Early morning in Henley and for Steve Redgrave, four times Olympic gold medallist, it is business as usual. Apart from sporting a new, shaven head, he looks more or less the same as ever, as much a part of this particular stretch of the Thames as the town bridge or the Angel pub.
Frost is still plastered on the car windscreens, and steam rises from the four hot bodies as they clamber out of their boat and back inside the warmth of the Leander Club, where Redgrave, now 35 years' young, emerges with a mountain of toast and jam, which he demolishes with consummate ease.
My concerns for his welfare, after the news leaked out that he had been diagnosed a diabetic last month, proved to be unfounded. Contrary to the numerous scare stories that questioned his chances of making it five successive gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a result of his condition, Redgrave is fighting fit.
In fact, in typical fashion, he dismisses the whole business, finding it quite irritating that so much fuss has been made, and that some have had the temerity to suggest that his chances, and those of his three other team-mates who make up the British fours who won the World Championships in September, Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell, had lessened.
"It's not an issue," he says, munching his toast quite happily. "I know others have got their views on it, but for me it's normal business. I'm dealing with it."
Even so, I venture, is it not a worrying burden to the already difficult task of training, day in, day out, in order to win an Olympic title still over two and a half years' away? "Look," Redgrave explains. "If I'd twisted my ankle and couldn't train for a week, would people be making a big deal of it? No, of course not. That's how I see the diabetes. Do you know, I haven't missed any training with it at all. I'm doing fine, I'm keeping up with the others, and I'm not receiving any special treatment."
In fact Redgrave's manager had a quiet word with Gary Mabbutt, the Tottenham captain and well-known diabetic, who assured everyone concerned that, provided Redgrave was not irresponsible over his condition, it would not make a jot of difference to his sporting and physical ability. But Redgrave, so it turns out, already knew this.
"I've had it before, you see," he reveals. Really? When? "I had it in 1993, but nobody would have been interested in it back then. It lasted for only a short period of time, and it was a direct result of the colitis I had prior to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It went as quickly as it came. My current diabetes might well go the same way. It really is in its very early stages. Then again, it could stay with me."
He takes a gulp of tea, plonks the mug down on the table and concludes: "Either way, it's not a problem."
Well, I'm glad about that. Although Redgrave has a track record of not even letting medical adversity get in the way of his relentless pursuit for Olympic titles - his colitis hampered him for four months just before Barcelona and left him close to a critical condition - the last thing he or his crew needed was anything to go wrong now, not after the impressive start the British fours have made.
Born only last April, the team of Redgrave, Pinsent, Foster and Cracknell have won every single race they have entered, including the World Championships and the World Cup, a feat that even exceeded Redgrave's expectations. Knowing Redgrave, that really is saying something.
"It's fair to say that everything's going better than planned at this stage," he admits. "Sure, so we set out to be world champions, but I didn't expect to win every race, and I certainly didn't expect us to do it all with some style. Everyone knows that they've got to beat us. We haven't faced the Australians yet, and we know that they will be up for it by the time of the Olympics, especially as they will be competing in front of a home crowd, but I think they're more worried about us than we are of them."
Foster and Cracknell, then, seem the right choice to join the sole Atlanta gold medallists in the British team, although this is not how Redgrave sees it. "Don't jump on the bandwagon that it was a case of me and Matthew choosing the other two," he points out. "Everyone had to prove themselves, including us. We were all thrown into the melting pot, and it was never a case of who would be joining us."
So there was even a chance, after all the hype concerning Redgrave and Pinsent changing from a pair to a fours, that the two might not even have made the British fours crew? "Absolutely right," Redgrave replies, jabbing the remains of a slice of toast at me to emphasise his agreement. "In fact, the most likely one to be in the four was James, followed by Matthew, then me, and then Tim.
"We've always had to prove ourselves each year, regardless of what we've achieved. And in this country the opposition's so good that we've always had to show world-class form. It's always been a big enough problem for me having to beat the others from Britain in April, when the assessment is carried out, let alone trying to win at the Olympics."
As he speaks of the Olympics his eyes light up. To others the Games may seem a long way away, but not to Redgrave. "Doesn't seem too long to me at all," he insists. "Believe me, the time will fly. It always does. Everything we do, even if it is winning world titles, is nothing more than a stepping stone for Sydney. We'd trade everything to win the big one at the Olympics. It's still the only race that really matters to us, and if I'm motivated to win my fifth, then James and Tim are even more motivated, because they haven't got a gold medal yet."
Which is why, on this cold, November morning, the four of them are pushing their bodies to the limit. Can't they afford to take it a little easier occasionally, especially with the Games two and a half years away?
Redgrave shakes his head. "Today is always the most important day," he says. "You can never get it back. What you do today is money in the bank. If you don't do it, then it's a day's loss of earnings. When the time comes for a repayment, it won't be there if you don't put in the work now."
Yes, but one session? "No, because if you miss one session, then why not miss another one? It's easier to get a routine, and it makes life easier if you stick to training hard every day."
Thus speaks the man who has hated the training aspect of his trade for many a year now, and vowed, moments after winning his fourth gold medal with Pinsent at Atlanta, that he would never be seen in a boat again. He meant it as well, at least for 24 hours.
"That's how long it took before I realised there was no way I was going to pack it in just yet," he admits with a conscious smirk on his face. "But I kept it to myself. I realised I needed a break and the four months I took off did the trick for me.
"Even though I did no exercise, and returned in terrible shape, the time out refreshed me. I've never taken so long off before in over twenty years of rowing, and in a muscular endurance sport such as rowing, four months is a long, long time. I started back last December, and it took me up to the end of June before I was back to shape, but it was worth it because I'm enjoying every minute of my life right now, even the training."
This is quite obvious to see. The intensity of the Redgrave-Pinsent partnership has given way to a more relaxed approach by the foursome, making both the integration and the daily grind of training easier as a result.
As if to prove this point, Pinsent arrives at this moment and presents his long-term partner with a pair of sunglasses that even Elton John would say were garish. "It's from one of our sponsors, Oakley," he explains. "They've sent us a box of shades and the boys have got to it first. They've left me with these."
As he tries them on it only serves to highlight his dramatic hair - or rather lack of hair - style. "I've always fancied a cut like this," Redgrave says, guessing my thoughts as my eyes gaze up to his bare head. "I had a hair cut last week and didn't like it, so I went back the next day and had it all chopped off."
I bet he got some stick from the rest of the crew? "Respect, more like," he says. "They all think it's quite cool. I just hope it doesn't make me look mean, because I wouldn't want the opposition to be motivated by it."
Maybe they would, but whether that would make a jot of difference remains doubtful, especially if they could see Redgrave down at Henley, in the cold, treating his diabetes as a total irrelevance, and fixing his sights wholly on Sydney as if none of his other achievements had ever mattered.
Like I said, it's business as usual, which is good news for British rowing, and bad news for anyone contemplating robbing Redgrave and his merry men of yet another gold medal.Reuse content