Monday, 18 August 2008

Gold... just

It's been a while since I've left a post on my blog. I found trying to write during the week leading up to our final quite hard and didn't particularly want to give too much away either. After our semi on the Wednesday we found ourselves in a very good position to feel that we could win and since that day I had been feeling pretty emotional and nervous about the final. It's a very daunting and horrible time before an Olympic final, it doesn't make me want to do it again.

...anyway, come the final last Saturday, somehow, god only knows how, we actually won and in a way which I still can't believe. It's not even close to being a reality. I just see a nicely coloured piece of metal, with a red silk ribbon, lying on the desk by my bed which says Olympic Champion and for some reason I still can't make the connection that it's referring to me.

The Race: Our plan was to at least be in the lead by 1000m, half way. We felt if we were in control at that point then no one would beat us. We also new that there were a lot of under dogs in that race who had already knocked out all the medallists from last years World Championships: Gold, Silver and Bronze had not made the final. So we didn't want to give them a sniff. In fact many of the favourites had gone out in earlier rounds from other events too so we were very conscious about the abilities of the crews we were racing. There was going to be at least one crew who was going to go out hard and try and lead us. It happened to be the Australians. At 1000m they had about 3s on us and not because we hadn't been trying. From anyone watching the race we were certianly on the back foot, but coming past half way we did a lift and started to move slightly. However it wasn't until 500m to go that we had got back to within a couple of seconds but certainly not within easable reach. Finally though coming into the last 250m we found another gear we didn't think we had and somehow we went past them in the last 100m.

So now I'm sitting back in the Olympic Village with my feet up trying to relax and take it all in. I think it'll be another two weeks at least before it registers that we've won but until then I'm just going to enjoy having a lie in for once.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

One down Two to go

There are probably not going to be many times we can relax during this week. Today at least we have a bit of time to put our feet up and take in the racing around us. Yesterday we raced in the opening heat of our event in the coxless fours against Italy, USA, China and Belarus. Race went to plan and we were able to come away with a win opening up about 2.3sec on Italy by the finish. Repercharge is on Monday for those crews not already through to the semis but we'll next be racing at around 4:30pm next Wednesday, about 9:30am UK time.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Final Countdown

This is my final wednesday of this Olympiad. Next Saturday we race in the opening heats of the 2008 Olympics.

Sometimes this really scares me to be honest. The whole of this year I've been training on a secluded lake in a normal, average, British town called Caversham in the suburbs of Reading. No one in Caversham probably knows we're there to be honest. There's a couple more lakes surrounding us, two giant Gas storage drums loom over one end of the lake and a gravel quarry continuously dredges up dirt behind the boat house. It's not the most luxorious surroundings. The thought of the Olympics couldn't be further away from me.

So now I'm in Beijing sitting in a 5 star hotel 500m away from the Olympic course. There's security guards at the gates to the hotel, at the doors to the hotel, at the doors to our accomodation and also some guards wandering around inside our accomodation for good measure. The course is 10 lanes wide as you can see, 4 lanes more than we need, not to mention the warm up lake. The boat house is enourmous with 26 bays for all the countries to put there boats in. The grandstands seem to stretch all down the course and the volunteers working on the course would outnumber the population of Switzerland. It's a little step up from home.

The main difference though is the fact that this is finally a reality. What I set out to do at the beginning of this year and what I committed to when I joined the GB rowing team has now finally come to it's climax and my crew and I have to go out and fullfill our part of the deal. It's like so many other aspects of life where we put something at risk and not knowing whether we benefit or not. It's like setting up your own business after leaving your job, sitting your A levels at school, putting money on a horse race or passing your driving test. Everyone knows that dread of anticipation when there's something dear at stake and the judgement time finally comes upon you when you find out whether you succeed or not. In 10 days I found out.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The perils of the Olympic experience

Before we left for our Altitude camp in Austria about a month ago Sir Steve Redgrave, the Five times Olympic Gold Medalist and arguably the greatest rower of all time, gave a chat to our team with some advice for preparing for the games. One of the areas he spoke about referred to the general excitement and energy that you feel when getting to the Olympic Village and how distracting it can be.

