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The Enduring Brit

Redgrave Has His Sights Set on a Fifth Consecutive Gold Medal in Rowing

September 15, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

SYDNEY, Australia — The 1996 British Olympic team won a single gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

A great sporting nation had fallen to such depths that it was left with a pair of rowers, athletes competing in a sport of true amateurs, a sport about which so very few people care, who gave England its only Olympic triumph.

And then the star of that pair, a bullishly strong 34-year-old man named Steven Redgrave, whose eyes were sunken in exhaustion, whose strong right arm could barely be raised in triumph, looked at the world and said, "Anyone who sees me go anywhere near a boat again, ever, you've got my permission to shoot me."

Redgrave is in a boat again but, please, put away the guns. They aren't allowed in Australia anyway. Redgrave, 38 now, is a diabetic, taking six insulin shots a day. He also suffers from chronic colitis, a painful, debilitating intestinal disease.

But Redgrave is here, aiming to win a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. In 1988 Redgrave won gold in the British four with coxswain. In 1992 and 1996 he won in a pair. This year Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent--Redgrave's partner from 1996--and two others will row in a four without coxswain.

Only Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich, who won six successive golds in the war-interrupted period of 1932-1960, has done better.

Fencing isn't an endurance sport though. Fencing doesn't demand that you push your body until you're sick to your stomach. At the 1996 Games an American rower, Mike Peterson, crossed the finish line unconscious. He had passed out in exhaustion in the final 100 meters.

Rowers are up before dawn every day and then back on the water until dusk every night.

It can be argued that there is no sport more rigorous than rowing. There are days when a corpse has more color in his cheeks, more life in his eyes than Redgrave.

"Rowing for me, it's not just a way of life, it's my work," Redgrave says.

He looks drawn and tired now, four days before the rowing events begin. There has been some grumbling in the British camp that Redgrave should not be in the four, that he is a drag to Pinsent, who is acknowledged as Britain's finest rower now. But Redgrave will not acknowledge the criticism in any way except to row harder.

Why did he come back? Redgrave is asked that every day. He has fought illness and exhaustion. He is married to Anne, a doctor, and he has three children. Rowing is not a sport where you get rich. Not even in England, where rowing is part of the river life. Redgrave will never be a British sporting hero in the same way as a soccer player or cricket player or tennis player could be. People hear his name and assume, erroneously, that he is the son of Vanessa Redgrave, that he gains his fame by being the son of an actress, by being a layabout living off his mother.

But Redgrave keeps rowing. Why?

"Every muscle, every fiber of a body is pushed to its limits," Redgrave says. "I've now blocked out all the other races and all the other Olympic Games and championships I've won. You're aiming for something you haven't done. A gold medal in Sydney.

"It doesn't matter what you've done before. It's nice having the confidence of the challenges ahead."

Pinsent says that Redgrave is not thinking about a fifth gold medal. "It would put too much pressure on you to think about five," he says.

It was pressure, Redgrave says, that drove him to make the retirement statement in Atlanta.

"The pressure, the intensity, the whole situation building up from winning in Barcelona," Redgrave says, "we definitely wanted to carry on for four years after 1992. But it all built up before Atlanta. As the race got closer and closer, and all these people expected us to win, and the British team was awful, it was putting more and more pressure on us to get the gold.

"I was tired and I was pretty certain when I went out for that race that that was going to be it, that I wasn't going to row again."

It was less than three months after the Atlanta Games when Redgrave changed his mind about retiring. A year later he was being diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic.

"I do produce a little bit of insulin myself, but I am being treated as a Type 1, insulin dependent, because of my training," Redgrave says. "I can't go on the diabetic diet because of the food and energy I need to train. I take injections whenever I eat, about six times a day.

"I thought this was the end of my rowing career. But my specialist said there was no reason I couldn't compete on the same level I had been used to. The challenge for me was to carry on with this new lifestyle. There are no athletes anywhere in the world who compete in endurance sports at this level with diabetes. So there was no form guide to follow."

Redgrave is the son of a plasterer. He was not born of high class and wasn't always accepted into the rowing society that is so much entwined with the exclusive Oxford and Cambridge universities. He forced his way into rowing's clubby inner circles.

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