The trainee who became a full partner

Britain's most successful pair of oarsmen begin the defence of their Olympic title tomorrow. Matthew Pinsent talks to Ian Stafford
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It was a mutually self-deprecating comment at the time, but it signalled, as far as Matthew Pinsent was concerned, recognition and respect from his partner. As he and Steve Redgrave won the Olympic coxless pairs gold medal in Barcelona, Redgrave turned round in their moment of triumph and panted: "Not bad for an old has-been and a never-will-be."

Four years on and the "never-will-be" now understands the importance of that moment. "People had been saying to me, even before Barcelona: 'You don't know how much Steve respects you' or 'You don't know how much he needs you'. They were absolutely right," the 25-year-old son of a clergyman said. "It took me a while to realise that I was 50 per cent of the partnership.

"Even when we won the 1991 World Championships I still felt like a junior trainee. But after Barcelona I definitely felt as if I had earned a lot of respect from Steve. It was, if you like, my right of entry."

The balance is still not quite level, for while Pinsent enters the Atlanta Olympics poised to win a second gold medal, a staggering performance by anyone's standards, it just so happens that the bloke who sits behind him in their boat bellowing orders is looking at collecting a fourth successive gold medal. As a result, judging by the coverage over the past few months, some people could be forgiven for thinking that Redgrave rows the boat by himself.

Pinsent laughs wearily. "Tell me about it," he says. "Mind you, in four years I have only once been annoyed by this imbalance. Someone wrote that they used to say that John McEnroe would win doubles matches with anyone, and it was the same with Redgrave. Even Steve, if this had been put to him, would have totally denied this.

"The people who matter to me, in rowing, my family and friends, understand that we are a true partnership. I look at it as my good fortune that Steve's my partner. Although neither of us do this for fame or fortune, I'm getting more exposure and earning potential through being with him. Besides, you can't take away what he's achieved, can you? For me to complain about him getting more interest would be a bit churlish under the circumstances."

So is Redgrave still the dominant partner, or has Pinsent, an internationally experienced and successful oarsman in his own right, redressed the balance? "Oh, I'd say since Barcelona we're more on a level," Pinsent said. "We're a lot closer than we used to be. But Steve's still happiest being the leader in the boat.

"It makes sense that he should be because, apart from his experience and achievements, it's a lot easier for him to shout at me, than for me to turn my head and look behind me during a race. There's not much time, and therefore no point in having any kind of dialogue, so it means that, whether I think he's right or wrong, I'll do it. I'm not giving Steve absolute power, but he knows what he's doing." And what happens if he's wrong? Pinsent smiles. "We have a little post mortem," he answers.

Their results speak for themselves. Unbeaten since Barcelona, Redgrave and Pinsent have to be the most successful, and awesome, sporting partnership in any field. Ask for their statistics and the former Oxford student struggles to keep up with the impressive figures.

"Well, we've won all four World Championship titles, plus the Olympics, of course. We lost about three races in our first year together, but since Barcelona it's been something like 85 wins on the trot. What I do know is that our main goal was to win the gold at Atlanta, but the secondary goal was to win everything. No crew's ever done that before."

So who is counting? Pinsent has even managed to turn his one experience of adversity during this period into a positive bonus for the pair of them, following his seemingly soul-destroying University Boat Race performance in 1993 when, as the Oxford president, he led his crew to a dismal defeat by a pumped-up Cambridge who had singled out the Olympic gold medallist as their main target for motivation.

"I was flattered that Cambridge found me to be such a threat," he said, "but it was still a low point. I didn't do a good job, that's for sure. It wasn't so much the actual race, although I could have rowed better, it was more down to organisation and logistics, coaching and selection of the crew. We should have produced something special with that boat.

"But important lessons were learned that day about losing and the motivation losing gives you. I channelled all this into my partnership with Steve. It meant that we, as a pair, didn't have to lose in order for me to learn these lessons. It also didn't reflect on Redgrave and Pinsent."

By his own admission, for this and other reasons, the 1996 Pinsent model is an altogether more impressive figure than the raw 1992 version, one that sits very comfortably now alongside Redgrave. To underline this fact, Pinsent reels off a list: "I've become more consistent technically, physically stronger, I possess better endurance, I'm obviously more tactically experienced and I'm calmer under pressure."

He pauses for a second, before providing a reason for all this: "Let's face it, back in 1992 I was a student taking time out. Since 1993 I've been a full time athlete and I'm getting the rewards for this commitment."

This commitment includes gruelling, often painful training, in all climates, at a monotonous pace for week after week, just to get it right, at least in terms of general public perception, once every four years. His partner, incidentally, loathes every minute of it, but can still withstand it because of the end results.

"Sure, and neither of us enjoy the daily grind," he said, "but I often think that people who get on a train every morning and go to work from nine to five, have far more discipline and motivation than we have. In some ways, it's an arrogant attitude to say that I'm bored with training, or I can't handle it on any given day, because there are millions of people who would chop their right arm off to row in the Olympics."

Redgrave and Pinsent, possibly with an arm each chopped off, would still probably fare well in Atlanta. Pinsent is refreshingly honest about his chance of winning a second gold medal, so much so that I put it to him that anything less than gold would be seen as failure.

"Since 1992 we've won everything and nobody's got even close to us," he said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, or we'll win by a huge margin. I'm not even saying that we'll categorically win. What I am saying is that it's within our control, and that we're confident about winning and in our ability to perform under pressure. We know that we'll be better prepared than anyone else out there on Lake Lanier."

Which brings us to one, final little tester. When I interviewed Redgrave in the spring he seemed to have the date, the day and the time of the Olympic coxless pairs final ingrained firmly in his mind. Does Pinsent know exactly when he and his partner will be asked to give their all?

"Saturday, July 27th, at 10 in the morning," comes a swift reply, followed by a little nod of the head. "That's when we mean business."