River runs deep for Redgrave: Interview

Britain's four-times Olympic gold medallist is at it again. After a brief respite he is rowing to uncharted waters at Sydney 2000, reports Richard Edmondson
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It is numbing daybreak on the Thames, and at the Leander Club in Henley there is ice on the oars. As it does seven days a week, Steven Redgrave's Mitsubishi Shogun truck arrives in the rowing club car park.

Redgrave appears as amused as a pall bearer when he enters the boathouse and collects his solo craft. He carries it on his head to the waterside, scull on skull if you like, and sets out on a 20- kilometre row which prefaces a punishing session in the gym. There are 1,349 days to the Sydney Olympics.

To most, this would be a regime of the asylum, but it is not to Redgrave. And he is the one with four Olympic gold medals. "I've been doing this for 20 years, longer than most people have been doing a job," he says. "This is my job."

Since the Atlanta Games and that repetitious scene in which someone slips a necklace with a gong over his neck, Redgrave has enjoyed four months off, the longest sabbatical he has had from the sport since he took it up as a 13-year-old. During that time he persuaded first himself and then his family (he bribed his two young daughters with lollipops) that he should attempt to complete the Olympic rings at the dawn of the millennium.

The break was not cruel to him financially. Redgrave and his coxless pairs partner, Matthew Pinsent, have received sponsorship not too far removed from pounds 1m from the finance house of Lombard. In addition, Redgrave, in particular, seems to have clambered on to the celebrity escalator saved for those who gain a wider public recognition. He has opened shops and offices, he has encroached into Will Carling territory by delivering motivational speeches. He and Pinsent have also received payment for judging a Fairy Liquid washing-up competition (which serves Nanette Newman right for being no good at rowing).

The holiday gave Redgrave an interlude from the training treadmill he had grown to detest. Near the end, though, an awful realisation came into his head. He was missing it all, missing the morning scrape of frost from his vehicle windscreen, the shattering work-outs on water and with weights. "I missed the routine I used to hate," he says. "The very thing I was looking forward to stopping I missed.

"I've always been told that with an endurance-based sport like rowing you've got to train all the time, and my principle has always been that if you miss one session you might be tempted to miss another and it could spiral from there.

"When I came back [at the beginning of December] I felt good to start with, but in the third week I went on to circuit training in the weights room and that really opened my eyes to how much fitness I had lost. I was struggling. In one respect it was pleasing with the realisation that what I've been doing over the last 20 years has been the right thing."

The two decades have been outstanding, but then so is Steve Redgrave's rowing story. Had he not been born close to the banks of the Thames, it is unlikely the comprehensive-educated builder's son would have taken up his swanky sport. Rowing is odd in that it is a pursuit in which the ideal is to travel backwards while looking at your opponents. In this way it is similar to tug-of-war and politics.

It is a sport which could have been invented for Steve Redgrave when he was born 34 years ago. He is 6ft 4in tall and weighs well over 16st, not much of which appears to be sagging off him in great fleshy pockets. This not-to-be-messed-with physique is complemented by a drive and determination which can be quite spooky to those who do not possess something similar. The oarsman looks after this chassis, drinking alcohol very rarely. If you ask if he smokes, he reacts as if you have suggested he puts molten lava in his mouth.

This armoury first earned him gold at Los Angeles in 1984 and he subsequently named his Marlow home - which he shares with his doctor wife Ann and their children - after the winning venue of Lake Casitas. Redgrave and one of his confederates from the coxed four that year, Andy Holmes, went on to further success in the coxless pairs in Seoul. In between came reports that the two men were maritime chums in the same bonded fashion of Peter Pan and Captain Hook.

"We never hated each other, but the only reason we knew each other was through rowing," Redgrave says. "We were two work colleagues who never had an argument about rowing, though we nearly had a fight in the early 1980s when I tackled him during a game of five-a-side.

"We used to meet at 7.30 in the morning, do two sessions per day, and finish at two o'clock. And then they used to say it was odd that we didn't socialise as well. Anyway, you don't have to like the man you're rowing with."

