The guiding hand behind history

The Jürgen Gröbler interview: The legend that is Steve Redgrave needed a little help along the way to fulfilment
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A rare question was fired at Jürgen Gröbler in one of the Great Britain press conferences during the early days of the Olympics. "Jürgen, when was the last Olympic Games that one of your rowers did not win a gold medal?" The smile was pure Mona Lisa, the answer as concise as it was emphatic. "1972," Gröbler replied.

A rare question was fired at Jürgen Gröbler in one of the Great Britain press conferences during the early days of the Olympics. "Jürgen, when was the last Olympic Games that one of your rowers did not win a gold medal?" The smile was pure Mona Lisa, the answer as concise as it was emphatic. "1972," Gröbler replied.

As far as I can recall, those were the only official words the head coach of the triumphant British rowing squad offered, though, in a quieter forum, he is happy to parade his idiosyncratic grasp of English grammar to genuine and enlightening effect. Gröbler declined to add that, in 1972, his first year as an Olympic coach, he had to settle for bronze with a pair of double scullers from the Magdeburg Rowing Club, which barely had a boathouse and had never won a medal of any conceivable colour before. The haul since then has been 14 golds, seven with his own personally coached crews and seven by association as technical director or head coach, with East Germany, unified Germany and Britain.

But it is his work with Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, then with the coxless four, that has propelled Gröbler into a limelight he neither seeks nor particularly enjoys. Unscrew Gröbler's mind and you will find a mechanism as precise and complex as a Rolex. The only minute he considers fully is the next one and so it was with a scarce disguised frustration that he paced the bank of a swirling River Thames at Henley on the first morning of rowing's post-Redgrave era last week. By his calculations, 8am, Wednesday 1 November was the start of the next Olympic cycle, yet, apart from a makeshift Leander club four including James Cracknell, there was not an oarsman nor a gold medallist in sight. No Matthew Pinsent, no Tim Foster, not one member of the gold-medal winning eight. "The next Games are fixed, the date for the next World Championships will not move," he mutters darkly. "The other nations, those who lost in Sydney, they are not taking time off. I don't like to be at the back of the queue, you know."

Yet not even the resolutely unsentimental Gröbler could cast off a decade of his life without a backward glance. He knew Redgrave would retire, of course, just as he knew instinctively the last time that he would carry on. But he had not quite anticipated the impact of the decision until Monday night, on the eve of that retirement, when he and Redgrave had roomed together for the first time in 10 years and had talked, as friends not as coach and athlete, until the early hours of the morning.

"For once, we had a little bit of time to look backwards and it was maybe a bit more emotional than we had done before," Gröbler said. "I'm not always so good at those memories because I have to be always looking forward, let's go for the next one, let's go for the next one, but we discussed a little bit to make both of us proud of what we had achieved. And, you know what, he made the tea."

Gröbler and Redgrave were a pair forged in the steelworks of Valhalla. In the German, Redgrave found his ultimate fellow traveller, someone who thought like him, was as competitive as him, as unemotional as him and as successful as him. Gröbler's eccentric English is easy to parody, but he has a gift for a phrase. A seat in the coxless four, he once said, was not a "gift box". It had to be earned. "Steve and I had a blind understanding," he says now. "When we discussed how to win a race, we had a good agreement. He came from the tactical point of view, me bringing all the data and on the opposition as well, analysing their strengths and weaknesses. He was always interested in those things."

When Gröbler arrived to take up his post as head coach of the Leander club in January 1991, Redgrave's own career was at the crossroads. He had already won two golds, but, at the age of 29 and with a barren couple of years behind him, the prospect of competing in one more Olympics, let alone three, seemed far distant. Gröbler, too, in a different way, needed new horizons.

Born in Magdeburg, developed in the notorious sports science school in Leipzig, at the very heart of the East German system, Gröbler brought with him to the blazered heart of English rowing a reputation as a perfectionist, an insatiable appetite for winning Olympic medals and an absolute need to prove himself away from the increasingly tainted practices of the old GDR. The opportunity to develop, to explore his own coaching potential in a different tradition and to educate his 10-year-old son, Bjorn, at an English school were equally critical factors. And what did he find at Leander that brisk January morning?

"A boathouse and a river, nothing else," he laughs. "It was just like Magdeburg 20 years before. We even had an old shed which we converted into a gym. It was dirty and cold, Jesus, but it had produced gold medallists so it was good enough." We are talking now in the refurbished members' bar at the club, the walls papered with the history that proved so attractive to Gröbler in those early days, the lushly carpeted hallways and discreetly clinking cutlery a symbol of a new prosperity inspired in part by the success of an East German and a comprehensive schoolboy from Marlow.

Gröbler had been invited to Henley regatta the previous year and had marvelled at the blazered cosiness of the occasion just as he had driven through Eton on one of his first mornings here and wondered, with a touch of concern on behalf of his son, whether all uniforms in English schools consisted of top hat and tails. Bjorn is now reading Biology at Pembroke College, Oxford, and Gröbler would be a shrewd guide to the English sporting character, should Sven Goran Eriksson require a compass.

Yet Gröbler's appointment was a calculated risk. Here was a man nurtured by a system which viewed gold medals as political propaganda and drugs as a legitimate means to an end. Under the 10-year amnesty brought in after unification, Gröbler no longer has to fear his past, but a retreat behind the Berlin wall makes him understandably edgy. "I will always be identified with that system," he says. "I cannot take it away from myself. I was living there, I was rowing there, I was doing my job there. It was very political.

"Sport was the Mercedes Benz of the GDR. The drugs thing, that was not the key to success, the key was well-educated coaches. Training was the key. From my point of view, there was still a lot of discussion that the system made the medals, not the coach. The big challenge for me was to find out." Not until 1994, Gröbler believes, did the suspicions about, as he puts it, what he had in his top drawer begin to abate and by then Redgrave and Pinsent were established as the dominant pair in rowing.

There was much to discuss on Monday night. Perhaps Gröbler talked of watching the Union flag not the flag of the GDR being raised to the top of the pole at the World Championships in 1991, their first success together. It was the moment he realised winning meant the same in any language. Or of 1996 when Gröbler cried as Redgrave brought home his fourth gold in Atlanta (he mimes the tears because he cannot bring himself to say the words); or this last summer when defeat in Lucerne threatened to destroy the chances of a fifth and Gröbler had run the final kilometre from the coach's station at halfway desperate to be at the finish in time to take the blame, to reset the winning mechanism.

While we talk, he gazes out of the window, wistfully and untypically reflective perhaps, one last glimpse of the file marked Redgrave. Finally, he points at a car, an X-reg BMW. "I have always a little bit of a dream for that," he says. As Redgrave and Pinsent knew.

So it was the end of a day of celebration in Henley, after the civic reception and the row down the river in pouring rain. Ten thousand had braved the weather and Gröbler, on the fringes as ever, was proud of that. He thought nothing when Pinsent and Redgrave backed him on to the balcony and asked him to turn round. The BMW lay below, gleaming, a gift from his crew. He was stunned, speechless, but his emotions are back in single file now. "They cannot buy me, you know," he laughs. "Not even with a car."