Tuesday, 03 August 2021

Will Satch: From Olympic medal to crippling injury

DURING last year’s Henley Royal Regatta, Will Satch was not in his home town but training in Austria.

DURING last year’s Henley Royal Regatta, Will Satch was not in his home town but training in Austria.

Then he was a relatively unknown member of the Team GB rowing squad preparing to make up the numbers at the London Olympics.

Turn the clock forward 12 months and the 24-year-old is one of British rowing’s brightest prospects after winning an Olympic bronze medal.

Satch, who will be competing at Henley for the first time in three years when he takes his seat in the Leander eight for the Grand Challenge Cup, gained national recognition when he and George Nash finished third in the men’s coxless pairs at Dorney Lake last summer.

It was, he admits, an unlikely outcome.

The former Shiplake College pupil had been paired with Nash, then only 22, because the previous combination of Andrew Triggs Hodge and Pete Reed had been put into the coxless four in order to maximise Britain’s gold medal chances.

Those two were regarded as Britain’s best two rowers but could not overcome the New Zealanders in the pairs event.

Triggs Hodge and Reed would duly deliver another gold medal alongside Alex Gregory and Tom James but the move also signalled the arrival of Satch and Nash as two of the country’s best prospects.

With just four months to prepare for the Olympics, expectations were low and they were told to use it as a learning curve for Rio 2016 but this worked to their advantage.

Whereas their rivals had spent four years training towards one goal, the two youngsters had little time to consider the challenge ahead.

Satch, who began rowing at Upper Thames Rowing Club when he was 14, admits preparation was last-minute.

“Me and George were put together as a combination and we went really quick,” he says.

“It was a tall task because we were taking over from the two best guys we had and they had been beaten by the New Zealand pair year in, year out and we knew we were going to have to race them.”

The pair travelled to Belgrade for the world cup in May last year and surprised everyone by winning silver, having led until the last 250m.

“It was quite frustrating but at the same time we had come from nowhere,” recalls Satch. “We ended up getting drug tested everywhere we went because people were wondering ‘where the hell have these two come from?’”

But at the next world cup event in Lucerne they finished fifth.

One reason for their slump in form was the pain that Satch was suffering in his right hip and they missed the third and final world cup regatta.

He needed a cortisone injection in the joint and it took three weeks for it to fully settle down. Satch had to regain his fitness at two final altitude camps in Austria but the pair found themselves behind the rest of the GB team.

“George was grown up about it and we just got on with it — it was what it was,” he says.

“Being the slowest boat going into the Games was frustrating because obviously you’re trying your hardest but you’re not quite at the standard you want to be to get a medal.”

For the Olympics, the GB rowing team stayed at Oakley Court Hotel, near Windsor, and it was here that Satch and Nash forged the mindset that would lead to their success.

Satch says: “We picked on being really internal and not focusing on anything going on around us, even being slightly selfish.

“We just went out to do the best we could because we needed to. We had to focus on ourselves.”

They signalled their intentions in the first heat as they broke the Olympic record with a time of six minutes and six seconds, only for it to be broken again by the Kiwis later that day.

Satch says: “All of a sudden we had this confidence but it wasn’t arrogance because it came to us so late.I thought, ‘we can do this now’. You always have belief in yourself and obviously we did but this was like, ‘right, we’ve actually put in a good performance’.”

The pair had been competing at the world cup in front of less than 100 people but at Dorney there were thousands of people cheering for them and millions more watching on television.

Satch says he felt like a football star. “You have the whole nation behind you,” he says. “We had more cheers for a warm-up at 7am than I had ever seen in international racing.

“It’s an experience that we will never get again because it was a home crowd — it was just incredible.”

The pair won their semi-final to secure the second best lane in the final.

Ahead of the showpiece event, nerves were running high.

Satch explains: “The Olympics is amazing but pretty scary and the final is another kettle of fish.

“You go back to the hotel and do the same routine as every other day and you feel really fresh but your mind is playing tricks on you. The night before we were just waiting to go out and race — there wasn’t any sleep going on.

“We had done everything we could, all the recovery strategies and the usual process, keeping everything basic and raw as that’s what works for us. We went down to train pre-paddle doing the same sort of thing as usual but it was do or die time.”

