Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Training is tough but it’s my dream to win gold

Training is tough but it’s my dream to win gold

TOM GEORGE says he has had a love-hate relationship with
rowing.

He has never really enjoyed the training, preferring instead the thrill of competition on the water.

It was this that has kept the Leander Club rower focused on his dream of representing Great Britain at the Olympic Games and he will get to live this in Tokyo, which started this week.

Tom, 26, will be in the eight and is one of the favourites to bring home gold after they took home the European title in Italy in April.

“I’m really proud to be going to Tokyo,” he says. “It’s the culmination of many years of work that led me here.

“Competing at the Olympic Games was something I always wanted to achieve and now I’m enjoying the moment and training as hard as I can to do the best I can.”

Tom, who was born in Cheltenham, was sporty growing up. He was initally interested in rugby and represented Oxfordshire county under-16s. But when he turned 16 he switched to rowing while at Radley College in Abingdon.

“For the first couple of years I struggled with it,” Tom recalls. “When you are new to it and not very good at it, it’s difficult to pick it up and learn it.

“I had the feeling of not understanding rowing fully at the start which I think was not helped by starting in winter. The weather was miserable so you don’t really get the chance to start on the right foot.

“It was difficult to stay motivated, especially with the long hours in the boathouse when all your friends are just walking two minutes down to the rugby field.”

Tom says while he doesn’t remember what it was like to get into a boat for the first time his first season on the water went “okay”.

“I did realise quickly that it was something I was good at the more I got into it,” he recalls. “I had a very love-hate relationship with it and I still do. I’ve always enjoyed the racing and not the training.

“But, when you start getting good results, you enjoy it more and that made it a lot easier — I enjoy the training a lot more now as well.

“Racing gives you the chance to show what you worked on for years and you get to compete with the best athletes in the world. It is a privilege and it’s nerve wracking but that’s what makes it so special.”

At Radley, he was chosen for the national junior team and came third three times at the national championships in the varsity eight. A coach from Princeton University in the USA got in touch asking if he was interested in joining its team.

Tom, who had just been made a member of Leander Club, jumped at the chance to go abroad in 2014 and took courses in politics and international relations to run alongside his rowing.

“Getting into Princeton was pretty epic,” Tom recalls. “There are not a lot of days like that in rowing, it was such a good feeling to know they wanted to invest in me as a person and as an athlete, it was a moment of elation.

“When I went to the States, I had to have a club to represent back in the UK and that became Leander, which I’m really proud of. The club has such a rich history and it’s great to be able to represent it, it’s something that is really important to me.”

It is particularly important to him because his grandfather John George was a social member of Leander. “He was a member for a long time,” Tom says. “I was really happy to be able to share something like this with him.

“Growing up I’ve always been aware of the club’s history and the support you get from Leander is unbelievable — it makes being an athlete a lot easier.

“The atmosphere and the way they nurture young talent makes the experience completely different from anything else. It’s not a surprise to anyone that there are so many of us on the Olympic team.”

Moving to the other side of the world to follow his passion did not feel like a massive decision at the time.  “I went to boarding school, so the transition was similar,” says Tom. “It was quite easy as I knew it was only going to be for four years.

“I think it was always an option to stay in the US, I sometimes thought life would be pretty good there but it was never a definitive decision. I always knew it was a phase of my life and I wanted to spend as much time as I could enjoying it.”

At Princeton, he was awarded “academic distinction” for his performance in 2015 and won bronze in the 1V, the top varsity boat made up of the fastest eight rowers, at Eastern Sprints in 2017. 

Tom was first chosen to represent Great Britain in 2012 at the World Championships where he won a bronze medal in the junior men’s eight and in 2016 he won a silver medal in the four at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Rotterdam.

“My team was so proud of me and getting to win a medal was really cool,” says Tom. “It was the second time competing as an under-23 and I felt I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction.”

His senior international debut was in 2017 in Lucerne, having just finished at Princeton. He raced with the men’s eight and came sixth. 

“It was a strange situation,” Tom recalls. “I was coming from the university environment and it all happened really quickly. I got thrown directly into it without having time to settle but it was a cool way to do it. The venue was incredible. You know all about it as a young rower and it was cool to make my debut there.”

In the 2019 World Cup he won his first gold medal with the men’s eight but then their progress was stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic which gripped the UK in March last year.

Last summer’s Olympics was postponed by a year and he had to learn to train on his own. As the country went into lockdown he moved back in with parents David and Alice in the Cotswolds.

Tom says: “As a team we had to adapt really quickly to an unforeseen situation and we started training at home and we were able to push through it.

