Thursday, 20 September 2018

I nearly quit before winning Olympic gold

SEVEN years ago, Alex Gregory was on the brink of quitting rowing.

SEVEN years ago, Alex Gregory was on the brink of quitting rowing.

Disillusioned after a season of poor results, he had failed to qualify his boat for the Olympics and injuries were hampering his development.

Then he was taken to the Games in Beijing as a reserve and it reignited his determination to succeed in the sport.

Four years later, he won gold at London 2012.

Now Gregory is one of the country’s leading rowers, captain of Leander Club and targeting a second gold in Rio next year. It is quite a turnaround from how he felt in 2008.

Born and raised in Cheltenham, Gregory was sporty from a young age. At school he played all sports and was a competition swimmer. He didn’t start rowing until he was 17 and even then it was by chance.

He recalls: “I was still swimming at the time and a friend went on a course at Evesham Rowing Club. He then pestered me until I agreed to go too. Eventually, I did and I loved it.”

“It didn’t feel natural at first — nothing about rowing is natural the first time — but I found I was immediately good at the fitness side, which came from my swimming. The coaches noticed this and encouraged me to keep going.”

Gregory joined a crew and started competing, including his first experience of Henley Royal Regatta.

He says: “We were terrible but that’s not what it was about, it was about enjoying ourselves and we all got on really well.

“We entered Henley two years in a row. The first year we didn’t qualify and the second we were knocked out in the first race but to be able to race here was pretty special.”

It wasn’t long before Gregory was back in Henley and this time it proved to be a turning point in his rowing career.

One of his clubmates was trialling for the GB junior team and used to go to Leander on weekends to train and one occasion Gergory went with him.

He recalls: “I remember coming off the water and eating alongside Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell. That was pretty daunting — I was scared of the people here my own age, let alone them. It definitely inspired me to be invited to train at Leander and end up like them.”

When he left school, Gregory chose to study geography at Reading University, not least because it meant he would be just a few miles from Leander.

He enjoyed university but didn’t have a typical student’s lifestyle of boozy parties and long lie-ins inbetween lectures.

“I was getting up early to train on the river and returning to halls at about the time everyone else was getting up,” he says.

“It took a while to get used to that and for other people to get used to what I was doing. All the time I was missing nights out and felt like I was letting people down by not going out with them.

“Training was hard but rewarding. I would rush to lectures and try to get to as many as I could but it was lectures that fell by the wayside rather than rowing sessions.”

His hard work paid off as he was called up to the GB junior team and took part in the under-23 world championships while still at university.

By his third year he had moved on to the senior squad and after graduating, he moved to Henley in order to dedicating himself to rowing.

Gregory recalls: “I started training with the Olympic group, which was a big jump. I had started to receive a little bit of Lottery funding so I could pay my rent and live and train in Henley but I still needed to earn a bit more money so I placed an advert in the Henley Standard as a gardener [his parents owned a garden centre].

“I got calls for months and I would do three hours’ training followed by gardening. I would leave training at 3.30pm or 4pm and drive straight to someone’s garden where I would spend three hours in the dark weeding or picking up leaves. When I got home I was so tired that I barely had enough energy to make dinner. Recovery and fuel is so important and I would get ill a lot.”

This regime took its toll in 2004 when Gregory collapsed in a race in Lucerne and he had to be rescued by the safety boat. The same thing happened again during a world cup final in Amsterdam the following year.

Gregory recalls: “We had been favourites along with Italy and we were neck and neck midway through the race. I could hear the coach Colin Smith in the boat behind shouting at us to keep moving.

“I started hyperventilating and it felt like I was rowing through treacle. I can’t remember the last quarter of the race and the next thing I knew I was in the medical tent.

“We figured something was wrong and it turned out that I had asthma. It was a setback but I used it as motivation and told myself that was the reason why I’d been doing rubbish. I started using an inhaler and taking medication.

“Thankfully, it’s all under control now. I have to use the inhaler every day but I know when I need it.”

Gregory’s lowest point in rowing came during the 2008 season when he hit a series of injuries and his performances suffered.

Being Olympic year, there was a last chance to qualify but he was taken out of the boat two weeks before that because of injury. The crew tried and failed to qualify with a substitute.

Despite this setback, Gregory was invited by GB coach Jurgen Grobler to go to Beijing as a reserve but he had mixed feelings about accepting the offer.

“It was a difficult decision to go,” he says. “I felt I had let the guys down badly but going to the Olympics was something I had desperately wanted to do for many years. I decided to go and it was a turning point in my life.

“Watching the races in Beijing I realised what the Olympics actually mean. It is something so special and different to any other competition and it cemented my desire.

“I was on the cusp of leaving rowing. I was ready to walk away but being there and watching it made me realise why I did it. I’ll never forget it.

