WINNING at Henley Royal Regatta would represent the pinnacle of most rowers? careers.
WINNING at Henley Royal Regatta would represent the pinnacle of most rowers? careers.
But to achieve it after suffering a stroke, as Sam Barnes did, is a feat that few, if any, will repeat.
The 27-year-old was in the Upper Thames Rowing Club coxed four that lifted the Britannia Cup at last year?s regatta, the first time in the club?s 51-year history it had won a Henley trophy.
It was a remarkable achievement for the man whose rowing career was almost ended in an accident 12 years ago when he was a pupil at Sir William Borlase?s Grammar School in Marlow.
Sam, who was then 15, was taking part in the Bedford Head of the River race in the spring of 2003 when he suffered a head injury while lifting his boat off the trailer.
He recalls: ?My team-mate walked off and the outrigger went straight into the back of my head. I thought ?that really hurt? but I didn?t think anything of it and rowed in two races.
?A couple of days later, it was the day of school cross-country, I woke up with the worst headache I?ve ever had. The left side of my vision was completely blurred.
?I started to get weaker and weaker on my left-hand side and my mum thought I was trying to skive off cross-country because I?m not very good at running.
?We ended up going to hospital in High Wycombe. At first, they thought I had meningitis so they did a lumbar puncture.?
Doctors then thought Sam had ME, or myalgic encephalopathy, and he remained in hospital for almost three weeks without his condition improving.
?I still had a really bad headache and I wasn?t very mobile at all,? says Sam, who was off school and ?miserable?.
His parents, David and Eileen, paid for an MRI scan privately to try to establish what was wrong with him and were shocked to discover he had suffered a stroke, a rare occurrence at Sam?s age.
He says they were at least relieved to have an answer.
?I had had so many tests I was kind of numb to it,? says Sam. ?I couldn?t do the basic things like getting myself up from a sofa.
?It would take me about an hour to have a shower. Luckily, I am right-handed so I could use a TV remote and write things down.
?My parents started thinking about getting stairlifts for the house and talked to the school to see if they could rearrange my classes to be held in downstairs rooms.?
Sam was admitted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where he spent the next three months.
?I couldn?t recognise or process faces for a long time,? he says. ?The doctors showed me 10 faces and then 50 others. Apparently I recognised none of the people I?d seen in the first 10 and recognised complete strangers instead.?
Sam was studying for his GCSEs at the time and began receiving tuition in hospital as he didn?t want to be put back a year at school.
Slowly, he began to recover.
Sam says: ?I was having physio every day and I was learning how to walk again.
There was lasting damage to my peripheral vision and damage to my left eye.?
He was then transferred to Wexham Park Hospital, where his physiotherapy continued and he learned to walk again.
Sam says: ?The doctors refused to let me go home and said ?if you walk from the ward to the exit you can go?.
?Every day I?d get up and try to shuffle across the floor to the door and every day I?d get closer. It was Christmas Eve when I made it to the door.
?It took about a month to get to that exit. It was a relief because you think you?ll never get there.
?After that I started to recover at home. I went back to school when I could properly walk again. I was desperate not to be different from any other kid. It was nice to be back to a bit of normality.?
He took his GCSEs in the summer of 2004 but didn?t do too well because his concentration was affected. Even so, Borlase let him stay on to study for his A-levels.
Sam, who now who works in sales and lives with his fiancée Fi Hunnibal, 29, in Deanfield Avenue, Henley, vividly remembers the first time he went back on the water since his stroke.
?I was the slowest kid out there that evening,? he says. ?I was rowing awfully but I had the biggest smile on my face.? His progress after that was comparatively rapid and in March 2006 he was in the Borlase crew that won the junior quads at the Schools Head of the River race.
?Quite honestly I was in the boat with very good rowers,? he says modestly.
Sam got three C grades in his A-levels and thanks to a ?great? personal statement from his tutor he was offered a place at Exeter University to study economics.
There, he continued to row and won a place in the coxed four when one of the other rowers was injured at a training camp in Spain.
