A Golden Mission

The GB Rowing Team are one of the most successful sporting organisations on the planet. Rowing is the only sport in the UK to have won a gold medal at every Olympic Games since 1984. As we approach the Rio Olympics, the British team has never been stronger. Within every squad, there are the big names; Mo Sbihi broke the British ergo record, Andy Triggs Hodge is a double Olympic medallist, Helen Glover has not lost a competitive race since 2011. Perhaps the most understated name amongst all these is Alex Gregory. An Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion, Alex is one of the most successful sportsmen of his generation. A family man who is renowned for his casual, compassionate attitude to the sport, he is going for his second successive win at the highest level – and it’d take a brave man to bet against him.

Alex, or ‘Greggors’ as his team-mates know him, fell into rowing accidentally. Having already competed as a high-level swimmer, he was persuaded to try the sport by a close friend shortly after finishing his GCSE’s. “I didn’t know anything about rowing, I’d never really watched it but he kept annoying me about it,” laughs Gregory, chatting to me after a day of training. “So I went down and discovered that I was pretty well suited. The swimming set me up quite well I think, because I already had that base fitness and strength to build on. It was just about adapting to the skills of rowing”. Starting at Evesham Rowing Club, Alex quickly fell into the familiar rhythm of schoolboy training. “One of the most amazing things about rowing as a sport is the volunteers, especially at club level,” he says, a smile in his voice. “My coach at the time, a chap called Keith Rafter, would come down every night and was so enthusiastic about it. From very early on, he’d get us out on the river training and at weekends we’d go off and lose races, and his enthusiasm was a huge contributing factor to me carrying on in the sport”.

“I didn’t know anything about rowing, I’d never really watched it but he kept annoying me about it”.

Alex progressed quickly, graduating from Reading University in 2006 and winding up as spare for the Beijing Olympics. This proved to be pivotal. “Before then, I was quite happy to be there to be honest,” explains Alex. He had an injury plagued year and, having failed to qualify the quad with his crew-mates the year before, fractured his rib two weeks before they were due to fly out for the qualification regatta. “The other three guys in the boat went with someone new, and didn’t qualify by a tiny margin, and I was luckily selected as spare to the Olympic team. So, I tried to look at it as a really positive opportunity. I did actually think that would be my Olympic experience in Beijing; I didn’t really feel I was cut out for it and wasn’t sure if I could get to the top”. It is strange to think that an athlete who looks so at home in a boat thought about throwing the towel in so soon into his career. However, sitting amongst the families of medal winners in China forced a re-think. “It amazed me how much it meant to them,” he remembers. “There was a lot going on in my head at the time, and it gave me a huge lease of life; a real desire to pursue this dream that had been eluding me. A lot of things clicked into place at that point, like a jigsaw puzzle”.

Alex decided to switch from sculling to sweep, and realised he’d have to train through the rest period in an attempt to put on weight. He set himself a target of ten kilos by the time everyone arrived back in Caversham. “When everyone got back, I’d managed to put on the weight and Jurgen was happy for me to join the sweep team. I joined Pete Reed in the pair that year for final trials, and we won the race so things progressed very quickly after 2008”.

“A lot of things clicked into place at that point, like a jigsaw puzzle”.

Fast forward three years and Alex is stroking the heavyweight four, Britain’s flagship boat, to victory on the beautiful Lake Bled. “We’d had, so far as you can in rowing, a perfect year. We were unbeaten and ended up winning the world championships pretty easily, but then things changed”. Andy Triggs Hodge and Pete Reed, IMG_4788who were ranked as the two best oarsmen in the squad at the time, had been racing in the pair for the past couple of years, but could not see a way past the indomitable Eric Murray and Hamish Bond. Jurgen Grobler, the heavyweight coach, shuffled the crews and Alex found himself in a new-look four with Triggs Hodge, Reed and former crew-mate Tom James. “It was a little disappointing after 2011 to disband that four, but you have to respect those decisions within our sport, and you have to respect Jurgen. He’s arguably the most successful sports coach in the world, in terms of consistency on the big stage, and he does know best,” explains Alex patiently. “Everything we do every year is always the same. We just try to get as high a ranking within the team as possible and there’s very little you can do, other than perform, that will change Jurgen’s mind. It was always my intention to aim for Andy and Pete in the trials, whomever I was paired with; they were a phenomenal pair and, if it weren’t for the Kiwi crew, they’d have been the ones winning all the time. During those years, I was either paired with Alex Partridge or Tom James; we never beat Andy and Pete although we did get close to them”.

Hark back four years, and the hype around this newly renovated four was bordering on hysterical. The horse-power was incredible, and it contained three former Olympic gold medallist and a current world champion. On paper, they were unbeatable. However, it was far from plain sailing. “To be totally honest with you, right from the start when we got in that boat, it wasn’t great. People were expecting great things, but we really didn’t fly,” laughs Alex. “Approaching the first world cup, we didn’t know what was going to happen. The day before the first heat in Sydney, Jurgen changed our order around completely on a gut instinct. It turned out to be the right decision and we won the event, but it still didn’t feel right”. The four were hardly going slow; they set a new world best time in Lucerne at World Cup 2. However the Australians, with the legendary Drew Ginn in the three seat, were creeping closer. Then, at the last race before the Olympics began, Alex and his crew found themselves in second place crossing the line. “It wasn’t really a shock, as we knew they rowed well and were fast. I think that was the kick up the backside we needed,” he remembers.

“People were expecting great things, but we really didn’t fly”.