On the start line for the final, Satch admits his mind was racing as he tried to cope with the huge expectations that were then resting in his shoulders. He had had a nightmare about coming fourth and just missing out on a medal.

In the event, the GB pair nearly won silver but were just edged out by the French pair who had been leading at the 500m before the Kiwi pair of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond underlined their tag as favourites to win gold.

Satch says that earning an Olympic medal was “pretty cool”.

“There’s the emotion when you finish, when you just think, ‘it’s over, you’ve done it’. Drifting into the Kiwis at the end was so surreal. I could remember when I was at school looking at these guys racing in world cups and thinking they were heroes and then you end up racing against them.”

After the race, it truly dawned on Nash what it felt like to finish outside the medals as he saw the fourth-placed Italian pair break down in tears as he waited for a random drugs test.

“George said it was the worst thing he’d ever seen,” says Satch. “This guy was completely broken on the floor. It was supposed to be their time to get an Olympic medal and we took it away from them.

“They had done years and years of racing and had been to every world cup and then they get to the Olympics and get beat by two little scrotes!

“For me and George to do that in a five-month period was a bit of a shock but awesome at the same time.”

With the rowing over by the end of the first week of the Olympics, Satch and Nash were able to spend the second week in the Olympic village living the high life and mixing with the other athletes who had also become household names overnight.

Satch fondly remembers eating a McDonald’s meal next to American basketball star LeBron James.

He also went “partying” with the Made in Chelsea cast as his medal seemed to provide entry into every nightclub in London.

“It is pretty much like having a Visa card and everything is free,” he laughs. “Loads of people want to talk to you and it’s just non-stop.”

After the Olympics, he had to readjust to normal life back in Henley but that wasn’t easy after his face had been plastered everywhere during the sporting patriotism that had gripped the nation in those two glorious weeks.

“I would be in Henley or up in London and people look at you as if they recognise you,” he says. “Sometimes it felt quite rude not knowing people’s names.

“It has slowed down now. You aren’t a football star, it’s just rowing.”

After the post-Olympic euphoria, Satch’s life came to a halt in October when he had an operation on his troublesome hip that had plagued his preparation for the Games.

It meant he was out of action for four months and was initially using crutches. He says: “I went from a real high to a real low because I went from my pinnacle — the best I’ve ever been — to having an operation and not being able to walk properly. That was horrible, really horrible. I didn’t like it.”

The operation at the Spire Hospital in Cambridge was to chip away two bone deposits and Satch had expected it to be relatively minor but the surgeons found he had also damaged the cartilage and needed microfracture surgery.

He says: “I thought I would be in and out and it would be a couple of weeks until I could walk.

“But when I went to get up I couldn’t put any weight on it at all. I couldn’t walk and had to learn how to use crutches.”

He collapsed three times. “Just getting out of bed for the toilet was agony,” says the rower used to the huge physical demands of training. “I remember being in a heap on the floor and at that moment I just thought, ‘this is bad’.

“I went from doing what I did at the Games to being in a heap on the floor.”

As Satch gradually recovered at home, he found himself in a seemingly endless daily routine in which he would wake up late, take a painkiller and then walk by the river on crutches.

His progress was helped by a period of rehabilitation at the British Olympic Medical Institute in Bisham followed by training in an altitude chamber.

Watching his team-mates return to the water without him was particularly trying.

Satch says: “The time seems to take so long because everyone else is rowing and doing trials while I’m just sat in the background.”

He had to fast-track his recovery to make the final GB trials and save his season but could now have an exciting end to the year.

In May, the GB eight beat Olympic champions Germany at the Essen Regatta and last month the same boat won gold at the world cup back at Dorney Lake. They trailed for much of the race but overhauled Poland with 80m remaining.

Satch is hoping the eight can repeat their success at Henley.

A year ago, his sister Jo Unsworth, 18, was part of the team that won the first junior women’s quad event while he was in Austria listening to the Regatta Radio commentary on the internet.

“It was quite exciting listening but it would cut out occasionally and then pick up again when you’re trying to follow where they are in the race.”

Now it’s his turn to regain the family limelight.

“I love the regatta,” he says, adding: “I’m looking forward to it.”

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