Martin Sauer, often referred to as the ‘jockey’ of the world-renowned Deutschland-Achter, is undoubtedly one of the best coxes in our sport. Having taken up the position in the stern for the Beijing Olympics, he has since seen his crew go from strength to strength, asserting themselves as a dominating force in the 8’s event, and later securing an Olympic gold at London 2012. Recently however, it has been a very different dynamic in the Men’s 8+ field compared to previous years, with the German crew finding themselves behind Great Britain at the last three world championship regattas. With the margin between the two getting tighter and tighter at every championship, it certainly leaves all to play for as Rio fast approaches.
Country to country, it seems a cox’s daily routine never changes. I caught Sauer in the middle of preparing dinner, “I just need some onions in my soup, and then that’s it. 10 seconds! Now I have time to talk to you”. Talking to the steersman as a coxswain myself, it’s always very interesting to hear other coxes’ thoughts and feelings on the sport we’re all so passionate about. One always strives to represent their country at the highest level, but hearing other nations’ athletes talk about what motivates them, and what it means to them, gives you an insight into the culture and the prestige that surrounds their own national representation.
“The German media often compares us to an engine, or a motor of a car and how we’re this ‘machine’. I hate this– it loses the humanity behind the boat. It’s a special thing for me to be working with this crew of very motivated, very talented guys. I’ve sometimes described the dynamic as a mix between a bulldozer and a Ferrari– ultimately hard working and brutal, but really elegant too. Very beautiful, and very fast”.
We talked about how Sauer perceives his role, and how he works alongside his coach. At one point he touched on the idea of the cox also being a sportsman in his or her own right; not just a trainer or a coach, which can sometimes be forgotten. We both agreed that a cox should do as much sport as possible and try to spend time understanding the craft to better relate to the athletes. He talked about the concept of ‘power technique’, and how sometimes coaches can talk about technique too much like it’s something abstract or a science rather than a practiced action. After all, the art of success is about finding the right balance to gain speed, and Sauer is a seasoned professional in this.
Conversation then switched to a standard race day, and what he experiences. Talking about the upcoming world cup races, he tells me he sees them as both training opportunities and as chances to improve, aptly summarizing “Not necessarily races I have to win, but races I like to win”. Of course there’s always an element of nerves for any cox but it is that nervous energy that if managed correctly has the potential for positive, helping to bring out the spontaneous best in us. It also shows that it matters to you, if it fills you with a sense of tense anticipation.
As our chat begins to come to a close, it can only be expected that attention turns to Rio, the venue, and some of Sauer’s favourite races. Unsurprisingly, Munich springs to mind as one of the best places he has raced over his career so far. “2007 was one of the most meaningful championships to me- and it helped that the stands were full of people too. We have some really nice locations here in Germany, but it really frustrates me when a course is not fair– for example when there are waves, or a big side wind. Munich has beautifully clear water, and it’s a very fair course… Although you do have to travel quite far south to get to it!”.
Eton Dorney naturally also holds a certain place in Sauer’s heart as this was his first time winning world championship gold and so to come back in 2012 and do it again on such a grand stage holds great significance for him. “In a country where rowing matters so much, it was fantastic to race in front of such a crowd. The noteworthy thing about Rio is that we’re not the world champions and we haven’t been the dominating crew over the last few years, so either way 2016 will prove to be a very telling year”.
As the european championships rapidly approach, and the world cup stage is set, it’s going to be a very interesting lead-up to Rio 2016, and to see how Martin Sauer and the Deutschland-Achter will tackle this final hurdle.
Photo credit – Merijn Soeters