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A Life Less Ordinary – Alex Gregory

The double Olympic rowing gold medallist on how to learn from failure and the true meaning of taking one for the team.

Alex Gregory won Olympic rowing gold in the coxless four in 2012 and 2016, as well as five gold medals at World Championships and two more at European Championships. He retired after his second Olympic title in Rio, and is working on his first book.

Where do you go to think?
I used to think in the boat I’d be training in. When I pushed away from land, it gave me separation from life’s worries, stresses and problems. Now I am a retired rower, I get that separation walking the dogs in the countryside where I live. I get out every day to do that.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
I love a coffee in the morning, but I went on an Arctic rowing expedition recently [the Polar Row in July and August 2017], and we didn’t have coffee. There was no time and we had no equipment for making hot water. I didn’t have warm, dry clothes either, and yet I existed perfectly well. We think we need a coffee, or a hot shower, but it’s only because those sorts of things are available that we feel we need them. When they’re taken away, we can perform equally well as with them. That said, my daily walk with the dogs does give me the clarity and thinking time I need to get on, and that is important to me.

Best journey I’ve been on? The first nine years of my rowing career. It was a complete disaster

To whom do you look for advice most often?
No question about it: my partner, Emily. We have three children, aged eight, four and two. In that last eight years, life has been hectic. I won the Olympics twice, with everything that goes with that. Now I’ve been retired for over a year, I better understand our new lifestyle. It feels like Emily and I are entering into a new partnership outside of what I did before, and she is the one guiding me when I have hare-brained ideas or I need a dose of realism. After sport, I had freedom and flexibility I’d never had. I really needed Emily to help balance me.

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
On the Polar Row, in the middle of the Greenland Sea further north than anyone had rowed before, one of the other guys was being seasick and couldn’t stop. There was a really bad smell in his cabin [two men shared one cabin, four another] and that set him off ever more. After a couple of days, the only option was to swap cabins with him. The smell was truly awful. It made me heave, but I took one for the team.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
When I stopped rowing, I wrote down a big ‘thank you’ piece, and the list of people went on and on. There is one person who stands out from the huge number of people who have helped me, and that’s Alex Cook, one of my best mates from school. Cooky introduced me to rowing for the first time. He went on a weekend course when we were about 16 or 17 at the local rowing club, which was a walk down from school. He and some other mates went, but I had no interest in going. He came back and said, “Alex, I think you’d love rowing. You should really give it a go.” I palmed him off, but he kept pestering me, and eventually, to shut him up, I went to the club and everything in my life changed after that. I will be forever grateful to him for being persistent.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
A Norwegian island, Jan Mayen, 35 miles long, in the middle of the Greenland Sea. We landed there at the end of the Polar Row. We’d run out of battery power on our boat, the solar panels weren’t working, the weather had been horrendous, my feet were frozen and we’d been through hellishly rough water. The island’s 18 military personnel welcomed us, fed us, gave us warm beds. We spent two weeks exploring the island. As a remote military island, it doesn’t usually allow visitors, so we were very privileged to spend time in that beautiful place.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
I love cooking outdoors with my kids, and I learned something brilliant from a cook in Croatia. Throw vegetables, lamb, herbs and a bit of white wine in a large metal pot, then cover that in the ashes and embers of a big fire. After a couple of hours, pull it out and you’ve got a delicious sort-of stew. So easy but so delicious.

How do you make yourself happy?
Similar to my last answer: doing memorable things outdoors with my kids. I’m writing a book, called Dadventures, which is out next year and it’s a guide for parents to get outside and do things with their kids. My kids watch TV and iPads, but they won’t remember the couple of hours they spent watching Peppa Pig, but they will remember the den we built one afternoon, or climbing trees, or maybe a even a big dinner we cooked in a fire. It’s not easy to get out with kids, especially when you have two, three or more and the weather’s bad, but those little moments that they remember are important. I remember all mine.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you.
Things made out of wood. I can’t tell you a specific person who does it, or the name of a particular piece, but I just love the fact that things are crafted from wood. It could be an oak-framed barn or a spoon. The whole process of it fascinates me – and I want to be good at it. About 10 years ago, I got into it and I would take a bit of wood and a woodcarving kit away with me to training camps. I’d be sitting around between training having a go, and all of the other rowers would want to try. I’ll get back to it properly one day.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
My spaniels, Roo and Tiggy. They are definitely the most valuable things I’ve ever bought; not monetarily, but in terms of what they contribute to our busy family life. Actually, thinking about it, on my daily walks, when I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to them, and so it just may be that I talk to them more than anybody else.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
When I stopped rowing, I discovered weekends. I had heard of them, and knew they existed, but had never really had one. And with a young family, I was very quickly pleasantly surprised at how important weekends are, and how much you can go when you don’t have to train on Saturday and Sunday. In the evenings, you can sit down and have a drink with your partner once the kids have gone to bed. Finding this has totally changed our family. A year-and-a half-on, weekends are still blissful times.

