Rowing: Reserve seat in lap of the gods

Alex Hayes finds Ed Coode undaunted by Redgrave record
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STEVE REDGRAVE is entering the final straight of his incredible 15-year odyssey. The holy grail for the four-time Olympic champion is an unprecedented fifth gold medal at the Sydney 2000 games. Only then will he definitely retire. He will, won't he?

To reach that milestone Redgrave and his rowing partner of eight years, Matthew Pinsent, decided after the Atlanta Olym-pics to change tack slightly and compete in a four-man coxless boat, instead of their more traditional pair. Only time will tell if the two oarsmen made the right decision, though next weekend's first World Cup regatta of the season, at Hazelwinkel in Belgium, should go some way towards calming everyone's nerves. Well, not quite everyone's. For the new kid on the boat, Ed Coode, this is not just another outing, this is the chance of a lifetime.

Coode was drafted in last winter as a temporary replacement for the regular fourth member, Tim Foster, who required surgery on his back. His ascension may appear meteoric, but the 23-year old Cornishman insists it was a gradual development. "I started in the national squad full-time last year and then just found myself improving over the autumn," he said, sitting in the canteen of the National Watersports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham.

"When the rumours surfaced that Tim had a bad back, I guess I thought I might have a chance, but never that it would be so long-term - that I would still be rowing with them in the summer." Not least because substitutes, such as Luka Grubor who replaced Foster last year after the latter put his arm through a window, have come and gone rather rapidly in the past.

Not Coode, however. "You wouldn't know there's a substitute on board," said Pinsent of his new partner. "He is going to be a successful international." High praise, though Coode is ever-modest. "Rather than being told `You're in the four and now the expectation is on you', I have come in as a substitute and just made sure the boat is balanced. Of course you want to do well when you're in it, but my attitude was, `Enjoy yourself, this is a short- term thing'." Five months on, and Coode's policy has not changed. Why should it? He is still there. "I just keep thinking `You've got nothing to lose'."

Except his place in the eight-man crew, that is. "It's what happened to Luka last year," Coode said. "He got dragged away to the four and never regained his place in the eight." But that is a small price to pay if Coode can retain his berth, an option which should not be discounted. "I've been with the crew for a long time now and I feel I know Steve and Matthew much better.

"I guess up until this year they were completely untouchable," says Coode, who was in the losing Oxford boat at last year's university race. Both mentally and physically? "Yeah. They would tend to keep themselves to themselves, especially when they were a pair. But they make a big effort to include us [James Cracknell and Coode] now that we are in a four. In the boat, though, it's a slightly odd situation," he continued. "You see, in rowing, more than any other sport, everybody is equal. A boat is only ever as good as the weakest person in it."

They may be equals on the water, but they are nautical miles apart on dry land. Despite their record and reputation, however, Coode has effortlessly slotted his 6ft 3in frame between the two best rowers in the world. "It's strange but I have never had a serious attack of the willies where I've thought, `Oh no, what am I doing?' That is largely due to their calming influence. Their rowing technique is incredibly smooth and they are very strongly connected. This may sound daft, but they have a very simple stroke and keep things basic. That is the key."

While the multi-garlanded athletes support him in the boat, the equally celebrated coach, Jurgen Grobler, has also played a major part in Coode's development. "He is very hands-on and is good at keeping everyone focused. The fact that he has the most unbelievable coaching record keeps you going because you know that whatever he demands is what is required to make it. His methods are good, too. He doesn't interfere much when we're on the water. Some coaches like to stop you every 10 strokes to point out mistakes. But Jurgen takes great pride in rigging the boat, and then he lets us get on with our rowing."

Coode has quickly discovered that the most notable difference between semi and full-time professionalism is the training schedule. "What the other three have made me realise is how hard you have to train to be the best." The schedule means getting up at 6.30am and driving down to Henley for a 7.30 start. The average day will comprise three sessions: a 20km row, two hours on the ergometer and a weight-lifting session.

"In fact," Coode said, "James is the one who works the hardest. You always think you've done a hard day's training until you spend some time with him. That's when you realise you had been on a holiday beforehand."

Coode - one of a hundred young athletes [another is the sprinter Dwain Chambers] picked out as a potential medal winner and sponsored by Barclaycard so that he can concentrate on his rowing full-time - is only too aware that holidays will have to come later. "At this level, you have to give almost everything up to concentrate on the sport. Only then can you get it absolutely right."

No parties in the foreseeable future, then? "To be honest, I don't even accept invitations anymore". That is, of course, unless Sydney is playing host.