Pinsent craves a world without regrets

He doesn't want to hate rowing, he doesn't want to miss it. Agonising goes on for the golden boy
Click to follow

From Lake Schinias, near Athens, on that sacred Saturday, 21 August, when the insufferable heat was sufficient to turn Great Britain's Olympic winners' medals into molten gold, to a glorious, autumnal Scotland. The seasons have changed, and the sporting environment, too, but the memories still return to Matthew Pinsent, as though a videotape loop is being constantly replayed within his brain.

Just six weeks have passed since the tears mingled with the perspiration and dripped from those battle-hardened features as he stood on the podium betraying hitherto subjugated emotions. "Yeah, six weeks," nods the four-time Olympic gold medallist. "But it feels like a lot longer when you're up here playing golf."

Friday afternoon, and Pinsent has just walked off the final hole at Kingsbarns. He is partnering Peter Baker in a pro-am event, the Dunhill Links Championships. They are 11 under, but there is some doubt whether he and the Ryder Cup player will progress in this tournament. What the Olympic world wants to know is whether Pinsent will make the cut, so to speak, for the Great Britain rowing team, albeit in its earliest preparatory stages, for Beijing 2008.

What is it about these accursed multi-gold-winning oarsmen? Steve Redgrave had us guessing after Atlanta before declaring his challenge for a fifth. Now Pinsent is teasing us. No, that's not fair. The Old Etonian and former Oxford man is simply being Captain Sensible, as usual. He is inspecting his own psyche in forensic detail.

Unlike Redgrave. Immediately after that 1996 victory, with the boat barely having reached the pontoon, Pinsent's then pairs partner commanded that he should be shot if he returned to the water, only subsequently to commit himself to Sydney. "The first lesson is that you don't rush in, you don't commit until you're ready to live by it," says Pinsent. "Steve's declaration at Atlanta, straight after the race, was just not the best place to do it. He openly admits that now. It was the most famous retirement speech in history, and the way he came back and won a fifth gold medal is the stuff of legends. But I don't want to do it that way."

He adds: "I want to be honest to myself and make sure that there's never going to be a point where I regret a decision. That there's never going to be a point where I hate rowing. That there's never going to be a point where I miss rowing to the extent that I realise I've made a mistake in retiring.

"You've got to put yourself in a situation two years down the line, and it's a winter's morning. Do I want to be lying in bed for the rest of the day and feel I've made a mistake by carrying on? But then, it could be the morning of the Beijing final and I'm going to be looking at the crews on the water and thinking, 'Well I could, or should, have been there'. They aren't easy factors to weigh up."

Britain's head coach, Jürgen Grobler, has applied no pressure on Pinsent. For the moment. "The normal date to be back at training is pretty much now. But Jürgen said, 'Go away. I don't want to see you for another month, at least'. If he ever feels he should pressure me, then he will. But I don't think he feels it's his place to advise me until I ask for his advice."

If Beijing became reality, Pinsent would be a component of a virtually new crew. Of the "Pinsent Four" who secured gold with that final surge in the Olympic final, only Steve Williams appears a definite "yes" man. There must be doubts over James Cracknell's participation, while Ed Coode has said he will not row for at least a year, and probably never again. "The fire in my belly has gone," he said recently. "I don't begrudge him those feelings," says Pinsent. "In some ways, I'm jealous of his finality and security in the way he feels about it, just as I was a bit jealous of Steve [Redgrave] after Sydney. The way it was just like, 'Well, it's done now, it's over'. It was like, 'I can move on with life now'. I'm not at that stage yet."

Is it conceivable he could take a year out, get a taste of civvy life? Should he retire there is a natural presumption that the articulate, assured sportsman will enter sports politics on some basis, either with the British Olympic Association or the International Olympic Committee. "Physically, it might be just too hard," he says. "I did nothing for two or three months after Sydney, and coming back was so painful."

He adds: "If I'm not ready to commit in the next three, four weeks, the clock begins to tick down on what I can physically do in the season 2005, anyway. Then it'll be much harder in 2006, 7 and 8."

Certainly, 2004 has taught him how onerous it would be. "As a year, it was stressful and it was eventful. But winning reassured me that what we were doing all along was pretty much the right kind of stuff; that even in the pits of despair or when results weren't going for us, that we weren't very far off."

Pinsent can for the moment luxuriate in a lifestyle which is the antithesis of the disciplined regime demanded by his sport at the élite level. He can, for instance, spend more time with his wife, Dee. "Until now, we've shared each other's life with rowing," he says. He has her support, whichever direction he takes. After Athens, she insisted her husband could go on to emulate Redgrave and make it five golds if he so wished, confirming that she would stand firmly beside him.

"When I know, I'll know," Pinsent says. "But I'm not there yet. I'm enjoying what life is like without rowing, although I'm aware that it's not always like this, not all open-top bus rides through London and celebrity golf tournaments."

Making the final round is his current ambition. Out on the links. As he attempts to do so, he will endeavour to settle that impossible dilemma: should he make the unkindest cut of all? The one that concludes a distinguished career.

'Matthew Pinsent: A Lifetime In A Race' (Ebury Press, £18.99)