Rowing: Golden hope happy to stay in the shadow of Redgrave

The Interview - James Cracknell: The awesome oarsman they call 'Golden Rowlocks' knows that purgatory can lead to further Olympian heights. Nick Townsend discovers a driven force
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The Independent Online

For the tourist who chances upon Lake Silvretta, the artificially created puddle formed in a hollow more than 6,000 feet up in the Austrian Alps is a breathtaking idyll in high summer. For the Olympic gold-aspirational sportsman, attempting to attain peak condition in the rarefied atmosphere, it is purgatory. James Cracknell winces at the prospect. The altitude camp, organised by the Great Britain rowing squad, is no one's idea of a holiday.

"I really dread it," says the man who occupies the front end of the British boat. "But the winning makes it worthwhile."

Cracknell, whose immediate concern, with partner Matthew Pinsent, is a defence of their world championship title in Milan next month, adds ruefully: "I've spent a total of eight months of my 13 years in the sport up that mountain. It's half-seven in the morning to seven at night, and it's incredibly boring. You have five meals a day and four training sessions, so that takes up most of your time.

"Then there's the constant blood tests. The rest is sleeping and watching movies. Otherwise it's not the greatest place. Apart from Austrian walkers passing by, all you hear is the sound of cow-bells for three weeks. But it works. Just as we knew when we went there before Sydney. You can't overestimate the confidence that gives you."

The gestation period for the Athens Olympics is 47 months, and the labour pains have already begun. All those exertions: the pushing, the deep breathing, the cramps. James Cracknell would prefer not to contemplate the experience, but he is aware that this is the beginning of a period when the arrival of the next Olympic gold he craves will be preceded by a high degree of suffering.

Cracknell, one half of a pair recently described by Dianne Thompson, chief executive of their sponsors, Camelot, as "Golden Rowlocks", is the character who has "sexed up" British rowing; the man who bared, well, not quite all, in Cosmopolitan and who is as likely to feature inHello! as Rowing Magazine. Typical of his female admirers is one who articulated her feelings on the web: "Why did I first get interested in rowing? Two words: James Cracknell. I first saw him in that Cosmo spread. After about two weeks, I recovered. Now I am really into it and looking for a rower husband of my own!"

The original article is definitely spoken for. After a previous relationship which was exposed to the prying eye of television for Gold Fever, the BBC video diaries detailing the British "Steve Redgrave" Four's build-up to a successful dénouement at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Cracknell met and married Beverley Turner, the ITV presenter. Within the Cracknell-Turner household, there is a sense of expectancy, too. Beverley is due to give birth to their first child on 1 October.

Some might contend that impending fatherhood is not the ideal backdrop to a world championship bid, with the Olympics little more than a year away. Surely it will prove a distraction, I put it to him as we talk at the pair's training base, the Leander Club in Henley, prior to the squad's departure to Austria?

"It can't not be; it just depends how much I let it affect me," he says. "It was quite an interesting experience sitting down and telling Matt and Jürgen [Grobler, their coach]. I felt, in a way, a bit guilty. It was definitely hard to tell them, because OK, this is not a job; I'm not contracted to be here, if I didn't want to turn up one day or never turned up again I could do so. I wouldn't get into trouble.

"But we know what we're going to have to go through next year, and the baby will change how much sleep I get, and affect me in other ways, just as it does in other people's lives. When I told them, they were relatively cool. They were never going to have a negative reaction, but it could have been, 'You could have timed it better'. I wouldn't have blamed them."

The immediate concern of all, at least in sporting terms, is that it should not be a premature birth. "If it's a month early, I'll have to come home. Or maybe I'll ignore all calls around that time!" he says, an expression of mock-guilt spreading across his windswept features. "No, to be honest, it'll be nice to come back from the worlds and devote my thoughts to something other than rowing. At the moment, that's my priority. I think it annoys Bev that I don't think about the baby as much as she does. But [once it's born] I want to be part of it. I wouldn't want Bev to have to struggle on her own, although I still have to be here every morning irrespective."

