Rowing: Nature or nurture? Redgrave's girl reopens the debate

Sir Steve's daughter had not sat in a rowing boat until she was 18, so surely her recent success is down to her genes? Not necessarily, says Paul Newman. Hard work, luck and... beefburgers play a part
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The Independent Online

Forget the fact that her father, Sir Steve Redgrave, is Britain's greatest Olympian. Forget the fact that her mother, Lady Ann Redgrave, also rowed at the Olympics and, as doctor to the British rowing team, can impart the best medical advice. Forget the fact that her sleek 6ft 2in frame is ideal for rowing. No, the reason why 19-year-old Natalie Redgrave followed her parents into rowing was beefburgers.

Natalie, who helped Oxford win the Women's Boat Race recently, had grown up insisting she would never take up the sport, but all that changed in her first week at university.

"At the end of freshers' week they have a big barbecue down at the boathouse and they give out free food," her father explains. "Natalie loves her food. She's as skinny as a rake but eats like a horse. To get the free food you had to go on a rowing machine if you were a non-rower or out in the boat if you'd rowed before. She hadn't really rowed before but she didn't want to get on a rowing machine so she went out in the boat."

Eighteen months later 19-year-old Natalie was competing in the Boat Race. The Pembroke College medical student – who had also said that she would never follow her mother into medicine – admits: "I love rowing now. It's about the girls you're with, about the whole set-up. It's really friendly. We just have a good time. We train hard but we enjoy it."

Natalie's case reopens one of sport's oldest questions. Are sporting champions – beefburgers notwithstanding – produced by nature, by nurture or by sheer chance?

"I think it's a combination," Natalie herself says. "You can have the genes, you can have the build, you can have everything, but without some hard work you're not going to get anywhere. Equally if you put in the work you can probably overcome any physical shortcomings. There were some guys in the men's Boat Race who were quite small, but they put in the training. Genes may help you, but at the end of the day you've got to put in the hard work."

While most champions are blessed with physical gifts, there are others whose success is largely down to nurturing, usually by driven parents. Tennis has many such examples. Richard Williams set out to turn his daughters Venus and Serena into world No 1s after hearing how much the French Open champion earned in a week, Mike Agassi drove his son Andre so hard and made him put in so many hours of repetitive practice that he grew up to hate a sport in which he nevertheless became one of the all-time greats, and a succession of parents from eastern Europe have taken their daughters west in search of fame and fortune.

In golf, Ben Hogan, one of the game's greats, was known to practise more than any of his contemporaries and is said to have "invented practice". On this matter, Hogan said: "You hear stories about me beating my brains out practising, but... I was enjoying myself. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning, so I could hit balls." The Williams sisters have said the same. Nick Faldo, multiple major winner, was also famous for the long hours of practice he put into his game.

Natalie, in contrast, barely stepped into a boat during her childhood, despite growing up in a household dominated by rowing. Her father won gold medals at five successive Olympic Games, beginning in 1984 with Los Angeles, where her mother also competed in the British eight. Her godfather is Sir Matthew Pinsent, Steve's former rowing partner.

"I can't say if it's inherited or not," Steve says of his daughter's talent, "but her whole life has been around competitive sport and watching it. She was on the rostrum at an Olympic Games when she was only one year old, in between her father and her godfather, both of them with Olympic gold medals around their necks."

In almost every sport there are examples of children inheriting their parents' prowess. Three generations of Summerbees – George, Mike and Nicky – played professional football, while Nigel Clough and Jamie Redknapp clearly owed much to their fathers Brian and Harry. Ben Youngs followed his father Nick into the England rugby union team and Owen Farrell, son of Andy, is regarded as one of the sport's brightest prospects. Two fathers and sons – Colin and Chris Cowdrey and Frank and George Mann – captained the England cricket team.

Father-and-daughter combinations, like the showjumpers John and Louise Whitaker, are less common, but that is largely because considerably fewer women compete in top-class sport. Unsurprisingly, the offspring will often show many of their parents' traits. Peter Schmeichel, a goalkeeper with a commanding physical presence, has passed similar characteristics on to his son Kasper, Micky and Alec Stewart were both wholehearted cricketers, while Damon Hill inherited his father Graham's passion for fast cars.

Could Redgrave see any of himself or his wife in their daughter's approach to rowing? "She's very, very competitive, but very quiet with it. That's probably come from both of us. She's probably more competitive than Ann.

"I remember when she was at her secondary school there was a fathers and daughters tennis competition. We never took part in it, though we both play a bit of tennis, even if we're rubbish. I said to her: 'Why didn't you tell me about it? I love competing at anything'. She just said to me: 'Dad, we're both competitive and we're rubbish. What's the point of doing it?'

"Being at Oxford she is obviously very academic and very bright, but she's also very competitive with herself. In some ways that's what athletes are. Yes, you're trying to beat other people, but you're also trying to be the best you possibly can be."

Steve has been reluctant to offer rowing tips – the Oxford coach had to twist his arm to talk to his crew – and says his main advice to his daughter would be simply to enjoy her sport. "The more you enjoy something the more you will put into it and the more you'll get out of it," he said.

And what of the Redgraves' two other children? "Sophie's 17 and she doesn't do much sport at all," he says. "She plays a bit of tennis, but just for fun. Zak's 13, if you can believe it from his size. He has size 13 shoes. He's got bigger feet than I have. Last summer he did a little bit of rowing up the Thames..."

Keeping it in the family: Mixed success of sporting offspring

Ian and Liam Botham (cricket and rugby)

Ian was arguably England's greatest cricketer and there were high hopes for his son after a shining start in county cricket. His career failed to take off, though, and he switched to rugby union before having a crack at rugby league but was forced to retire aged just 27 due to a neck injury.

Graham and Damon Hill (motor racing)

The only father and son combination to hold Formula One world championships. Graham won in both 1962 and 1968, as well as winning the Indy 500 and Le Mans. Damon, who shared his father's care-free style, took the 1996 F1 championship after second-place finishes in 1994 and 1995. Damon's 20-year-old son, Josh, is trying to follow in their footsteps, taking part in the Formula Renault series.

Muhammad and Laila Ali (boxing)

Ali's daughter followed in her father's footsteps and remained undefeated in her 50 fights spanning over 14 years. Perhaps her greatest claim to fame was fighting on the undercard of the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride fight in 2005.

Cesare and Paolo Maldini (football)

The former Italy manager Cesare spent the majority of his playing career at Milan where he made 347 appearances. He also played for the Italian national side 25 times. Paolo, however, knocked those achievements into a cocked hat, playing 902 times over 25 trophy-laden seasons for the Rossoneri and also won 126 caps for Italy, including some games under his father.

Brian and Nigel Clough (football)

Brian was one of football's most celebrated figures, scoring 251 goals in 274 games as a player before a renowned managerial spell that included leading Nottingham Forest to back-to-back European Cups. Son Nigel played under Brian at Forest, won 14 England caps and is currently in charge of Derby County but never truly managed to escape the shadow of his father.

George and Ben Cohen (football and rugby union)

Admittedly uncle and nephew rather than father and son, both George and Ben have the remarkable achievement of winning a World Cup winner's medal in different sports. Right-back George played every game in England's 1966 football World Cup-winning side, while son Ben was a key member of Clive Woodward's rugby union team that lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in Australia in 2003.

Michael Lynch