Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Introvert told he had the wrong personality to cox

INTROVERTED is not how you would expect the cox of an elite rowing crew to describe himself.

INTROVERTED is not how you would expect the cox of an elite rowing crew to describe himself.

But Ollie James has a quiet demeanour and hopes it will help him guide Great Britain’s LTA mixed coxed four at this summer’s Paralympic Games in Rio.

The 25-year-old only started taking rowing seriously during his first year at Warwick University in 2009 despite being discouraged.

“I was constantly told through my time at Warwick that I did not have the personality to be a cox,” says James.

Even now, he admits that he likes to keep himself to himself but believes this benefits his crew of Grace Clough, Pamela Relph, Daniel Brown and James Fox.

James, who has coxed the boat since 2013, says each one has different needs, which he meets.

“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “You have to balance what they need and what they think they want. That is where my personality can be helpful. You might have to be their friend, you might have to listen to them or talk to them. Other days you have to be the boss. It’s situational and different individuals need different things to get their best performance.”

James, who grew up in Stevenage, first experienced rowing as a 13-year-old sea cadet and took part in water sports such as sailing, kayaking and swimming.

“I was keen for anything on the water,” he recalls. “The first time I went out it was in a gig boat on a 300m long lake. I was coxing from the start.

“I found the rowing exciting and the instructor was quite an inspiring guy. When I went to university one of the first things I did was sign up to the rowing squad.” James would spend each week studying for his philosophy degree and the weekends coxing. He says: “I decided it was something I really wanted to do. I enjoyed it so I gave it 100 per cent.

“It was full on at the university club because they didn’t have many coxes at that time. I would be at the boathouse from 6am to 6pm on Saturday and Sunday. I would be out with one squad then another throughout the day.

“I was terrible at it for at least the first 18 months when I started but they were so short of coxes that there was no one else to take crews out.”

To hone his skills, James would attend training camps for rowing squads from other universities, including Lancaster and Southampton. “That was really good for my progress,” he says. “I was working with different people and I really clicked with those people more than I did with the people at Warwick.”

It was during a camp that Toby Johnson, one of the Southampton coaches, suggested he interview for Leander Club in Henley.

“He thought I was reasonably good so he started pushing the idea with me,” James says. “Then he started giving me the hard shove. I went from being told I did not having the right personality at Warwick to someone saying I could take it further.” He sat down with coaches Brian Armstrong and Chris Collerton early in 2012 where they talked about rowing and James’s opinions on a cox’s role in a boat.

He was eventually offered the role in August and moved to Caversham the following month.

Within weeks he was offered the chance to become part of the Paralympic team after standing in for GB squad coxes Phelan Hill and Zoe de Toledo when they were absent from training.

“It all happened reasonably quickly,” says James. “I was asked to do some training with some of the internationals. Two days later [Paralympic coach] Mary McLachlan asked about the Paralympic team and if I was interested.”

After accepting the offer, James went on to cox the LTA mixed four, including Relph and Fox, that won gold at the world championships in South Korea in 2013.

He says: “It was an exciting time. There was an element of ‘that showed them’ and it felt good.”

The following season the crew changed into the current line-up and the boat continued to get faster, twice setting world records.

Last year James switched from splitting his time between Leander and the GB team to the latter only, training at Caversham Lakes.

He also sat down with the GB Rowing psychologist to help explain why he is an introvert. Part of this was a project called Lumina that looked at behaviour patterns.

James says: “It was useful to know how I behaved when stressed so I could look back and see when it happened and what caused it. Then I could cut out the cause itself or stop the consequence. If I knew what my natural response would be I could make sure I did not respond that way.”

James says these sorts of skills will help him in the future as hopes to become a full-time coach after Rio. He already coaches part-time at his former university club and does weight room and technique coaching with the LTA crew.

James says: “I have been doing various coaching qualifications over the last two seasons because you are given funding towards personal development.

“I am hoping to find a coaching job. I just can’t see myself away from the river but I do not see myself being able to cox for another four-year cycle and I don’t have enough race experience to do the eight and make a move to the Olympic squad. I enjoy the coxing and racing but I am really passionate about coaching. It’s not easy to give up on but I will be staying in the sport in a different area.

“It has been stressful, with high and low points, but there is nowhere I would rather be than training and working towards something at the end of a season.

“That is why I want to do coaching. I can’t think of a better way to do it than turning up at a boathouse to work.”

• The LTA (legs, trunk and arms) class applies to those rowers with use of at least one leg, trunk and arm and also those with visual or intellectual impairments.

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