He glances at his crew-mate, Pinsent, the newest International Olympic Committee member and, according to some, a probable future chairman of the British Olympic Association, who is pontificating nearby. "Anyway, he's just like a big baby," Cracknell says, nodding at his associate. "I have to look after him. He gets lost if I'm not here at half-seven every morning."

Pinsent, who has also married since Sydney, could be said to have embraced sufficient extracurricular responsibilities of his own as the Games beckon. These days, you are as likely to witness the three-times Olympic gold medallist hovering outside No 10 as maintaining his status as rowing's No 1. "I think when he gets home, he sits at a table with an advertising hoarding behind and his wife fires questions, to give him practice of being in press conferences," says Cracknell mischievously. "No, it's great that any athlete in British sport is on the IOC commission, and it's even better when it's an athlete in your sport and when it's your team-mate. He's very objective, and I think he'd be a very good politician."

Cracknell concedes that, as Pinsent's partner, he still feels "the pressure of rowing in Steve Redgrave's shadow". It is remarkable that, even in his retirement, Redgrave, the Atlas of British sport, still wields an almost mythological influence on those who have followed him.

"Sometimes, like when we lost last year in Lucerne [in a World Cup event], I could imagine people saying, 'Well, Steve and Matt didn't lose together very much, so when Matt and James did it was clearly James's fault'. And that was despite my having won Olympic gold and the five world championships. I still felt the pressure was on me to live up to Steve."

In Redgrave's opinion, it is such "insecurity" within the Cracknell psyche that actually drives him on to be the athlete he has become. The truth of that becomes evident in Cracknell's own words. "I don't think we'll ever be as big as Steve, because he'll always be regarded as 'the best-ever Olympian, the best-ever rower, Britain's most successful athlete'," declares Cracknell. "Whatever I do, I'm not going to better that, although there are some areas in which I've achieved more than him [notably last year's scintillating world championship triumph in Seville, when the pair broke the 1994 record set by Redgrave and Pinsent by four seconds].

"I've won events that he hasn't. But I think it's brilliant that he's in our sport. If I can be half as good, and have half the effect when I walk into a room, I'd be satisfied."

He adds: "I got to watch Steve when I was 14 or 15, winning in Seoul, and then 12 years later there I was racing with him. If a kid the same age is watching David Beckham now, he's not ever going to play alongside him for England. I had the opportunity to do that with my hero. It may sound odd, but if I'm honest I don't want to come out of his shadow. I like being associated with Steve. That's why Sydney is such a great memory."

The forthcoming world championships in Milan see a return to the scene of the pair's only defeat this season, when they finished third behind the Croatians and the Italian crews. It was explained away as "just a bad day at the office" and they are expected to avenge that result. "We're both looking forward to getting to Milan, hopefully winning, and then really laying into 10 months of our lives to produce something special in Athens," Cracknell says.

And after Athens? Well, Pinsent will almost certainly retire. For the moment, Cracknell is not dismissing the prospect of another four years, culminating in Beijing in 2008, by which time he would be 36. "It's just whether the drive's there for another four years. It doesn't feel all that appealing now," he says. "We recently had a weekend off, which we hardly ever have, except when Bev and I go on holiday once a year, and that was brilliant. That's what I miss about this. A baby will change everything as well."

For the moment, only one thing is for certain. Come next August at the Quadalquivir River, near Athens, Cracknell is determined to be clutching a gold medal. Not just holding the baby.

Biography: James Cracknell

Born: 5 May 1972 in Sutton, Surrey.

Married to: Beverley.

Major achievements: World championships: 6 gold medals - 1997, 1998, 1999 coxless fours; 2001 coxless pairs, coxed pairs; 2002 coxless pairs. Olympic Games: 1 gold medal - 2000 coxless fours. World juniors: 1 gold medal - 1990 coxless fours. World Student Games: 1 silver - 1993 eights. Fisa World Cup: 4 golds - 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001 coxless fours.

The high point: Olympic fours gold. The BBC documentary Gold Fever attracted over 6m viewers, and the win was voted No 1 in Channel Four's "100 Greatest Sporting Moments".