The crew won silver at the British University Championships in Nottingham in 2007.
Sam says: ?I think I was doing it for the social life at the time. I didn?t have any aspirations to be a world- beater.?
In the following two years he was in the eight that qualified for the Temple Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta but was knocked out on the first day by Imperial College London on both occasions.
After university Sam wanted to continue rowing and tried out for Leander Club?s development programme. For about 15 weeks he set personal bests on the ergo but in late 2009 he began having pains in his sternum and later discovered he had damaged a rib.
He recovered and went back to training but one morning in early 2010 he felt unwell.
Sam says: ?It felt like something was trying to explode out of my stomach. It turned out I had ruptured my appendix. I had keyhole surgery at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading to have it removed.?
Sam then contracted peritonitis, an inflammation of the peritoneum, the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the abdomen.
?The peritonitis was scary,? he says. ?I would wake up not knowing where I was and sweating. I was in intensive care for three days and lost 10 kilos in a week.?
After making a full recovery, he returned to Leander but was told he was no longer required.
?You can kind of understand that because they are a high-performance centre and I had been injured,? says Sam.
It was in the summer of 2010 that he met Justin Sutherland, director of rowing at Upper Thames and the son of the club?s founder Peter Sutherland. ?Justin made me so welcome,? says Sam.
At the royal regatta in 2011 he was part of the Upper Thames coxed four that competed in the Britannia Cup but lost in the first round.
The following year he was in the eight that competed for the Thames Challenge Cup and lost in the semi-final to Thames Rowing Club.
?Before that I hadn?t ever won a round at Henley,? says Sam. ?In 2012 we were fast enough to win it but we were very inexperienced in term of club races and match racing.
?We crossed the line and the Thames crew started mocking us. That is probably when I first believed that I could win at Henley.?
The Upper Thames eight was back again the following year and faced Molesey Boat Club in the semi-final.
?We felt we had unfinished business,? says Sam. ?Everyone was saying ?Molesey are going to kill you? and we went out there and absolutely put them to bed. There was no way they were ever going to win.?
In the final, they faced Griffen Boat Club and were beaten.
Sam says: ?It almost felt like it was meant to be because it was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the club.
?Peter Sutherland had died that year and it was a very emotional regatta for us.
?We wanted to do it for Peter and the club because the club had supported us in so many different parts of our lives and we felt like we?d let them down.?
Last year, he returned in the coxed four with Jake Davidson, Graham Hall and Luke Wootton, coxed by Scott Smith, to contest the Britannia Cup.
They had a series of wins at Wallingford Regatta, the Belgium National Championships and the Metropolitan Regatta before Henley.
Upper Thames defeated Star Club in the first round and the Tideway Scullers? School in the second.
In the semi-final they beat Sydney by half a length.
Sam says: ?Our attitude was no one was going to take our win away from us. On the start line we were really angry and up for a fight. They were relaxing and joking and messing around.
?I said, ?they?ve got no idea what?s about to happen to them?. The relief of beating Sydney was amazing but it lasted about two minutes because I realised we hadn?t won anything then.?
In the final they faced Bayer Leverkusen, who had been 12 seconds slower than Upper Thames in their semi-final. They beat the Germans by two lengths.
Sam says: ?Winning was the same feeling I had about getting to the exit at the hospital ? it was relief and disbelief. I always said I was going to win Henley but realistically I never thought I was good enough until the day I did it.
?Maybe going through what I did when I was younger helped because it made me tough but I wouldn?t say it was particularly harder for me than anyone else.
?I just hate losing ? I?ll do everything to win.?
This year he and Wootton will be in a coxless four with Jake Davidson and Michael Nagi competing for the Visitors? Challenge Cup.
?We?re all training hard and I?m feeling really positive,? says Sam.
?I guess there?s a lot less pressure on us this year because we?ve already won and achieved our dreams but we still want to do well.
?We?re by no means favourites like we were last year but we?ll still be competitive.?