‘Science, stopwatch, and a bit of art’: GB rowers’ mission to rekindle magic

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It is a bright, chilly morning on the Redgrave Pinsent rowing lake near Caversham as, one stroke at a time, the UK’s elite rowers start to put some clear water between themselves and their disappointing performance at the Tokyo Olympics. For the first time since Moscow in 1980, an era so remote that East Germany topped the medals table on the lake, Team GB’s rowers returned home without winning one of the 14 golds on offer. Nearly £25m of mostly lottery-based funding sent 41 rowers to Japan, more than any other nation in the competition, and a silver and a bronze were all they had to show for it.

The bronze came in the men’s eight, on 30 July 2021, the final event of the regatta. It was the same day Beth Shriever, who was forced to raise £50,000 via crowdfunding to qualify for Tokyo after UK Sport initially decided not to support her, won gold in the BMX. It was also the day Josh Bugajski, one of the eight, launched a stinging attack on the legendary former coach Jürgen Gröbler, who left the programme abruptly in August 2020, describing him as someone who “destroys the souls” of some of his athletes.

It is against this backdrop of disappointment and recrimination, and a budget cut to about £22m, that British Rowing has set out on the short three-year cycle that leads to Paris in 2024. It needs to identify what went wrong in Tokyo and find solutions. And also what went right, as a foundation for rebuilding. There are new names and a fresh approach in many of the senior coaching roles, while the rolling process of team-building has brought some promising young rowers into the programme to replace veterans who have left.

Between them, they will put in untold thousands of hours of work on the road from Caversham to Paris, which will go unnoticed and unacknowledged if results do not improve. Olympic gold is the only currency that matters in the great British public’s four-yearly cost-benefit analysis.

In 1996, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent won Great Britain’s only gold medal in Atlanta; only athletics and cycling have won Britain more medals in the history of the summer Games and Team GB was the top rowing nation at the Olympics of 2008, 2012 and 2016. But Redgrave’s ambitions as a coach were stymied when he failed to make the final rounds to become director of performance after Gröbler.

Louise Kingsley, who was appointed director of performance in December, radiates enthusiasm for the job at hand. The first woman to hold the top coaching job in British rowing moved into the role after heading the Paralympic programme in Tokyo, which outperformed the Olympic squad in no uncertain terms by winning two of the four golds on offer.

“It’s a bit science and stopwatch, and a bit of art,” she says. “One of the things we look for in our head coaches is the real, deep understanding of looking to see where the magic combinations are. We can see from our data and stats where we’ve got outstanding individuals but there are only two single-sculling slots on our Olympic team. Everything else is a crew boat. So it’s about how individuals blend together, work in harmony, physically, psychologically, technically, in order to find the magic.”

‘Erg’ scores, from individual performances on hi-tech rowing machines, play a part in the process, but no more than that.

Louise Kingsley, British Rowing director of performance.
Louise Kingsley, British Rowing director of performance. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

“When you watch crews going around, there are some crews that just click,” Kingsley says. “Many of our historic coxless fours, yes, we’ve had the powerhouses in there, the big guys with big lung capacities, big VO2 maxes, massive erg scores, but then the fourth person in the crews is the crew-maker, who harnesses them together in a way that brings out the best in everyone. So it’s not always about putting the four biggest erg scores in a boat and that being the fastest.”

It is 18 months since Gröbler last supervised the training and crew-building at Caversham but the sense of his legacy is everywhere. Crews under his wing brought in 33 medals in eight Olympic Games. The national training complex – something that few Olympic sports can enjoy – is named after the pair who won gold in Barcelona in 1992, launching the former East Germany coach’s second golden age, with Team GB. Visitors arrive at the door along Gröbler’s Way.

But even before Bugajski’s post-race criticism, Gröbler’s sudden departure after so many years of sustained success had raised questions about whether an uncompromising approach to training was appropriate for a modern Olympic programme. While some athletes undoubtedly thrived under his supervision, were others perhaps paying an unacceptable price for their success?