“It taught me how people deal with huge pressure and how to act when it’s on. I was sitting at breakfast with the guys from the coxless four the morning before they won gold and their focus and relaxation surprised me. When I watched them win gold I decided to set myself the goal of giving it another go. I had massive new motivation.”

Over the next year Gregory’s form improved dramatically and he won the first of his five world championship golds in Poland in 2009 as part of the GB coxless four.

He says: “That was a very special win for me and things started to look up from then. It was a sort of redemption and was the best feeling. It felt like things had finally paid off.”

In 2010 the same crew was undefeated until the final of the world championships in New Zealand, where they finished fourth.

Then in 2011 they went the whole season unbeaten, winning the world championships in Slovenia.

In the world cup series in Lucerne the four of Gregory, Matt Langridge, Ric Egington and Tom James set a world record time and followed this with a gold at the world championships in Bled.

At the start of the following seasons Egington and Langridge were replaced by Peter Reed and Andrew Triggs Hodge, who had won gold in the coxless four at the 2008 Olympics.

In the world cup series the new crew won gold in Belgrade and Lucerne but were beaten by Australia in Munich, meaning both boats went into the London Olympics as joint favourites.

“We knew there was a big clash coming,” Gregory recalls. “The Australians looked really good and were a little bit more efficient than us in the way they rowed. They beat us in the last regatta before the Games so it was a bit stressful.

“We went on an Austrian training camp up in the mountains and the five of us, including Jurgen, sat down and set out a detailed plan of how we wanted to row.

“We went back to basics with our rowing stroke and stepped it up. There was so much focus that it was one of the strongest bonding experiences of a team I’ve had. We were all on the same page every day.”

During London 2012 the GB rowers stayed at a hotel near Dorney Lake, the venue for the Olympic regatta, and some 30 miles away from the main Olympic Stadium in London.

Gregory says: “Before the competition started we had a few days on the lake. Volunteers and staff were already working there and it shocked us how nice and supportive everyone was. That set the style for the Olympics and how behind Team GB the public were. I’ve heard since that people at Dorney Lake said the atmosphere was one of the best they had experienced.

“We would get a Hobbs of Henley cruiser up to the lake and walk in the public entrance where they had security from the army. Some of these guys were just back from Afghanistan and had come to support us.”

When it came to the final of the coxless four, Gregory admits he was so nervous that he was literally sick.

Gregory recalls: “I’d never been sick before a race before the Olympics, although I’m always sick afterwards. That’s when I realised how nervous I was.

“We were in lane six for the final and when our name was called we heard a massive roar from 2km away. Andrew turned round and said ‘that’s for us’. We all had goosebumps and it gave us all a massive adrenaline rush.

“I remember sitting ready for the first stroke looking at the little traffic light and waiting for it to go green. When it did I started to move and thought ‘there’s no getting out of this now’.

“We did the best start we had ever done and after a couple of minutes we were in our rhythm. I knew then we were on to something good and we were clicking perfectly as a crew for the first time.

“After 500m you could hear the crowd and by 750m the sound was getting really loud. By then we were a good margin ahead and as in control as you can be in an Olympic final.

“With 500m to go we couldn’t hear Pete, who made the calls, but we knew what he wanted to say. There was a deafening sound from either side of the lake and at that point I thought ‘we’ve got this now, just don’t get cramp’.”

The crew crossed the line in a shade under six minutes and four seconds, more than a second ahead of the Australians.

After 11 years of rowing, Gregory was an Olympic gold medallist.

He says: “I’d spent so many years wondering what it would be like to cross the line as Olympic champion but it wasn’t anything like it, it was pure and utter relief. For a few minutes it was ‘thank God that’s over’ and everything I’d been through was finally worth it. Then we got out of the boat and gave each other a big hug.

“We walked on to the medal pontoon and I found myself standing there with my mates either side of me. I looked ahead and there was my mum, dad and brother. When I had that medal around my neck I looked ahead and they were bawling their eyes out. That’s when it hit me how much it meant to them as well.”

After London 2012 Gregory took two months off, the longest he has gone without training, and it showed on his return.

He says: “I now had this gold medal on my shelf and I went back to training knowing that I had achieved this and that I didn’t need to be there any more.

“One day I had a two-hour weights session and five minutes in I was exhausted and couldn’t lift any of the weights. I looked at the door and thought about going home, putting on my medal and watching the television and never rowing again.

“Thankfully I didn’t do that, I stuck it out and over the next few weeks the motivation returned. I have a different outlook on sport now but I’m very motivated to win another gold medal.”

He won more gold medals at the world championships in 2013 and 2014 as well as one at last year’s European championships followed by silver this year. He was also part of the GB eight which won the Grand Challenge Cup at this year’s Henley Royal Regatta. In January, he was made captain of Leander Club, an honour to go with becoming an MBE in the 2013 Queen’s New Years Honours for services to rowing.

It’s all a long way from the that time when he nearly gave up the sport altogether.

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