Saturday, 23 January 2021

Satch’s mental and physical fight to reach Tokyo 2020

Satch’s mental and physical fight to reach Tokyo 2020

A SERIOUS injury and months of rehabilitation haven’t dashed Will Satch’s hopes of winning his second Olympic gold medal.

The 30-year-old says he still has a strong chance of competing for Britain at Tokyo next year despite having severed a tendon in his right shoulder while training.

Satch, a former vice-captain of Leander Club in Henley, is now back on the water following a six-month absence and competed as part of a GB men’s coxless four at the World Cup II in Poznan, Poland, a fortnight ago.

The development squad, which also comprised Leander’s Adam Neill, Tom Jeffery and Alan Sinclair, was knocked out in its semi-final.

This was Satch’s first event since the incident in November , which happened on the final day of a training camp in Spain.

He and his team-mates were testing their “one rep max”, in which they had to judge the heaviest weight they could lift only once, and he overestimated how high he could go.

While carrying out the manoeuvre lying on his back, the tendon attaching his pectoralis major — or chest muscle — to his right shoulder-blade was torn clean from the bone.

His arm became so loose that the top of his shoulder was practically level with his right ear.

He said: “We’re properly coached and there’s certainly no pressure to overdo it but I’ve always had that strength in my upper body and can usually throw the weights up because I used to play rugby back in the day.

“I got it a bit wrong on that day, which is an easy mistake when you’re around your mates. Again, you don’t feel like you have to but you can get too confident. I can’t remember what weight I was lifting but it was bloody heavy!

“I knew something was wrong straight away because I felt the tendon go. There wasn’t a lot of pain in the way you might expect but I was sick immediately and in shock.”

Officials treated the area with ice to stop it from becoming inflamed, which would have worsened things, until he could see an expert at the Circle Hospital in Reading the following day.

Doctors surgically reattached the muscle a few days later then the slow process of recovery began.

At first Satch could barely open a door with his right arm and could only ride on an exercise bike at his flat in Watlington for up to 20 minutes a few times a week.

However, he gradually increased this to up to an hour a day while carefully introducing light weight-lifting to build up strength and stability in the damaged area.

He has regular physiotherapy sessions and soft tissue massages at the hospital and the Olympic Association’s centre at Bisham Abbey, where he also consulted a sports psychologist to help him pace himself.

To ensure his recovery, he takes supplements and has heat treatments to regenerate the tissue and must lift a few weights before training sessions at the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Caversham.

Satch, who won gold stroking the GB men’s eight at Rio in 2016, got back on a rowing machine in April but would only row lightly and for short distances until he felt able to push himself a little more.

After discussions with chief coach Jurgen Grobler, he got back in a boat for the first time in mid-May.

He said: “We decided to test the water, if you like, as I’d been setting some new personal records on the bike and was getting that stability back in the shoulder.

“It was always going to be a shock coming back into a boat but it has been quite nice and it’s almost a novelty to row again despite it being my job.

“It’s strangely refreshing, as though I’ve taken one step back but then two steps forward.

“Six months feels like a long time but I know a rugby player who was out of action for a year after a similar injury so actually it has been quite quick. I was originally looking at this year being a write-off.

“Training for Poznan was tough and a bit strange because the goal is normally straightforward — it’s a major event so you want to win.

“But while I wasn’t taking it easy and was set to give it my best, the training this time was mostly about getting fit again and coming back to the sport.

“I’ve adjusted pretty well. I’m a very competitive person and always want to be the best but at the same time I’m getting pleasure from rowing for the first time in several years.

“I’ve been so focused on setting higher and higher standards for myself that it’s nice just to be on the water even when the weather’s s**t!

“The fastest way is to just get back into it, assuming you’re ready, and it can be hard to swallow when you’re driven to be on top of everything.

“I’m having to take a lot of precautions like the massages and conditioning exercises as this could be something I carry for the rest of my career.

“The camaraderie and friendships I’ve built with the team have been very helpful. When you surround yourself with your mates, things seem to just click into place.

“It’s easy just to be yourself, mess about a bit, bounce things off other people and forget about other

Satch, a former Shiplake College pupil who started rowing for Upper Thames Rowing Club in Henley when he was 14, is not competing at this year’s Henley Royal Regatta but could enter the World Rowing Championships in Ottensheim, Austria, at the end of next month.

He is also targeting the Olympics in Japan next summer.

