It wasn't until I got into this new group that I realised how much I missed the whole thing. That comes entirely from the other three guys, who are still smarting from not getting to the Olympics. While others are saying: 'I'll take a breather,' they're saying 'that wasn't the Olympics for us, we want to be in those gold-medal winning boats next time'."

What makes Coode different from the rest, on the outside at least, is his indifference. Even the laid-back Tim Foster had a streak of steel visible in his slender frame. In the midst of Pinsent's awesome strength, Redgrave's dogged invincibility and Cracknell's transparent ambition, Coode seemed like a little boy. But when Foster was injured, Coode was selected to take his place and the crew barely missed a beat, winning gold at the 1999 World Championships.

"I learned a lot sitting between Matt and Steve, but if you can imagine two huge bits of machinery going back and forth and me just swinging back and forth between them, that's how it felt. I knew in 1999 that I was quite fortunate to be in the boat. I was just in the right place at the right time and they were going to win the World Championships anyway, whether I was in the boat or not. It wasn't my win. All I could do was mess it up.

"I still sense that people regard me as the guy who didn't get in the Redgrave four, but that could be why I'm enjoying this four so much at the moment. I feel like I'm building something of my own, I feel like it's our construction, our project. We're four equal parties and we each take on a quarter of the responsibility, which is quite a big chunk. A little change I make can make a significant different to the speed of the whole boat whereas in the other four all I was doing was not slowing it down."

It is only now, sitting in the twilight, the lights on the lake flickering behind him, that Coode can trace a startling consistency in a sporting career which has meandered towards fulfilment. At Eton, a talent for rowing won him status within the school, but he knew from an early age that his real love was marine biology, though he cannot quite trace the source of the passion. His gap year was spent in a marine research laboratory in the Caribbean and when he arrived at Newcastle University, rowing was still merely a hobby, a way of meeting other students. Soon, he was recruited to the British Under-23 squad, winning silver at the 1996 championships, a Cornishman from the North-east in a four from London; the following year, he had been foisted on another four, this time from Nottingham, by Grobler. Always the odd one out, you see. "And in a way," he warms to the theme, "I'm the odd one out in this crew because these guys raced together in the World Championships. The difference is that this time I don't feel it." But it is not just that. In a sport that, by definition, demands ultimate and very public commitment, Coode's strength is all the more impressive for being so well concealed. While the others head for their training session with heads bared or covered by a baseball cap, Coode dons a battered old gardening hat as quiet confirmation of his essentially amateur nature.

"He doesn't seem to get fazed by anything very much," says Rick Dunn, the stroke of the four. "Ed's very meticulous, he's our time-keeper and our peace-keeper. He likes to know why we're doing something. He also brings the experience of having raced with Steve, Matt and James who were very good at the way they approached races. What's good for Ed is that he has a lot more input in this boat. Every other boat he's been in has been someone else's. He was in Tim's seat, then it was Greg [Searle] and Ed was his sidekick. He'll always be one to blend into the background, but there's a much greater air of confidence about him now."

Coode himself feels it. It was not entirely his fault that he was thrust into the grinding machine of Redgrave's Olympic ambitions, spat out on to the waters of Penrith Lake. He is cautious about the dangers of revising history, but his own experience has brought a fresh understanding of the ancien regime. "Certainly last year, the whole of GB rowing was Steve Redgrave, whereas now it's us, the whole squad. When I was in the boat, no matter what we did, if Steve said it was OK, then it was OK. We'd feel a lot more relaxed. We always had the safety net of Steve. Now it's me judging me. Was that all right or not? In one way, that's daunting; in another, it's quite exciting. Because Steve was around so long, there are a lot of people ready to take on that sort of responsibility."

The advantage, as Coode also points out, was that Redgrave bred a culture of winning. In the nervous few days before a major championship, Redgrave was a reassuring presence, not just the embodiment of Britain's natural superiority, but a walking, talking, encyclopaedia of success. The real test of the squad's competitive resilience will come this week, in pacing output during a long regatta, in absorbing the pressure and mastering the ringcraft of a major championships without the benefit of Redgrave's omniscience.

"The temptation would have been for Matt to take on that sort of leadership role, but Matt hasn't really changed. He's been a rock in the team for quite a while, since Steve started having his medical problems. It would take a lot to change Matthew." And James? "James is always looking for the edge, always feeling he's got a point to prove. I don't know whether he will ever be satisfied, but it's that restlessness which makes him the great rower he is."

Just before Christmas, two months after the race, Coode sat down and watched the video of his defeat in Sydney. He does not know quite why he chose that particular afternoon to undergo the water torture, but he found no salvation in the pain. "I was just on my own, but I didn't feel any better having watched it again. Your perception of a race can change a lot watching on television from what you remember during the race itself. The perception on TV is why the hell didn't we respond to the French attack a bit more. But I'd left it long enough in my mind to recall that we did pretty much everything we could out there. We raced entirely our own race.

"I'm sane enough not to keep thinking "what if...", but no matter what happens in the World Championships this week, I can't think I'll ever be able to close the door on that race. We just got it wrong and it was a big race to get wrong."

No mental righting of the wrongs then, and no thoughts as yet of Athens in 2004. "It's far too many steps away. If we win this week, it could shape the next two or three years, that's true. We will be training together again next year and we will be looking to dominate the event like the Redgrave four have for the last four years." No one could begrudge Ed Coode a seat of his own in the sunshine.

Biography: Ed Coode

Born: 19 June 1975

Height: 1.93m (6ft 4in)

Weight: 93kg (14st 8lb)

Education: Eton, Newcastle University, Oxford University.

World Championships: 1997: Bronze, coxed four. 1999: Gold, coxless four.

Nations Cup (Under-23): 1996: Silver, coxed four

Junior World Championships: 1993: Silver, coxless four

World Cup: 1999: Winner, coxless four. 2001: Winner, coxless four.

Olympics: 2000: Fourth, coxless pairs

Oxford Blue: 1998.