The Interview: A lonely seat in the wings

Once a certainty, now an outsider, the fifth man can only wait and hope. By Andrew Longmore
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IT SEEMS a little early to be handing out the gold medals for the next Olympics. But when you associate with the likes of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, it is hard to deal in any baser metal. Over the next two weeks, the final composition of the coxless four for the rowing world championships will be decided: James Cracknell, Redgrave, Pinsent, Ed Coode or Tim Foster. Foster does not need his degree in economics nor his diploma from Oxford University to know that five into four won't go and with the Olympics just over a year away his desperation to get back the competitive side of the "or" - and the oar for that matter - is understandable. Playing the role of the fifth Beatle for the rest of his life holds scant appeal for one of the original members of rowing's Fab Four.

Whoever is picked, the selectors will doubtless mutter about doors still being open. But the reality is rather bleaker for the loser. Rowing crews are more delicate mechanisms than football teams. It takes time to mould style and character, to establish a common rhythm, both on and off the water. Success is measured in victory and defeat, in power tests and times, but also in less quantifiable terms like feel and fluency. What Foster lacks in physical power he makes up for in rhythm and technical ability. He rows as smoothly as Tiger Woods swings.

Before races, Jurgen Grobler, the coach, will heap praise on his men. "Matt, you are the strongest man in the world, no one can beat you," he will say. "Steve, you are the greatest ever." And when he sees the 86-kilo frame of Tim Foster? "Tim, you move very well." The runt of the litter, Foster calls himself. But if there is a technical flaw, he will spot it from 50 paces.

Selection for the four was the passport to gold that Tim Foster had spent a lifetime pursuing. But if he doesn't retrieve his seat in the boat for the world championships in Canada at the end of next month, his own hopes of winning a gold medal and a place in sporting trivia history - "name the other members of the boat in which Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic gold" - could vanish forever. Though he talks bravely about spending the winter improving his fitness ready for the selection tests next spring, deep down Foster knows that his fate is in the balance right now, which makes his sunny disposition and willingness to talk all the more admirable.

Since the formation of the Four, Foster has occupied one of the most privileged seats in sport. In front of him, the bull neck and broad shoulders of Matthew Pinsent, behind him the laser beam eyes of the greatest oarsman of the century. The sporting equivalent of splitting the atom. "When they get going, I just put my seatbelt on and hang on," he laughs. But Foster has coped admirably with the responsibility. If he has received a masterclass in the art of winning from a four times gold medallist, he can claim an assist in the mellowing of Redgrave. It is hard to be around the amiable Foster long without absorbing a few rays of his eternal optimism. The danger, ignored by some over the years, is to mistake his casual air for indifference. A smile is rarely far away from his broad, handsome face, but no one who has come back once from a serious back injury can be accused of lacking single-mindedness, let alone twice as Foster has.

Just a few months ago, he could not stretch his 6ft 3in frame low enough to reach his knees after an operation to repair a torn disc in his lower back. He had to lie virtually flat for a month, was barely able to go outside for two, yet has recovered swiftly and fully enough to be matching his ergonometric times from the previous summer. "I definitely went through some bad days when I was thinking `What am I doing this for? It's rowing that did this to me.' But my ambition was always to win a gold in Sydney and this is my - and probably Britain's - best chance of getting one."

Little things helped him through convalescence. Going to the rehab centre at Lilleshall and sharing the banter with a couple of Notts County footballers and a rugby player from Richmond. They knew who he was too, which bucked him up. Then there were the physical landmarks of progress, being able to roll over, touching his knees, pulling his trousers up. His first time back on the water was on 18 March at Henley. He hoped no one would be around, but the others turned up. "Oh," said Cracknell in his best David Attenborough voice, "we don't see a Foster down here much these days." Foster's first tottering strokes in a single scull were duly recorded on video. Partly, Foster wanted to be noticed and welcomed back, but he also had to watch someone else row in his place, knowing that every stroke they took without him would be a stroke further away from his own reintegration. It reminded him of what he missed: Cracknell with his balanced diet and his amino acids, Pinsent and his bacon sandwiches, the bets on what Redgrave's insulin levels would be that day. The sort of banter that becomes second nature to a group who spend an uncomfortable amount of time together. He was closest to Cracknell, the other one who wasn't Redgrave or Pinsent. But it's a bit different now.

"When you're not in the group, you miss out," he says. "I'll go down to Henley and the four will be there and they will go out and do their thing and I will go off and do mine. I definitely felt I was going through things on my own. The group was not five, it was four and me."

Foster has not helped his cause. Last year, he put his right hand through a plate glass window at a club in Oxford. It was an accident, he says. He made an extravagant gesture with his right hand while talking to a friend and the ring on his finger shattered the pane behind him. He severed tendons in his thumb and was out for six weeks. With a replacement, Luka Grubor, the crew was well beaten in the first world cup regatta.

Cracknell voiced his annoyance at Foster more strongly than Redgrave, surprisingly, but the incident only heightened the feeling that Foster was a cavalier in a boatful of roundheads. At least they lost without him; when Foster returned the four won the world championships. This year, with Coode in the number three seat, they have been winning anyway, so the balance has changed. "They can afford to keep me waiting this time and I understand it," Foster says. "If it ain't broke don't fix it." But the thought does not lessen the feeling of isolation. Whoever is picked for Sydney will only play a bit part in the Steve Redgrave story, but, at the age of 29, Foster's first gold will be as sweet, if not as well publicised, as Redgrave's fifth.

"There's no difference in my commitment. It isn't as if Steve's drive is taking him somewhere we're not going." For many years, Foster saw only the mask of the iron man; sharing a boat with him for two years has not diminished the legend, just brought it into sharper focus. "When I first became part of the four, I found I was talking to him as Steve Redgrave not as a normal person. It's hard not to. When you walk behind him, you notice how he stands out in the rowing fraternity. People will stop to look at him.

"When Steve came and told us about his diabetes, we had a meeting and Steve just said: `It's OK, I'll sort it out.' People kept asking me whether I was worried about it and perhaps I should have been, but I wasn't. A normal person's illness isn't going to affect Steve Redgrave." The insulin injections have been absorbed easily into the routine of training and racing, just another of the rituals which Foster knows so well and misses so badly.

He has already confronted the prospect of not winning back his place. "If I don't get the chance this year, I'll ask myself how I can come back stronger next year. If I don't get another chance, I'll go away and sulk for 30 years." The laugh is not altogether convincing.