Rowing: Trials turn the best of friends into deadliest of Olympic rivals

Ed Coode, who narrowly missed out on a medal in the Sydney Games, is hoping to seal his place this week in Britain's summer line-up for Greece
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The Independent Online

There are many significant milestones along the four-year road from one Olympic Games to another, but for the British men's rowing squad this week's pairs trials at Hazewinkel in Belgium take some beating.

There are many significant milestones along the four-year road from one Olympic Games to another, but for the British men's rowing squad this week's pairs trials at Hazewinkel in Belgium take some beating.

We began two days of competition yesterday in the knowledge that our performances here will be the most significant factor in deciding the names of the 14 members out of the present 18-man squad who will go to this summer's Olympics in Athens.

We are competing against each other this week as pairs, the combinations having been put together by the men's chief coach, Jürgen Grobler, following the performance of each individual over the winter.

We were in these new combinations at a Lottery-funded training camp last week in Northern Italy, where the aim was to develop the combinations technically on good water and in a healthy environment so as to make the racing at the trials as fair and representative as possible.

For the trials I am pairing with Kieran West, which is good news as Kieran is one of the squad's top athletes and was a gold medal-winner in the British eight at the Sydney Olympics. Their gold medal has all too often been forgotten amid the publicity surrounding the coxless four's triumph.

The training camp was particularly crucial for us as Kieran and I had not rowed a lot together before these last three weeks and we knew the intensity of the trials would expose any differences between us. Therefore we could not afford to waste a single training session, or even a single stroke, in our efforts to gel as unit.

This pressure can be frustrating at times. When things do not go well, even for a single session, it can quickly lead to doubts and worries about the outcome of the trials. However, the pressure is the same on all of the pairs and so even though the lake in Italy was calm enough to reflect the snow-topped Alps in the distance, the tension in the squad got to everyone at some point.

Grobler's training programme is not focused on this week's competition. He is training us for the Olympics and therefore we do not taper or reduce our training load for these trials. The taper will come only in the weeks before Athens this summer. The mileage we have been rowing in the last three weeks has been as high as ever. This at least meant that we all slept well, regardless of the ordeal we knew was approaching this week.

The trials consist of a simple pairs regatta with heats, semi-finals and A, B and C finals. From this there will be a ranked order of pairs. It does not take a genius to work out that, with 14 seats going to Athens this year, the top seven pairs are where everyone wants to be.

In previous years the winners of the pairs trials have been given the pairs slot for the summer. Hence Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell (who are missing the pairs trials because Pinsent has gone down with tonsillitis) have been the pair for the last few years. However, Grobler has now stated that he wants to put those two into a four, so the simple formula of previous years does not apply this time round.

People will not know in which boat they will race this summer just on the basis of where they finish this week. There will be other factors to take into account.

It is also worth adding that these trials are not like the American or Australian format, which have just, farcically, ruled out the swimmer Ian Thorpe from his favourite event because he made a false start during his national trials.

Selection for the British rowing team all comes down to the opinion of Grobler, the chief selector and chief coach. He takes scant account of previous form, though, and relies heavily on the performances at trials. We therefore prepared for this week on the basis that, barring equipment failure or illness, the top six pairs - plus Pinsent and Cracknell - would start the season in the Olympic boats

Kieran and I just missed out yesterday on a place among the top six pairs in today's A finals, but there is still everything to play for. We have the B final to contest and we know that a strong performance can still help to secure our place on the plane to Athens.

The decision to put Pinsent and Cracknell into the four has been a bit of a surprise, simply because I thought that they were going well enough in their pair to be confident of a good summer. However, Grobler is the man with 30 years of winning Olympic gold medals behind him and if he thinks they are better suited to a four then I'll go with his judgement.

I am sure it was a shock to all those involved with the two boats because you are always thinking about the summer's racing as you train through the winter, and to have those plans or ideas suddenly changed is hard. The decision never really affected the 12 of us in the eight, though, so for our group the news was not really that earth-shaking.

For us, all that matters is the speed of our pairs. We have all trained equally hard and we have all become very good friends over the years. But to get to the Games those friendships have to be put aside to produce the rank order that will be decided by tonight.