HAVING competed successfully at the very highest level of rowing for more than two decades, Sir
HAVING competed successfully at the very highest level of rowing for more than two decades, Sir Steve Redgrave knows how hard it is to qualify for Henley Royal Regatta.
Yet 10 years ago the five times Olympic champion almost achieved the unthinkable — guiding a team of rank outsiders to the most prestigious rowing event in the country.
The “Liverpool eight” were just seconds away from qualifying for Henley, despite having had just seven months of training.
And the crew, who were put together as part of an ITV programme called Redgrave’s Raw Recruits, suffered further disappointment when the broadcaster decided not to air the show because they had failed to achieve their near-impossible target.
A decade on, Sir Steve is chairman of the regatta’s management committee but he says he would willingly repeat the experiment.
The former Marlow and Leander rower was approached to appear in the programme to mark the 25th anniversary of the Toxteth riots in Liverpool in 1981.
He recalls: “SomeoneÂ at the production company had done a little bit of rowing at Cambridge University as a cox and came up with the idea.
“The postcode of Toxteth is L8, or Liverpool eight, and they approached me to see if I’d be interested in taking some young guys from that area and trying to qualify them for Henley.
“I loved the idea for two reasons: trying to change lives through sport, which is a very strong and positive influence, and also trying to coach a group of complete beginners in a short period of time. I wanted to see how far I could take them.
“For many, Henley is the highlight of a rower’s career. People haveÂ rowed for more than 10 years to get to that level so I wanted to see if it could be done in seven months.
“It was always going to be challenging but also very exciting to do. It was the unknown, something I’d never been involved with and nobody had ever tried anything similar.”
Sir Steve staged an open day at Liverpool city hall with physical tests including shuttles and sessions on an ergometer.
To promote the event, he turned on the city’s Christmas lights that year and also appeared on the pitch at Anfield during half-time of a Liverpool FC match.
Many of the hundreds who came along on the day to try this “posh” sport were on benefits.
Sir Steve says:Â “Wherever there’s a river or a lake that is rowable there’s a rowing community and Liverpool has the Mersey Estuary.
“The Mersey itself isn’t rowable but there’s Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club and a small rowing community in the city.
“Most reality TV shows actually have nothing to do with reality but this one really did. It was real people in real situations.
“Most were on Jobseeker’s Allowance and they were aiming to take part in a real race against real rowers.”
Those hundreds of volunteers were whittled down to an initial 40 who would go forward to the programme.
They included three women even though the aim was to qualify the boat for the Thames Cup, a men’s race.
The hopefuls trained with Sir Steve and coaches Paul Turner, Paul Rafferty and John O’Brien, even attending a training camp in Seville. They were also set challenges, including real races every six weeks.
Sir Steve recalls: “The first race was the English indoor championships at the Manchester Velodrome. After that we had the Chester Head of the River race where we entered a couple of eights.
“At the end of each stage came the reality TV aspect where people got dropped.
“We pushed them quite hard, they knew it wasn’t going to be a doddle.
“Most of them were up for the challenge and we trained them as hard as we possibly could because we were starting from scratch.
“The idea was to give them an Olympic programme but the reality is if you’re learning from scratch and doing an Olympic endurance session then you won’t have the stamina or the boatcraft and your hands will be shredded with blisters. You can’t do that on a day-to-day basis.”
The group was split in half, with each taking turns either on the water or in the gym.
As well as endurance and fitness training, the contestants needed to be taught rowing technique. Sir Steve says: “The movements are so complicated that you can’t do that and work on endurance at the same time.
“The sessions were a maximum of 45 minutes, so that’s an hour-and-a half in total to learn both endurance and the technique of rowing each day.”
Such was the difficulty of the challenge, that 18 of the original 40 dropped out by the time the crews took part in theÂ indoor championships.
Sir Steve had been asked to cut the team to 20 by that point, so found he only had to drop two rowers.
He says: “This was after four or five weeks into the process so they had essentially self-selected themselves but in a way it was harder to cut two than if I’d had to cut 20.
“On any coaching programme you get emotionally attached with people.
