“Don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion”

“Don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion”

It is a cliché but I’ve had a poster of Muhammed Ali above my bed since I first started rowing when I was twelve years old for Eton Excelsior Rowing Club (EERC) in Windsor. I remember watching the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 and Great Britain winning the coxless four on the last stroke. Although I had only been rowing for a couple of years, I felt then that I knew how much it must have taken them to win. Fast forward fifteen years and we’ve just got back from the same camp the 2004 Olympic squad went on in 2003, indeed, the same camp the Great Britain Olympic team has been on in the winter before every Olympic Games since 1996. If inches are ever won by a Great Britain boat than these inches are hard won on this camp, at 2,030m, in Sierra Nevada, Spain.

We generally go to Sierra Nevada just before Christmas every year. For two weeks we train three to four times a day, starting before sunrise and finishing well after sundown. Blood, sweat and tears are mandatory; this is a Great Britain training camp and this is Olympic season. Generations of GB athletes have been to Sierra Nevada, everyone’s scores have been recorded and ours are no exception, everything we do is measured against every GB team that has come before us. Indeed, every day the coaching team can see how we stack up against the Great Britain Olympic Champions of old. For now, our competition is not the international field that we will face in 2020, but ourselves and our Olympian predecessors who have come before us.

People often ask: “When is selection? When will you know?” The answer is that with the quality of the team that we have there is no “selection day”, there is no big set piece test that decides the 2020 Olympic Team. Instead, selection is every day, every session, every stroke. The coaching team are looking to build a team that strives every day to be the best rowing team in the world. At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 Great Britain was such a team. On the men’s side almost every boat competed in the A final, with the men’s four and men’s eight both winning gold. Although at last season’s World Championships we won two bronzes in the four and the eight the ambition for our team remains the same; to be “the best”. Whilst every progress we make on training camp is measured and compared to that team that was so successful in Rio, we also know the standard has moved on. For example, in this Olympic cycle a new world record has already been set in the men’s eight and men’s single, and there can be no doubt that the standard will be pushed even more in the 2020 season.

I’m currently reading “The Ascent of Everest”. It is an account of the expedition that first successfully summited Everest in 1952, written by the expedition leader, John Hunt. In part of the book John Hunt writes about how he went about choosing the individuals for his expedition. He said he looked for two qualities in his future team members; selflessness and what he called the ‘Excelsior’ spirit. Selflessness was vital because anyone could be chosen for what may feel like often thankless and frustrating jobs. Indeed, the actual summiting of Everest, the prize of the expedition, couldn’t be achieved by everyone and so the two chosen would have to be, by common consent, an impersonal choice. The second quality Hunt looked for was that personal drive. The way he saw it was that the exigencies of climbing Everest meant that everyone in his team had to be able to personally summit Everest. Each member of the expedition had to possess the individual drive to really want to get to the top; what he called the ‘Excelsior’ spirit. His team was therefore made up of individuals who were collectively selfless but individually ambitious. A similar mix, I believe, to what makes a great rowing team.