Training at High Altitude – Rowing in the stream of legends: Oliver Cook GB Rower

This blog comes from our high-altitude training camp here in Silvretta, Austria. We’re here on what our head coach, Jurgen Grobler, calls a ‘work camp’ and that is for all intents and purposes exactly what we’re here to do. Jurgen has been bringing the Great Britain men’s team here since he first became head coach in 1990, and before that when he was in charge of the East German women’s team. We still use the same equipment that generations of rowers have used, the same bench press, the same squat rack, even the same gym mats!

The thought that Steve Redgrave, Mathew Pinsent, James Cracknell and many others have all done the same training; sweated in the same garage, had long rowing sessions on the same lake and walked up some of the same mountain paths means that this camp, above all others, is a rite of passage for any GB rower.

Our camp here is 2,030m above sea level meaning that some of the sessions can be particularly grueling – the lake here may be the highest 2k rowable stretch in Europe. Nonetheless, the views are spectacular; rumour has it that JRR Tolkien once stayed nearby and drew inspiration for his Misty Mountains from the way the clouds roll over the lake and the surrounding mountains, not that the views are what we concentrate on when we’re doing our fourth session of the day!

We stay here in Silvretta for two weeks. After which, we travel to Portugal for another two weeks in preparation for the World Rowing Championships in Linz in the last week of August. The World Championships are the final race of the 2019 season and because they are the year before the Olympic Games, they double up as the 2020 Olympic Qualification regatta. This means that not only are World medals up for grabs but also the opportunity to qualify your boat for the Olympic Games. Each boat class has a different number of slots available to qualify; on the ‘sweep’ side the eight has five, the four has eight, and the pair has eleven. This without doubt adds another side to the Regatta; everyone is not only racing to be crowned a World Champion, but to also make sure their boat can race at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The international rowing season is split into two. The first part is from May to the beginning of July, and encompasses three World Cup regattas series; the European Championships and Henley Royal Regatta. After the third World Cup regatta there is a break in international racing for five to six weeks before the second part of the season; the week-long World Championships at the end of August. We’ve now come to the end of the first part of the racing season with the third World Cup last weekend, leaving us with two training camps to prepare for the all-important World Championships.

My last blog post covered the beginning of our international season and winning the European Championships in Switzerland. It was awesome to get the win – the first GB men’s win of this Olympiad – but we knew it was just the beginning of the season. Since then we have raced the second World Cup regatta, in Poznan, Poland, Henley Royal Regatta and the third World Cup in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It has been a really encouraging World Cup campaign but also one where we have had to learn some hard lessons.

Following our win at the European Championships our next international race was the second World Cup in Poland. This would be the first time we raced crews from outside of Europe which would include the double World Champions from Australia, a fast American four, and a top South African boat. We wanted to beat the same fours we had beaten at the European Championships and see how competitive we could be against the so far unbeaten Australians. Halfway into the final we were in last place. Our start had been too sluggish and in the strong head wind we let the race jump out in front of us. I made a call for us to commit, a now or never call, and we began to move through the field. The Americans alongside us started to draw level, my opposite man was Mike DeSanto, president of Oxford during my time there, someone who I had trained with every day for a year, I knew he wasn’t going to let us go easily. As our two fours battled each other it took us up to just behind the three race leaders. However, it wasn’t enough. We beat the Americans but came fourth, disappointingly behind the same Polish and Italian fours we had beaten at the European Championships and the Australian race winners.

We came away from the second World Cup pleased that we had been competitive on a ‘bad day’, but also very disappointed we had come away fourth. It is a persistent reality of being an athlete that you can get great highs that can be followed by lows when things don’t go to plan. Winning the European Championships had been a great high, but three weeks later we were beaten by two fours who we thought we had the measure of. That being said Jurgen always stresses to us that ‘losers train harder’; the winner never asks, ‘why they won’ but a loser always asks ‘why did they lose’. Indeed, our experience at Poznan had illustrated some attributes that we knew were working, but also some that we very clearly had to work on. Nonetheless, the international racing season is relentless, and we had two weeks to Henley Royal Regatta, following which, the third World Cup just five days later.

