Rowing: Where even Redgrave feared to row

Campbell is thriving in the tough world of the single scull, which daunts the greatest
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It takes a special character to overcome the loneliness of the single scull. Even the colossus Sir Steve Redgrave, who deems it the boat in which "there's no place to hide", could not master an event which is considered to be the most demanding of the rowing disciplines.

The five-times Olympic gold medallist, who proceeded to discover that his forte was in crew boats, is convinced that he was not encouraged to pursue single sculling as a young oarsman because back in the Seventies the event was thought unlikely to produce a British winner.

The selectors possibly had a point. The last British Olympian to win gold in the discipline was Jack Beresford, who received his medal at the Paris Games in 1924. Yes, it's still Jack Beresford.

Now, though, there has emerged a genuine contender capable of interrupting that unwanted sequence: Alan Campbell, from Coleraine, who has already this season caused the élite of the event to re-evaluate their own status. This season he secured a World Cup gold in Munich on his debut as a senior single sculler, surging to a victory by over two seconds from the host nation's Marcel Hacker, the world record holder, and Olaf Tufte, the Olympic champion.

Campbell won a World Cup silver in Poznan three weeks later, finishing only just behind New Zealand's world champion Mahe Drysdale. He completed the series with a fourth place in Lucerne.

"He is incredibly determined and very mature, although he's still very young," says Bill Barry, the man who discovered Campbell and is his coach and mentor. "Maturity in sculling usually comes between 26 and 30. He's just 23. He takes the stress of racing very well. And he loves racing. That's why he's got this incredibly fast start, which is why he's surprised a lot of the world record holders around."

Campbell's adventures on the water, together with his sheer ebullience off it, have initiated talk of him being as significant a personality in the sport as Redgrave. Undoubtedly Campbell shares certain qualities with him. Barry asked him on the day they first met what his aspirations were. He recalls that Campbell retorted without hesitation: "I want to be Olympic champion."

Barry, an Olympic silver medallist in 1964 in the men's four, enthuses: "Anyone who says that has got some sort of ego; and you definitely need that to do this event, because it's a very tough discipline. I thought I saw something in him. There was real commitment to want to do something."

Yet if fate had not intervened as it did, Campbell, who had left school determined to become an Army officer, would quite possibly by now be doing service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

An only son of a primary school head and a father who works as a university electrician, Campbell began rowing at his state school, the Coleraine Academical Institute for Boys. At 16, he won the junior All-Ireland sculling title.

After he left school, Campbell set out on an Army career. "I was in the Army Eights, and we trained for the Eights Head of the River, in March 2002, out of Tideway Scullers School, at Chiswick," he says.

"When we all returned to our own places, some of the lads went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and back to Northern Ireland, but I was left at university, and I was asked if I wanted to come down and do a bit more rowing. Then I met Bill Barry [one of the founding members of the Tideway Scullers School].

Campbell joined the Tideway Scullers School's development programme and, within a year, had won the Diamond Sculls at Henley. He was selected for the GB men's quad for the Athens Olympics. The crew finished 12th. "I was disappointed with that result," he says. "But I knew that I was going to be good enough to move forward, and do something big within the sport."

Beijing 2008 is his initial target, followed by London 2012, but first he must demonstrate his potential in front of a home crowd, at this week's World Championships at Dorney Lake, Eton. His parents will be among the 20 supporters coming over from Coleraine.

It is the culmination of a year in which those gold and silver medals have punctuated a gruelling training regime. Campbell is undaunted by the fact that there is much more of such rigours to come. "I don't like pain when it's inflicted on me," he says. "But I tend to inflict it on myself. I know I am benefiting from it, towards getting my final goal. If I can hurt myself a little bit more to make myself go that little bit faster, I'll definitely do it."

These World Championships single sculls will be an intriguing spectacle. "I do have a tendency to go off quite hard," he says. "Some would say suicidally. I hope that in the World Championships you are going to see a slightly more mature race from me, but a very strong race.

"People think the single is quite a lonely boat," Campbell adds. "And, yes, it can be frustrating sometimes because you have to go out there and do it on your own. If things are not going well, there's nobody in the boat to try and motivate you and push you along. Conversely, if it's going well, you know that it is you that's getting it right. I enjoy that responsibility."

He appears to possess a genial temperament, ideal to accept a higher public profile should his burgeoning reputation be confirmed by results. However, he insists: "I don't do the sport for fame or glory, or money. You couldn't be paid enough to compensate for what we do to ourselves. I love the sport, and I want to be an ambassador for it.

"I think that with what I'm doing in the single and what the guys in the double [Matthew Wells and Stephen Rowbotham] are doing, we are changing the way people are looking at British sculling. We want to develop that interest, and we want young kids coming into that."

He adds, only half-jokingly: "The 2008 and 2012 slots are taken by myself, unfortunately. But 2016 and 2020 are free..."

Crest of a wave: Six British World Championships medal hopes


Steve Williams, Peter Reed, Alex Partridge and Andy Triggs Hodge are undefeated in their previous 21 races. The world champions in 2005 and also the World Cup holders for two years, they probably have enough power and confidence to see off anybody who turns up this week.


Katherine Grainger, Olympic medallist in 2000 and 2004, strokes the women's quad as Britain's most accomplished oarswoman. Sarah Winckless and Frances Houghton were world champions with her in the quad last year, and with Debbie Flood at bow they should retain the title this time.


Zac Purchase won a silver medal in the lightweight single last year. A torn wrist ligament has kept him out of the boat for most of this season, but the 20-year-old from Tewkesbury bounced back in real style in July at the Lucerne regatta, where he won the gold medal by a street.


Annie Vernon and Anna Bebington, a pair of 23-year-olds who were discovered as college oarswomen at Cambridge, won their first regatta at Munich in May and pushed close to the gold medal at the Lucerne World Cup meet in July. The most exciting newcomers to the British team this year.


Matt Wells and Steve Rowbotham beat the world champions to a standstill at the Henley Royal Regatta this summer, and came within two seconds of them at the final World Cup regatta of the season. With Campbell, they have put British men's sculling back on the map this year.


Colin Smith and Tom James compensate for their slight build by guts, good technique and experience - Smith as Britain's sculler last year and James as stroke of the 2004 Olympic eight. They were close to the world champions in July and could cause havoc among the hunkier men.

Christopher Dodd