Rowing: Swapping seats and fighting for my place on roller-coaster ride to Athens

The British Olympic oarsman Ed Coode, who has been charting his Olympic preparations for The Independent, finds himself in the coxless four at the expense of a worthy competitor and friend
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The Independent Online

Two months ago I thought I was not going to the Olympics at all. Two weeks ago I was told I was going to Athens in the British eight. One week ago I was moved from the eight to row at the Games in the four alongside Steve Williams, James Cracknell and Matt Pinsent. Now I am preparing in that four for our final training camp before going out to Athens next month. As an international oarsman you have to be ready to tackle the most gruelling of tasks, but you can never prepare yourself for a roller-coaster ride quite like that.

Two months ago I thought I was not going to the Olympics at all. Two weeks ago I was told I was going to Athens in the British eight. One week ago I was moved from the eight to row at the Games in the four alongside Steve Williams, James Cracknell and Matt Pinsent. Now I am preparing in that four for our final training camp before going out to Athens next month. As an international oarsman you have to be ready to tackle the most gruelling of tasks, but you can never prepare yourself for a roller-coaster ride quite like that.

Back at the beginning of May, I could not have been lower. I had just seen what I thought was my last chance of getting to Athens slip away. Having failed to do myself justice in the national pairs trials - the most important stage of the British squad's preparations for the Olympics - I was politely told by Jürgen Grobler, the head coach, that I was "still of use to the team as a spare man".

My situation seemed pretty hopeless and I considered retiring from rowing right then. That sounds absurd right now, but it was only because of persistent encouragement from my girlfriend, Clare, that I doggedly stuck at it in the vain hope that "something might happen".

And soon something did happen. James Cracknell was diagnosed with a stress fracture to a rib just 10 days before the first World Cup regatta in Poznan, Poland. I was brought into the four as his replacement and very quickly realised that this was an opportunity to show that I could still compete on the world stage. My guardian angel must have been close by: with only a short preparation, we won comfortably, beating the 2002 world champions in the process.

James was returning to full health and fitness and returned to the four, but the good news for me was that my performance in Poland led to my recall to the eight. This was the boat I had raced in at last year's world championship and most of my training over the last 18 months had been with this team.

In this game, however, one man's good news is usually someone else's misfortune. The other man here was Tom Stallard, whose place I would be taking in both the crew and the Olympic team. It was particularly harsh on Tom, who had performed brilliantly over the winter.

I raced at the next two World Cup regattas in the eight, constantly feeling under pressure from Tom in the wings. We came a satisfactory but unimpressive fourth in Munich, doing well enough to justify keeping the crew the same for the next regatta in Lucerne.

Having done some good work in the intervening period, we arrived in Switzerland three weeks ago with a renewed sense of optimism and were looking to recreate the form that had won us the bronze medal at the world championships 10 months earlier. However, there then followed probably the worst three days of regatta racing in my career. Two of our crew, Robin Bourne-Taylor and Dan Ousley, fell ill and Kieran West, a replacement for Dan, pulled a muscle and could not race. Nobody was surprised when we failed to make the final.

With the official Olympic selection announcement imminent, none of us in the eight felt bullet-proof. It was therefore quite a turning point for the crew - though very hard on Tom and Kieran - when it was decided that the eight for Athens would be the same that went to Munich, and that eight was going to race in Lucerne.

For me, however, the biggest upset was yet to come. On Friday last week Jürgen asked me to row in the four for Henley Royal regatta over the weekend. Alex Partridge had a suspect rib that was "being looked at". It was so late in the day to reform the four that I did not feel under that much pressure for our impending race.

Later that day, however, Jürgen took me aside and told me that he had now found out that Alex's rib injury was worse than anyone had imagined. Alex had somehow punctured a lung and would no longer be going to the Olympics. I was to replace him in the four for Athens.

I was profoundly shocked. I felt terrible for Alex. I know him as a friend and I have enormous respect for him as an athlete: he had won this year's pairs trials in April in style and had emerged as British rowing's Wayne Rooney. I also felt guilty about leaving the eight.

Of course I also felt exhilarated. Two months earlier it had seemed that four years of preparation for these Games - four years of striving to make up for the disappointment of missing out so narrowly on a medal in Sydney - were all going to waste. Yet now here I was, less than two months before the Games, being called up to join a crew containing Britain's most famous oarsmen and arguably our most celebrated current Olympians.

It quickly dawned on me that our first and only race in the four weeks before the Olympics was going to be in 36 hours' time at Henley Royal Regatta - and it was going to be very important to win it. Thankfully we did so, beating a worthy Australian crew in the process. And although our row was far from perfect, there were elements of it that reminded me of rowing in the four in 1999 with Matthew, James and Steve Redgrave. During that year we were unbeaten.

Since last weekend we have had a chance to catch our breath. I have talked to Alex and he has been nothing but positive and encouraging. He is a great young rower and I am as sure as everyone that he will win Olympic gold medals in the future. Right now he must concentrate on getting fit and healthy.

The eight is now rowing with Tom Stallard returned to it, and going well. They are a very talented bunch who have yet to show their full racing promise. Knowing them, I would tip them for medals in Athens.

The four is progressing well. Thanks to Camelot's sponsorship, we have not wanted for anything. We need to use all the remaining 34 days before the Olympics wisely, but it is not like we are starting from scratch. I have won previous world championship golds in the coxless four with James, Matthew and Steve, so I know how and when the boat is going well. Rowing in this crew comes very naturally to me and I am enjoying every minute of it. Athens? I can't wait.

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