Memoir: The one that got away

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Memoir: The one that got away

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November sees one of Britain’s biggest rowing races, celebrating a sport in which we lead the world. But this is the true story of how one oarsman was denied his dream of Olympic gold

A few kilometres to the north of Munich there is a man-made lake. Its banks are treeless and greyed by the sun, and the water is strangely clear. A concrete grandstand runs part way down one side, and at the northeastern end are wooden hangars: an inaccurate suggestion of aircraft. Aerial photographs give a sense of inversion, of a sky-blue landing strip slashed diagonally over fields. The lake is Oberschleissheim. It was built for the rowing and canoeing events at the Munich Olympic Games of 1972 and has hosted international competitions ever since.

In the spring of 2000 Bobby Thatcher is there, rowing in the British eight at a World Cup regatta. He will tell me years later that he remembers the heat. The other sensations—his pulse pounding in his ears, the mingling smells of his crewmates’ sweat or the adrenal nausea as the cox orders the boat to be backed onto the start pontoons—are too commonplace to mention. Racing in an eight is always about fear.

Sixty feet long, less than two feet wide and made out of the same ultra-light carbon fibre as a Formula One racing car, it is the biggest and fastest rowing boat. In a pair or a four, Bobby says, you are in control, but the eight is in control of you. The first tenth of the 2,000-metre course will be a sprint to generate speed, and the rest a fight to maintain it as muscles flood with lactic acid and capillaries in the lungs burst open. The crew that slows down the least will win. It is about Old Testament-level pain, and praying that this won’t be the time it kills you. The mental focus required is absolute.

Bobby is sitting in the bow seat, furthest back, and he looks over his shoulder to check the boat is straight in the lane. White buoys stretch away in rank and file under the sun. In the final 100m they turn red, but that’s too far away for Bobby to see. Perhaps he looks around for a moment too long—the cox has the boat well-aligned after all—but in that minute’s heated stillness before the start he sees two figures sitting on a towel on the sun-scorched bank of the lake. Immediately, his attention is diverted. The figures are women, with tanned skin and white-blonde hair, and they are naked except for bikini bottoms. The women are kissing each other and touching each other’s breasts, apparently oblivious to the men in rowing boats right in front of them. The men are oblivious too, staring straight ahead. All the men but one.

Bobby Thatcher thinks the women might be the most erotic thing he has ever seen. He taps the shoulder of Ben Hunt-Davis in the two seat, who turns, gives him a solemn manly handshake and never looks out of the boat. As the starter raises his flag and calls over the names of the competing countries, Bobby tries to block out thoughts of the women and concentrate on the race ahead. When the buzzer sounds, 48 of the world’s strongest men bend their oars—or “blades”—and in a surge of savagery and white water the boats are gone.

Five minutes and 27 seconds later, down past where the buoys turn red, Bobby Thatcher crosses the line first, and the British team have won another gold. When he tells his crew about the two women on the bank, they either don’t believe him or don’t care. You never, ever, look out of the boat.

Bobby has trained and won races with oarsmen you might have heard of: Matthew Pinsent, Steve Redgrave and Tim Foster, as well as less famous men such as Luka Grubor, Steve Trapmore and Simon Dennis. The latter names are the other gold medallists from the Sydney games, which you probably only recognise if you know a fair bit about rowing. But mention the name Bobby Thatcher to someone who knows about the sport, and that person is likely to wince. Because what happened to Bobby during his eight years in the British team is not something rowing people find comfortable to talk about.

He coaches rowing now, at Latymer Upper School in west London, and we met in 2004 when he interviewed me for a job. He was wearing board shorts and flip-flops; I felt faintly ridiculous in my tie. We talked technique over a cup of tea in his flat—which crews and which coaches we admired—then looked out of the window at the river. The Hammersmith bend sweeps down from Chiswick Eyot, past St Paul’s School and under the ornate green and gold metalwork of the bridge itself, and the stream runs fastest down a not-quite-central channel. It is a difficult place to steer with accuracy; enter it wrongly and it is too late to correct your course.

“Job’s yours if you want it,” said Bobby. “I know we normally wouldn’t get back to you till later, but the others have all been muppets.”

