MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96 : Aura of a golden oarsman

Simon O'Hagan watches a double act maintain the highest standards
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The Independent Online
AT 8 o'clock on a chill winter's morning, the River Thames at Henley is barely recognisable as the blazer-and-marquee dream world of the summer Regatta. There are puddles on the towpath, flooded fields beyond. One or two well-clad early risers are out walking their dogs. A sharp wind has got up from the west and the water is running fast downstream.

Rowing with it is easy. Coming the other way, as is clear from the distant figure in a green sweatshirt, is a different proposition altogether. Steve Redgrave, Britain's greatest ever Olympian, is straining to keep the boat moving at pace. The current wants to drive him back. Waves are breaking against the canvas - the slender craft looks vulnerable under this buffeting. But Redgrave keeps it steady. He forges on, his rhythm undisturbed.

On the bank, stopwatch in hand, is the stocky figure of Jurgen Grobler, once in charge of the East German rowing squad but since 1991 coach to Redgrave and his partner in the coxless pairs, Matthew Pinsent. He watches his man plough up the course with an air of benign indifference. As Redgrave comes past where we are standing, Grobler brings his agony to an end. "Now!" he shouts, and Redgrave drops his arms and slumps forward in the boat, which immediately slows against the tide. From across the water come cries of anguish mingled with relief. They are a reminder of the price a sportsman must pay in the quest for supremacy.

Half an hour later, Redgrave, Pinsent and the dozen or so other oarsmen who have taken part in the training session are back in the warmth of the Leander Club half a mile upstream, drinking large quantities of fruit juice straight out of plastic jugs. It is Pinsent who puts the morning's work into perspective. "What we did today was like playing hangman on the last day of term," he says.

Indeed, all it had been, according to Grobler, was a bit of Christmas fun, "a turkey race", involving Redgrave, Pinsent and some members of the Leander Club. But it was noticeable that the man who won it was not only the best oarsman but also the one who seemed to take it most seriously and suffer the most as a result - Steve Redgrave.

"I'm probably more critical of my own performances now than I have ever been," Redgrave said after the mock prizegiving ceremony in which a Leander Club coffee mug, its pounds 4.50 price tag still attached, had been added to his vast collection of cups and medals. "That's because time is running out."

Redgrave is 33. He will be 34 by the time of next year's Olympic Games in Atlanta in which he will attempt to become only the fourth man in any sport to win gold medals in four successive Games. His is already a phenomenal achievement. A member of the coxed four that won in Los Angeles in 1984, he teamed up with Andy Holmes to win the coxless pairs in Seoul in 1988 and with Pinsent to win the coxless pairs in Barcelona in 1992.

"In the past I've gone into events thinking in the back of my mind, 'Well, I'll have another chance if I don't win,' " Redgrave said. "Now there isn't another chance. Some people think, you've achieved so much, what difference does it make? But to me what's been and gone doesn't mean anything any more. The only thing is the next target. Everything's geared up to that. We'd trade in every other medal we've ever won to win in Atlanta."

If every year was Olympic year Redgrave would not be thinking of retirement. But he is no longer prepared to make the commitment to training. Had he completely ruled out Sydney in 2000? "Not completely. If we lost in Atlanta, I'd probably carry on. I wouldn't want to be remembered for that."

He surely will not be. Redgrave and Pinsent look even more formidable this time - so much so that Redgrave, whose modesty and naturalness only enhance his status as a sporting legend, is able to say without a hint of complacency that "deep down I don't think any of the others believe they can beat us - that's our strongest card". Pinsent, eight years younger than Redgrave, shares this assumption. "We know at our best we'll win easily," he said. "The important thing for us in training is making sure that everything below our best is as close to our best as possible. So even if we're not firing on all cylinders in Atlanta, we can still win."

It would be wrong to think that Pinsent, as the junior partner, defers to Redgrave. He believes this was a problem his predecessor, Simon Beresford, suffered from, and he was determined not to make the same mistake. The more outgoing and jovial of the two, Pinsent cites their readiness to tackle problems quickly as one of the keys to their success. "If you've been bottling something up you can be sure that as soon as you're in a pressure situation it will come out."

Redgrave is more laconic. He admits he was introverted when he was younger, and as Pinsent talked, Redgrave would fall into long silences. There are certain sportsmen, often those dedicated to living life at the extremes of physical endeavour, who have an aura about them, and Redgrave is one. One hesitates to call it mystique because in many respects Redgrave is a perfectly normal bloke - he is married, has two children, likes his golf, and treats his rowing, he says, for what it is - a job. But as he gazes into the middle distance, his huge arms resting on the table, one can only wonder at someone who drives himself this hard in his sport while remaining, away from competition, a model of equanimity.

What makes him different? Pinsent answered first. "He wins all the time. He's the one standing in the middle of the rostrum." Redgrave wasn't buying that. "I don't know. I don't see myself as any different to anyone else. I've lost as many events as I've won."

Not the ones that matter - and he has the Leander Club coffee mug to prove it.