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?

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of Jane Austen classic - with a twist

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

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

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week