I think I laughed at that point. “Fair enough,” I said.

Rowing, in theory, is a very fair sport. There are no fumbled catches or goals against the run of play; the crew that is fastest on the day will win. And a global standard for assessing performance means that selection for crews is fair too. A beginner can get on a rowing machine (known as an ergometer, or ergo) in any gym, row 2,000 metres as fast as he or she can and measure themselves against any rower in the world. A woman in her first year of rowing should be aiming to take less than eight minutes, and a man will start to be taken seriously when he goes faster than seven. The relationship  between effort and performance, as in all athletics, is non-linear; each second is more difficult to knock off than the last. A club oarsman who pulls 6:45 at the start of a season in September will be regarded as having made good progress if he does 6:30 in July; 6:20 a year later would be outstanding. When Bobby Thatcher was 18, he did it in 6:08, the fastest time for a junior in Britain that year.

And for a sport that mostly involves the rich (a new racing eight costs £30,000), rowing is remarkably democratic. Large annual time trials known as “head races” are run on the Thames in London each winter; this year’s Head of the River Fours take place on Sunday 14th November. The course is four and a quarter miles from Chiswick to Putney (the reverse of that used for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race), and there are separate events for different classes of boat. Crews from novice to international level compete against each other. The Women’s Eights Head is one of the largest all-female sporting events in the world, with some 2,000 athletes competing, and the Men’s Eights Head is bigger again by a half.

Tideway heads are special. Up to 500 boats from Britain, Europe and further away will row up to the start. Crews of schoolboys and old men. Students arrive in clapped-out buses from distant universities, race in a boat held together with duct tape and come 350th, then drive home. Each club has its own racing kit which, along with the painted and patterned blades, makes the day look like a medieval pageant or joust.

The boats start one behind the other. Slower must give way to faster. There is clashing and crying out, allegations of mistiming, obstruction, robbery; the fastest crew down the course will win, but many feel they have fair claim. From above, it would look like a race of spears. Bright spears on brown water fighting for the fast deep channel that runs wide around the bends. Cut the corners and you will find dead water; the mudflats by Craven Cottage seem to draw crews onto them as if sirens are calling from the Fulham Wall. The finish looks closer if you go that way, but it is a place of stagnation and defeat.

To enter a head race is to buy a ticket for your crew versus the world. There is no limit to how well you can do. In the 2008 Fours Head, a quad scull from Westminster School came sixth out of 471 crews, beating all but a handful of top-ranked adult men. In the year that Bobby Thatcher topped the British rankings on the rowing machine, he won the Junior World Championships in the Great Britain coxless four.

Selection for the British team, junior or senior, is democratic too. If an athlete’s ergo score beats an annually dictated cut-off, he can turn up to the trials in October. Here he will be timed in his single scull over a 5km course and, if fast enough, invited to the next round in December. Final selection is in April and has the upcoming athletes racing on a 2,000-metre straight-lane course against the established internationals. Win and you’re in; reputation counts for nothing. You don’t get picked for a national football team like that.

*****

In April 1996, when he was 21, Bobby Thatcher rowed with James Cracknell in the double scull (a boat where each rower has two blades; in a pair they each have one). They won final trials and were selected for the British team for the Atlanta Olympic Games.

They trained three times a day, six days out of seven. There were high-altitude camps, weights and sometimes 200km of rowing in a week. The training programme was, and still is, written by Jurgen Gröbler, the chief coach. Gröbler, a former coach of East Germany, believes in hard work. He is more often heard relaying unsatisfactory figures from his stopwatch than giving detailed advice on technique. His crews have won at every Olympic Games since 1972, and his face has come to suggest the elements: sun and wind and gold.

Gröbler’s Atlanta medals were won without Bobby. Cracknell came down with tonsillitis and was unable to race, so Bobby rowed with the spare man, Guy Pooley, a talented oarsman but not in Cracknell’s league. Their first outing in the double was their row up to the start line of the heats. Unsurprisingly, they lost. But Bobby was still young; “his” games were always going to be in Sydney in 2000.