“We went away to Austria on final camp shortly after that, and sat down as the four of us, without Jurgen to start with, to decide what was going wrong with the boat. We sat in a room for what must have been hours, going through every little detail of the stroke, the racing, what we all thought we should be doing. It was the first time we were all completely honest with each other, and it was brilliant”.

From that point on, the crew mentality changed. The two pairs stopped fighting each other, and each compromised; the end result was, as Alex puts it, the two most intense weeks of training ever.DSC_0014a copy

As they arrived in London for the start of the games, the crew’s confidence was back. Their road to gold was not without speed-bumps though. One anecdote that Alex shared really epitomised the psychological side of the sport, but also the intense competition between crews. “Bizarrely, we came across the Australians in the semi-final,” he explains. “The night before, the meeting was essentially that we had to beat them at all costs. Psychologically, that would be a huge advantage. We did in the end, but by a tiny margin. I remember crossing the line thinking ‘that was the hardest bloody race I’ve ever done in my life’. Beforehand, we’d talked about not showing them how hard we’d worked; it was like a big mind game. Pete was calling at us, saying stuff like sit up and keep moving. We went into the warm down lane and the Australians followed us round, really close to our stern. So we ended up doing about 2k of battle paddling straight after the race. Eventually, the Aussies stopped and we paddled on a bit and stopped and I just puked out of the back of the boat”.

Crossing the line to finally win gold? “My immediate reaction wasn’t joy or ecstatic happiness, but more ‘thank God that’s over’. Very quickly, you’re whisked around and you do a few interviews pretty much straight after getting out of the boat. You’re thrust in front of the cameras, you say something stupid; I’ve always wondered why people say what they say”.

“I’ve just won the Olympics, I didn’t know how I was feeling!”

“I remember looking up as my medal was about to be hung around my neck, and seeing my Mum, Dad and brother in the stands crying their eyes out. It took me right back to Beijing, sitting with other people’s families and watching them do the same. It was a great four year turnaround, and I finally got to pay back my family and friends for everything I’d put them through”.

It was a different rivalry which dominated the next three years of Alex’s career, and one which shaped the direction of the sport. The eight, which Alex openly admits to struggling with the most, was a boat in which Germany had excelled; Olympic champions in 2012 and showing no signs of slowing down. However, Great Britain not once, not twice but thrice have stolen the crown from German heads in the past three years. Alex has featured in two of those crews, including a thrilling race to the line on the pearly blue waters of Lake Aiguebelette in 2015. “I understand the media discussing the rivalries between crews as it makes a great story,” he says. “They go one way and we go another; we deliberately calm ourselves down and try not to fixate on other crews. We try to make ourselves as good as we can, and focus on our own performance. In reality, it’s probably a bit of both; the rivalry does affect us a little, and it keeps us motivated”.

Throughout the long winters, Alex has found himself rowing in the pair with one of the rising stars of the squad; 27 year old Mo Sbihi. “I’ve known Mo for a long time. He was always a big, strong guy whose on-the-water scores never really matched his land potential,” explains Alex when I ask him about their exploits together. “Since London, he’s rocketed up – his improvement has been astronomical. Rowing with him couldn’t be better; he’s easily one of the strongest in the squad. He broke the British ergo record and he’ll do it again, and go beyond it”. An impressive recommendation, but Alex understands the role that Sbihi, a practising Muslim, has to play in the months ahead.

As we probe deeper into Alex’s personal life, we touch on his captainship at Leander Club. His delight and pride is obvious and understandable. “I was quite shocked and honoured to be made captain, because the people who have been captain before are literally my rowing heroes,” he laughs. “When we come around to events like the Fours Head and British Championships, it’s a really exciting inter-club rivalry within the squad. Everyone always wants to beat Leander because they think we cheat; I don’t know why, maybe because we get good breakfasts”.IMG_5875

The team always travel to an altitude camp shortly after Christmas, and this year made the trip to Dullstroom in sunny South Africa to pound out the miles on the ergo and bike. Whilst the squad was away, his partner Emily gave birth to their third child – Jesse. Alex candidly acknowledges that it was a big landmark to miss, but his take is a positive one. “Sometimes it is hard. I’ve missed two of the births of my three children; I’ve been away racing and on training camps, unable to get back,” he explains. “However, I think that dealing with this and being there for bath times, bed times and all those small events day in day out is crucial. I relish the challenge, and I find it all very rewarding. Knowing that I can have a sleepless night looking after my family, and still perform on the water the next day is a huge confidence boost for me”.

The 31 year old hasn’t given too much thought to what he is going to do after laying down his oars, or even whether that’ll be in six months’ time. He has a few ideas, but nothing firm; to an Olympian though, the world is his oyster. “Carrying on for another four years is not completely after the radar; it’s not exactly appealing, but I might well consider it,” he ponders, his voice as openly curious as I feel. “I think it’s different now that I have kids; I have to earn a living, I have to provide for my family and I have to make the right decisions. I’ve thought about potentially rowing the Atlantic, but that’s not a job. I have to find ways to do the things that I want to do and earn the money to find them and my family”.

“I think it’s different now that I have kids; I have to earn a living, I have to provide for my family and I have to make the right decisions.

We come right round to Alex’s current progress; he’s going well, although a recent illness meant he missed an ergo test. Nonetheless, he’s on the right path. It’s nearly impossible to look beyond the Olympics, and a glimmering gold shine across the Atlantic. But Alex Gregory is a happy man, with a family, a stunning sporting record and the promise of a successful path ahead of him. “I’ve learnt a lot, and whatever happens in Rio I’ve achieved everything I wanted to when I set out on this path”

Tom Morgan

Previous editor of Row360, publisher of Junior Rowing News, freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post, Vital Football and others. Student at the University of Southampton.

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