“The benefits they were getting were self-esteem and confidence and just being a part of the process even though they might not be the best athletes.
“However, at the end of the day the aim was to get an eight qualified for Henley, not what the individuals were getting from it.”
The culmination of all the work came as the crew competed in a qualifier for the royal regatta.
By then, the rowers had been slimmed down to 13, eight in the boat with cox Sarah Bryson andÂ four as reserves.
Despite a strong showing, they missed out by three seconds and were the second-fastest crew in the event not to qualify.
Sir Steve says: “It was an incredible experience for them and for me.
“They were a few seconds from being in the regatta after seven months of hard work and from a performance point of view that’s amazing.
“Unfortunately, from a TV point of view they were disappointed because we didn’t get to Henley.
“The programme was dropped by ITV but this was real reality — that’s where they were even though the performance was incredible.
“The crew were very disappointed as it had became their life for a short time.
“At the beginning of the programme it was all about the possibility of being on TV, promoting themselves and performing for the Â camera.
“By the time they got to the qualifiers they weren’t interested in the cameras at all, their sole goal was to qualify for the regatta and they were bitterly disappointed.
“It was really difficult to console them. They stayed down here for the regatta and watched the event. It inspired them even more once they saw what it was like.”
The crew watched the programme at a private screening in Liverpool.
Despite the fact it wasn’t broadcast to the nation until 2008, when it was shown on ITV4, Sir Steve says he is proud of what they achieved and how it shows the power of sport to turn lives around.
He says: “When we viewed the programme up in Liverpool the parents of two of the team, who were actually dropped, said it had really changed their sons’ lives.
“One of them said he had no desire to do anything before and had locked himself in his room — he was a bit of a loner and just played video games. But after being involved in the programme for just five or six weeks he had better self-esteem and his social skills developed.
“Of the 40 we had, three had court-ordered electronic tags and one of those made it through to the closing stages.
“When we had theÂ training camp in Seville we had to get a court order for the tag to be removed so he could go abroad.
“Six of the crew went on to university and some of those had to go back to college first. Two of them did apprenticeships in carpentry.
“I think the consistency of training and the discipline spilled into other areas of their lives and gave them the focus to improve.
“I’ve met government ministers over the years and told them this and they’ve said ‘that’sÂ wonderful, how can we do this on a bigger scale?’” Sir Steve says the change in the rowers’ lives was so profound that he could actually see it taking place during the process.
He says:Â “We could see during training that they were beginning to engage and there were two big points.
“The first was when some of the group selected didn’t know anything about me or what I’d done. But they read an issue of Loaded magazine which had an article on the five best sporting moments. I was one of them and after that I was cool because I was in Loaded!
“They also saw rowing as a sport for toffs. It was a different education, different culture and different class of person.
“The reality is rowers come from all sorts of different backgrounds.
“I came through a comprehensive education, although people thought I went to a private school and to one of the top rowing colleges and universities. That’s not the case and I told them that.
“Here in Henley especially, there’s an image of the upper classes getting dressed up in colourful jackets and it’s just a different class of people.
“The reality is that every club has bright blazers, including those like Poplar, where you can’t get more working class. Colour is what the regatta is all about.”
Some of the Liverpool eight even ingratiated themselves into the rowing community, including Steven Callaghan,Â who went on to make semi-finals at Henley twice.
Sir Steve says: “We were at London Rowing Club during the processÂ and the athletes hit it off with each other.
“When some of them kept rowing and did the head of the river race that November they stayed in houses in London with members of the club, who took them under their wing even when the programme had finished.
“It was an experience of two different cultures which they wouldn’t otherwise have had. It was people on benefits from Liverpool with one of the most prestigious clubs in the country.”
Sir Steve says the impact of the project on the lives of the rowers was huge and he would happily try to repeat the feat with a new batch of hopefuls if asked again.
He explains: “It’s not about getting to an elite level but the process that can change your outlook on life.
“For me the programme was positive all the way through. That’s why I was disappointed that it didn’t go to air.
“I’d love to do it again because I know that sport can change lives.”