July 31st 2020 is a day about which I’ve pondered a lot. It has occupied countless moments of inactivity, wondering about what it holds for me. It would have been the day of the men’s 8 Olympic ﬁnal. A day which I could not imagine beyond; A book end, if you will, to a decade of dream chasing. There are many ways I had envisaged this day would go but resting up on the sofa in the comfort of my own home was not on of them.
I’m sure we can all empathise with the all too familiar emotions of “what if” and “if only” that have been so keenly experienced throughout lockdown and whilst I know that at some point today my mind will momentarily wander to the start-line in Tokyo, I know that the challenge remains and that the goal endures. In truth, a signiﬁcant part of me is grateful for the extra year. It oﬀers the opportunity to get faster. It is full of promise, and of excitement for the powerful catharsis that will undoubtedly happen when The Games do begin.
As a team, we ended our season on July 15th to give everyone 3 weeks away from formalised training to recharge both physically and mentally. Honestly, I needed it. I’d managed to clock up enough miles on the machine for a round-trip to Eastern Europe and my body was creaking. With motivation stocks depleted to desperate levels, I hacked out my last few days on the rowing machine. The numbers recently had been harder to maintain and my body was hankering for a period of prolonged rest. There is only so long you can stare at a garage door before you start to question your own sanity.
The block as a whole though has been a resounding success. Over the past 12 weeks, countless athletes have clocked multiple personal bests and broken British records. When you hear about guys going to the well in their garden sheds and dipping comfortably into the 5:40s on the 2 kilometre test you know the program is working. It has been inspiring to see every man grinding it out in sub-prime conditions, whatever the location, whatever the weather. I’ve felt increasingly buoyed by our collective reaction to the crisis. Whether we truly meant it or not, very early on in lockdown an environment of positive competition was created. Each guy sharing their data as well as their experience, both good and bad. This has only brought us closer together and will serve the group well going forward.
Belief and success are just as infectious as despair and complacency so it is incredibly rousing to witness teammates pushing each other to ever greater feats. In my mind, isolation presented to us a double-edged sword. The period had immense potential to be opportunity for uniﬁcation created through collective hardship but also presented a diﬃcult and arduous hurdle to overcome. Together we faced up to that knife-edge and cajoled each other into producing top quality performances in spite of the circumstances. I certainly gained plenty of strength in times of diﬃculty from teammates.
This time last year, I was in Silvretta, up a mountain in the Austrian Alps, packing in our customary ﬁnal big block of altitude training before the run in to the 2019 World Championships. The place is slap bang in the middle of ‘The Sound Of Music’ country. The camp though, is brutal. The air is thin, the water is cold and the is weather as predictable as Donald Trump’s twitter account. All four seasons can roll through the place in a matter of minutes. Still, it is my favourite camp of the season. When the weather is good and the turquoise water glassy ﬂat, the experience can be euphoric. When the clouds roll in and the rain lashes down with biblical furore, the experience can be equally euphoric.
Conditions are basic. There is no high-performance gym in which to train, just a car park and a snow plough garage in which we engage in our craft. The camp gives us time away from civilisation at a crucial juncture in the season. It allows us to focus on squeezing those last few drops of speed out of the combination before lining up for the season ﬁnale. British crews have been going there since the early 90s so it is no coincidence that the place holds almost mythical status in the rowing world.
Fast forward 12 months and this past week I have again kept myself active. I’ve spent the past 4 days hiking the length of the South Downs experiencing everything that the British countryside has to oﬀer. This of course included a healthy dose of torrential rain. Unlike up at Old Traﬀord last week though, play went on. Richard Kettleborough wasn’t there, light meter in hand, to call time when the sheets of drizzle closed in. My only event speciﬁc training for this endeavour consisted of a couple of rounds of golf ambling up fairways and climbing out of bunkers. It was hardly adequate preparation for the 30 miles a day trekking with 20kg laden on my shoulders. Nonetheless, I somewhat happily trudged along the chalky paths pounding my feet raw all for a sense of challenge and completion.
I was accompanied by two friends, both Sandhurst trained oﬃcers of the British Army. I can tell you now those guys cover ground a damn sight better than an Olympic level rower. It felt good to struggle, and to ache, and to be left trailing. It felt good to be challenged. To step away from the world for a short period and to focus solely trying not to jettison a treasured toenail was a pleasure in itself. Supposedly this was my deﬁnition of ‘holiday’. I may have missed my visit to Silvretta this year, but The South Downs Way made sure I got my ﬁx of struggle street.
So now I ﬁnd myself, a year out (again), raring for the ﬁnal run in. Pick whichever proverb that you deem most apt. The past 12 weeks have taught me countless lessons that I will no doubt exploit as we push towards Tokyo 2020+1.