Steven Redgrave knew a fraud when he heard one. As he slumped in
his chair during the press conference after the coxless fours
rowing event, the greatest oarsman in history fingered the
unprecedented fifth gold medal he had won in five Olympics and
spoke with disdain about the man who had insisted 10 minutes
earlier to TV reporters that, at 38, he was retiring. "I don't
believe it," Redgrave said. "I just can't believe a word I say
anymore.... What I just told you--you know me by now--ain't
worth two bits."
After he had won his fourth gold, at the 1996 Games, Redgrave
told reporters, "If anyone sees me getting into a boat ever
again, you have my permission to shoot me." He was back in a boat
Few athletes have pursued their craft with Redgrave's desire. He
took up rowing at 14 and dropped out of school at 16, beginning a
22-year run of six-day-a-week, five-hour-a-day training sessions.
That's 22 years of watching the dawn break, replenishing sturdy
legs with lactic acid and parting with breakfast over the side of
the boat. Why? "It has given me my passion," Redgrave says of
rowing. "Everyone should have a passion."
If rowing has given value to Redgrave's life, he in turn has
ennobled the gentleman's pursuit with his workingman's
dedication. His run of golds began in the coxed fours in 1984. In
'88 he won the coxless pairs with Andrew Holmes, but the two
split after it became clear that Holmes's desire didn't match
Redgrave's. A second partner, Simon Berrisford, dropped out of
rowing with a bad back in '89.
Then Redgrave met Matthew Pinsent, a vicar's son who was educated
at Oxford and had recently been promoted from the juniors. The
two shared nothing but a love of rowing, yet that was enough to
make them inseparable. When fans would ask Redgrave, who is
dyslexic, to write a special inscription with his autograph, he
sometimes called on Pinsent to watch over him so he wouldn't
reverse the letters. They won the coxless pairs at the '88
Barcelona and the '96 Atlanta Games and won 61 consecutive races
before switching to the coxless fours in late 1996.
Some pundits criticized that move and others that they saw as
concessions to Redgrave's dwindling skills. He immediately moved
into the three oar of the new boat, surrendering his sweep, or
lead, position to Pinsent. The British team kept talented sweep
rowers Tim Foster and James Cracknell out of other boats to
strengthen the coxless fours.
Redgrave's run at history then got bumpy. After the 1996 Games he
was diagnosed with diabetes, colitis and appendicitis. His wife,
Ann, a former rower and the British team doctor, saw to his
insulin shots six times a day and dropped hints to Steven about
finding a new career or spending more time with their three
children. In July the Brits placed a shocking fourth at a regatta
in Zurich. "That defeat fed his drive," Pinsent says of Redgrave.
"He didn't speak it, but you could sense it, the intensified zeal
to win in Sydney."
Britain's approach to the Olympic final seemed simple enough:
Stay within striking range of the quick-starting Italians and
find the reserves to rally in the last half of the 2,000-meter
race. "That was conventional strategy," Redgrave says. "And to it
we said, 'Ballocks.'" Instead, the Brits pulled to a stunning
lead of nearly half a boat length at 250 meters and maintained it
for the rest of a superbly even race. Redgrave's teammates raised
their arms after the finish, but he assumed no victory pose. He
slumped over the side of the boat and, as Foster put it, "tossed
the tomatoes." An hour later Britain's greatest Olympian faced
questions about his future. "Apart from taking my kids to
Disney," he said, "I've not made a single plan to adjust to the
end of my rowing career."
This time everyone believed him.