Rowing: Reed blows away competition with breathtaking ability

Peter Reed has become a superhero in and out of the water. Now his sights are on a world title this weekend and gold in Beijing. Nick Harris reports

Peter Reed's lung capacity is a thing of wonder, even to physiologists.

His fellow oarsman Matt Pinsent used to hold the record for any sportsman, with an 8.5-litre capacity, a measurement that dwarfed the average adult male's 5.8 litres, easily beat Steve Redgrave's 6.5 litres, and was way ahead of endurance cyclists such as Lance Armstrong (7 litres) and even Miguel Indurain (8 litres).

But then in May this year, in a routine test at the English Institute of Sport, Reed was recorded with a capacity of - deep breath - 9.38 litres.

"Big lungs, Pete," said the physiologist. "Better test you again." The result was the same. "And I think I might even be able to squeeze out a few pips more," said Reed, talking yesterday about the lungs which have helped him blow away the competition in a phenomenal 18 months.

Such physical prowess is no bad thing for a man who hopes to emulate such rowing titans as Redgrave and Pinsent. But the 25-year-old Reed, 6ft 6in tall, is enormously talented in more senses than one. His journey towards Olympic gold in 2008, in the metaphorical slipstream of Redgrave and Pinsent, in the coxless four, has been meteoric so far.

He took up the sport little more than four years ago. He has combined it with a career in the Royal Navy ("tremendously supportive"), where he has risen to Sub-Lieutenant since enrolling at 18. He has also fitted in two degrees, including a masters at Oxford. That was completed last year, a year in which he also won the Boat Race.

He was then selected to row in Great Britain's blue riband boat - alongside Steve Williams, Alex Partridge and his fellow Oxford rower Andy Riggs Hodge. Since being together, Britain's latest oarsome foursome have been unbeatable.

They won all three World Cup races in 2005, and then the World Championships in Japan. They have had another World Cup clean sweep this year and will defend their world title on home water at the World Championships at Eton, starting this Sunday. On this form, they will be hot favourites for Olympic gold in 2008.

Away from work, academia and sport, Reed is also a talented musician, although typically modest about his abilities on the guitar and piano.

One wonders what he does in his spare time: rescue pensioners from burning buildings, perhaps? Actually, yes.

That particular episode happened last November. Reed had just parked his car after a hard day's training when he noticed smoke coming from a building just up the road. What happened next is already the stuff of Oxford legend, which is perhaps why Reed laughs in self-deprecation as he says: "Of course, I immediately ripped off my shirt, exposing the S for Superman on my chest. I located the fire, dived through the window, braved the flames and then led everyone to safety." He pauses. "Actually, it wasn't that dramatic." And then he tells what really happened, which seems every bit as dramatic.

"I could see straight away it was more than just a toaster fire. I got out the car, dialled 999 and then went to see what I could do. It was a block of flats, the door was open. I'd done a firefighting course in the Navy so I wasn't just going to rush in and possibly make myself another casualty. But I also knew I had to check to see if there was anyone in there.

"Going up the stairs, there was thick black dust everywhere and heavy smoke literally pouring across the ceiling and down the walls. It wasn't a good scene. The first person I found was a woman in a difficult mental state." She was helped side and later charged with arson.

"And then I found this old chap, probably late 70s, struggling to get down the stairs. I picked him up and carried him out." Reed's physical presence is brought home when I asked whether he picked up the old man using a fireman's lift. "No, like a baby. But it wasn't a big deal. Anyone would have done the same thing."

That is debatable, as is whether anyone else would have found sporting excellence such a breeze. And sometimes a wheeze: at the same testing session in May, Reed was diagnosed as borderline asthmatic. Since using an inhaler, he has found his extraordinary lung power ever more comfortable to apply.

"Having big lungs is an advantage," he says. "I take more oxygen with each breath, and the more oxygen I take, the more goes into the blood and to the muscles. And that helps particularly when your muscles really hurt with lactic acid, because the oxygen removes it. So with more oxygen, you can bear more pain, go longer, go harder."

Though Reed was born in Seattle (by dint of his father, Leo, working there on a project for Boeing at the time), and proud of his link to America, he is an avowed British patriot, as his military career and his sporting ambitions prove.

He has never seen footage of Redgrave's historic fifth Olympic gold in Sydney (he was at sea for the duration of the Games) but can recall watching TV as an 11-year-old as Linford Christie took the 100m gold in Barcelona.

"The podium, the anthem, that thing of winning for your nation, it had me captivated and has since," he said. "Beijing is my main goal. But there's plenty to do before that."