Setting high standards

Sir Steven Geoffrey Redgrave is of the view that talent alone is not enough in rowing. “Right through my career I had the natural ability, but I also had to work hard to get success,” says the English rower and multiple Olympic gold medal winner in a chat with G. Viswanath.

Sir Steven Geoffrey Redgrave is one among the unique four to have won the gold medal at five consecutive Summer Olympics. He won his first gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and then repeated the feat at Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000). He also won gold medals at nine World Championships apart from three medals of the same hue at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Sir Steve was in India recently to visit the lake at Lavasa (near Pune) where he will be launching his rowing academy in late 2011.

“The lake has been there for a long time. It's an amazing body of water and I think it's about 20 km from the dam to the end of Lavasa where the golf course is going to be. From the rowing point of view, wherever the rowers go, they are always judging the quality of water and how it will be for training. It's fantastic from that point of view, having such a long stretch; it does not get affected by wind too much.

“I was also asked to start an academy at Suffolk, but the developers did not get the necessary permission. So this will be my first association with a rowing academy,” he said in an interview to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: A gold medal each at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000); three gold medals at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and nine gold medals in as many World Championships. What reasons would you attribute to this phenomenal feat?

Answer: There are many parts to it. It cannot be only because of motivation or other factors. The Olympics is the biggest thing in our sport because it happens once in four years. So you have to be motivated and ask the question after every Olympics: “Am I going to carry on for another four years, and it's a long way away.” There's pride associated with the Olympics.

I was probably ahead of my time when I started. I had raw talent and enthusiasm at the start, developed my skills to perform better and become consistent. The human race likes to do things it is good at. I thought I was good at my sport and was motivated to train harder. But, as I have seen sometimes, sheer talent alone is not enough.

Right through my career I had the natural ability, but I also had to work hard to get success. If there's no challenge, it becomes boring. I did the first Olympics with Andy Holmes, thereafter with Simon Berrisford and then with Matthew Pinsent. It was all about partnerships. I suppose one could argue that I was the best in world rowing at one time, and Matthew was one step below me. By the time I finished he was above me. Well, it was a matter of two people rowing together, the best in the world and that's motivating.

Training for rowing is pretty hard. You are out 49 weeks a year, six days a week doing 18 to 24 sessions within that week. Each of my training sessions generally lasted one hour and 40 minutes.

There's a special feeling to it (rowing) because there are no digital read-outs to know the power one is putting in while training. But in the gym and on a rowing machine, there are the digital read-outs that showed you exactly what you were doing. It's pretty tough.

Six weeks during the winter, we had the set test either on water or in the rowing machine. It's very difficult to improve upon your best when you have been rowing for 25 years and especially when you are well into your 30s. It becomes more a mental test than physical as you try to push hard. It's going to hurt and no one is going to give you a medal while celebrating after crossing the line first in a rowing machine.

You had won in four continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia). So your preparations would have been different?

Every lake and water body is different. In Seoul and Sydney they were man-made, eight lanes wide and 2000 metres long. Barcelona was not far from where I lived. It was like a home away from home for me as I had trained there for six years. I knew the waters there extremely well. In Atlanta, it was a dammed off river, much wider than a rowing lake and in LA it was an artificial lake. It's all a matter of feeling for the sport at each venue which was either in the country-side or in the heart of the city. Heat and winds were factors at each venue; we were prepared for the strong headwinds in Sydney.

When you are the favourite to win, you don't like surprises. Surprises normally mean something has gone wrong with your preparation. You try to find information on all aspects, from the venue to your opponents, to make sure that nothing comes as a surprise. Surprise is not a good thing for the favourite.

Of the 14 gold medals (five in Olympics and nine in the World Championships) you had won, which do you treasure the most?

I always wanted to be a single sculler and I won the Commonwealth Games Gold in 1986 at Edinburgh. I won three there, including the pairs and fours. They were special, but Olympics is the pinnacle. Matthew and I seemed to perform better on the bigger stage. So, when I look back at my 25 years of rowing, I would choose the Atlanta final, the heats, semi-final and the final at Barcelona and the Coxless pairs final in Seoul. The only ones on par with that was the Coxless Fours in the 1999 World Championships at St. Catharines. Not many races in 25 years of rowing, but the level was very high. There's so much pressure at the Olympics. It becomes too much sometimes and Matthew and I seemed to raise the bar in the bigger races.

By 38 you had an impressive collection of medals from all major races. Did you ever think of staging a comeback after Sydney 2000?

At the Lavasa Lake we went on a motor boat from one end to the other. I spent three hours there. The water was just perfect. It was a nice warm day with the waters still. I have been out on the waters now and then in the last 10 years, and when I go out, I tend to do so alone. I like to be on my own either in a single scull or in a crew but with no other boats around because you have been very competitive. When there are other people, you realise you are not as good as you used to be and not as fast. You have this feeling that you could still compete at the highest level, but the reality is that you are not anywhere near the highest level.

Your first thoughts and impressions of the Olympic Games?

Mark Spitz was my icon. I was only 10 years old when Spitz won seven gold medals at Munich. I had no experience of Olympic sport. I did not know anything about rowing and had not gone near a boat. A 10-year-old is allowed to dream and I got this fantastic idea of a medal around my neck and standing on the victory podium.

The Olympics is the ultimate, but that has not prevented some athletes from using performance-enhancing substances that are banned?

Athletes should be competing equally. Sports should not be about drugs and cheating. When you are training to compete, you always try to find the edge.

When I crossed the line at Sydney and shook hands with the Italians, they said that at that particular time they could not perform any better. That made me feel very good. If people have to cheat, they are cheating themselves. Sport is more about competing against yourself than against others. Unfortunately the reality is that we have seen cheats in modern Olympics and even at the recent Asian Games. Ben Johnson was a very good runner, but he never really made the breakthrough to win medals. So he felt he had to cheat.

Apart from winning gold medals at five successive Olympics, what have been your other memorable moments?

Meeting Edwin Moses was pretty special. He was somebody who went over 100 races unbeaten. He's a very quiet guy and laidback too. I did a TV programme in Athens for BBC with Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz… all of us together having won many gold medals at different Olympics. Now my life has changed, and I am excited about my association with the first rowing academy at Lavasa.