Britain's `iron man' sets sights on Sydney

He'll row, row, row his boat once more in hopes of fifth gold

May 01, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England -- When the greatest rower of them all won a last Olympic race in 1996, he huffed and puffed, and he said, "If you see me anywhere near a boat, you can shoot me."

Well, he's back.

This is Steven Redgrave, 38, going on Olympic immortality.

He beats the pain of a brutal sport and turns back the challenge of rowing kids who come at him like baby sharks in a tank.

Injuries don't stop him.

Diabetes can't ground him.

He's like Cal Ripken with an oar, the iron man plying a daily trade, bound to a team.

Redgrave is the first rower -- and among an elite six that includes sprinter Carl Lewis and discus thrower Al Oerter -- to win gold medals in four successive Olympics.

And he's aiming for an unparalleled endurance-sport achievement by trying to win a fifth successive gold at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in September. Only a Hungarian fencer named Aladar Gerevich has won more successive golds -- six stretched in Olympic Games from 1932 to 1960.

This year, Redgrave will compete in the four-without-coxswain event, a brutal water ballet where 60 seconds can seem like a lifetime for four powerful athletes, as oars are pulled 36 times and hearts race above 175 beats.

Just as much as Redgrave needs the Olympics, the Olympics may need him.

The Games are supposed to be about the making of athletic heroes, the bringing together of the young in the name of sports. But the lead-up to Sydney has been filled with tales of corruption in the high-stakes competition among cities to host the 2002 Winter Games, and the frustrating quest to stamp out performance-enhancing drugs.

It takes a hard-working, blunt-speaking Englishman to put the Games and their travails in perspective.

"For me, the Olympics is the biggest event we can do," he says. "I don't take drugs. I'm not corrupt."

Case closed.

The Olympic throwback with thinning light brown hair, gray eyes and log-like thighs can be found at a gabled boathouse hard by a broad, elegant bridge that crosses the Thames River about 40 miles west of London.

This is the Leander Club, where the glass cabinets hold silver trophies cast before America's Civil War and where the walls are adorned with old oars and portraits of past presidents dressed in blue blazers.

On the river and in the weight room, come rain or shine, Redgrave and his teammates tirelessly work out.

In the bar, there is a picture of Redgrave and his teammate Matthew Pinsent, gold medals draped over their necks, after winning the gold in the pairs-without-coxswain race in Atlanta in 1996. (The coxswain is a steersman who directs the crew.)

The British flag that flew that day in the medal ceremony is neatly folded in a glass case nailed to a pillar.

In a nearby dining room, the champions are having breakfast after a brisk morning workout of rowing 12 miles on a river running high and fast. Redgrave sips a cold drink and gingerly eats one of his six meals of the day, a bowl of oatmeal with steamed milk.

Redgrave and his teammates, Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell row in excess of 120 miles a week on the Thames and rarely take a day off.

"I block out the other races and other Games and other championships," Redgrave says. "You're aiming for something you haven't done. The goal is to win a gold medal in Sydney. The challenge is ahead. I don't think about what is behind. There is no point going over it."

But Redgrave's tale is part hard work, part inspiration, played out on the banks and in the river that sweeps by his hometown in nearby Marlow.

He's the blue-collar performer in a blue-blood sport, the carpenter's son who struggled with dyslexia and left school at 16.

Strong and powerful, he played soccer and rugby in school. But it was an English teacher who started Redgrave rowing in 1976.

He won his first Olympic gold in 1984 in the four-with-coxswain event. Then he switched to the coxless pairs, winning in three straight Olympics, the last two with Pinsent. They were the old British class system melted down and reformed, the working-class Redgrave and the Oxford-educated Pinsent winning 61 straight races.

But after Redgrave's last Olympic gold in Atlanta, it was time to quit. Or, so Redgrave first thought and blurted out, after years of pressure culminated in one magnificent win in the searing Georgia heat.

How long did it take him to reverse the decision?

"In my mind, two days," he says. "Verbally, four months."

He says his wife, Ann, the British rowing team's doctor, didn't want him to carry on. But in the end, he says, she was supportive.

Redgrave and Pinsent decided they needed a new challenge, moving up to the bigger boat, preparing for the next Olympics.

After winning a world title in the coxless fours, Redgrave's comeback nearly ended in the fall of 1997, when he discovered he had diabetes. He now takes up to six insulin injections daily.

"When I was first diagnosed, I thought, that was the end of my career," he says. "But the specialist I was under didn't think there was any reason I couldn't compete at that level. To me, the challenge was to carry on, to set myself a target. If people say I can still do it, I give it a go."

So, he did, learning how to deal with his condition as he trained.

The single-minded persistence that has sustained him for more than half his life, drives him on to one last big race.

Or will Sydney really be his swan song?

By 2004, Redgrave would be 42.

Redgrave, who often jokes that he has never worked a day in life, remains vague about his future. With a sponsorship deal, sideline as a motivational speaker, and upcoming autobiography, he is able to make a decent living to help support his wife and three children.

"It may be over this year," he says. "Who knows?"

But, mindful of a past retirement declaration, he smiles and says, "No one will believe me if I say I'll stop, anyway."

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