Pinsent ready to raise pain barrier

They talked for months on end about the race of the century that came in the Olympic swimming pool last Monday night, but rowing is different. Rowing is one long struggle against yourself, and your capacity to hurt, profitably.

They talked for months on end about the race of the century that came in the Olympic swimming pool last Monday night, but rowing is different. Rowing is one long struggle against yourself, and your capacity to hurt, profitably. And here on the lake in the hollow of sun-scoured hills we saw yesterday the unfolding of a race that on Saturday promises to take eight men - four British, four Canadian - to limits of pain they may never have known before.

The possibility is that it will not be the race of the century, but of eternity. In the last few strokes, that is. When your eyes blur and your lungs are on fire.

You do not have to reach for any sense of such extremities because the leader of the British four, Matthew Pinsent, has shown us how it is, and what it takes, so many times before.

Pinsent agrees that his pursuit of a fourth Olympic gold has already this year taken him into terrain of doubt and frustration he never knew in his now legendary partnership with the retired Sir Steve Redgrave.

Redgrave, the introvert who dropped out of school, and Pinsent, of Eton and Oxford, were as inevitable as a force of nature when they swept to gold together in Barcelona and Atlanta, and, with James Cracknell and Tim Foster, in Sydney four years ago. But here in Greece, Pinsent, Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams are not in the inevitability business.

They are fighting on the edge against the Canadian crew of Cameron Baerg, Tom Herschmiller, Jake Wetzel and Barney Williams, who have known little of the British trauma that came when their coach, Jürgen Grobler, decided to ransack a new British four and abort the Pinsent-Cracknell pairs combination that followed, unconvincingly, Redgrave's retirement.

Yesterday, as Pinsent's men won their semi-final, 0.24sec faster than the Canadians did theirs, when cruising a length clear of the dangerous Australians and Italians, the men who were thrown out of the four, Toby Garbett and Rick Dunn, failed by half a second to make their own final.

Dunn, who in his first bitterness said that contemplating Pinsent and Cracknell in his old boat was like seeing your girlfriend sleeping with your best friend, made a gesture of despair - and said, later: "We didn't come here to come against Matthew and James - we came to compete against the world, and we gave it a good crack. We're proud of what we have achieved this season."

Here, it is easy to see, just below the surface of the wind-rippled water, great passion lurks and in two days' time the cause of Britain's troubled, desperately underachieving Olympic campaign will hinge on the outcome of the duel with an increasingly impressive Canadian unit.

After coming home ahead of New Zealand and Poland in 5min 50.44sec over the 2,000 metres course, the British bow, Williams, declared: "It is a pretty close situation with the Canadians - we have to expect it to be stroke for stroke in the final."

Stroke for stroke trips off the tongue. But then so does hell on earth or moment of truth, and here early on Saturday afternoon they will no doubt define the action accurately enough.

After the semi-final, Cracknell said: "This was an important experience - with all that's gone on with injuries, this race doubled the number of races we have had as a unit. Maybe the speed and aggression we had was a good reflection of our training work. Anyway, we'll see on Friday."

Pinsent was cool but satisfied. "We are now back where we want to be and we just have to focus everything on the boat. There is a good feeling now - and that's what you do all the work for, getting this sense that in the end you will have it right."

Some time ago, Pinsent anticipated another Olympic final, when he is required to look at himself in the most strenuous way, saying: "So we line up the boat so it points straight down the course towards the finish 2,000m away, glance at the opposition, do a final check on the oar, the shell, the rigger and allow our minds to run over the plan one final time. Then, with butterflies raging in our stomachs, we go..."

Redgrave, the master of stealing such moments and making them his own forever, watched yesterday's semi-final with an inscrutable expression. He has already delivered one motivating speech, but confessed that having been so long out of a boat, and knowing the pain and the effort these men have put in, he did so not without a slight feeling of impertinence.

He says: "There are question marks against them, more than against us in Sydney four years ago, but the situation is not as bad as people have made it out to be. There has been a lot of turmoil but most of it, like injuries, has been out of their control. Everyone knows that if they row to the best of their ability they will win."

The word from the British compound in the Olympic Village is that no one will be more anxious for the success of Pinsent's men that Paula Radcliffe, who a little more than 24 hours later will carry the nation's hopes on the ancient marathon course. A victory for the rowers, she reckons, will lower the pressure of expectation. Maybe, but for the men on the water there will be no past or no future. Only a race that at some point, no doubt, will provoke the desperate thought that it will never end.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried