Friday, 24 September 2021

I’m hoping to go for rowing gold in Rio

MATT LANGRIDGE’S first memory of the Olympics goes back to 1992, when he was nine.

MATT LANGRIDGE’S first memory of the Olympics goes back to 1992, when he was nine.

He recalls sitting in his grandfather’s caravan watching the Barcelona Games and seeing Linford Christie winning the 100m gold.

Twenty-four years later, Langridge has two Olympic medals of his own — a bronze and silver — and hopes to go one better at this summer’s Olympics in Rio.

It was the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 — plus a stroke of luck — that led him to become a rower.

Langridge, who was born and bred in Northwich, Cheshire, recalls: “I was watching the Olympics and Britain weren’t doing well. They hadn’t won a single gold medal.

“There was all this big talk about the only gold we were going to win was with the rowers Pinsent and Redgrave. Because of that I watched the race and that was my first exposure to rowing.”

The now legendary rowers did indeed win the coxless pairs event, Britain’s only gold of the Games.

A few weeks later, Langridge was at his local gym “messing around” with friends when one of them suggested he should have a go on the rowing machine as he was tall — he’s almost 6ft 4in — so would be good at it.

“I had seen Redgrave and Pinsent do it so I thought I would give it a go,” he says. “I have never seen a machine like it since but it was a computerised one where you could set it to different standards.

“As a kid, I thought it would be good to set it against the Olympic standard, so I did and managed to beat it.

“At the time I thought it was great but now I know it was not the Olympic standard!”

At school, Langridge admits he wasn’t academic and preferred sport to “a load of theory”.

He represented his school in athletics and played rugby and football for local clubs. He also represented the North-West at swimming, which his parents had insisted he took up when he was a youngster as a “life skill”.

On the football pitch he played at either goalkeeper or centre-half due to his height. “You can’t grow up in the North-West and not play football,” says Langridge. “If you don’t play you’re a bit of an outcast.”

His introduction to rowing was thanks to his older sister Sarah.

“I was keen to try it and it turned out one of my sister’s friends used to row at Northwich Rowing Club,” says Langridge.

“She sent me down to the club. The weird thing was I had never paid any attention to the rowing club even though it was two minutes from my house and I would walk the dog down there for my parents. I would have seen the rowers but not acknowledged them.

“As soon as I saw rowing at the Olympics I realised it was a sport that we as a nation were quite good at and after doing the thing on the machine I thought I could be good at it. My parents were keen because it meant I could walk to the club. Me and a mate went down to the club and spoke to guy and it went from there.”

Langridge was a natural. He first got in a boat in January 1997 and that summer was competing at the national championships.

It was only his fourth ever regatta but he took part in the finals of the J14 double and single sculls back-to-back.

“I really enjoyed it, especially winning,” he says. “I also really enjoyed being at the club and the training. It was fun.

“It wasn’t ever the case that I needed to dedicate time to it — I wanted to be down there and train. We had a good group of juniors and there was a nice atmosphere at the club.”

The following year Langridge set his sights on winning the national championships, which he did with the help of Paul Rafferty, a volunteer coach at the club who became his mentor.

As a result of this he was invited to an assessment camp for the Great Britain junior squad. He took part in a 2km time trial and, still just 15, was competing against a lot of older boys but came second overall.

“I think everyone thought this kid was quite good and it went from there,” says Langridge. Once in the national squad, he had to drop his other sports due to the risk of injury and he sat down with Mr Rafferty to draw up training and diet plans.

After completing his GCSEs, he decided to stay at school to do his  A-levels but rowing was becoming the most important thing in his life.

He finished fourth in the double sculls at the 2000 world junior championships when he was 17.

“I was absolutely determined to win the single the next year,” says Langridge. “My focus went away from my school work and towards rowing. I won the single but my results suffered and weren’t as good as I would have liked. In hindsight if I was to do it again I wouldn’t change that year but I would have stayed back in Northwich and re-sat the exams. As it turns out, I’m 32 and still rowing so one year would not have made a difference.”