“I’m really excited to be part of the action again, wherever that may be happening,” he said. “My main objective is to win gold at Tokyo, however I get to that point.

“It’s very easy to just tick along when you’re winning because there’s that momentum but you can start to doubt yourself when you lose, especially when you’re a red-blooded male and quick to judge yourself.

“We’ve been building a great crew over the past few years after the last round of retirements and it’s a fantastic group.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t enjoy great success but it has definitely been a different and unexpected pathway for me.

“Olympic selection always comes quite late so it can’t be guaranteed but I’m potentially stronger than I’ve ever been.

“I’ve got huge aerobic capacity on the bike but need to make it more specific to rowing. Endurance peaks at 31 so there’s no reason I couldn’t be at my best by next year.”

Satch struggled with low moods after his operation because he had just split up with his girlfriend of five years and exercising had been his way of coping.

He also could not drive, which made it harder to see friends.

He began seeing a counsellor regularly, which he says was helpful, as well as unwinding at the Nirvana spa in

He said: “I was in a sling for the first month and suddenly found myself having entire days alone in my flat.

“I really struggled and would say it was a pretty dark couple of months. I felt like the carpet had been pulled from underneath me and, if anything, it was my fault and nobody else’s.

“My counsellor was wonderful and really helped me to get through that situation. For me, the most helpful thing was accepting that I wasn’t happy and beginning to speak to someone about that.

“I did that around some public speaking engagements which got me back out there and before I knew it I was able to exercise again.

“I pushed up to an hour on the bike pretty quickly, probably more so than I should have done, but I really needed the endorphins.

“The GB squad was very understanding and just checked in with me regularly as they knew there was no benefit for anyone in pushing me to come back too soon.

“Recovery has been a gradual, ongoing process but I’m in a much better place. I’ve always been the kind of person to bury my head in the sand and pretend everything is fine so opening up can knock you back at first but it’s the sensible thing in the long run.

“There are still good days and bad days but, as much it has become a bit of a cliché, it’s so important to seek help for your mental health if you need it.

“You can see someone for your muscles, joints or tendons but everything you do stems from the mind so it’s the sensible thing to do.”

He said he was grateful to be living near his mother Sally, a rowing coach at Shiplake College who lives in Reading Road, Henley, and supported him throughout his recovery. “She’s my rock and an absolute angel and has always been there for me,” he said.

“I’ve also been doing bits for Leander Club, who have been very helpful as well. I decided to do a bit of training down there when the guys were in Europe and found it very refreshing as it’s like a home from home.”

Satch’s latest struggle follows a heart operation early last year to treat atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes a fast and irregular rhythm for days at a time.

He spent three weeks recovering and at first could barely walk five minutes before feeling light-headed and out of breath.

He also underwent a hip operation after the Olympics in London in 2012, where he won gold as part of a coxless pair.

Satch has forged a successful career despite having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD.

The neurological condition, with which he was diagnosed as a child, can have different symptoms but sufferers often experience restlessness, difficulty concentrating and impulsiveness.

Many take medication but Satch’s mother opposed this, instead encouraging him to blow off excess energy through exercise.

He said: “Over the last few months I’ve hopefully become more mentally resilient. It has been a struggle to get on top of my injuries and my mind but there’s nothing else to fix so I should be fine!

“When I was at pre-school I had to run a few times around the rugby pitch before I would settle down and later I had to walk the dog before I could focus on my homework.

“That’s why I love rowing — you come back off the water and feel like you’ve achieved more than anyone else that day before you’ve even had your full English.

“I was never that successful as a junior rower, mostly because I played rugby, and I lost every race I did for about four years but that grit, competitiveness and my great upbringing helped.

“I don’t ever give up and if there’s something I want I’ll keep grinding and grinding until I get it.

“That can be stupid in some situations, of course, but it’s very effective in others. Ten years after leaving school I was an Olympic champion so my perseverance seems to have paid off!

“I always set small targets and when you’re injured those can be very small indeed. However, you’ve got to walk before you can run — it all adds up and before you know it you’re back on top again.

“It’s quite selfish but I’m always trying to better myself step by step. Athletes have that real need to be achieving, which is why they’re annoying and hard work but also hard workers. We have to be, especially in rowing, as you’re talking maybe 90 per cent training to 10 per cent racing.

“It’s about missing funerals and weddings, giving up on time with your loved ones, relationship breakdowns — you name it.

“I think it’s worth it as it’s better than a proper job — not that I’ve ever had one!”

* Main photo courtesy of

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