Cracknell has to tough it out in ride over turbulent water

Injuries and late changes have unsettled Britain's rowing quartet in the run-up to defending their title.

All is well with James Cracknell. Apparently. The 6ft 4in, 15st 10lb rower, one quarter of the four which secured that famous victory in the Sydney Olympics, has overcome the illness and injury which have jolted his recent Olympic preparations out of joint.

"I'm physically good," he maintains. But the lack of elaboration gives you cause to wonder just how good he is feeling other than physically.

Cracknell has a laconic style, and the throwaway lines are often the ones most worth catching. For example. I ask after the child he has recently had with his wife Beverley Turner, the former ITV sports presenter. The last time we had met, at the opening of the British Olympic Association's refurbished centre at Northwick Park hospital, Cracknell had spoken with characteristic irony about the privations he was enduring as one of the prospective dads at an ante-natal class.

Now, at 32, he is a dad for real. With a boy - Croyde - named, he explains, after a favoured surfing village in North Devon. "I proposed to Beverley there," he adds. "A bit Posh and Becks, most people say..."

There's always a bit of an undertow with Cracknell. That said, you can't help but think: Olympic champion rower. Officially hunky, in tabloid parlance, to the point where he once did a nude photo-shoot with Cosmopolitan magazine. Married to smart and attractive TV personality. With romantically named son. And house in Henley. Surely this is the man who has it all?

One look at the concerned face in front of you, however, registers that that is not the case.

The Athens Olympics has been Cracknell's goal virtually from the moment he sat back in dazed exultation behind Messrs Pinsent, Foster and Redgrave after the race at Penrith Lakes that made three of the four into household names. (Steven Redgrave already had his feet under the kitchen table, having won four earlier Olympic rowing golds).

But an Olympic challenge that was cleaving through the water two years ago, when Cracknell and his partner Matthew Pinsent - the only two from the four to have continued in the sport - were sweeping all behind them in the pairs event, has caught a crab. More than one, in fact.

The dream ticket of Pinsent and Cracknell, world champions in 2001 and 2002, began to grow strangely ragged at the edges. Last year, horror of horrors, they finished only fourth in a world championships won by the less powerful but more technically proficient Australians.

Britain's coach, Jürgen Grobler, decided that was not good enough and shuffled his crews at the April trials, where Pinsent and Cracknell were re-cast as part of a new four with Steve Williams and the swiftly rising Alex Partridge.

Two months later, however, with all the big preparation races of the season behind them, the four became three when it was discovered that Partridge, calamitously, had a collapsed lung. That meant a recall for Ed Coode, displaced by Tim Foster on the run-in to the Sydney Olympics. Coode is an excellent and experienced oarsman, having won two world titles in the four - but the demise of Partridge rocked a boat that was already experiencing more than its fair share of rough water.

The whole turbulent process, clearly, has told on the man who has a reputation as a perfectionist. "I was looking to see how much I enjoyed things from April onwards," Cracknell said. "Because the winter's been pretty crap. Not in terms of rowing, but there's been a lot of questions, and there's just been a different atmosphere within the team. So I was looking to enjoy the last four months and see how it felt..." He laughs, harshly once. "But it hasn't been that enjoyable really..."

A cold and a stress fracture to a rib caused Cracknell to miss four weeks of the season, and he was not the only one to suffer. Williams struggled with a virus, Pinsent had a bout of tonsillitis, and Partridge was ruled out entirely. "I feel so, so bad for Alex," Cracknell says. "Everything else has been put into perspective by what has happened to him."

He, perhaps more than anyone, is in a position to empathise with the young oarsman, having missed two Olympics through misfortune - a broken shoulder in 1992, and, on the day of the Opening Ceremony in 1996, a bout of tonsillitis.

"I don't think anything anyone says is going to be that comforting for Alex," he reflects. "Maybe my experiences are useful as an example of what can happen if you stick at it. Ed has come in, and I don't think we could ask for a better replacement. But it's not the same as having the guy we were racing with, and who we'd gone through a lot emotionally with..."

He pauses for a moment, before adding: "When you bring someone else in, I think you get 98 per cent of the speed in the first outing, really. But the last two per cent is eight seconds in a race, and that's a long old way... We've just got to get on with it."

The problem since has been that there have been no competitions in which to get on with it, save for a relatively easy work-out at Henley last month in the Stewards Challenge Cup.

"Yeah," Cracknell acknowledges. "You try and re-create it in training - but you never can."

You sense that his failure to maintain winning impetus with Pinsent in the pairs still nags at him, although he puts a brave face on the circumstances which led to their re-assignment by the former East German coach. "Matt and I were very inconsistent last year," he said. "If you don't win the world championships the year before the Olympics you can't expect to be left in the same boat. Our aim was always to make our worst better than anyone else's best, and we haven't quite done that."

He adds, with just a trace of hardness in his tone: "We lost the right to say what we wanted to do... so no regrets about that. Jürgen needs to get a gold medal for British rowing. We broke the world record the year before, so I guess we were a bit hit-and-miss for whatever reason."

You wonder aloud how the reason remained unclear to two of the most medal-laden athletes around. The response is swift, and centred on the reference to medals.

"Well, not with the ones we want," he says. "We've got six world championship golds but only one Olympics. We'd trade."

Upon reflection, however, Cracknell identifies a number of factors which have worked against himself and his partner in the pairs. "We were quite strong, but maybe we had a tendency to work against each other," he said. "I think a lot comes from me having to change sides from the stroke to the bow. I rode on one side of the boat for 12 years, then after Sydney I switched to the bow side to fit in with Matt. The only other person to do it successfully is Steve. But he changed in 1989 so they rowed for 11 years with him on that side.

"Technically, in a smaller boat, it has more effect. I used to suffer in tricky conditions. So that partly explains the inconsistency. But it was also partly that we weren't rowing very well last year."

The creative tension between Pinsent and him - a kind of loving, sibling rivalry - has been modified by the addition of two more team members.

"Being together in a four makes things a bit more relaxed, a bit less intense," Cracknell says. "But it's still the same in that we've got to get the best out of each other.

"And we need Matthew to really fulfil his potential, because to be honest I don't think he has ever really done that. He is the best oarsman in the world. He's so good I think he's won a lot of races on 99 per cent. But now we need him to dominate the crew, mentally and physically. He already does that physically, but mentally he needs to ... inspire us. He needs to really come out of his shell a bit more and be a leader."

Is that, you wonder, something which came more easily to Redgrave?

"Yeah, I mean Steve wasn't the best rower in the world. He was at one stage, but in our four he wasn't. But he was a leader. So especially for the guys coming in it would be great to see Matt do that a bit more. Because he has it within him."

Canada are the reigning world fours champions, and they will take a lot of stopping in Athens. And while the American quartet that won in Lucerne have been drafted into their eight, the Germans, world bronze medallists, remain a threat. Can Cracknell and Co really crack it, after all the disruptions and replacements? The response is one of measured optimism. "Yeah," Cracknell says. "We'll be there or thereabouts. It's just that we've got to get it right and dig deep. We've done it before and no one else has. We're not racing anyone else who has a gold medal."

Was that a throwaway line?

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home