Seeking medal, testing mettle Rower: Britain's Steven Redgrave is trying to become the first in his sport to win gold at four consecutive Olympics.

July 11, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England -- Oh, the things people have done with Steven Redgrave's rowing medals.

Movie big shots borrowed his first World Championship gold medal for a few days of filming, and returned it with a ribbon horribly twisted.

And there was that fund-raiser in Atlanta, where a few forgetful folks "accidentally" pocketed Redgrave's three Olympic golds and his bronze. Prodding from an announcer unearthed the golds, but it took a few days for the bronze to reappear in a plain brown envelope.

"No name. No phone number," says Redgrave.

Is this any way to treat the rower of the century? Of course not. But Redgrave isn't complaining -- he's returning to Atlanta to try to make history at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Redgrave's aim is to become the first rower to win golds at four consecutive Olympics. The feat has been accomplished by three other Olympians -- Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrom and American discus thrower Al Oerter each won golds in four consecutive Olympics, and Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich's gold-medal streak stretched through six Olympics from 1932 to 1960.

On Lake Lanier, Redgrave and his partner Matthew Pinsent will try to retain the title in the pair without coxswain. In this 2,000-meter test, the oarsmen ride shells that are like floating balance beams and pull as one through the water.

"If there is one unanimous favorite to win a rowing gold medal -- and there is only one -- it's Redgrave and Pinsent," says Mike Peterson, who will team with Adam Holland in the U.S. pair.

Redgrave is the legend, Pinsent is the heir apparent. Their pairing is fascinating because it plays to all the supposed class distinctions that often still color British society. Redgrave, 34, is working class, a builder's son who left school at 16. Pinsent, 25, is upper class, attending Eton and Oxford, the bastions of the British education and rowing establishments.

But neither man dwells on his roots, saying that rowing's class war was fought and decided decades ago. Heart is what counts on the Thames, the river that has challenged generations of British rowers.

"There isn't a lot of hype in this sport," Redgrave says. "It's very down-to-earth people who are good and not arrogant in their manner. You can always get knocked back."

Redgrave's home is the river town of Marlow, just a few miles from Henley, where each year the rowing world gathers for a regatta that is part social occasion, part athletic spectacle. Redgrave and Pinsent train at Henley's Leander Club, a gorgeous, old place that sits on the river banks. Yet while club members dine on fine china upstairs, Redgrave and Pinsent are in the dank basement, lifting weights in a grimy room between sessions on the river.

But the men don't complain about the work. They relish rowing's pain, which is etched on their calloused hands.

For Redgrave, rowing is an obsession. He has a wife and two kids, but here he is, the years gone by, his blond hair thinning, and he's still out on the river, riding a shell.

Redgrave took up the sport in high school and discovered that it was an antidote to his difficulties in the classroom, where dyslexia put him at a disadvantage.

"When you're dyslexic, you become adjustable in some ways," Redgrave says. "You get around situations. And if you find something you're quite good at you take it as far as you can."

For Redgrave, his first Olympics nearly became his last. In 1984 in Los Angeles, he claimed a gold in the four oared shell with coxswain, returned home, and decided to become a single sculler. But he failed, injuring his back so severely he once had to be lifted from a boat. So Redgrave toyed with the idea of quitting and becoming a bobsled pusher in 1985. But he was too scared to tell his parents, so he went back to the river, and found his niche in the rowing world.

He became the indestructible oarsmen, outlasting partners, outlasting old rivals like the East Germans who melded ito the background after the Berlin Wall fell. He got gold in the coxless pairs and bronze in the coxed pairs in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.

"I just got out of the boat and walked away," Redgrave's rowing partner, Andrew Holmes, said. "Steve just cannot be able to do that. He'll go on competitively until he drops."

In 1990, Redgrave teamed with Pinsent, a junior star who was untested on the senior level. Redgrave worked him hard, even training at night on the Thames to get acclimated to the start time for the 1990 World Championships in Tasmania. Pinsent passed the initiation and the team finished third at the worlds.

A year later, a former East German coach, Jurgen Grobler,

arrived in Britain, and toughened the rowers. At first, the coach and the rowers had trouble communicating.

"His coaching approach was weird," Pinsent said. "He expected an iron-clad German system. He couldn't understand how people had jobs. How there was no money. The first thing he asked for was a meeting with the Sports Minister. Well, in Britain, a sports minister has nothing to do with sports."

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