Thinking four years ahead is not easy. A rower needs not only to maximise his physical capacity but also to perfect his technique: making sure the boat is moved as far as possible with each stroke. The national training centre at Caversham, Reading, is where this happens. It is a purpose-built, 2km lake funded by the National Lottery, with its own private boathouse and gym. It looks startlingly futuristic compared to the crumbling club facilities that most rowers are used to.

I spent a while helping out there, after leaving Bobby’s employment in 2007. The women’s team were training in single sculls before crews were formed for the Beijing Olympics. I would get up at 5.30am and ride my motorbike from southeast London to find the athletes warming up in the gym. In their skin-tight winter training kit (rowing kit is skin tight so as not to catch on boat or blades) they reminded me of seals. Sleek, multicoloured seals that looked a little ungainly on land, but let them slip onto the water and just watch them go.

The Caversham rowing lake is built north to south. The sunrise hits it side-on on a clear day so the coaches cycling alongside have to squint, and the athletes look like shadows. Had I not swerved to avoid a stopwatch-intent Gröbler one freezing morning, I doubt I would have been invited back.

As well as coaching, I helped time the selection trials. Two crews, usually coxless fours, would race, and then two rowers swapped boats before racing again. Adding together the margins of victory for each athlete gave the result, which is known as a seat race; if Smith beats Jones, then Smith, in theory, wins his seat in the boat. It is a brutal process; the athletes never know who is going to be swapped over next.

Bobby Thatcher was good at seat racing. In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics the top men were rowing in the coxless four: Redgrave and Foster on bowside (starboard), Pinsent and Cracknell on strokeside (port). Ed Coode and Greg Searle were next, in the pair, and Bobby—small for an international at six foot three and 14 stone—was rowing in Britain’s third-ranked boat, the eight.

But in July 2000, two months before the Games, Bobby was dropped from the crew and told to go to Sydney as a spare man. He appealed the decision and lost, then refused to go at all. He watched the British win gold in both the coxless four and the eight on television in his parents’ house in Uxbridge before heading out to his new job: moving furniture in a warehouse. The following October he came third at the long-distance trials but did not see his name on the team sheet for the upcoming training camp. When he asked why, Gröbler, who had not forgiven him for not going to Sydney, said: “I cannot trust you any more.” Bobby never rowed for his country again.

Britain was a nation new to Olympic success, but Bobby Thatcher did not get to be a part of it. There was no MBE for him, no requests to give motivational speeches or to sponsor breakfast cereal. There was not even the fleeting sympathy granted the unsuccessful, the interviews about “next time.”

Kieran West rowed in the six seat of the Sydney eight. “We’d also have won with Bobby,” he says. “There were three guys for the last two places who were rotated for the World Cup regattas, and the combination the coaches liked best didn’t have him in it. Any of them would have won gold.”

I ask him whether Bobby was thought hard done by, given his results through the season. “You can’t think that,” says West. “Because that suggests your crew is weaker than it should be, and you can’t win races with that in your head.”

When I ask Bobby to talk about what happened, we are sitting on a log near Hampton Court, watching a local head race for juniors. It is only now, he says, that he feels able to discuss the events of ten years ago.

“Everything fell apart,” he says. “I’d planned to go on until Athens, then maybe do a couple of World Championships after that, and there I was aged 25 thinking ‘my life is over.’”

Recollecting how he felt then still hurts, and I ask how his exclusion was justified to him. “They never gave me a good reason,” he says, “just told me the way I rowed didn’t fit.”

I probe as boldly as I dare. Was it his rowing or was it more… him? Bobby has hinted at impatience, a dislike of team bonding. He once stopped everyone from listening to the coach because a weasel was chasing a rabbit down the bank. And he did not have a typical oarsman’s background. He was born on a housing estate in west London and went to the local comprehensive. His father took out a loan to buy a wooden single scull, which he would drive to races on the roof of his car—a far cry from the well-funded programmes most junior rowers access through their schools. Andrew Lindsay, who ended up racing in the bow seat in Sydney, was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford.

“I don’t care what they thought of me,” says Bobby, “and I’d a right to be in that crew. I trained twice a day for 20 years, and I was never in bed past ten.” He looks over the water as two young crews pass by in a splashy muddle of shouts and wooden oars. “I wanted to be Olympic champion since I was 12, and they took that away from me. If I thought I could get away with it, I would have killed them.”

