Diary of an Olympian: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster”: Learning to treat those two imposters the same

In this final edition of our “Diary of an Olympian” series, rower, Ollie Cook shares an emotive piece about his Olympic journey.

Eton Bridge Partners sponsored Ollie from 2019 through to the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021. We are all incredibly proud of Ollie, his determination, resilience and achievements throughout his Olympic journey – including winning the European Championships and being selected to represent Team GB in the Men’s 4.

We wish him all the best with his next adventure and his work with the University of Oxford.

Two years ago, the Olympic Games were postponed. It had taken me eight years of training full time to get initially selected for the 2020 Olympic Games, before the Games were pushed back another year. Last summer I got to live my dream of being an Olympian and race to win the Olympic Games. However, the final did not go to plan. It has been a cathartic process putting pen to paper and thinking through our Tokyo Olympic campaign.

We didn’t cross the line first, nor second, or third. We came fourth. The final moments of the Olympic Final have since played over and over in my mind like a highlights reel. The race marshal shouting “Great Britain!” as we veered violently towards the Italians in the final moments of the race. Aware that the Romanians and Italians were pushing past us, and the Australians were slipping out of reach, the horrible sinking feeling that this can’t be happening. With a minute left of the race believing we could still win, we could still catch the Australians, and then realising something wasn’t right with the steering of the boat – like a Formula One race car travelling at top speed when a tyre suddenly bursts – the power down the boat wasn’t equal, which meant I had to lighten off to get the boat back into lane. Slumping across the finish line with a million thoughts crashing through my head, while the Aussies and Romanians were celebrating, and the Italians were swearing at us. Drifting to the landing stage, and not the medal pontoon, we took the boat out in a daze of incomprehension. Anti-doping wanted someone to test, and the media wanted an interview. My first and lasting instinct was to protect my teammates. One of the Italians was shouting at us, “f*** you”, and an Italian supporter was following us around saying “I hope you’re happy”. Emotions were pretty raw.

That race – what happened, why did it happen the way it did and what does it mean – has never been far from my thoughts in the last eight months. I have been simultaneously rational, trying to piece together the chain of causation that led to that outcome, to disconsolate about a missed opportunity and feeling like a total failure. The past eight months have been a rollercoaster.

Why then did that one race we wanted to get right more than any other go so disastrously wrong? The process of “soul searching” hasn’t been easy. Ultimately, we were beaten by a brilliant Australian crew who set an Olympic record in the process of winning the gold medal. We wanted to win, and anything less would have been a shortcoming of our own ambition. The Romanians and Italians to their credit are gutsy and classy racers, never to be underestimated, you don’t beat them until you cross the line in front of them. Some have said since that we should have gone into the final with a tacit understanding that silver would have been realistic. But as a crew we had decided that going for gold was better than settling for silver.

We were undefeated last season bar one race. We had won the European Championships, the only World Cup regatta we raced and the heat of the Tokyo Olympics. There was, however, one crew that we hadn’t raced yet. We would meet the Australians for the first time in almost two years in the one race that mattered more than every other in an Olympiad. There would be no second chances, no repechage, no opportunity to learn from the red-hot fire of trial. And the Aussies were fast. They had only not won one race in the entire Olympiad and that had been the previous time we had met, the World Championships in 2019, where we came third and they came sixth. In the Tokyo Olympic Final, the Aussies would do to us what the legendary Royal Navy Admiral Jackie Fisher recommended for his commanders if they were facing unavoidable conflict: “Hit first. And, hit hardest”. Indeed, the tenacity of the Australian’s start, in the speed and unpredictability of the conditions, ultimately sank our hopes for winning that race.

We were a great crew and coached by one of the very best coaches in the world. Why then were the Australians able to knock us off our stride last season? There is an argument to be made about conditions. It was the fastest Olympic Final in history. The Aussies had a lightening quick start and the faster the conditions, the less time other crews have to respond during the race. As a crew we typically made most of our impact in the third quarter as other crews slowed. Had the conditions been a howling headwind perhaps the result could have been very different. But I think just looking at externalities for why we didn’t have our best race misses a fundamental lesson.

We were undefeated last season bar one race. We had won the European Championships, the only World Cup regatta we raced and the heat of the Tokyo Olympics. There was, however, one crew that we hadn’t raced yet.

