Confessions of an Olympic widow

Beverley Turner, wife of British rower James Cracknell, describes the sacrifices imposed on family life by his single-minded pursuit of another gold in Athens

At the end of 2000 Anne Redgrave - wife of Sir Steve - told a BBC documentary about marriage to a five-times Olympic Champion, "Effectively," she said, "I've been a single mother." I had recently started dating Steve's crewmate James Cracknell. "Pah!" I thought as I watched the interview, "It can't be that bad."

Four years later we are married with a baby. And yes - it is that bad. Apart from our honeymoon, James hasn't had more than two consecutive days off in four years. We have had breakfast together no more than 20 times. We did escape to the Devonshire coast once, but the ergometer came with us. The cleaner walked into our tiny bedroom to find James sweating on the rowing machine while I struggled to get dressed in the corner.

Prior to our wedding day in October 2002 we had been apart for 11 weeks. That year's separation was particularly long as I spent three weeks covering the Tour de France for ITV while James was at home. But periods apart have characterised our marriage. Olympic years are even worse.

Since April, rowing has taken James to Italy, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Austria and France - from there the rowers will fly straight to Athens. He has been home for 48 hours in the last six weeks: to unpack and repack before the last leg of their Olympic schedule. It should have been a welcome chance to enjoy one another's company before a final farewell. But the pressure to have the perfect weekend was just too much. In order to stay in step with European mainland time, James had to wake up at 5am.

In 30C heat with a teething baby, two huge bags of kit to wash and four training sessions to fit in, the weekend descended into bickering and frayed tempers. At one point the living-room carpet was covered with Olympic kit in ordered piles - until baby Croyde crawled excitedly across them. He came to a stop and threw up over James's "presentation long pants". We laughed as we sponged them down. At least he would have a little bit of Croyde with him on the podium.

Balancing family life with sporting commitments is a perpetual challenge for élite athletes. Marriage is about teamwork, but it's hard to feel part of a team when your partner already belongs to a bigger and more important one. But it is not only long periods of separation that make such marriages difficult. Olympians are complicated creatures: driven, single-minded, sometimes selfish. As the Games draws near, the less pleasant side of their characters can become more pronounced. Focusing with greater intensity on the coming event, they become preoccupied: a faraway look fills their eyes. The daily strain can leave them ill-equipped for a conversation over dinner. The competitive fervour that boils sub-surface can quickly flow over into their "normal life". This year I have had to gently remind my husband to save his hostility for the Canadians.

Of course there are times when I miss James - when the bins need putting out or when I wish there was another pair of hands to help with the baby. But a pre-Olympic husband, blinkered to the task in hand, is not great company. The truth is that life as an Olympic widow is often preferable to life as an Olympic wife.

The GB head coach, Jurgen Grobler, prescribes long training camps not only to hone the rowers' skills, but also to ensure they don't sit on the start-lines as recent divorcees. His wife, Angela, has been an Olympic widow herself for 25 years. She gave birth to her son Christian in 1980 while her husband was coaching on a bleak Austrian mountain top. He learnt of the arrival by telegram. "Christian was two weeks old when Jurgen saw him for the first time," Angela says, "but it was Olympic year, so there was no way he could have left."

She knows the rowers well and says that she will "cry if they win and cry if they don't". However, Angela will be watching the action on TV at home in Henley. "It is a very important business trip for them. They need to focus. Family has to come second when they are going out to do something great."

It works both ways, however. It is far better for James to settle down in a hotel room after a hard day in the boat with nothing but a DVD for company, than to hear me nagging about the washing-up.

Clare Smales, girlfriend of James's crewmate Ed Coode, agrees that his absences can be welcomed: "I get so much done!" she says "Of course I miss him hugely, but it's a great opportunity to catch up with normal life and see my girlfriends."

Ed used to become more insular as a major event approached, which Clare found frustrating: "We are not mind- readers. They need to tell us when they have had a bad or a good day. It is so hard for us to hit the right note when we don't know how they are feeling."