“Them” was mostly Martin McElroy, coach of the Sydney eight and now performance director of Irish rowing. “The selection was based on ergometer testing, small boats performance and racing different combinations at the World Cup regattas,” he says. “There were arguably 12 people who would have been capable of winning in that boat. Bobby was a dedicated athlete but had a history of immature behaviour.”

The cox of the crew, Rowley Douglas, is more specific. “Bob was the nice guy at the party, always cracking jokes, but if he knew when to stop then he didn’t show it. We used to carry the blades down together, and when a football had been washed up by the tide we’d kick it about a bit. Martin told me one day that I needed to be more focused on the rowing so I stopped, but Bobby was still out there every morning looking for footballs. He turned up on time and did all his stretching, so I think he thought it didn’t matter.”

I ask him how much, if Bobby was performing in the boat, it really did matter. “Everyone has to be on the same page psychologically,” explains Douglas, “and it was a really close call. Ultimately, though, if there are two cars that both have the same engine, then you’re going to pick the colour you like. Bobby never tried to be the colour the coaches liked.”

When I mention what his former colleagues have said about him, Bobby does not say anything for a while. When he does speak, he sounds much younger than his 34 years.

“It wasn’t fair,” he says. “Simon Dennis [who rowed in the eight’s three seat] didn’t beat me in a boat all year. He was a bit quicker on the ergo, but I was 20kg lighter. It just feels like he got in because he [along with Louis Attrill and Luka Grubor] rowed in McElroy’s eight at Imperial College.”

Bill Mason coached at Imperial for 22 years and the enduring dominance of his crews is the stuff of Tideway legend. He is more comfortable reminiscing about past glories and plotting future ones than discussing Bobby Thatcher’s dismissal from the British team, and is oblique when he finally does.

“Bad business that,” he says. “I used to coach Martin McElroy. He did like things done in a certain way and he had a lot of success with those boys. At the end of the day though, as a coach, you’ve got to pick the team you want.”

David Foster Wallace once observed in an essay on sport: “those that act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb… not because blindness and dumbness are the price of that gift, but because they are its essence.” Perhaps when Bobby saw the women kissing by the side of the German lake, he should not have mentioned it to anyone.

Bobby now makes a living as a coach, but it took him a while to get there. “After the furniture warehouse I got a job in sales,” he says. “They gave me these business cards that said ‘Rob Thatcher’ on them. I told them my name was Bobby, and they said that Rob sounded more businesslike. I looked at that card and wanted to cry. I should have been an Olympic champion, and here was this guy in a cheap button-down shirt deciding he could change my name.”

Instructing others in rowing seemed to be the best option. “Quite a lot of the guys from the eight went into the City, but rowing was all I knew how to do,” he says. “I couldn’t work in an office. I think I’d have killed myself.” Bobby makes a lot of jokes, but I sense this isn’t one of them. And coaching suits him well. Boat-club membership has tripled since his arrival, and the Latymer first eight now provides stiff competition for St Paul’s just across the river, and Hampton a few miles upstream—both big names in British schoolboy rowing.

Junior rowers work hard, fitting in ten sessions a week around study for A-levels, but the very young can require an extra incentive to stick with this most demanding of sports. CD Riches, head of rowing at Westminster School, says that his boat club spends £6,000 a year on doughnuts. “The boys,” he says “come off the water cold and wet. They may actually have decided to give up rowing forever. But then they come into the boathouse and they have a doughnut, and then another. And by the time they are on the bus back to school they are feeling all sugary and warm, and believe that the day might not have been quite so bad after all.” The doughnuts, it has to be said, are superb, and surely taste even better in the context that Riches describes, but Westminster’s academic rival Eton College still manages to go one step further. First-year training there involves sculling up to an island owned by the school, where the boys are given tea and cake. The first to arrive get first pick of the cakes. Eton’s first eight is currently the fastest schoolboy crew in Britain, and quite possibly the world. The ferocity and grace with which they move a boat is unmatched by all but the very strongest crews of men.

