By Marcus Shah. Published on 31 July 2017
The rower, Alex Gregory MBE, has won two Olympic gold medals in the coxless fours (2012 and 2016) and holds the unique distinction of being the only person to win six consecutive international championships with different crews.
But Alex’s journey to success has not been free of turbulence, and he has had to overcome injury, self-doubt, and disappointment on the way.
As he announces his retirement from competitive rowing, and embarks on a new venture, Alex spoke to us from his Henley-on-Thames home and reflected on the lessons he had learned in 19 years of competition.
There are clear lessons for leaders in business and sport.
Marcus Shah, Associate Partner within our Interim Management Finance Practice speaks to Alex about his experiences and advice for business leaders in this interview.
MS: Firstly, it would be interesting to know how you decided to become a rower?
AG: Well it was purely by chance. I was swimming from an early age and I got into competitive swimming. I wanted to be the best in the world. But that wasn’t panning-out.
Then a school friend went on a course down at Evesham Rowing Club and he came back raving about it, saying, ‘Alex, you’ve got to give it a go. You’d be good at it, you’re tall’.
So, just to shut him up, I went down with him one weekend and that was it – I loved it.
I’d never watched rowing. Suddenly I realised that it wasn’t just the physical aspect. You can’t just sit in a boat and row, you have to learn balance and the movement and all this sort of stuff – so that intrigued me and challenged me immediately.
Also, you barely do anything alone in rowing. There’s this other element of teamwork that you have to deal with and I’d never experienced that before to that level. I’d played school rugby, but it’s an intimate level of teamwork in rowing that you don’t get anywhere else.
MS: I’m really interested in this piece about teamwork. So you’re one of three people who’ve won six consecutive international championships and the difference between you and the others is that you’ve done it with different teams each time. So how do you build that level of rapport and teamwork so quickly with different crews?
AG: I don’t believe that in all these teams and in all these crews it’s me who’s done that individually! But I’ve always been a bit of a mediator between personalities. I have had strong views, but I’ve never not listened to anyone with an opposing view. So when we’re off the water, in meetings, debriefings, I’ve been able to see both side of arguments and find a middle ground and I think that’s been quite useful.
I’m also quite good at adapting to people’s personalities and adapting to people’s movements. In rowing that is everything.
MS: You said you didn’t want to take undue credit for that process but do you take on a leadership role?
AG: I would call other people the leaders. I think I have been in a leadership role through experience and through the trust that people have had with me. So, yes, I have a bit of a leadership role but it’s leading through example. I’ve never told anyone what to do but they’ve observed me do it so, I think that’s my leadership style or quality.
MS: You’ve talked about leading by example and building trust. From your experience of leading and leadership what other key traits do you like to exhibit yourself or like to see in other leaders?
AG: I want someone who knows what direction they want and they will commit, but they listen to people’s points of views, maybe adapt their point of view to that, but then make a decision and commit to that.
If they’re wrong further down the line, then that’s okay and open discussion allows that to come out. I’ve certainly had people like that in our teams and in our crews and it helps a lot.
MS: And trust clearly is very important to you then and to your success?
AG: It’s not just trust on the big day. In rowing, we train seven days a week, 350 days a year for four years to perform on one day.
I need to know that the people around me are doing the same as I’m doing; that they’re there training every day and putting everything they have into every training sessions, every stroke on the water – that’s what builds trust.
MS: That process of competitive training sounds intense. So, how do you develop the mental strength to deal with that on-going pressure?
AG: When you look at it as a big four-year viewpoint, it’s impossible and it’s daunting. There are so many markers along the way and you have to get them all. If you look at it all at once, it seems in the mind so unlikely that it’s going to happen.
For me, it is about breaking it down. It’s simple and it’s probably what everyone would say, but it is about breaking it down, year-by-year, month-by-month, week-by-week, session by session. And, although you might not have enjoyed it, you know you’re a little bit better than you were before [after each session].
Also, for years I was floundering around, saying I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal. It took me eight or nine years to realise what those words really meant.
There was a turning point when I was reserve for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and I witnessed an emotional family moment in front of me and it knocked me for six; I realised I’d suddenly found this motivation and the reason I was putting myself through it.
That changed everything and the next four years flew by. Every session, every year flew by. It helped that I was getting a little bit more success but I was getting success because I knew why I was doing it.
