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The Monday Interview: Messing about on the river

Fun is never far away when Jonny and Greg Searle are around, even when a second Olympic gold medal beckons. They spoke to IAN STAFFORD
It is one of the abiding memories of the last Olympics. The swanky Italian brothers, the formidable Abbagnales, seemed to have the coxed pairs final all wrapped up when suddenly, from nowhere, a turbo-charged boat shot past them at the death to snatch a famous victory.

Minutes later, Britain's own fraternal partnership, Greg and Jonny Searle, stood on the medals podium with their chests pumped out, while the diminutive figure of their coxswain, Gary Herbert, blubbed his eyes out to the national anthem.

Four years on and the scene is very different. With the extinction of the coxed pairs as an Olympic event, Herbert finds himself coxing the eights in Atlanta, while the Searle brothers have joined forces with old chums Rupert Obholzer and Tim Foster to make, on paper at least, an impressive fours boat.

I say on paper because when we met up down the River Thames at Hampton Court, the Searles and their new partners were glossing over the fact that, following a less than impressive sixth place in Lucerne, there is much work to be done.

"That's nothing," Greg Searle says. "Jonny and I came sixth in the domestic trials coxless pairs race not that long ago. Redgrave and Pinsent won it, with those two characters [he points to a smirking Obholzer and Foster] a length behind in second place. Nobody needed to tell us we were crap that day. We could see it ourselves."

We reconvene at a nearby cafe where large, steaming bowls of porridge are produced for the boys. The weather hardly cries out for something warm inside to keep them going throughout the day, but the ingredients are required for the punishing schedule they push their bodies through in search of Olympic perfection.

At 24, Greg is three years younger than his curly-haired brother. Neither of them seem unduly concerned at their pre-Olympic lack of form. Greg goes on to explain why.

"It's not a situation we're unfamiliar with," he admits. "We've lost a lot of races in our time. We tend to be fairly up and down. Big-race performers and crap in anything of lesser importance.

"It was the same at Lucerne. I know it is obviously important but, after winning Olympic gold medals, it has sometimes been difficult to motivate ourselves for anything else. We see Lucerne as nothing more than a hiccup, and it's a hiccup we're used to. We came seventh last year and ended up coming second in the world championships. In fact, we've never won anything at Lucerne, but that hasn't stopped us doing well in the Olympics and at world championship level."

So it is a bit like mock A-levels, I venture, to these four well-educated chaps. You should not be too worried about these results, only the exams for real? "Well, we did a fair bit of revision for Lucerne," Greg owns up, before smiling and adding: "It's fair to say we've got a bit of cramming to do between now and Atlanta, but we're not too concerned about it."

Jonny has been listening to all this, in between spoonfuls of porridge, and laughing at his younger brother's explanations. "We're OK," he chips in. "All the training's geared for gold at Atlanta. We would be disappointed with anything less than that, and we all feel confident that we can do it. It won't be easy, and if we end up with a lesser medal, but having produced our very best, then we would have to be happy with that. But we all feel very good, despite the recent poor results."

There is a general nod of approval from all around the table, followed by a universal burst of laughter. One thing is pretty clear - we have here a definite team which, when you consider that the gold medal-winning and high-profile Searle brothers make up 50 per cent of it, is a little surprising to see.

"Ah well," begins Greg, "Rupert, Jonny and I all went to school together [at Hampton]; Jonny, Rupert and Tim helped to win the first-ever gold medal for Britain in the 1987 world junior championships; Rupert and Jonny went to Oxford together, while Tim and I used to share a flat." My eyes begin to glaze over. "Have you got all that?" he asks.

"The point is, we've known each other for a long time, so the fact that we were Olympic champions meant very little to the other guys, especially when they stuffed us in the coxless pairs race. They have our respect, for sure, and there's never been a question of us seeing ourselves as the stars in the boat."

"Oh yes you do," pipes up Obholzer, lifting his nose out of a newspaper for a second. "No, only joking," he adds. "Although we did see it as a bit of a challenge when Tim and I knew that those two were joining us in the fours. People would come up to us and say: `Aren't the Searles great?' as if we were winning races with only two people rowing the boat."

Foster butts in: "We've known the Searles a long time, and although we respect what they did in Barcelona, we certainly don't see them as any different to us. In fact, we came to the conclusion that if they can do it, then so can we. Now we have a chance of achieving a gold medal collectively."

Jonny then gives this considered verdict. "The thing is we were looking to the future. Coming sixth in that race only served to remind us that being Olympic champions meant very little in reality. We were only as good as our last race, or our next one, if you like, and it just served to remind us that we had to work hard. It was back to square one."

In the glowing aftermath of Barcelona, the Searles were looking ahead to 1996 and fully expecting, together with Gary Herbert, to defend their title. Life as newfound household names was rather good.

"We didn't know the impact it had made back home," Jonny says. "In fact, because he was standing in front of us, we didn't even know that Gary Herbert had been crying on the podium. So it was a bit of a shock, although a nice shock, when we discovered that we'd given people a real buzz. We both enjoyed appearing on TV, and doing lots of silly things.

"I remember, though, when we went to a sponsor's dinner shortly after we won the gold. We walked into the hotel and people parted like the Red Sea, looking at us as if we'd come from Mars.

"Then someone came up to us and asked if we minded if he shook our hands. Greg was 20 at the time, and I was 23, and we were both students. We found that a little strange, to say the least."

You would think, then, that the demise of their event would have been bad news, especially when they heard just after they had beaten the Abbagnales again, this time in the 1993 world championships. But the Searles now recognise that they were growing weary of the event, and even of each other.

"It was becoming very stressful," Jonny admits. "We were a small team, in a small boat, and the training became very intense. The fact that we were brothers had both advantages and disadvantages."

Greg steps in to expand. "We're brothers, and that means we obviously have a very special relationship, but I'd say we're a pretty volatile pair. When it came to racing, on the whole, we raced well, but when we weren't happy, then we were very unhappy. I'm sure it was exacerbated because we were brothers."

Back to Jonny. "It's more fun being in a larger team now. We have a better laugh and there's a collective responsibility. We still have rows as a four, and because we know each other so well, there's no holding back. We know exactly how to wind each other up, so we tend to have a major blow up, and then it's all forgotten."

So, there's no problem being a former gold-medal winning pair now sharing the limelight with your two rowing mates, then?

"Absolutely not," Jonny insists. "We work well together, we have the makings of an excellent team, and we're all very confident of a major result in Atlanta."

As we bid our farewells, I make a final point in jest to Messrs Obholzer and Foster, about having to drag the two brothers who came sixth in the domestic trial along with them in their boat. "Too right," Obholzer agrees, as the four of them burst into laughter.

They make some team, the Searles and their new partners, shouting at each other one minute, and laughing like a group of young men in a buddy movie the next. Oh, and they might just win an Olympic gold medal as well, by the way.