Latymer are not as good, but they are not far behind, pushing this year for one of the minor medals at the National Schools Championships. Bobby trains the boys hard and they are fiercely loyal; a cry of “For Bobby!” at a race this winter brought a surge in speed. But critics point out that Latymer has always been more famous for drama than sport. Bobby complains about it from a weights bench in the school gym.

“My six man said he couldn’t train for a week because he had to save his voice for a concert. A concert! If he was at Eton they’d drop him, and there’d be four big second-eight guys queuing up to take his spot.” His dumbbells hit the floor. “I’ve coached him for two years for these championships and he says he’s got a concert. You know the spicy-sausage man in the advert who chews off his own arms? I feel like that.”

I take my turn on the bench, and we talk about frustration. Even when their members are not beholden to other commitments, Bobby’s eights have a habit that troubles him. They’re fast, this year very fast, but in close races with other top crews, when it becomes a test of heart and guts and madness, they lose more often than they win.

Bobby’s detractors have their own explanations. Some say that Latymer’s training volume is too great, that the boys are still tired when it comes to race day, and others that the style they use, blades carried low and flat over the water—ultimately optimal but tricky to get right—is too advanced for schoolboys. Bobby believes it comes down to tradition. The top schools are simply used to winning, and the boys feel deep down that it is their right. I have seen this too—when I mentioned to a Latymer junior-14 crew I was coaching that they could be the best in the country, they were excited. But when I said the same thing to a crew from Westminster, they seemed to think it obvious. The simplest explanation is the one Bobby likes the least: that maybe the boys just don’t want to win as much as he does, that, maybe, nobody ever could.

*****

If the Head of the River Race is a medieval joust, then the National Schools’ Regatta in Nottingham is a May-time village fête. Tents and flagpoles line the grassy banks of the six-lane lake, and parents lay out massive picnic barbecues as their sons and daughters push themselves to breaking point. Sherry-voiced commentary drifts from the PA system, to a percussion of popping corks and the honks of geese.

The event runs from Friday morning to Sunday evening. The blue riband event, Championship Boys’ Eights, takes place on the Saturday. When Bobby Thatcher’s Latymer first eight row up to the start, they look slick, fast and ready. In their heat are local rivals St Paul’s and Hampton, close in speed all year, the mighty Eton College, and St Edward’s on the far side. Only the first two boats will automatically qualify for the final and Eton are a certainty. Bobby normally follows races on an elongated skateboard; today he rides a bicycle.

Things do not go well. A cross-headwind has blown up, and only lane one, St Edward’s, is sheltered. They seize their moment and make a desperate early charge to follow Eton into the final. One of their crew requires medical attention after the race, but they are through. Latymer must follow the “poor man’s route,” the race against the losers of the other heat for the last two final places: the repechage.

Latymer do not get caught out again. A length in front with 500m gone they dominate the race, taking flat explosive strokes that make the crews behind them look ordinary.

“What did you say to them?” I ask Bobby.

“Just told it like it was,” he says.

I see him later by the finish tower. “We’re in lane one for the final,” he says. “You might just get a happy ending for that story of yours.”

I don’t, in the end. Latymer are among the pack in the first 500m, but as other crews begin to push it becomes clear that they can’t keep up. Their bow falls slowly further back, and they limp across the line in sixth position. Winning the repechage took everything they had.

I send Bobby a text message reading “I’m sorry” and suggesting we meet for a drink. Like all good coaches, he credits athletes with victories and blames himself for defeats, and I worry when he broods alone. His reply surprises me. “Taking the lads out for dinner. They did their best.”

They did their best. Another lane, a change of wind, and the story might have been different. It was not, in the way that rowing is meant to be, fair, and the boys did their best and left with nothing. I think Bobby and they sat together for a while over their dinner that Saturday night.

I used to coach eight out of the nine members (cox included) of that Latymer crew, during their first two years of rowing. The job to which I had beaten the “muppets” was developing talent for Bobby to work with in the senior squad.

The members of the sixth-best schoolboy eight in Britain did not all look the part when they were 13. Some could run fast, some could barely run at all, and many of them got bad marks in PE because they couldn’t catch. The occasional games of football I allowed them were shambolic. But they worked hard, and they made the championship final.

