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.
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The Independent Online

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?