Rowing: Haining hopes to turn back tide of time: Hugh Matheson on a champion's attempt to revive a tradition

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The Independent Online
WHEN the starter's flag drops at 11am on Saturday to begin the Thames World Sculling Challenge, three scullers will race away from Putney Bridge on London's Tideway towards Mortlake in a revival of a tradition that died more than 60 years ago.

The boatmen who ferried people and things around on the Thames for hundreds of years had their own prize races, like Dogget's Coat and Badge. In the 19th century these went international with Australians and Canadians prominent.

When Peter Haining became Britain's first world champion since the 1924 Olympics in September he dreamt of recreating the great matches and on Saturday he will race Steven Redgrave, the triple Olympic champion, and Wade Hall Craggs, the 1993 Wingfield Sculls winner, for a pounds 1,500 prize.

Haining has come to the Thames challenge from Loch Lomond via Nottingham and China and represents a rich vein of sporting eccentricity. 'They told me I was born in the Year of the the Tiger and that when I raced it should be like a tiger . . . that I should creep up and pounce.'

Haining, a lightweight sculler, learnt this piece of ancient wisdom, or complete nonsense, from Dr Li Jian Xian, one of the mainland Chinese coaches who is working in the Hong Kong Institute of Sport, about nine months before he became champion of the world.

His was the most extraordinary comeback in recent sculling history. He had led from the start against the toughest field ever assembled and appeared to fade entering the last 250 metres. He drifted into the neighbouring lane, clashed with a lane marker, dropped his scull and stopped. In the stands most gave him up for last, but he captivated the spectators with a standing start that accelerated him back through the field to win by a length.

Beforehand, however, the 31- year-old from Balloch, on the shore of Loch Lomond, had served an apprenticeship of exactly 10 years in English rowing and sculling, which had produced a couple of world silver medals and a dozen top level performances. But he was always the misfit. He says now that he learnt as long ago as 1984 that his proper racing weight is 72kg, but in the mid-Eighties with the Nottingham club he had to get down to 68kg and below to allow the crew to average 70kg, as required for lightweights in international competition.

The Chinese told him that because of this he would have been suffering in a mild way from anorexia. That is, he was erratic, argumentative and difficult to get on with. They told him to race at 72kg and that other tests suggested how well suited he would be to the single scull. This diagnosis confirmed the story of his life: when he left Nottingham in 1991, the coaches told him they would help all they could with the single scull but they would never put him in a crew again.

A season of nights on a friend's sofa in Putney and days training on the Tideway, with whichever club would let him in that week, resulted in ninth in the world championships in Vienna in 1991. Then he turned heavyweight to get into the Olympic team, as stroke of the quadruple scull. But straight after a disappointing 13th place in Barcelona he dropped seven kilos to race in the world championships at lightweight single in Montreal and finished sixth.

Chris Perry, who coached Haining in Nottingham and is now rowing director at the Hong Kong Institute, suggested he come over and said that if he was prepared to open himself to the teaching and philosophy he would become world champion. Haining's coaches in England always knew it was physically possible and that he had enough of what they tended to call the 'nutter quality' but wondered if he would ever be able to focus his determination sufficiently. The Chinese added nothing to what was always there but thay made a maniac into a monomaniac who beat the world on his own. In doing so, they turned him into a happy man.

The Chinese want him back, and he goes at their expense in December, but they cannot understand why he has no support beyond pounds 800 from the Sports Aid Foundation last year. It costs about pounds 30,000 a year to train to be a champion and all the Olympic rowing champions are now sponsored to about that level. But Haining is still on that sofa in Putney in between races around Europe, where he is feted as champion in the toughest rowing discipline.

Saturday's challenge, to be raced over the Putney to Mortlake course used by Oxford and Cambridge each spring, is his main goal this winter. If the event can attract the publicity and momentum to become profitable, the money will be used to set up a fund in the Amateur Rowing Association to sponsor single scullers to win at world level.

(Photograph omitted)