*****

Effort brings reward in rowing, and this interacts with the sport’s democratic nature in a striking, almost alchemical, way. Training is hard: uncomfortable winter miles in the boat, sweaty and tedious 18km ergo sessions, sickening sprints. And all of this is endured with hands torn and blistered from the oars, backs aching, and the knowledge that one’s technique is never going to be perfect. But the athletes keep doing it. Ten sessions per week for top schoolboys, 12 for adults who are serious about trials. All striving endlessly for that ideal stroke that can never be taken; grasping at Zeno’s oar.

If you’re in the second boat, you want to get into the first. If you get an outing in the first then you want to make it faster than it was before, so when the other guy comes back there’s no room for him. If you came 100th at the Head last year, this year you want to come 80th. A final must become a medal, and a silver a gold. You lose more than you win by simple maths, and what you’re never told is that even the ones you win are fast forgotten. There’s always somebody quicker.

But you are an athlete now, and those guys on the bench in the gym, or the joggers in the park, or the oh-so-serious Sunday-leaguers seem like a joke, because you have learned to live through hell every single day of your life and they have no idea. There’s always, always, somebody quicker than you.

Until you win the Olympic Games.

Steve Redgrave, interviewed at the Atlanta Olympics by the BBC after his fourth consecutive gold medal in as many games, said that if anybody saw him get into a boat again they had his permission to shoot him. Four years later, he was in the British coxless four in Sydney, beating the Italians by less than half a second for his record-breaking fifth win. The oarsman’s itch is a difficult one to appease.

Bobby Thatcher never got the chance to hang up his oars as Olympic champion. Does he, I ask, ever feel that he is condemned: to coach and coach and never be satisfied?

“Having your name changed to Rob by a sales manager is condemned,” he says. “This”—he looks down to the landing stage where his eight are lifting their bright yellow boat up over their heads at the end of another session—“This is OK.”

I had started coaching at Westminster, and my own crew, a junior-15 quad scull, left the National Schools’ Regatta with a bronze, having trained all year for gold. A tenth of a second faster and they would have pinched the silver, half a second back and they’d be de-rigging their boat with nothing around their necks. They could have gone faster in the first 500m but everything else they did right.

Bobby once suggested I read a book called Sport by the philosopher and athlete Colin McGinn. “Failure is a mark of aiming high,” he says. “Striving and failing is the essence of sport… it is a healthy and instructive cycle. Failure is our friend.” Simon Barnes, chief sports writer for the Times agrees that “sport is mainly about losing.” You win a match but don’t win the league. You win the league but get beaten in Europe. Athletes have learned how to deal with loss.

And striving and loss can empower, far beyond the arenas of sport. Believe in what you do, but know you can always do it better. For writers, these two ideas can make uneasy fellows. Like the optical illusion of the vase and two faces, they flick and invert; today we’re invincible, tomorrow distraught. But those who have striven and failed and then strive again will develop the humble confidence of the athlete, and the vase and the faces will not flicker for them.

I am not able to articulate this to the boys as I encourage them to pick up their wrongly coloured medals from the ground, but I shake their hands and tell them, truthfully, that I am proud of them. They look unconvinced, and I can’t help thinking that Bobby would have handled the situation better.

When we are back at school, they ask me if they are to practise racing starts, for the next time that they face the crews that beat them. Our boathouse is in Putney, where the Head of the River Race ends. On a summer morning at low tide, when the stream snakes silvery around grey swathes of shingle, there is a great sense of space, of volume. I look out over the Fulham mudflats to where Bobby Thatcher coaches, around the Hammersmith bend. Racing starts can wait, I say; the boys should look out of their boats this morning, as much as they possibly can. The sun has come up over Putney Bridge in pink and gold reflections, and everybody else just sleeps.

Since this piece was written, Josh Raymond has returned to coaching at Latymer. Bobby Thatcher has retired from full-time coaching and is now a personal trainer and British promoter of stand-up paddleboarding. His site is www.thesourcelondon.com

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Author

Josh Raymond

Josh Raymond is a writer and rowing coach. He has published reviews and short stories, and is working on his first novel. This article was first published digitally, by Ether Books 


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