“We managed to keep ourselves motivated and to make it happen and we are seeing the rewards of that now.”

In June last year he broke the British record for the Olympic racing distance of 2km on a rowing machine. He set a new fastest-ever time of 05:39.6 and became the first ever British rower — and eighth man ever — to break the 5:40 barrier, beating the previous GB Rowing men’s team record of 5:40 held by team-mate Mo Sbihi, who himself broke Sir Matthew Pinsent’s 11-year record in 2015.

“It was a manifestation of a period of my life where I had to adapt to training alone,” Tom says. “It was strange to train at home and alone out on my bicycle and not in a boat, but I was able to push myself to perform.

“I texted Mo in the morning to say I was going to go for it.  I told him afterwards that I did it and he said ‘honestly, fair play, I know how hard it is, congrats and enjoy it’.  To get that from someone like him who has won the Olympics was really humbling.

“It would have been really easy to just sit back as the Olympic Games were delayed by one year. It was quite incredible and it felt like an even bigger achievement, breaking the record from my parents’ shed in the Cotswolds.”

His parents David and Alice and brothers Alex and Paddy usually travel to support him in races all over the world but they won’t be able to attend the Olympics this year due to covid restrictions.

“They are a massive part of my journey and I owe them so much,” Tom says. “They are formidably supportive and if they can’t come, they watch it on TV but I usually want them there. I want people to be able to experience it in person and celebrate alongside us.

“I wish that they could come this time, too, but I need to be able to compartmentalise that, put it in a box and put it away, in order to just focus on the Olympics. I don’t want to dwell on it because there is a job that needs to be done.

“There will be other opportunities in the future to celebrate. It’s a shame not to be able to have them there, but at the end of the day we are going there to do our job.

“It’s such a small thing compared to everything that is going on, I’m just grateful that we are able to go out there and compete in the Olympic Games — not being able to take them with me is a small issue in the grand scheme of things.”  

Tom says it has been great to get back to competing again and the gold they won at the European Championships in Varese shows that they are gelling well together. The key, he says, is getting on with your team-mates. 

He will be in the boat with club-mate Jacob Dawson, Charlie Elwes, Oli Wynn-Griffith, Tom Ford and cox Henry Fieldman with Josh Bugajski, Mohamed Sbihi and James Rudkin and is confident they will do well.

“We know we are going really well,” Tom says. “We have had some very good races but you never really know until you are on the water and you do it. The biggest challenge for us was definitely last year when we were sent home and the Olympics were cancelled but we decided to put one foot in front of the other and to work hard.

“It’s easier to stay motivated when you have a great team. We came out of lockdown as better athletes.

“We have a common goal and we understand each other and I find that pretty special. If you don’t get on well as a team you can’t achieve that. They understand what it means to commit 100 per cent to it — it’s tough and you can never take it for granted and it is a massive challenge.

“We want to get a medal, we are going into it with that mindset and that is something we really want to achieve. It’s going to be hard and we need to be at our best to be able to win.”

To prepare for Tokyo, the team went to Austria to do altitude training. This consisted of eight hours of training per day. “It’s a simple and basic life,” says Tom. “Being single-minded makes it a lot easier to focus on the training and on getting better for Tokyo.

“We were in Italy before that, training on a lake which provided an 8km circuit so we could train on a longer distance.”

Tom’s interests outside rowing include coffee, art and Shakespeare and he uses these to try and “switch off” when he’s not training or competing. 

“A dark roast is probably my favourite but I enjoy trying different coffees all the time,” he says. “Drinking coffee is an event and something you can enjoy with other people, away from rowing.

“I try to read a lot as a way to switch off from rowing and if people recommend a book I try to read it and educate myself as much as I can about what goes on in the world.”

Tom says he is not looking too far ahead but says the skills he has learnt as a rower are transferable and he has thought about pursuing a career in foreign affairs.

“You have to be able to work hard in a team and as an individual and if you do both things you will succeed,” he said.

“I know my lifestyle will change but it doesn’t mean that it will be hard to transition from it. It all comes down to the question: do see yourself as a rower or as a person who is good at rowing?

“When I came back from Princeton, some of my friends had big corporate jobs and I doubted my choice but I never doubted my abilities.

“Rowing is a choice of lifestyle, no one makes you do it, you need to drive yourself to do that and everything you put into it, you’ll get out on the other side — I find that thinking about it this way makes it easier to stay motivated, it’s a calming way of looking at it.

“I don’t want to think too far ahead,” he adds. “My priority right now is being the best rower I can be. Maybe I will compete in the next Olympics or maybe I’ll go back to university — right now I’m focusing on the Olympic games and on winning.”

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