Rowing blazed a trail for Great Britain team

12 August 2012 / 12:55

After Britain won their only gold medal of the 1996 Olympics in rowing, chief coach Jurgen Grobler, Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave were called to Downing Street to meet the then prime minister.

The invitation was not extended out of congratulations but out of an urgent need for their advice on how the government could address the state of British Olympic sport.

The following year, British athletes began to receive direct funding from the National Lottery, allowing them to train as full-time athletes. The results have been remarkable.

In rowing specifically, Britain enjoyed their most successful ever Olympic regatta in London, winning four golds in a stunning haul of nine medals from an unprecedented 13 finals.

For the first time ever, Britain also have female Olympic rowing champions, confirming 2012 as another landmark year for the sport in this country.

"We have had a fabulous campaign. To get four golds, two silvers and three bronzes is something special for a modern Olympic regatta," said GB Rowing performance director David Tanner.

"I'm proud too of our 13 finalist boats but the thrill has been our medals.

"We have been so strong and so much stronger than any other nation which is a source of great pride and pleasure."

After four days of waiting, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning got the ball rolling for the whole of Team GB by winning the first home gold of the Games.

"As soon as we crossed the line we realised there was a lot of expectation on us. We realised people were waiting for that," said Glover, who only started rowing four years ago.

"It was for the whole of the (British) team and the whole of the country. We hope this is the start of things to come from the Great Britain team."

It certainly was. The Team GB gold rush had begun. And the rowing world looked on enviously.

"The British team, no one would dispute, have been really clever and very intelligent in how they use their money," said Matt Smith, executive director of world governing body FISA.

"The result is fantastic team leadership, fantastic coaches and great athletes who have had the platform built under them to perform.

"Everyone is jealous like hell of how smart and intelligent they've been and how much money they have.

"I never thought my sport would have so much money, that there would be so much professionalism."

Stanning and Glover were followed into the golden circle by Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins, who crowned three unbeaten years with a heart-warming triumph in the double sculls.

For Grainger, it was coronation day for the queen of British rowing as she finally added an Olympic gold to her three successive silver medals.

"It is the fulfilment of a lot of hard work. Blood, sweat and tears," Grainger said.

Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking continued the success for British women by winning gold in the lightweight double sculls, the most unexpected home triumph of the four and celebrated so memorably.

"We have just won the Olympics," exclaimed Copeland. "We are going to be on a stamp!"

While Britain's women broke new ground, the men's four extended the red, white and blue dynasty in the event by defeating arch-rivals Australia to claim a fourth consecutive Olympic title.

Pete Reed, Andrew Triggs Hodge and Tom James are all now double Olympic champions while Alex Gregory added the gold medal to the world title he won in the four last year.

It was the grudge match of the regatta, with the Australians indulging in some pre-race mind games by suggesting the British crew were intimidated by their drag-race tactics.

Britain hammered the message home as emphatically as they could, putting together what Hodge described as "a masterpiece" of a race to lead Australia for the whole two kilometre course.

"What we did took guts," said Reed, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

"We did exactly what we said we were going to do. When what you say you are going to do is so far beyond what you think you can do, it takes bravery.

"Double Olympic champion, I can't believe it!"

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase were inconsolable after losing their lightweight double title to Denmark in the last few strokes of an epic race.

The pain was so raw that BBC interviewer John Inverdale struggled to hold back the tears as they apologised for letting people down, a reaction entirely at odds with the national outpouring of pride.

The lightweight four of brothers Richard and Peter Chambers, Rob Williams and Chris Bartley were also edged into silver in another thrilling sprint for the line.

Purchase and Hunter's reaction epitomised the winning attitude that now pervades throughout the GB Rowing set-up.

The men's eight could have settled for silver but they wanted gold.

The British crew decided to take on the Germans, who had been unbeaten in four years, and ended up sacrificing that silver to the more steady-paced Canadians and taking bronze.

Alan Campbell rowed himself to a stand-still to claim a commendable bronze in the single-scull and the newly-formed pair of Will Satch and George Nash also won an unexpected bronze, completing a record medal haul.

"There was big expectation and what I have seen here is far, far beyond what I was expecting," said Grobler. "It is just great."