Rowing: Irrepressible knight's day in the sun

Redgrave's golden four reunite and point way for new generation
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The Independent Online

Sir Steve Redgrave, like Sinatra, may have once ignored that old adage "they never come back" and emerged an Olympic phenomenon whose record is unlikely to be emulated. You suspected that doing so again yesterday at Dorney Lake, Eton, may have been pushing the boat out once too often to judge from the extra kilos he and Matthew Pinsent were carrying as they prepared for the re-enactment of the Great Britain four's Sydney 2000 triumph.

Sir Steve Redgrave, like Sinatra, may have once ignored that old adage "they never come back" and emerged an Olympic phenomenon whose record is unlikely to be emulated. You suspected that doing so again yesterday at Dorney Lake, Eton, may have been pushing the boat out once too often to judge from the extra kilos he and Matthew Pinsent were carrying as they prepared for the re-enactment of the Great Britain four's Sydney 2000 triumph.

Until four recent training outings, that quartet had not been in a boat together since they rowed their Sydney conveyance a few hundred yards from the Leander Club to the Henley Rowing and River Museum at the end of 2000. Yet, the indomitable spirit which carried the oarsman, now aged 44, through serious health problems to secure a remarkable fifth Olympic gold was still in evidence against crews who contained rowers still in international competition.

The British four of Redgrave, Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster, led from the moment Lord Seb Coe started a special 500-metre charity event staged during this first Rowing World Cup of the season. What's more, they were still dominating at halfway, but fitness inevitably told and they finished third, albeit less than a second behind the Slovenian four, who were followed home by the Italians.

"The old magic was still there," gasped Redgrave, immediately after coming off the water. "We've always had a bit of speed. At one stage I thought we'd win it, but it shows that we've still got that little bit of skill." Foster still yields nothing in his admiration of an Olympic great: "He's still got something in him," he said of Redgrave. "It's still impressive when he gets going in the boat." And is he still as grumpy when things don't quite go to plan? "Retirement has definitely mellowed him," declared Foster.

What is rather disturbing is that this outing has provided the four with an appetite for more. "It really was just a bunch of old men getting into a boat," said Redgrave of the race which was staged to raise money for the World Food Programme's fund for the Tsunami Appeal. "Maybe we'll do it again." Are you quite sure about that? "Never say never. We've all been enjoying being out again as a four, and doing a bit of rowing. But maybe we'll wait another five years before doing it again."

Restaging water-borne conflicts are obviously in vogue. Unlike the forthcoming re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar, in which a "red fleet" will oppose a "blue fleet", so as not to upset international relations, there was no disguising the physique of elements of the home interest here. Suffice to say the British boat carried an extra 19 kilos from that which set off at Sydney, and which on that day won so narrowly from the Italians, followed by Australia.

While that crew was evoking memories, their modern-day counterparts were establishing their own potential for the future. The British men's four - Athens gold medallist Steve Williams, Alex Partridge and two members of this year's victorious Oxford Boat Race crew, Peter Reed and Andy Hodge - who have only been together six weeks, did so in considerable style, surging into an unassailable lead before easing to win their final by just under a length from the Danish crew. It bodes well for this year's World Championships in Japan in August-September and, in the long-term, Beijing. "They were very impressive," declared Redgrave. "They have very big shoes to fill and they've done very well indeed. It will be interesting when they get some faster opposition."

The United States, Canada, Australia, Italy and Slovenia will, no doubt, provide a more severe examination in the months ahead, but there was no denying the quality of this four and Williams, one of the Pinsent quartet in Athens, maintained: "We're not trying to be the last four. There's no looking back. If anything we've got to be faster, because the rest of the world's moved on. The bar's been raised."

This was the first international regatta to be held in Britain for 20 years. The 2006 World Championships will be staged here, and to judge by yesterday's turnout of spectators, the biggest crowd Pinsent had ever witnessed anywhere for a World Cup event, that will be well supported. They gave the Sydney four a rousing reception when Redgrave & Co did a row-past.

As well as victory for the men's four, there were golds in yesterday's finals for the women's quadruple sculls (Rebecca Romero, Sarah Winckless, Frances Houghton and Katherine Grainger) and a bronze for the women's and men's eights. On an afternoon when we witnessed a glimpse of the future, this was surely a final farewell for the heroes of 2000. But then, knowing Redgrave, you can never be quite certain of anything.

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