Back in May, I went along to my son’s school to hear James Cracknell speak. Cracknell is an old boy of KGS and went on to become a double Olympic gold medalist. Since his retirement from rowing, Cracknell has embarked on a series of endurance challenges. Cracknell supplements his income by writing for the Daily Telegraph and also gives after dinner speeches about his adventures as well as motivational talks at corporate events.
On a balmy May evening, I entered the school building and was pleasantly surprised to see free champagne being dispensed to guests on arrival. I stepped forward to the temporary bar to claim my complimentary glass of bubbly. ‘Are you a Governor, Sir ?’ ‘Err, no.’ ‘Well - are you with the VIP party, Sir ?’ - the gentleman gestured to my right where I saw the Headmistress chatting with Cracknell. ‘Err, well, err, no.’ And with that, the smartly dressed waiter, nodded disdainfully towards the Sixth Form Common room where I was able to claim my free class of orange squash in a plastic tumbler.
If Norman Junior III had been with me, this exchange would have been excruciatingly embarrassing for him but sadly he couldn’t be bothered coming along.
Before the main event, I paid a quick visit to the toilet and I noticed James Cracknell, still politely chatting with the VIP’s, wearing an immaculate charcoal grey suit, with a spotless white collared shirt and no tie. To my horror, my eyes were drawn to his feet. He was wearing trainers. One of my pet hates - idiotic commuters wearing suits and trainers. Oh well, he’s won two Olympic Gold medals so I guess he can wear whatever he likes.
Cracknell was a very personable, engaging, natural speaker and treated us to a quick run through his career including his Olympic triumphs, an insight into the level of commitment required to succeed at the highest level of competitive sport and his trip to the South Pole. Sensibly, Cracknell supplemented his talk with lots of photos. Interestingly, he seemed to focus on his occasional failure (fourth in the rowing World Championships in 2003) as much as his many successes.
James Cracknell is a very articulate, modest and amusing man. He described failure at the World Championships as ‘doing what we normally do. Train like hell for two years, getting up at 5am to get onto the water on those dark, freezing winter mornings, qualify, get to the final, push yourself to the limit, cross the finish line then stand on a podium standing next to your best mate [Matthew Pinsent] who is crying like a baby. Again'.
When Cracknell was selected to join the coxless four for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he was the newcomer into an established boat with Olympic Gold Medalists, Steve Redgrave (4 Gold Medals) and Matthew Pinsent (3 Gold medals) Understandably, he was a little intimidated by these two and German coach, Juergen Grobler, attempted to reassure him
‘Listen, James. You are strong. You are an excellent athlete with great stamina and rowing technique. However, in this boat, you are sitting behind Matthew. He is a better rower than you, stronger than you with more stamina. All you have to do is follow him. Just do what he does. Follow his stroke. Follow his every move. When he eases off, you ease off. When he pushes the rate up to 43, you push the rate up to 43. Matthew is hung like a horse.'
A few months later, Cracknell was recounting this story about Juergen’s motivational chat to Redgrave who smiled and said “I think Juergen probably said ‘He has lungs like a horse’.”
Cracknell then described his first endurance event when he rowed across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle. Towards the end of the race, the satellite radio wasn’t working properly so the pair could only get daily updates on their position and the state of the race.
One call told them they were now positioned second with 36 hours to go. Fogel’s reaction was ‘Second - brilliant. What an achievement. Fantastic !’ whereas Cracknell’s immediate reaction was ‘Right - let’s stop these 3 hours on (rowing), 45 minutes off (rest) shifts and switch to 4 hours one, 30 minutes off and see if we can win this bloody thing'.
Cracknell then solved the mystery of the immaculate grey suit and trainers. He had recently returned from the Marathon Des Sables endurance event where he had finished 12th in a race, the highest ever placing for a Briton. During the 151 mile race across the Sahara desert -, his feet were badly blistered - Cracknell showed an awful photograph of his red raw feet after a day in the desert which he described as ‘slight chafing’ - which explained the trainers and his slight limp as he took to the stage.
Cracknell answered a question about how he motivated himself and he referred to a note scribbled on a blackboard in a History classroom he had seen earlier that evening on a tour of his old school. Some wag had written ‘All things must pass’ which summed up his attitude pretty well.
[ After I saw Cracknell, I was shocked to hear he had been knocked off his cycle by a speeding truck when attempting another challenge to cross the States in 18 days, rowing, cycling and running. Cracknell was seriously ill with head injuries but thankfully is now making a good recovery. ]