Redgrave's victorious partner at Barcelona and Atlanta has hardly been a natural bedfellow either. Matthew Pinsent, the Eton and Oxford-educated son of a rector, is eight years younger than Redgrave, but the senior figure insists the age difference is of no consequence and there are no differences generally. With an attache's diplomacy, he further insists there is little between them athletically on the water. "When we're both at our best we're pretty similar," Redgrave says. "I'm slightly stronger, so I come out on top in any of the shorter disciplines. In the longer ones, the endurance tests, he comes out on top, and we come together at about 2,000m [the Olympic distance]."

The partnership is unbeaten since May 1992, and has survived the pressures their status magnetises. For nine months before the Atlanta Olympics little clusters of men started appearing at the Leander Club river bank, huddled together like water voles keeping warm. "There were three or four journalists at a time coming to see us," Redgrave says.

The media intensity was at its fiercest in Atlanta itself, where Redgrave and Pinsent transported the onus of being gold medal favourites. The enormity of this struck them only when they threw back the flaps of a sweaty journalists' tent after their first race. "It was quite overpowering," Redgrave remembers. "We edged ourselves into a corner and everywhere we looked there seemed to be faces, about 200 of them, throwing questions at us. I thought then that rowing had arrived.

"Physically, the race in Atlanta was not as hard as we expected. I may have looked shattered at the end but that was more the mental strain."

Now that hegemony has been achieved in the pairs, Redgrave and Pinsent are likely to graduate to a four in Sydney, though remaining with their present format is not an impossibility. "We're thinking of a four but we could end up back as a pair," Redgrave says. "There are no hard and fast rules. But the possibility of a four has kicked a lot of guys from the squad into gear. They want to be in the boat if they think they've got a chance of winning."

One suspects that, much as the chairmanship of a privatised utility, the job of rowing with the boys will not be advertised. One suggestion has been that fellow gold medal owners Jonny and Greg Searle might complete the quartet yet it is hard to imagine Redgrave sitting in a boat with the superficially dilettante brothers - though he rates Greg particularly highly as a rower. Redgrave's image is of dependability: he could be the puff-chested lifeguard of old, hands on hips and staring out over the wavecaps.

It will be national squad training later this month that will deliver the identities of the new men on board. "We want the two strongest guys, but having said that you could put the four best guys in the world together and that would not make it a guaranteed fast boat," Redgrave says. "You need a blend, but if you're starting with the best engines you've got a better chance of producing a top crew. If we can put a good unit together, and I think there are those people around, then I think we can be as dominant in the four as we were in the pair."

No little influence in Redgrave's decision to continue was the message on the ticker-tapes which chugged out of various physical monitoring machines last year. "Up to the Olympics I was the best I'd ever been, I was still improving," he says. "I feel I can still improve, and even if I didn't improve and stayed at the level I was in Atlanta that might be good enough."

Steve Redgrave is not like most British sportsmen. He's on the right side of the see-saw which has confidence and cockiness at either end, he wins all the time and he makes reporters cups of tea in the middle of his training schedule. Our conversation began cross-legged on the floor of a room also inhabited by female Oxford oarspeople coloured by the make- up of a stark January morning. It ended when Jurgen Grobler, Redgrave and Pinsent's coach for the past six years, suggested it might be time to get the pulse going again.

While much of Redgrave's motivation comes from within, some of it is also aboard a bicycle on the towpath, where Grobler is a famously hard taskmaster. It must be difficult to disobey an East German voice which sounds as though it belongs to the figure in the Bond movies who strokes a fluffy white cat while relaxing in a leather chair.

The morning had been much about solitude with just Matthew, Jurgen and the seagulls, coots and diving birds of this particular stretch of the Thames for company. The second session on the rowing machine and weights would be no easier, but before he departed Steven Redgrave, MBE, CBE, left behind notice of what drives him towards a six-and-a-half minute race years away.

"What motivates me is purely winning in Sydney," he says. "My main focus is on Sydney and the year 2,000, and I'm not going to say if I'm going to retire or carry on after that as in itself that would take away from my focus." He could also comfort himself with the thought that soon there would be only 1,348 days to go.