Most of our training is long, arduous and repetitive. So for the most part when you are not training we have very little energy to do anything and I usually find myself sleeping most of the time in between sessions anyway. Eating, sleeping and rowing has consequently been our daily routine for the past 5 weeks. However, in the last 3 days our training amounts have already halved as we taper for racing and we find ourselves naturally loitering around the hotel with more energy and more time trying to keep occupied.

Sir Steve spoke about some of his experiences when staying in the Olympic village where there are many more distractions than in this hotel. Back in ’84, his first Olympics, there was a designated free games arcade near his room. So whenever he had some free time he would invariably find himself in front of a games consol hammering away at the latest video game. I think Pac-man had just been released. So it wasn’t long before he ended up with Teno in his wrist 3 days before his first race and having to explain to the doctor why it was twice the size of his other wrist.

Another story he told involved the women’s 8+ in Atlanta ’96. During the week before racing the 8+ went down with a severe case of stomach cramps. The team doctor was called in to try and diagnose the symptoms but nothing could be found. So a state of panic ensued with the women being quarantined from the rest of the team to ensure no one else went down with the mystery illness. It wasn’t until the coaches spotted the post training behaviour of the crew that the penny dropped. Whenever the Womens 8+ came off the water to put their boat away two of the crew would sneak off to the free Ice Cream stand, where the new Walls Magnum had just been released, and bring back a large haul to the girls eagerly waiting their refreshment. Each girl was having about three to four of these a day.

So I guess the moral of the story is don’t do anything stupid. It’s easy to say that but it’s two weeks of your life where you’ll never have this much money spent on you ever again, so it’s not surprising you’ll want to enjoy the experience as much as possible. If the cost of the games is broken down per athlete I think the amount would come to £50,000 for those two weeks, about $100,000. That’s an expensive holiday.

Beijing Arrival

Not the most catchy title but we have finally arrived in Beijing at last. My first impressions on stepping off the plane weren’t too hopeful to be honest given that we landed in thick smog. I unfortunately suffer from asthma and had been a bit worried by the scare stories circulating about the pollution standards surrounding Beijing. The air had a stale smell of BO rather like walking around in someone’s armpit. Having said that the following day the smog had gone and we all had to get the sun tan lotion on. Haven’t had any asthma problems either.

The one drag is the jet lag though. I’m not particularly a morning person and don’t tend to function very well without my sleep, so given that we’ve been waking up to go training at what would be midnight back at home tends to make me a little grouchy and sloppy. I’ve already lost my sunglasses and forgotten my accreditation down to the course. In fact I was the only person to miss getting my accreditation validated on the first day.

As the Olympic village is a good hour from the course our team has moved to a Hotel just 5 mins from the rowing lake. It’s a bit of a concrete jungle but the interior is very stately and decorated immaculately from floor to ceiling in marble. The staff are unbelievably nice and helpful, and go out of their way to assist in even the slightest gesture. Going through a security checkout I dropped my camera on the floor to have it fervently presented back by a security guard down on one knee, head bowed, as if offering the sword of Excalibur. It’s very obvious that everyone here is very eager to impress and show China in the brightest light possible, the people I’ve met so far certainly show the effort and will to do that; they’re a very proud nation.

The more I interact with the staff and volunteers on the course the more this place does feel a million miles from home. There are many standards, rules or regulations that to us seem insignificant or ineffective but are carried out to the letter by the staff in the hotel. The nutritionist on the team, helping sort out food in the hotel, had asked the chef for some cups of salt. The usual hydration supplements hadn’t arrived at that point and we needed something for the heat out here. However, salt is regarded as an unhealthy product by the government so it’s use is strictly controlled. The chef had to ask the maitre-de who then had to ask the kitchen manager who then had to ask the hotel manager before finally a form was produced for our nutritionist to sign handing over full responsibility of the salt to her and her alone… it makes bureaucracy in the UK seem undeveloped.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Camp Altitude