The current team of coaches cannot escape or deny Gröbler’s influence, and nor would they want to. Equally, there is recognition the programme is moving with the times.

A men’s eight on the water during a training session.
A men’s eight on the water during a training session. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

“Jürgen’s legacy, his track record and his results are just unparalleled anywhere in the world,” Kingsley says. “But as with all things, there comes a natural end and a time to move on. Have we had an easy transition? No. Would Jürgen being here for the Tokyo Games have guaranteed that we would have been up the top of the medal table? No. If we look closely at the results we’ve had since Rio, we failed to perform throughout the whole cycle and Jürgen was here for a significant part of that.

“Times are changing, the athletes that we are working with are changing and we have to adapt and evolve. That’s not to say that we can be soft, because we absolutely cannot be soft.

“Rowing is a hard, tough sport, we have to do the training and the athletes are hungry to do the training, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the training and push boundaries while looking after the individuals as people.”

Tom Barras, one of the men’s quadruple sculls team who won silver in Tokyo, in the gym at the national training complex.
Tom Barras, one of the men’s quadruple sculls team who won silver in Tokyo, in the gym at the national training complex. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

Paul Stannard, who was appointed head coach of the men’s Olympic team in January, was responsible for the team that took a first medal for Team GB in quadruple sculls with a silver in Tokyo. “I believe Jürgen got a lot of things right and the approach has to be similar,” he says.

“I’m probably more reserved but the guys are hugely competitive and internal competition is crucial. We had a very young and inexperienced team [in Tokyo] and the amount of expectation and pressure on people was pretty high. Rightly so, but in some cases they let it get to them a bit.

“Particularly with a three-year cycle, what we’re having to do is pretty intense and what I hope I can get across to the whole team is that there isn’t a lot of time.”

Bugajski, who attracted fierce criticism from other members of the eight for his comments about Gröbler, remains part of the process and recently finished first in the pair with Matt Aldridge at the GB team trials. “Things have moved on so much since Tokyo,” he says. “Emotions were high and in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the right time to air my feelings. All these months later I do feel proud to have medalled in the men’s eight with my crewmates and now want to push on and try to improve that result in Paris.

Josh Bugajski and other members of the men’s rowing eight after winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics
Josh Bugajski (second row, left) and other members of the men’s rowing eight after winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Pim Waslander/DPPI/LiveMedia/Shutterstock

“There have been lots of positive changes at Caversham, with Louise as the new director of performance and Paul Stannard as our new men’s Olympic head coach. It feels like the start of an exciting new era for the GB rowing team and I’m in a much happier place and have been training well.”

Stannard says: “In that moment, Josh said what he felt. You judge people on how they act and at the moment he’s doing a cracking job in a pair, trying for the team for next season. If he said something in the press, he said something in the press, and you’ve got to move forward with it. If I can help him be the best athlete he can possibly be, then I’ll do that.”

There were some fine margins involved in coming up short in Japan, as Rowan McKellar, who just missed out on a medal in her first Olympics, can testify. The experience, she hopes, will come to be seen as part of the process of working towards success in Paris rather than two steps back from the rowers’ golden years.

A pre-training talk for members of the Team GB women’s rowing squad
A pre-training talk for members of the Team GB women’s rowing squad. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

“It’s quite a big load on your shoulders, coming into what’s been the most successful team for however many Olympics,” she says. “And we lost so many people after Rio that it was a mountain to climb to get us back to the same point, but it wasn’t like we just crashed and burned at the Olympics. We had some really unfortunate performances and if we’d got all those fourth places to third, and some were milliseconds off, that would have changed the whole tone. It was disappointing, but it could be a really good stepping stone.

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“It was a really young team and we’ll have a lot more experience going into Paris from those of us who will stick around after Tokyo.”

A chance to get the full Olympic experience next time around is another incentive during the three sessions a day, six days a week training regime that elite rowing demands.

“I loved the experience and the Village was really cool,” McKellar says, “but everyone who’d been to Rio was saying: ‘Don’t take that as the full Olympic experience.’ In Paris, the whole thing will be even better.”