His victory in Duisburg, Germany, (he is still the only British male to win the world junior single sculls title) was rewarded with a call-up to the GB senior squad, which included Matthew Pinsent, the man he had seen on TV five years before.

Langridge recalls: “I came home, got my results and flew out to the world championships in Lucerne.

“I was straight into the team. It was 2001 and Pinsent and [James] Cracknell were the main guys but there were a few who had been part of the Sydney eight. On my first day Matt stood up and congratulated me in front of everyone for winning the juniors. It was something no British junior had done before.”

Being selected for the senior squad as a teenager meant he never competed for his country at under-23 level but he had to write off the whole of his first season due to overtraining.

He says: “I went from the junior programme, which was hard but was before and after school, to the first senior day doing the same programme as Matthew Pinsent, who was 32 and about to get his fourth Olympic gold medal. That first year I couldn’t cope, it was too much.”

Langridge recovered and in 2004 competed in the double sculls with Matt Wells at the Athens Olympics, finishing seventh. He says he was disappointed by the result and this spoiled his overall experience of the Games.

“At 21 I wasn’t good at separating the rowing and the rest of the Olympics,” he says. “Rather than putting the result to bed, I let it brew and it did ruin things a bit.

“There were others with bad results but they were wise to the fact that it was still an amazing experience that you should make the most of. When I went to Beijing four years later it was with a different attitude, which was get a result, put it to bed and enjoy the second week.”

Eighteen months later, Langridge switched from sculling to sweep rowing on the advice of Cracknell, who had won his second Olympic gold at Athens in the coxless four.

He explains: “James retired after Athens but in the build-up we had become good friends and he was an experienced rower. I sat down with him and chatted and he advised me to make the switch.

“He said I would have a better chance of winning stuff. He took me out a few times in the pair to give me a taste of it. It took me a month or so but then I got it.”

He finished 5th in the eight at the 2006 world championships at Eton and won a bronze medal in the pair with Colin Smith at the 2007 world championships in Munich.

He and Smith were then selected for the men’s eight for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The crew produced an exceptional performance in their heat, qualifying directly for the final.

Langridge recalls: “We had an awesome heat, one of the best races I have ever done. We qualified automatically for the final and two seconds quicker than the Canadians, who were favourites for the gold.

“In the final we just didn’t race as well as we could have done. There was a week’s gap after qualifying and we concentrated so much on that first race we didn’t think about after it.

“We were almost too perfect and spent a week trying to replicate it and it put us in the wrong frame of mind. Rather than being more motivated, we were just trying to do it again. Unfortunately, we didn’t and the Canadians won.”

Despite the “disappointment” of winning silver, Langridge learned his lesson from Athens and enjoyed the rest of his time in China.

After returning to Britain, he spent nine months training alone in Northwich with the help of his early mentor Mr Rafferty.

The following two seasons he competed in the GB four with Ric Edgington, Alex Partridge and Alex Gregory.

Langridge says: “We won the world champs in 2009 and beat the Aussies, who had won silver at the Olympics the year before.

“In 2010 we won all the world cups and went into the world championships as favourites. We won the heat and the semi and should have won the final but we were stitched up by the weather. There was a raging cross-wind on the day of the final, which was dreadful to row in and only the near lane was sheltered. The race should have been cancelled but it wasn’t because of TV rights.

“What happened was lane one won, two came second, three came third and so on. We were in lane four. We lost to the French who we had beaten easily in the heat.

“It was on a flip of the coin which lane you got. There was nothing we could do.”

For the 2011 season Tom James replaced Partridge.

“That was my most fun year since 2001,” says Langridge. “With Tom coming in, it gave us something different as a team. We made it a different set-up and it clicked, so it was a fun and easy year. We won everything — nobody got close to us. We could have won the world championships by more but Ric had a back niggle and Tom had a cold but we still won pretty comfortably.”

Despite this success, the line-up was changed with Langridge and Edgington being replaced by Andrew Triggs-Hodge and Pete Reed. The new four went on to win gold at London 2012 while the other two joined the eight.

Langridge says his new crew’s build-up to the Olympic regatta at Dorney Lake wasn’t ideal as they tried to match the Germans, who had been world champions for three years.

