Rowing: 'Old codger' in oarsome nick

It's one of the most sensational comeback stories. Greg Searle will go for gold in the 2012 Olympics (aged 40), two decades after tasting glory in Barcelona
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The Independent Online

It was just before Christmas 2008, during a five-a-side kickabout at a local sports centre with fellow fathers Greg Searle had met at the school gates. The 1992 Olympic rowing gold medallist went for a ball that he should have allowed to drift out for a goal-kick, and fell awkwardly under a challenge. It later transpired he had sustained a broken ankle and tibia of his left leg, an injury he describes now, in eye-watering terms, as "a bit like cracking an axe into the top of the bone, and splitting it like a log".

Never mind any thoughts of participating in extreme physical sport; he would be on crutches for the next three months. Yet, in one of those curious quirks of fate, his recuperation was to reignite the flame of Olympic aspiration, seemingly long extinguished. The result has been seismic. Last month, only 18 months on from that football injury, Searle was back on the gold-medal trail as a member of a victorious GB eight in the first of the World Cup series, at Bled, Slovenia. Today, in Munich, he bids for a second gold, in the eight. Lucerne is next, followed by the World Championships in New Zealand.

Yet the ultimate goal is an Olympic gold in 2012, by which time he would be 40 – a remarkable 20 years after he had experienced Olympic triumph at Banyoles, Barcelona, in the coxed pair together with his brother Jonny and their cox, Garry Herbert, who famously shed copious tears afterwards.

Comebacks don't come much more extraordinary, particularly in an endurance sport. "I needed to get my leg strong again, so I joined a gym, where Jenny [his wife, a former BBC press officer] was already doing keep-fit," recalls Marlow-based Searle, who had a spell as a grinder in the British team in sailing's America's Cup Challenger Series, and thereafter had been quite content in his priorities as father of Josie, nine, and Adam, seven, and a career in leadership development in a business performance consultancy, Lane4, which was founded by the former British swimmer Adrian Moorhouse. "Once I was at the gym, I thought I may as well do 20 minutes of upper-body stuff as well. It was only the fact that I broke my leg that got me back into training at all."

The desire to return to Olympic action had not lain completely dormant. It had been stirred over the years, notably when London first bid for, and then secured, the 2012 Games. But that rehabilitation from injury was the real catalyst. "I suppose my next big moment was at the end-of-racing party at Poznan in Poland after last year's World Championships [where he was commentating]. Chatting to some of the rowers, I began thinking 'maybe I do have this latent potential to do this again'."

The following day his flight home was cancelled. "It was a pivotal moment. My life had been really busy; juggling a bit of training, work, family – and doing everything not very well. Being forced to stay somewhere for 24 hours made me take stock of my life. I thought about the races, about what I had seen, about how fit I felt. It was there I did my goal-setting." His overriding targets were: to be a legend; and to win gold in 2012. "Since then I've trained virtually every day. I've been really diligent. I think I'm a model athlete in terms of my approach to it."

The contrast between Searle, who rows at six, and his crew-mates is emphasised by Mohamed Sbihi, a practising Muslim, discovered at school by GB rowing's Start Programme. He is directly behind Searle, at number five. "He's 6ft 7in and much bigger than me, but together we bring a lot of physicality to the middle of the boat, and we work well together. The difference is that he's 22 and and I'm 38," says Searle. He laughs, self-deprecatingly: "Of course, there's banter. They regard me as a bit of an old codger, and shout 'watch out, he may hit you with his walking stick'. I have to watch a few of their favourite TV shows to get up to speed."

Inspiration comes from many sources. One of Lane4's clients is Nestle. "I found myself in Nottingham about a month before the first GB trial, knowing I had to do 2km on the ergo [rowing machine] in sub-6min 10sec. I hadn't done it. While I was in the gym one day, three blokes from Nestle said: 'Show us how to use the rowing machine.' I set them up and said: 'The three of you do 1500m between you – and I'll do 2000m. I've got to do mine in 6min 10sec or less, and you've got to beat me.' I managed to do 6min 8sec, with these chaps yelling at me: 'You're knackered.' They did beat me, by about 10sec, but it was massively motivating for me. A month later I did that trial, and scored 6min 6sec. A little while ago, I did 5min 56sec, which is a very competitive score – and there's more to come."

He describes his World Cup gold – a first international success since 1993 – as "a massive reflection of what I've done in the last six months, and a fantastic endorsement of Jürgen's [Grobler, GB coach] training programme. Now we have to keep it going."