Hunter proves rowers are not just a class act

East Ender relishes prospect of London Games after showing you don't have to be posh to mess about in boats.
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The Independent Online

If one image encapsulated Olympic endeavour in Beijing, it was not the victory salutes of Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, or, from a British perspective, those of Chris Hoy or Rebecca Adlington. It was the spectacle of Mark Hunter, arm around his lightweight double sculls partner, Zac Purchase, a pose struck in comradeship with his fellow gold medal-winner but, more importantly, to stop himself from slumping to the ground as he was interviewed by the BBC's John Inverdale and Steve Redgrave after the triumphant final.

Frankly, he resembled a lad the worse for wear in a town centre on a Saturday night. "I was in a whole lot of pain," he recalls. "I was all over the place. Normally when we finish racing, we wind down. Because I couldn't do that, it all welled up inside. I just couldn't control anything. I had to go off to be sick behind a van that was parked up. I had to sort myself out. I was an absolute mess."

That moment conveyed what it requires to win an Olympic gold; the culmination of four years' training. It placed the fitness of professional footballers or rugby players, admirable though that is, into context.

"It's a different type of pain which they probably never experience," the Londoner says wryly. "You're going to go through different energy systems, and at the end your body has to kind of flush out all the waste products you've produced. That's why it's so hard, and that's why it's so great when you are successful and have pushed yourself to the utmost limit as to what you can do as a person."

Twelve days on from that Olympic final and Hunter is, thankfully, a rather more composed individual at the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake near Reading, the GB team's base. It is dress-down Thursday, with jeans having largely replaced the tracksuits of the 23 medallists. They pose for photos. All is tranquil on the water, save for Britain's non-Olympic crews, mostly younger rowers or late starters, preparing for the forthcoming European Championships.

Nothing stops here, as oneof Britain's most successful Olympic sports prepares for the future. The Olympians may not meet again for some time. Some may not return. That is the way of things when your next "big game" is four years away, and even the World Championships are a year distant.

So what does an Olympic medallist do now? One senses that even the pain involved is addictive. Will Hunter return for more punishment, even though he will be 34 by the time of the London Olympics. "2012?" he ponders. "I'll think about it in a year's time. Being in London, it's going to be massive. Being an East End lad, I'd love to compete in my home Olympics."

Hunter is off to coach female rowers at the UCLA in America.They compete against other universities in a West Coast league. "It's a huge thing over there," he says. "I always said I was going to have a year away from the national team to recuperate and chill out. Just mentally switch off and have some fun. I want to learn to surf, do beach volleyball. Meet new people. Have different experiences. Go out of my comfort zone."

Hunter is a rower who gives the lie to perceptions that the sport is necessarily elitist and draws its participants from independent schools. He grew up in East Ham before moving to Romford, and attended a comprehensive, then a sixth-form college. Most of his schoolmates harboured ambitions of being footballers. "Yeah, I enjoyed that, too," he says. "But being in a team sport like that, you knew that there would be some not giving 100 per cent, even if it's not always obvious. In rowing, you can see very quickly if someone's not pulling their weight. That's what I liked about it."

By 14, he had joined Poplar and Blackwell Rowing Club. "My dad was club coach down there. People used to socialise there after work and enjoy their rowing. Dad introduced me to every sport possible. I tried football, swimming, judo, karate, badminton and tennis. But I just found a love for rowing. Mum and dad put so much into what I've done. I had no funding to start with, I was always borrowing money. This [he fingers his medal] is theirs as much as mine."

A couple of brothers also had a hand in it, too. "I watched my first Olympics in 1992, Barcelona, when the Searles [Greg and Jonny] won [the coxed pair, steered by Garry Herbert, now a BBC commentator]. That was so inspiring. I decided I wanted to go on the same journey and do it myself."

If he had not succeeded, he would still have made a career for himself on the water. After a seven-year apprenticeship he qualified as waterman and lighterman on the Thames. That means he can pilot passenger-carrying craft or cargo-carrying barges. Not exactly the background many would expect of an oarsman at Leander in Henley-on-Thames, one of the most exclusive rowing clubs.

"It was really good when me, an East End boy, went to Leander, one of the biggest rowing clubs in the world, and became captain. It just showed that the sport had changed. That it was more open and friendly. From my experiences, hopefully people will realise that they can go to rowing clubs and try it out. They won't be told to go away because they're not the right class of person. It's open to everyone. I just hope that what Zac and I have achieved will motivate youngsters to really move on and try to emulate us, and be part of it next time."

How life has changed for Hunter in the past fortnight. Two Saturdays ago, all he could feel was "an obscene amount of pressure, because we were favourites". And now, after holding the Greek and Danish crews at bay to become the first British lightweight crew to win gold? "I feel calm, complete. That's the best way of putting it. To achieve what we did was just awesome."

The journey he started in his mind back in the summer of 1992 was complete. "And finished in style," he reminds you.