“We were up and down, lacking consistency,” he admits. “We had good races and shocking races.” In the world cup series, the GB eight won a silver medal in Belgrade, finishing three seconds behind the Germans, and repeated this in Lucerne but closed the gap to just over one second.

Langridge says: “The Germans were undefeated, three-year world champions. They did terribly in Beijing for them with their proud eights history because that’s always their top boat. They went away and reshuffled their coaching and they went the whole Olympiad unbeaten. They were big favourites for the Olympic title and we ran them close in the build-up but they slapped us down quite hard in the heat.

“In the final we went out to get gold and were prepared to sacrifice a medal to get it. With 300m to go we were in the gold medal position but unfortunately in the last 200m the wheels fell off. We just held on for the bronze.

“In some ways that was much easier to take than the silver in Beijing because we had given everything. All nine of us had been prepared to risk it all for gold; we really did. There was no guy left standing.

“In Beijing the build-up was better but on the day we hadn’t risked it all for gold. We played safe and got silver.

“In London prep was worse but the race was better because we gave it everything. I have no regrets about that race.

“There have been races where people want you to try to get third or second but I have never been one to take that, I have to go for the win. To have nine guys buy into that is what I was really proud of.”

Just as he had in Beijing, Langridge enjoyed the experience of the London Olympics, having been sceptical beforehand.

He says: “I remember when the London Olympics were announced. My initial feeling was disappointment because the Olympics is about exotic locations like Rio or Beijing.

“I didn’t think Dorney and London would be great but it seemed the whole nation was happy.

“The atmosphere was incredible. I remember a 6am pre-paddle before the final and the stands were filling up and people were cheering. It gave me goosebumps.”

After his own final, Langridge was able to witness some of the great moments of the Games.

“I was in there for Mo Farah’s second gold. That was incredible,” he says. “The energy from the noise had to be uplifting. It felt like it had given him the extra boost. In that atmosphere you felt you could win it. I saw [Sir Chris] Hoy’s last gold, the hockey bronze and the BMX.

“I was also enjoying the nights out but trying to get up in the morning to see the sports. I was living on a couple of hours’ sleep and alcohol!”

After London 2012, Langridge took a few months off from rowing and travelled around Australia, Asia and America.

He says he “ummed and ahhed” about giving up the sport but decided to stick it out for another Olympiad and go for gold in Rio.

“It came down to the fact I hadn’t won and I still want to win,” he says.

At the start of the 2014 season he suffered a back injury — the first time he had experienced a lengthy lay-off.

Langridge says: “From January to mid-April I was having to cross train. My back was taking a lot longer to recover then I was expecting. That was the first time where I felt I had lost control. I wasn’t sure when I was going to be fixed and thought I might not make that year’s team.”

When he finally returned, he was put into the pair with James Foad, who had also been in the London eight but suffered a major back injury himself in 2013 and was still building himself back to his best after eight months out.

Langridge says: “After my injury, we seemed a logical fit and it went well straight away. We got silver behind the Kiwis in Lucerne, then a silver at the world championships and we set a British record in  Amsterdam.”

They stayed together for the whole of 2014 and 2015 but both have had more injury problems, which has restricted the amount they can train together.

Langridge says: “It’s not rosy every day and most days it’s the opposite. We’re one of those pairs that switches up a gear when we’re racing. Some people train really well but don’t switch on for racing while some are the other way. We were definitely better racers.”

At the 2015 world championships in Lucerne, Langridge and Foad won a silver medal behind the New Zealand pair of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, who have not been beaten since 2009, having won 61 straight races including six world championships and gold in London.

Langridge doesn’t know whether he will face the Kiwis again in Rio because Foad has now been ruled out of competing due to a back injury.

Nevertheless, he’s determined to win gold. “Very simply I want to win in Rio and want to be in the boat that gives me the best chance for that,” he says. “Being in the top boat means you’re with the top athletes but I will go where I’m told because I have no choice. If I’m not in the top boat I’ll obviously try to win in the boat I am in.”

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