Sir Steve Redgrave in the mountains
His first love is the water. But the Olympic rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave has enjoyed a long affair with snow and ice too. Interview by Minty Clinch
Sunday 04 February 2007
At dusk in Cervinia, it was time for the Crystal Ski Challenge, a slalom race down the last stretch of soggy March snow into the resort. The gates were set up, the floodlights on and the racers lined up at the start. My target was to beat Ben Hunt-Davis, usually my friend but briefly my ultimate foe. Ben, a member of the gold-medal-winning rowing eight in the Sydney Olympics, is a less experienced skier, but he's 10 years younger than I am and very gung ho. In 2005, the first year we competed in the challenge, I beat him on the first run and he beat me on the second, with me shading him on aggregate. Could I do it again?
We were fresh from another week of training, running the gates on the mid-mountain nursery slope under the critical eyes of the Crystal instructors. We were to race against another 40 competitors, including Noel Baxter, riding high after the Turin Olympics the previous month - but I had just the one real rival. I powered out of the gates and crouched down low, forcing myself to hold the tuck as the gates flicked past. Then it was Ben's turn and he took no prisoners as he threw down the gauntlet. As we rode back up, I was marginally in front, but again Ben beat me on the second shot and again I finished fractionally ahead overall. The challenge is lighthearted fun, but the first thing Ben and I look at is how we've done against each other. I suppose that's Olympians for you.
During my childhood, winter sports were not an option for my family. Tradition has it that builders, like my father, take their holidays in August. He had travelled round the world several times in the merchant navy, but he settled down when he married, buying a bit of land and building the first of several family homes in Marlow Bottom near Henley. Come the summer, he was happy to hitch up the caravan and drive to Spain or Portugal to chill out round a pool.
My first skiing holiday was with primary school. Although my parents knew nothing about skiing, they thought I'd enjoy trying it with my mates and they were right. The French resort we visited was tiny so we were left pretty much to our own devices, something I was used to because I was always free to go where I liked at home. We had handles round our waists to clip on to the moving wire on the beginner's lift and we raced each other down the slopes all week. There was a test on the last day and most of us got our little snowflake badges. I loved every minute of it, yet I didn't do it again for 12 years.
Blame the Thames. I lived near the river and she was my first love, a demanding mistress who dominated my youth. When my English teacher at comprehensive suggested rowing during school time, I leapt at the chance to get out on to the water. Junior success came quickly, followed by my first Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984 aged 22. Curiously, perhaps, it triggered the only real period of doubt in my rowing career, a malaise that increased during a bad patch the following year. Was one gold enough? Should I try something else? An alternative was presented to me on a plate, literally, over lunch with Larry Tracey, one of my sponsors. "Do you fancy being my pusher in the two-man sledge at the British bobsleigh championships next week?" he asked.
I only ever have one answer to that kind of question, yes. But when Larry revealed that his previous bobsleigh experience was limited to two runs in St Moritz with his business partner, I realised my decision might be flawed. However, we were already in Winterberg by the time I learned this, so I was out of options. My job was to push the bob off the blocks as fast as I could, jump into it for the descent and act as brake-man at the end.
With such a novice driver, it would have been a miracle if we hadn't turned over at some point and we were lucky to walk away unscathed when we did. Our white-knuckle training continued and we finished a creditable 15th out of 22 in the championships. My strength as a pusher impressed more experienced competitors and I enjoyed smoother rides behind some of Britain's top drivers before I left Germany. Even so, I said never again: rowing seemed enviably safe by comparison.
Two years later, I did the first of my celebrated U-turns by agreeing to push Pete Brugnani in the qualifying races for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. We narrowly missed out on the team and again I swore my bobsleigh career was over. Wrong. In 1989, I was crowned British champion in the four-man bob in Winterberg, an unsung gold, but one that I cherish. Victory made me a willing recruit for a series of World Cup races and it took another life-or-death experience in Sarajevo to persuade me I'd never reach the top. By then I had two Olympic rowing golds: better stick with something I was really good at.
Despite my flirtation with the bobsleigh, I trained on the water for five hours a day, seven days a week, 49 weeks a year throughout my rowing career, always looking for ways to improve. I longed to ski, but why risk an injury that might threaten my next Olympics? That was my philosophy at the time, though I did keep the skiing flame alive with a reward trip after each gold medal. I was always cautious, staying on piste and keeping my bindings loose in the hope I'd fall rather than tear a ligament, but at least I spent a week on the snow.
My second ski attempt was in Winterberg on an afternoon when there was no bob training. After I'd launched myself confidently down a flat nursery slope with very little scope for turning, I was tempted to go up higher on my own. Big mistake. When I pointed my skis downhill, I gathered so much speed that I had to turn - a bad time to discover I didn't know how. After a series of crashing falls, I was lucky enough to meet up with the team physio. He told me to tuck in behind and follow him down before I killed myself - or someone else. It may not sound encouraging, but that afternoon reminded me how much I loved skiing.
I earned my next ski pass in the Seoul Games. Crystal had come into the market on a mission to make them affordable for near enough anybody. They were a young company, cheaply cheerful in their second year in business, and my new wife, Ann, and I answered their advertisement for a self-catering apartment package in Les Deux Alpes. Ann had skied a bit so we reckoned we knew what we were doing: then again, we may have been fortunate to find the steep slopes just above the resort closed over Christmas due to lack of snow, forcing us higher up the mountain to practise on the flatter ones on the glacier.
In 1992, after the Barcelona Olympics, we booked our first chalet holiday in Tignes. Natalie, our eldest daughter, was too young to ski but Ann's mum, then in her sixties, came as well so I taught her. As I couldn't go crazy, I enjoyed passing on what I knew and she had four or five good years on the snow.
When Natalie and Sophie were six and four, Ann announced she was taking them to Andorra to stay in her father's apartment. "Hang on," I said, "that's not the deal. We're not in a post-Olympic year and you can't go without me because I enjoy it too much." They went anyway, but the trip triggered my next U-turn and we've been holidaying together every year since, doing our family thing with no special treatment, which is how I like it. While I was rowing, my short Christmas break restricted us to Europe, mostly the Three Valleys, but since I've retired, we've been to Breckenridge and Whistler in North America.
Did I want to race? Yes, of course. Whenever I saw those little slalom courses set up on the piste, I tried to persuade Natalie and Sophie to take me on. "No way, Dad," they'd say. But Zak, then aged five, was well up for it. Family skiing works wonders for me, especially now we're all good enough to challenge ourselves a bit more, especially off-piste. And I've learnt that the family that skis together stays together. "Soon you'll be wanting to go off on your own with your mates," I suggested to Natalie recently. "Don't be stupid, Dad," she replied, "you pay for everything." Long may that last.
The Crystal Ski Challenge with Sir Steve Redgrave is from 18 to 25 March. Crystal (0870-160 6040; crystalholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights' half board at the Hotel Miravalle in Sauze d'Oulx for £499 per person, including return flights, transfers, six-day lift pass, equipment hire, race training, gala dinner with prize-giving and VIP party
The Steve Redgrave Trust
When I retired from rowing, I wanted to do something that would make a big difference in a relatively short time. So I set up The Steve Redgrave Trust (steveredgrave .com) with the aim of raising £5m in five years. I worked two days a week throughout that period to hit the target, and we supported more than 400 children's causes, most of them community-based. Even though I've taken more of a back seat, we raised nearly £1m in 2006, money we're using to fund the Inner City Rowing scheme. The plan is to install machines in non-rowing schools, an efficient way of tackling childhood obesity. We've had very positive results in our guinea-pig areas, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Sandwell, and we're planning to expand into another six soon.
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