MS: Would you describe the time before you saw that emotional reaction in Beijing as being the low-point in your career? Almost like the dark before the dawn?
AG: There were three people that year who didn’t go to the Olympics because I’d got injured a few weeks before so it was a disastrous time – that was the darkest time.
I was about to walk away from sport forever, having never achieved anything and barely ever winning a race. So that was almost nine years into my rowing career and I had been injured, I had been ill. I got into this negative spiral of under-performance and under-achieving and not reaching my potential and then I was given this lifeline to go as a reserve.
It took the pressure off. I was at an event without any pressure on me for the first time ever and I could see things; it opened things up for me.
MS: What role did your coach and crew play in the turnaround?
AG: The trust between the crew and the coach is massively important. The coach is there to tell you what to do – to guide you in your training, your racing, and your job – and if you don’t trust him, then you’re going to second-guessing, trying to do it your way.
In our rowing we’ve been lucky, we’ve had the coach, Jurgen Grobler, the most successful coach in rowing, maybe even sports coach in the world. 48 years of Olympic gold medals. You go into his squad knowing you’re going to trust him, because if you do everything he says you’re more like to get a gold medal.
But there are times when you, as a crew or, you, as an individual think that what he’s telling you to do is wrong or you can’t get out of bed in the morning. You are utterly exhausted and you feel like you cannot lift an oar, let alone go out for six hours on the water.
You have to release that and you have to trust him because it might not be physically right for you but there’ll be a reason you’re doing it. He’s testing you. He’s finding out who he wants in his crew.
In terms of the other athletes, I’d talk about a time in 2012. We were selected in April for our Olympic crew and we were the four top guys in the country, we were going to be in the coxless fours, which is the boat that everyone expects to be fast in Great Britain. The expectation was absolutely upon us and we were put in this group, the four best guys in the country.
And we were atrocious!
The reason was we hadn’t rowed together as a unit before. We were two pairs thrust together.
We were beaten by Australia in the last race before the Olympics. It gave us a massive shock. We went away and re-grouped. We started opening up and once we started being honest with each other, we discovered we did all think pretty much the same, we were just talking in different languages.
We had a long discussion and then we decided to make sure that before every session, we’d spend time to make sure we were all on the same page. It changed everything and the trust between us grew. We weren’t wondering what the other one was thinking, or worried about hurting their feelings or anything like that.
I believe we wouldn’t have won the Olympics in 2012 if we hadn’t had that discussion.
MS: You’ve decided to retire from the competitive side. What’s driven that?
AG: I was always going to carry on after London. Then, leading up to Rio, I knew that things had gone better than I had ever imagined. I’d achieved everything I wanted to achieve. When we won in Rio – that just confirmed it.
I have other interests and aspirations. I have a family and I missed two of my three children’s births because of rowing and being away and training and competing. We’ve never had a weekend together because I was always training. We never went on holiday.
I felt, I don’t need to do anymore; I won’t gain any more in my life from going for another four years. I am lucky to walk away satisfied, because not everyone does.
MS: And you have a new challenge ahead of you. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
AG: Having just hung up my oars for good, I’ve taken them back down now – but they’re slightly different oars; I’m doing two ocean rows!
The first is a charity row at the end of July – it’s for the NOMAN charity, raising awareness for the HPV virus. That’s from Barcelona to Ibiza – 200 miles across the Mediterranean over three days and three nights.
Then I’m going straight from there up to Svalbard, north of Norway, and I’m rowing to Iceland, which will take about a month. That’s in a team of six guys on a 28ft boat. All our food, all our supplies are packed into the boat and we’ll be rowing two hours on, two hours off, 24-hours a day for a month.
We have websites at www.nomancampaign.org and www.polarrow.com where you can find a link to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and we will be endeavouring to keep everything up-to-date with pictures and videos and blogs.
MS: And once you complete these particular challenges do you have an idea, career-wise, of what’s next on the horizon?
AG: I’m writing a book at the moment, about making memories with kids – a guide for parents and families to make memories and they’re involved in outdoor memories. If you spend half an hour outside with your son or daughter, climb a tree, look for the birds, sleep out in a little den – those are the memories that children remember.
MS: That sounds really interesting. Thank you for your time Alex and good luck with all your new ventures.
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