Henley Royal Regatta is the Wimbledon, the Ascot, the Glastonbury of rowing. It is five days where the global rowing community descends on the town of Henley to race events from school level and club level through to international level. When I was at school the date of ‘Henley’ was marked indelibly on the boathouse in January; the days, weeks, months leading up to it were literally crossed off. Henley is, for most if not all oarsmen, the best five days of the year. Winning at Henley means getting your name engraved on trophies, some of which date back to the original Regatta in 1839, a ‘red box’ containing a priceless medal and the claim, and prestige of saying you’ve ‘won Henley’. It is also five days of fierce competition. Each day a knockout until on Sunday the two sides of the draw meet having often had some of their hardest ever races against other crews just to make the final.

When you race at the top international level events it is, however, a little different. There are often only two, three or maybe four entries, often meaning just a straight final. This was the case for us in the elite coxless four event, the Stewards Cup. The other entry in the Stewards also wasn’t an international crew as such but our GB second four, meaning that we had a straight final on Sunday. The final would be GB vs GB, us against four other guys in the team who were either returning from injury or looking to get back into the main squad. We had to win. A loss to these guys, a four made up of two Olympians, one Olympic Champion, and two 2018 World medalists, in front of our home crowd, would be a total disaster. It is also the brutal reality of being an athlete and rower in such a competitive team as the Great Britain team that you spend most of your time competing for selection against your teammates. You train with these guys every day, you spend two months on training camps together every year, you push each other on, and pick each other up when you’re having a difficult session.  But when it comes down to it, you may have to race each other for the finite seats in the team. That was what it was like when I looked across on the start line at Henley to see the other four getting ready to race us. A win for them that day would give them the chance of getting a seat at the World Championships and would put our seats on the chopping board. A win for us would further cement ourselves as the coxless four that would represent GB for the rest of the season: The winner really does take it all.

One of the most exciting things about racing Henley is to be so close to so many spectators. The banks of the Thames are packed with people picnicking and watching the racing. Indeed, for most of the course the two racing crews are within touching distance of the bank giving the sense for the rowers of being in an amphitheatre of noise and shouting. As we sat on the start line these shouts died down as the umpire raised his flag. ‘Attention, Go’. We took an early lead off the start and continued to move away through the early part of the race. Indeed, we moved further away through the middle to win by over two lengths; crossing the finish line ahead was a huge relief. Winning Henley Regatta is always an awesome feeling.

Five days after our final at Henley we were racing again, this time it was in Rotterdam for the third and final international World Cup regatta of the season. It was time to see if we could put into practice some of the lessons we had learnt since the last World Cup. The wind had picked up over the weekend so we raced a time trial format for the heats instead of a side by side race. This meant that all the crews had to race as fast as they could over the 2k distance without knowing how quickly they were going relative to the other crews. Waiting for the results was a nerve racking experience; we had to win our heat to progress straight through to the final. Thankfully we did. We won. Our heat beating the Polish four that had beaten us in Poznan and posting a time two seconds slower than the Australians. This meant that we were straight through to the final on Sunday and, according to the time trial, the second fastest four in the event; a good turn around from the previous World Cup. The final on Sunday was again windy – rowing at the top level tends to be on lakes designed to minimise the impact of wind, an element that has the potential to be quite disruptive to optimal rowing conditions. We were in the middle lane, alongside the Australians, but in the most exposed part of the lake. We had a good start, much better than in Poznan and found ourselves level with the Australians at 500m in. The Australians pushed the rate up; a new and unorthodox approach to racing and took a length out of us. We then had to defend our position against a charging German crew (who came third at the Europeans) who were on the more sheltered side of the lake. We held them off and started to push back against the Australians, finishing two seconds behind them.

Being a member of the Great Britain team, we are always striving to ‘go for gold’. It was therefore frustrating to come short against the reigning world champion Australian four. But we’ve had a good season so far, proving ourselves the fastest four in Europe. We’ve got some work to do now on training camp to get the speed to take on the Aussies, but it is a challenge we’re all looking forward to taking on.