Racing: Rough ride in wake of Redgrave

Andrew Longmore finds rowing's new boys are coping in history's shadow
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The Independent Online
THERE MUST be more precious sporting heritages than the one bequeathed Steve Williams and Simon Dennis this week at the world rowing championships in Canada. It is just hard to think of any. Even with a break of a year or two, the prospect of putting a competitive coxless pair on the water for the first time since Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent vacated their birthright has sent a shiver of anticipation down the spine of British rowing.

That Dennis and Williams have a real chance of perpetuating a lineage which dates back to 1987, when Redgrave first became a world champion with Andy Holmes, is a tribute to a pair who only four months ago barely knew of each other's existence. Not even Matt and Steve had to chart that sort of learning curve.

A gold medal for the new pairing would crown a remarkable rise. In April, three days before the critical British trials, Dennis was wondering whether he might form part of a competitive eight for the new season and Williams was waiting for Luka Grubor, his regular partner, to recover from illness. Williams had just given up hope on the Sunday night when the phone rang. "Come up here tomorrow morning and jump in a boat with Simon," commanded Jurgen Grobler, the head coach of the international men's squad. Simon? Simon who? In London, Dennis had received similar instructions for the rendezvous in Nottingham. Steve? Steve who?

A long-standing rivalry compounded their initial suspicions: Dennis is a graduate of Imperial College and Williams of their deadly enemies Oxford Brookes. "I'd always reckoned the back of his head was the best view," Williams reflected later. It is, every day now. But, deep down, both knew that the scratch partnership had to work and work fast. Six outings to absorb what should be learnt in six weeks.

The only similarity then between the raw recruits and the world's greatest pair was that the man in the back answered to the name of Steve. But passion and desperation conquered any technical incoherence. Third of all the pairs at the end of the first heat, they rowed through the potential favourites in the semi-final and by the end of the week had shown enough to be selected for the World Cup regattas through the summer. "I think we both found ourselves in the same position," Dennis said. "It was a case of backs to the wall and every man for himself." Williams added: "In that semi- final, it came down to a bit of a knuckle fight and our heart took over. We had so much aggression in that race for the line it gave us real confidence for the season."

Coaches would like to bottle the chemical balance that the scratch pairing of Williams and Dennis displayed that week. Dennis tries to explain it: "I know that Steve's got a reputation for being a real racer, a real terrier. He's not going to give up - and knowing that he was sitting behind me gave me a lot of confidence. Then there is that rivalry, the fact that he's from Brookes and I'm from Imperial, so we're damned if we'll allow one to be pulling when the other has stopped." Like Redgrave and Pinsent, who famously compete at everything from weight-lifting to dominoes, the new partnership has generated a critical internal tension, enough to stoke the fires on cold winter mornings.

A medal in Canada would propel Williams and Dennis into serious winter training and out into the fast lane for the Sydney Olympics. They have not thought that far ahead. "If we don't perform - and, by the standards that have been set us, that means winning a medal - we can forget about Sydney. It will all be back in the melting pot," Williams says. But by winning the World Cup this season, they have put themselves neatly in line to further a precious tradition. Redgrave and Pinsent won four successive world coxless pairs titles from 1991.

"We've had that medal [coxless pairs] for three Olympics in a row now," says Williams. "It's a big honour following in the footsteps of Matt and Steve and it would be a big achievement if we managed it, but we're trying to do our own thing. We race completely differently from them, we just haven't got their power in the first half of the race. It would be nice to dominate as they did, but we can't do that yet."

"I don't think it's any extra pressure for us," adds Dennis. "They've taken the pressure with them to another event. I hope other countries will feel the pressure more than us because they know that Britain always produce a good pair."

A recent training camp with the British four, including Redgrave and Pinsent, allowed the new recruits a precious glimpse of true Olympians at work. On top of a mountain in Austria, they were exposed to the intensity which the three-times Olympic champions take to the office every day; more comforting were the unexpected signs of vulnerability. "We saw more of their human side," Dennis says. "They talked about getting nervous, about throwing up before Olympic finals and it was good to hear that they did that, like any other athlete. We're not quite at that level yet, but it's inspiring being around them."

Only in the last month, at the end of a season rowed in reverse, have Dennis and Williams started to add a personal touch to their sporting relationship. "Building up confidence in each other," as they put it. Dennis is 6ft 7in, blond, blue-eyed and loquacious; Williams is smaller, steelier, more studious and, at 23, seems more than four months the senior.

Though they won the World Cup, the last regatta at Lucerne exposed their inexperience. Aware of the need to vary their race plan, they tried to go off hard from the start in their semi-final and blew up. But the joy of the early-season form had evaporated and for much of the past few weeks they have returned to the basics which were largely ignored through a summer on fast forward. Win or lose in St Catherine's, they will emerge as more complete racers. If they can recapture the passion of those early races, recreate the novelty, enjoy some well-earned beginners' luck, a fine British heritage will be preserved.