In Grob we trust! Legend coach back with rowing team to take on the world
01:56 GMT, 28 July 2012
They have long since put on hold careers such as soldier, Treasury official, PE teacher or prison officer to come together as what has been proclaimed ‘the best team British rowing has brought to the Games’.
That was the description applied this week by performance director David Tanner to the group of 47 athletes who will row down the 2,000-metre lanes at Eton Dorney in pursuit of their place in history.
At the top end of the course, sheep grazing in nearby fields will be visible. Then, as the muscles start to burn, the rowers will soon enough hit a wall of sound when approaching the corridor of huge metal stands housing 20,000 spectators. It will be a sporting theatre of very British contrasts.
Going for gold: The men's coxless fours look set to be among the medals
If Tanner is right, this man-made lake will contain a rich seam of medals for GB. Rowing is the only sport that has delivered at least one gold to Britain in every Olympics since 1984 and the last three Games have seen the tally of medals go from three to four to a haul of six in Beijing four years ago.
GB rowing fans use the phrase ‘In Grob we trust’, putting their faith in the famed ability of head coach Jurgen Grobler to bring his crews to peak at the right time.
The current crop of rowers do not enjoy the same profile as the country’s cyclists, but if things go well they could come close to making a similarly weighty contribution to Great Britain’s aggregate total of medals.
‘We are never going to have the fantastic year-on-year things like the Tour de France, and none of us are going to be buying mansions off the back of this, but we accept our lot,’ says Andy Triggs Hodge, stroke of the coxless four and, with his shock of blond hair, one of the more recognisable figures.
Main man: Coach Jurgen Grobler
‘But in terms of high performance and commitment we are up there with anybody. This is what we’ve been working for and there is a great feeling in the squad.’
The four has been the symbol of British excellence since Sydney 2000, seeing off all-comers at each Olympics and three of them — Triggs Hodge, Pete Reed and Tom James — are back to defend their title. (Incongruously, the other from 2008, Steve Williams, was last seen winning the final of Dancing On Ice Goes Gold).
They won by dramatically rowing down the Australians in the last 250 metres, although those same rivals believe they can reverse that result this year, with some Ashes-style sledging from veteran Drew Ginn spicing things up.
Ginn maintains that the GB four were ‘scared as hell’ by losing the most recent World Cup in Munich six weeks ago, when the Australians beat them in the semis and final.
A mixed bag of British performances in Germany slightly dampened original expectations that the home Games will bring a bumper haul, with the cognoscenti believing the count is likely to end up being between six and eight medals of different colours.
None of Grobler’s gold medal-winning crews have ever won the main regatta preceding the Olympics, so Munich may not be an accurate form guide. Since then there have been training camps in Austria and Portugal, designed to bring out the best when it matters most.
If anyone is most favoured for gold, possibly in any sport involving GB, it is the women’s double scull of Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger, who have proved unbeatable in the past three years.
There will not be a dry eye in the house next Friday if the immensely popular Grainger ends up with something better than the silver medals she has taken home from the last three Olympics.
Less conspicuously in the pairs, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have emerged from opposite ends of the kingdom — they were born in Cornwall and Scotland respectively — as genuine chances for a gold after an excellent build-up and they are first off in Saturday morning’s heats.
The latter, an all-round sportswoman who enjoys sailing and surfboarding, is a Sandhurst-trained Royal Artillery officer who could find herself in Afghanistan before the end of the year.
Golden girls: Heather Stanning (right) and Helen Glover have enjoyed an impressive build-up
There are longer shots for gold, such as defending champions in the men’s lightweight double Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, whose form has been ropier than expected, or their underrated fellow lightweights in the four.
British rowing is trying to shake off its fairly staid and middle class image and the poster boy for its growing diversity is Mohamed Sbihi, one of the powerhouses in the unpredictable and eclectic men’s eight, who on a given day might trouble the German favourites.
With a Moroccan heritage but brought up in Surbiton, Sbihi is GB’s first rower who is a practising Muslim, and has elected to postpone his fasting during the current Ramadan after discussions with his family and religious figures.
Instead, he has made a sizeable donation to a charity that gives food to deprived children in Morocco and he will visit there later in the year.
The challenges for GB will come from far and wide, with small nations like New Zealand especially strong in rowing.
The Olympics is the summit in this sport and while there is no name as celebrated as Pinsent or Redgrave among the GB 47, there is no greater chance to forge one than at a home Games.
The rowing coverage will be unlike ever before on TV, with the use of a 250,000 camera developed by the US military that follows the boats down the course. The camera is suspended on three wires stretched between two 92 metre towers at either end of the lake. The camera can rotate 360 degrees and drops to just eight metres above the boats.
BRITS TO WATCH
Women’s Coxless Pair — Heather Stanning and Helen Glover
The West Country-based duo have impressed in the three World Cups this year and won silver at the 2011 World Championships. Feared by their rivals, but they need to watch out for New Zealand in particular.
Injuries have meant reshuffling but they gave Germany a scare at the World Cup in Belgrade and are more settled after the return of stroke Constantine Louloudis. The eight includes Greg Searle MBE, who competed in his first Games in 1992 and came out of retirement three years ago.
Men’s lightweight coxless four
Chris Bartley, Rob Williams and brothers Pete and Richard Chambers have improved greatly this year and could upset Australia and Denmark.