SIR STEVE REDGRAVE says he couldn’t possibly pass on the opportunity to run one of the world’s great sporting events.
The 52-year old is expected to succeed Mike Sweeney who officially steps down as chairman of Henley Royal Regatta in December.
He is a five-time Olympic champion and won 22 events at the royal regatta, never losing a race except as a sculler.
Sir Steve has been a member of the committee of management since 1999 and has worked as a starter.
He says: “For the committee it is important that there is continuity. The age limit of members is 70, so some of them have no chance.
“Mike and I had a conversation about two to three years before the subject of chairman came up and I thought, ‘why would I want to do that but then later I thought that I would.”
He says the committee was keen on a long handover period and he will have had a year shadowing Mr Sweeney when he finishes.
“It is an orchestrated process, which is the way of the regatta,” he says.
Sir Steve, who lives in Marlow with wife Ann, started rowing when he was at Great Marlow School in 1976.
His English teacher, Francis Smith, was also captain of Marlow Rowing Club and was on the lookout for potential rowers to coach. Sir Steve recalls: “Mr Smith was going around asking individuals he would quite like to coach and there wasn’t anyone bigger than me. I would have been 13 then.
“I found rowing very alien at first. In those days there weren’t any rowing machines so my first experience of trying strokes was in a bank tub, which is like a bathtub with a piece of 4x2 wood bolted on to it.”
The teenager would practise every day after school but at that stage he wasn’t taking it too seriously. “I obviously knew that rowing was part of the Olympics but in 1976 I was part of a group of guys doing something different and having fun,” he says.
After a couple of months of training, his crew competed at the Thames Ditton Regatta but it did not go entirely to plan.
“We had no idea of how we would do,” remembers Sir Steve.
“One of us fell off their seat with 100 yards to go and instead of getting back on it he was doing one stroke when the others were doing two.
“That was me — I was stroke and fell off my seat.”
Despite this bad start, the crew entered and won seven events.
“We thought that we were God’s gift to rowing,” says Sir Steve. “Most schools have second eights and we would have been racing them but we didn’t think of that.
“They say success breeds success and we were confident. One of the school clubs laughed at us when we came up to the start line but we were 14 and 15 and were racing six days a week.
“We beat their crew by two lengths. They couldn’t believe it.”
As Sir Steve competed at the Reading, Marlow and Wallingford regattas, he realised that they were all building up to the royal regatta.
He first competed at Henley in 1980 in a double scull. If he had won, he could have gone to the Olympic Games in Moscow but he was knocked out of both events. A year later he was back and won and won the doubls sculls with Eric Sims.
The two men, then 20 and 21, were presented with their winner’s medal by Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, which was, says Sir Steve, “very special”.
He continues: “I have never lost a rowing race at Henley Royal Regatta, although I have had to withdraw due to injury, and I have lost sculling races, the quad in 1981 and the single in 1986.”
He adds that in the Eighties not many top crews competed at the regatta and if you were in a Great Britain crew you had a good chance of winning.
Sir Steve has two memories of racing at Henley that he will never forget.
The first was in 1983 when he faced Tim Crooks in the Diamond Challenge Sculls, which he had previously won in 1977 and 1978.
Despite having been in the quad that won the Queen Mother Challenge Cup earlier in the day, Sir Steve won the singles by more than two lengths.
He said: “I raced Tim two weeks earlier at Marlow and beat him comfortably but he gave me a hell of a race at Henley. It was a more difficult race than I have ever had at any time in my career.”
The second memorable occasion was in 1987 when he and Andy Holmes made the final of the coxless pairs to compete against Nikolay and Yuri Pimenov, the reigning world champions.
The contest was one of the most bizarre in the history of the event.
The race was halted after a quarter of a mile when a pleasure canoe, rowed by two young women, crossed the course and collided with Redgrave and Holmes’ boat when they were in the lead.
Sir Steve recalls: “The Pimenovs were known as fast starters and we were leading them when the canoe pushed out on the course.
“The umpire was Peter Coni, the then chairman, who tried to stop us as we hit them. I was so angry I punched a hole in the canoe.”
Sir Steve hurt his hand so he was asked to perform a test row to see if he was able to continue to race but the Russian pair misunderstood and started rowing hard, thinking the race had been restarted.
The race was restarted about 25 minutes later and this time the Pimenovs committed a false start.
After a third start, the Russians took their expected lead from the off.
“They made sure they were leading next time round,” says Sir Steve. “We came through the barrier at just under two minutes, leading by one-and-a-half lengths but then they fatigued and we won easily.”
He began working at the regatta while he was still competing and found it difficult because he was regularly mobbed by fans.
He says: “I was given the opportunity to try the different jobs available but in the early 2000s my profile was quite high so lots of people wanted photographs and autographs and I had to be taken away from them. I was put on start duty for a few years.”
He has learned to appreciate the work that goes into running the regatta.
“When you get to the end of your rowing career you get to realise that the sport doesn’t happen without people putting in a huge amount at whatever level,” he says.
“When you go up to the start area at the regatta and see how they line up and the whole system, the process — the 175 years of process — it just works.”
Sir Steve has been shadowing Mr Sweeney since December to get an understanding of the role of chairman. He says: “I have raced here and been on the committee for quite a while and still there are things that I didn’t know about.
“If the stewards want me as chairman, by the time the meeting comes I will have gone through a whole year of being at nearly every meeting shadowing Mike and that carries on through the regatta.”
He has been kept up-to-date with the chairman’s work throughout this year through email and regular meetings.
Sir Steve says: “Mike has run the regatta fantastically well and it is in better shape now than it has been at any time before.
“I want to take the role and keep the regatta going the way that it has been going and continue the good work Mike has been doing and then stand aside for one of the younger stewards.
“It is not our regatta — we are only here for a short period and they will keep it going for many, many years to come. There isn’t a regatta in the world that has the same atmosphere from start to finish. I love the colour of the event and the noise is special.
“You can almost split rowing into different categories: international, domestic, the boat race and Henley Royal Regatta — it is unique.”