Britain's Olympic team suffered their worst blow yet yesterday when Alex Partridge, the 23-year-old No 3 man in the coxless four, was ruled out of the Athens Games with a collapsed lung. Ed Coode replaced him in the boat for morning and midday outings in preparation for today's final of the Stewards' Challenge Cup here in which Britain's top Olympic hope face an Australian combination from Melbourne and Queensland.
Coode subbed in for James Cracknell in the coxless four in early May in the Poznan round of the World Cup when Cracknell suffered a cracked rib. Matthew Pinsent, stroke of the crew, greeted Coode's reappearance yesterday with the observation that "it's not like we've just got him off the shelf at Tesco's".
Partridge joined the crew after trials in April and was complaining of pain since the World Cup regatta in Munich in late May, remarking to Pinsent after they finished third in Lucerne a fortnight ago that he felt he was breathing on only one lung. Tests revealed no rib or muscle damage and it was not until he was given an ultrasound scan on Friday at the English Institute of Sport medical centre that the true cause of his injury became clear. Richard Budgett, chief medical officer of the British Olympic Medical Centre, ordered no rowing or flying for Partridge for five to six weeks, ending his Athens dream.
Partridge's bilateral lung collapse follows a long list of minor injuries and illnesses that have plagued the flagship boat since its formation - Pinsent's tonsillitis, Cracknell's rib, Williams's gastric flu - and continues to raise the question of over-training in the squad. Six other men have been out of their boats during the last three weeks, including Toby Garbett of the coxless pair which again raced last night with James Livingston subbing for him. As he re-rigged the four's boat at Leander Club yesterday morning, Jürgen Grobler, chief men's coach, said that it was a shock for the wholecrew - Cracknell, Pinsent and Steve Williams.
"I am absolutely confident that it will be a good story in the end," he said. "You are already a loser if you give up on your goal." Coode won world titles in British fours in 1999 and 2001 before injury kept him on the bank for a year. Last year he rowed in the eight who won bronze at the world championships, and until yesterday occupied the key No 7 seat in that boat.
His place in the eight will be taken by Tom Stallard. "I was gutted when I heard," Coode said. "Alex has led star performances and improvements, the Jonny Wilkinson of rowing. He had a big impact."
Budgett said that Partridge's condition was an "extraordinary unpredictable freak accident." He said there would be a full inter-disciplinary wash-up to investigate it.
Cracknell made a moving tribute to Partridge, saying that "he was a breath of fresh air. He really helped me concentrate on my technique and took the weight off me giving directions to the crew."