Rowing: Searle's singular crusade

Andrew Longmore meets the rower for whom happiness is one man in a boat
The last time we saw Greg Searle he was standing on the medal podium in Atlanta looking for all the world as if his grandmother had just died. Above him were the crews from Australia and France. His bronze medal would have been yours for a dollar. It took him the best part of a week to discover that bronze was still an acceptable reward for four years' effort. "Better than fourth," he says now, not entirely convinced.

Searle Junior is the dark one with the straight hair. He is also perfectly normal, which makes him a deeply suspicious character in the mad mad world of the single sculler. Since that race in the coxless four in Atlanta, Searle has turned his mind towards the blue riband event of Olympic rowing, condemned himself to hour after hour alone on the water, honing the long smooth stroke and the immovable spirit which would propel him to a second gold in Sydney just over three years from now. He likes the control, likes the idea of having no one to blame but himself and is willing to pay the price for loneliness on dark mornings.

This week, Searle will take another tentative step forward, in the Diamond Sculls at Henley. Victory would confirm recent progress in the world cup rounds at Munich and Paris, particularly as the field will include Jamie Koven from the USA and Peter Haining, the lightweight sculling world champion from Dumbarton. "It would be a bit special because it's Henley and I used to sit on the bank when I was young and watch Henley," he said. He has won there three times, twice in a Hampton GS VIII and once in a four. But the Diamonds is the regatta's Derby.

The clash between the amiable Englishman and the eccentric Scot promises to be one of the highlights of the week, a contrast of styles as well as size. Searle is a head taller, three stones heavier and, at 25, 10 years younger, but Haining has history on his side. A passion for sculling has plunged him deep into the realms of folklore and psychology; once to find and restore the grave of a long forgotten champion of the river in a Putney graveyard, another time to draw a hangman's noose on the blackboard as his rivals waited nervously for a world championship final. Underneath his stick drawing, he wrote: "Haining's last 200 metres", an unsubtle reminder of his own punishing finish. The mind games might well be lost on Searle.

"Peter sees sculling as an art form beyond simple rowing," Searle said. "He believes you have to be some kind of nutter to be a sculler. I couldn't say categorically that's untrue, but at the moment I don't need to behave in a strange way to go fast in a scull."

Yet, like the heavyweight championship of the world, the single sculls has a mystique all of its own. It is the pinnacle of rowing achievement, one even beyond the scope of Steve Redgrave, who could not master the balance between power and finesse. "You've got two oars for a start, so you've got to have the right balance and then the stroke is much longer than, say, for a four or an eight," Harry Mahon, the New Zealander who coaches Searle, said. "Greg will have to be patient because he's almost starting from scratch. He's still working out what makes the boat go along, but he has the power and the ability to succeed. The trouble is that sculling comes naturally to the Europeans. They learn how to scull as soon as they go out on the water. In Britain, we don't have a culture of sculling. Schoolboys start in eights and work down."

The dissolution of the partnership with his brother, which had been so dramatically fulfilled on the rowing lake at Bagnoles in 1992, was the hardest part of going solo. "He's done so much for me. I mean, we used to irritate each other in training, but in races I always knew he was there. We thought exactly the same things during a race."

To compensate, Searle decided to get engaged, bought a house and moved job, leaving chartered surveying to join Adrian Moorhouse, the former Olympic swimming gold medallist, in his company Lane 4, a personal development business. The previous day he had been organising team-building exercises for the employees of Legoland. Any one of those moves might have induced a nervous breakdown in less sanguine individuals. Searle simply shuffled his life post-Atlanta and, helped by sponsorship from Colonial, an Australian pensions firm, and a small grant from the English Sports Council, set course for Sydney.

"I just wanted to do something new and at the moment it's very exciting," he added. "The other day I told Iztok Cop [the world sculling champion] how much I was enjoying sculling. He looked at me and said gently, 'I used to enjoy it too'. The main thing is you can roll over and go back to sleep again, knowing all the others aren't waiting."