But defeat in the boat can make such communication particularly tough. Ed finished a devastating fourth place in the Sydney coxless pair. "All our dreams came to a rather abrupt end," Clare says. "Ed was so upset. It was a very difficult time." But they learnt from the experience and have worked hard to ensure that Clare now feels more involved: "The more I know about what is going on the more supportive I can be."

Friends call with offers of support every time James leaves. But I tell them to come on over - and bring the champagne! It's like being single again, but without the pressure to go out and meet someone. The house is always tidy, there are no piles of sweaty Lycra in the laundry and I can watch Big Brother every night without receiving a lecture on the number of brain cells I'm destroying (and I certainly don't miss the three alarms between 5.45 and 6am every day). Unlike some other sports, rowing wives don't have to worry about the nocturnal habits of their partners. The only females James encounters at altitude training are of the equine and bovine varieties. They nibble at his windowsills and keep him awake at night with the bells around their necks.

But it is important that the emotional distance doesn't begin to match the geographical space between us. The nightly phone calls are a must. The rowers may not have much to report except: "Went rowing, had breakfast, slept, went rowing, had lunch, slept, went rowing, ate dinner ..." But they keep a connection in place, although it can be hard (when living in a rowing bubble) to relate to the frenetic activity occurring at home.

Matthew Pinsent's wife, Demetra, and I recently laughed about dealing with our husbands' "satellite delay": the 30-second gap that accompanies our questions and their answers whilst on training camps (curiously it is always worse at altitude - an effect of the lack of oxygen perhaps). "When all you have is a 15-minute phone-call," Demetra says, "you want to make the most of it. But that can be hard when they are so focused on the coming race."

We Olympic widows are by definition low-maintenance wives, but we do expect a little effort from our errant husbands. During the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony in 2000, Steve Redgrave famously forgot to include his wife in his acceptance speech. Afterwards he felt terrible and has spent some time making amends.

The Olympic widow plays an important role in her husband's success, although it may not be as tangible as putting pasta in the cupboard and milk in the fridge. Emotional support is equally vital - especially following a defeat. Knowing when to shut up is as important as knowing when to placate.

But when they win, the glory is entirely their own. For every winner in Athens there will be a silent, anonymous partner in the stands who played a part in their success.

Perhaps because of this, the Olympic widow's isolation can easily turn to resentment. I have found that pursuing my own goals and ambitions keeps me sane. It also lends the relationship a healthy dose of parity. James takes comfort in the fact that I'm not sitting at home waiting for his return. Demetra Pinsent is a high-flying management consultant and Clare Smales is a successful freelance journalist.

Clare refuses to describe her contributions as sacrifices. "I prefer to think of them as compromises," she says, although admits a "normal life" has been impossible. "In every single decision we have to put rowing first. Sometimes we can't go to the cinema because Ed's legs will be cramped up for two hours. But when I see him compete I think my heart will burst with pride. All the missed parties and weekends away don't matter a bit then. We will have plenty of time for that when he eventually retires."

Retirement is a topic every Olympic widow knows is out of bounds. It is paradoxical that neither Clare, nor Demetra, nor I have discussed life post-Athens with our partners, yet the outcome will impact significantly on our lives. At the moment the Olympics are too huge to see beyond.

We all agree that if they lose, we will be devastated for them. We may pay off our mortgages slightly quicker if they clinch gold, but we will still have our own jobs - and children - to take care of. Our lives will go on.

I have seen the look on my husband's face at 6am on a freezing January morning. I have watched him come home so tired that he can barely talk and I have seen him turn down lucrative professional offers so that he can go training. He deserves to win.

In Sydney, 13 rowers won gold medals. By Christmas of that year, only three of them were with the same girlfriends. It is a chilling statistic that we Olympic widows are only too aware of. Hearts will be broken on the field of play in Greece. But they will probably be matched by the number off it.

I love my husband. But I think I'll like him a little bit more when he's no longer a professional athlete. If he retires after Athens, I am looking forward to finding out. If he doesn't, I will return to being a busy part-time single mother - for another four years.


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