Rowing: Great eight try to keep up with the Partridge

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The Independent Online

It is a motley crew which assembles at the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake outside Reading. The British eight that will contest the first rowing World Cup in Munich next week could have been devised by a sporting diversity unit.

There is Mo Sbihi, the first practising Muslim to row for Britain; Dan Ritchie, a Jevohah's Witness who started as a junior international swimmer before his rowing potential was recognised; the cox, Phelan Hill, a senior adviser at the Treasury; and Greg Searle, Olympic gold medallist at Barcelona 19 years ago in the coxed pair, who will be 40 before the London Games.

And at No 1, or "bowman", is a man who, you feel, could have gone into rehab for emotionally battered rowers. Alex Partridge could be forgiven for harbouring a horrible sense of déjà vu. Poised to contest the 2004 Athens Games in the "Matthew Pinsent four", he suffered a collapsed lung six weeks before and had to withdraw. His place went to Ed Coode, and Partridge had to watch on TV as the British boat got home by inches.

The fact his name was inscribed on the front of the boat was a gesture he appreciated. But the reality was that there was no eucalyptus crown, no hugs from team-mates or girlfriend. Just a dignified acceptance that it was not to be. Undaunted, Partridge recovered his place in the four, only to be displaced by Tom James ahead of Beijing. He rowed in the eight which took silver, but was only a spectator as the GB four again won gold.

He set about establishing himself in a new four ahead of London and that crew won two World Cup events in 2009 and the world championships. James was not involved, but after impressing in the trials and testing programme recently, GB's chief coach Jürgen Grobler has reinstated the Welshman in the four, with the consequence that Partridge is, once more, back in the eight.

At one time it would have irked him that he had again been jettisoned, but he insists: "It's Jürgen's decision. The way our team is, it's so strong, if you have an off-day or get ill, it will pass you by, and, having had a good season up to that point, unfortunately I got ill at the wrong time."

All the rowers appreciate that the team takes precedence over individual ego. Partridge adds: "That's the tough thing about rowing. For six months of the year, you're all working to create this amazing team, but you're also each other's opposition and you're having to be selfish. So, yes, we fight against each other and we're competitive on the water but ultimately when we go to race the rest of the world we want each other to win."

Partridge, 30, San Francisco-born but of British parents, is doing an MBA at Henley Business College. You suggest to him that, while time will have healed, he must still occasionally ponder what might have been in Athens. "I can't really afford to do that," he says. "If it's all 'woe is me', I'd never get anywhere. Sometimes, in a silly moment, I look back and think 'those guys won – wouldn't it have been nice to be part of it?' But when I've watched re-runs of 2004, it's not a case of self-sympathy. It's more an emotion of 'Are they going to do it'?" He adds: "We had trained so hard together. We trained as a team. Everyone here puts in so much. We're like a family."

Indeed, water, or at least those who row on it, can become thicker than blood in the pursuit of medals. Partridges laughs: "I'm about to become a father for the first time. It's scheduled during the second World Cup [in Hamburg next month]. I hardly see my pregnant wife [Georgina] because I'm here all the time."

The experience Partridge's presence brings is the eight's gain. "I'm not disappointed to be in the eight," he says. "I was in the eight in Beijing and I loved it. It's dynamic, vibrant. There's loads of life, lots of noise, and there's the speed. It's a great event."

Partridge adds: "I used to get bothered by what boat I was in but now I'm not fussed. I just want to win an Olympic gold."