As you can imagine when we do get a bit of free time off from rowing there's not much to do up here. Unless you're a keen rambler or into herding cows then the mountains don't offer to much in the way of entertainment, so for the most part you have to provide your own. This year someone has got a little creative after discovering they have an ability to direct movies. So with a hand held camera and some clever editing of a famous nineties song, the entire team has been cajoled into taking part in what will probably be there first and last stint at film production. The theme is a copy of the Pet Shop boys "Go West" topically converted to "Go East" with the actual video, to go alongside the music, being along the lines of "Show me the way to Amarillo", except with a certain amount of butch camp air to it. In fact I think it's one of those things that you'll likely live to regret at some stage. If anyone of us were to go into politics I think we would have a short time of it until this came out. As if grown men prancing around in lycra for our living isn't enough we have to go and make a video parading around Austrian mountain paths miming to the pet shops boys. I can't say for sure when the release date will be but no doubt a pirate copy will find it's way on to You Tube in the near future.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Altitude Camp

Today is the 8th day of our pre Olympic training camp set deep in the Alps along the Swiss/Austrian boarder. Not a particularly bustling place, a few mountains, some cows, a few wooden huts and a 2k long dammed off reservoir. To be fair though Norman Foster couldn't have designed a better place to train at altitude. There's a nice little hotel at the top, which caters for and looks after us, while we stay in converted army barrack style huts just below the base of the dam. Surrounding us is an incredible backdrop of glaciers and skyscraping mountains feeding down at the base to an ice cold lake on which we row. Although very simplistic it's actually perfect for getting away from normal life and focusing on the rowing and the crew you are in. No traffic, no noise, no pollution, no stress. The only annoyance is the cows who persistently patrol around our huts at night with their incessant bells ringing from around their necks. It gives the impression of sleeping in a graveyard.

The reason we come up here is because it's almost exactly 2000m higher than sea level. At this height the air is thinner meaning we have less oxygen to breath effectively with. As a result if you stay up here for a prolonged period, about three weeks, your body tries to adapt to this new environment by creating more red blood cells for you to carry oxygen with. The idea being that when you come back down to sea level where we'll be racing you have more red blood cells in your body to transport oxygen than you would have otherwise. For an endurance sport like rowing this can be vital to success. Given that the last coxless four Olympic final was won by 0.08s it's easy to see how it might well have made the difference.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Injuries Schminjuries

14 June 2008

When I was young and carefree I can remember not really taking much notice of my body’s wellbeing. In fact I doubt there are many 5 year olds who wake up, go through a stretch routine, take a blood and urine sample, eat a regulated diet, make sure they're hydrated all as part of the process of monitoring and taking care of your body. Tonight I decided to not go to a gig, the Foo Fighters in Wembley stadium, due to the thought that I might by some stupid chance get ill from being surrounded by 80,000 fans. Having already been out of the boat for a month, being out for any longer because of a cold would only leave more hairs on my pillow in the morning.

There was of course a long transition as I grew up between these two different levels of responsibility. From a reckless child flying over my handle bars to land on my head having enthusiastically cycled down a mountain side to becoming a paranoid sportsman having to rap up warm in summer for fear of getting a common cold from a crowd of people seems worlds apart. However, this obvious realisation that I'm not invincible or special in some way, that eludes me from ever being injured, came as a very sudden deflating blow. The school of hard knocks didn't really teach me any good lessons.

I've never really had any sort of injury that has put me out for more than a couple of days. At most a sore knee or a bad shoulder from playing cricket. It seems ironic that now after 11 years of rowing with nothing ever serious happening that my body decides enough is enough and takes me out of racing and rowing altogether 12 weeks outside the games. I say "decides" in it's full meaning, I think your body is very clever at looking out for it's own interests whilst also prioritising how much it's going to let you push it around, depending on the current stresses in your life at the time.

Prior to my injury we’d been in the full midst of selection with in the squad. The whole season is in essence a selection process too as many of your results in training go towards influencing the coaches make their final decision. However the final acts were coming to a close during our training camp in Varese, Italy, last April and by that point, looking back, it was clear that my back was on it’s last discs so to speak. Once selection had been made and I found myself in the four it was as though a massive weight had been lifted, the pressure had gone and suddenly I could relax a bit. A few weeks later my back then seized up and put me out of the boat. It’s probably no coincidence that my body saw me through the tough times but when the pressure came off it then let me know it needed some help. Better now than in 8 week time.