We would meet the Australians for the first time in almost two years in the one race that mattered more than every other in an Olympiad. There would be no second chances, no repechage, no opportunity to learn from the red-hot fire of trial. And the Aussies were fast. They had only not won one race in the entire Olympiad and that had been the previous time we had met, the World Championships in 2019, where we came third and they came sixth. In the Tokyo Olympic Final, the Aussies would do to us what the legendary Royal Navy Admiral Jackie Fisher recommended for his commanders if they were facing unavoidable conflict: “Hit first. And, hit hardest”. Indeed, the tenacity of the Australian’s start, in the speed and unpredictability of the conditions, ultimately sank our hopes for winning that race.

We were a great crew and coached by one of the very best coaches in the world. Why then were the Australians able to knock us off our stride last season? There is an argument to be made about conditions. It was the fastest Olympic Final in history. The Aussies had a lightening quick start and the faster the conditions, the less time other crews have to respond during the race. As a crew we typically made most of our impact in the third quarter as other crews slowed. Had the conditions been a howling headwind perhaps the result could have been very different. But I think just looking at externalities for why we didn’t have our best race misses a fundamental lesson.

A fundamental lesson that I think is embedded in this story is a paradoxical one: to win you have to lose.

Indeed, Jurgen’s adage to us if we had had a good performance was that “losers train harder”. And, if you look at British Rowing men’s Olympic success, every crew that has won the Olympic Games, bar one crew, since 2000 have lost before they won. In 2000 the four came 4th at Lucerne, the final international race before Sydney, and the men’s 8 were beaten at Henley. In 2004 the four came 3rd in Lucerne after having been 5th in Munich a few weeks before. In 2008 the four came 2nd at the third World Cup, having been in the B final in the previous World Cup regatta. In 2012 the four came 2nd behind the Aussies at the final regatta before the Games. And in 2016, the men’s eight that won gold in Rio came 4th in Lucerne and 2nd at the final World Cup in Poznan. Only the four that won in 2016 were undefeated that year, and even then, at Lucerne, the Australian crew caught a crab having been leading a few strokes before the line. What this evidence suggests is that British men’s Olympic rowing success since 2000 has come following a difficult result that those crews have acted on that has made them faster.

It is far from the whole story and just a piece in the puzzle of why we underperformed at the Olympics when it mattered the most. We did have opportunities to learn from sessions at Caversham that were not up to our standard, but there is nothing quite like learning from a bitter result on the world stage. We believed it would be alright on the day because so far that season it had been. We had won every race in 2021 leading up to the Olympics, something already unusual for British crews on the road to Olympic success. The Australian crew was the main challenger for the Olympic title but were staying in Australia until the Games due to Covid travel restrictions. As Steve Redgrave said to the camera in Gold Fever following their 4th place finish at Lucerne (their last race before the Olympics): “we have the next two months to get back on track”. Perhaps, Olympic success comes to the crew that is the angriest, the most bitter, and most importantly, the most able to act and learn from a setback.

Racing at the Olympic Games was a nine-year project for me.

Over the last decade I have won races, and I have lost races. I have known the highs and lows of being a full-time athlete. I have known what it is like to be at the bottom of the team, and what it is like to, at least, be near the top. In the last couple of years, I have known what it is like to be initially selected for an Olympic Games on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I have known what it is like to not see a girlfriend for months while she worked in A&E during the pandemic. I have known training in my garage. And, I have known the desperation of catching covid months before the postponed Games. But I have also known what it is like working as a crew through isolation, of successfully navigating reselection, of racing again and being selected for Team GB. Indeed, throughout the last nine years I have known the ambition to be an Olympian and to race an Olympic Games for Great Britain.

When I arrived home from the Olympic Games something completely unexpected happened. I dropped my bags down inside and my dad said I think you left something outside. I went back outside, and I was greeted by the most surprising and extraordinary moment I have ever experienced. Everyone on the street had come outside and were clapping. They had even stopped the traffic by standing in the road, which is no mean feat on a busy road! People came over to say well done, people got out of their cars, I think even random people who had no idea what was going on joined in. I have received hundreds of the most heart-warming messages – emails, Instagram, letters. I have tried to reply to every single one because they have all been like a touch of balm on a wound and have reminded me of how lucky I am. How lucky I am to have raced the Olympics and what that means for so many people.

I don’t know what is next. I had always planned to retire after Tokyo, but it turns out that is not quite so easy to do. I miss the training, I miss the guys, the espirt de corps, and the collective sense of mission. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a job right now helping to establish and run a new fellowship programme at the University of Oxford in Sustainable Development. I am getting to learn from some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I know. I am also still training, including trying my hand at a few other sports such as boxing and fencing., albeit not terribly well! Sport, it is said, is a metaphor for life. Sport like life is not linear, and sometimes your greatest defeat can be the first step towards your greatest victory.