When was the last time you made or created something?
I pressed send five days ago on the first draft of the book. I loved doing it, all 70,000 words. I’ve never written so much in my life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’d have to say winning two Olympic golds, and all that was needed to do that, while having a family. I’m very proud of that. When we had our first child, I was worried that my performance would be affected. But no doubt about it, everything that comes with having children – being busier, sleepless nights – helped my physical and mental performance out on the water. And the more children we had, the better I got. Everything kicks up a gear in your life when you have a child. More kids, more gears. When I drove through the electric gate at the car park at training, there was a little bump in the road and that was the signal for the start of work mode. Family life went to the back of my mind. Driving home, the car goes over the bump and I don’t think about rowing. Since we became parents, we hardly talked about my rowing career at home. It wasn’t relevant to home life. There was a total mental separation, which really helped me. I had less time to rest and recover, but there was more active recovery. I’d pick up my son from school and go to the park with legs aching from the boat and weights, but my son doesn’t care about that. I had to shut up and get on with it. It actually helped my motivation. Every morning in the changing room, I’d hear, “Oh God, I’m knackered,” and I’d think, “You know what? I did everything you did yesterday, then I went home, looked after the kids, didn’t get a full night’s sleep because one of them woke up… and now I’m going to go out on the water and beat you.”

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
What really inspire me are stories of people coming together to work together against the odds. Teams of volunteers finding survivors after earthquakes. Maybe that comes from my understanding of success in wining teams. I love how that can relate to other parts of human interaction and how the world works.

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
From my own experience, I’d say Jürgen Gröbler, who has coached a boat to rowing gold at 10 Olympic games [three for East Germany, seven so far for Great Britain]. He wins races. He picks a crew, puts everything in place to allow them to win, then makes them win. Eight weeks before London 2012, we [coxless four] had been beaten by Australia by miles, yet we together with him, his guidance and belief, which gave us confidence, we turned it round and beat Australia [into second]. I have seen him do that numerous times with other crews, too. He believes in himself, and passes that on to his crews, through his leadership, and they win every time.

What song could you sing most completely right now?
Ho Hey by The Lumineers. We play it in the car and all sing it together. Jasper, our eldest son, has grown up singing it and it’s a long-running joke that he sings the wrong words.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
The first nine years of my rowing career. It was a complete disaster. Failure after failure. During major races, I capsized, I had panic attacks, asthma attacks. I bottled it under pressure. I let down coaches and crewmembers. I got injured at the last minute, at crucial moments, time and time again. This went on for nine painful years. Then Jürgen Gröbler threw me a lifeline in 2008, when he asked me to go as a reserve to the Beijing Olympics. I’d got injured at the last minute and our boat [quadruple scull] hadn’t qualified. Jürgen must have seen something in me. I was ready to walk away from my career at that point. But I went as reserve, and it changed everything. I sat on the sidelines in Beijing and realised what the Olympics meant. It changed my perception of the sport and why I was doing it – I found true motivation. When you’re in an Olympic sport, the thing you are supposed to say is that you say you want to win an Olympic gold medal. Until Beijing, I didn’t really know why. Twelve months after that, I won my first World Championship title and it went well from there. I value those disastrous years almost more than the successes because I learned to be tough and how to cope and to find my way through. It was the journey that made me who I was as an athlete.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
Strike the right balance between humans and the rest of the natural world. It’s not in sync at the minute. We’re putting our stamp on the world without considering the consequences.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
Tudor England. I love English history and imaging myself back in that time. From what I’ve read, it was a hard time, and it would be fascinating to live there. Just for a little bit.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
A really healthy upbringing for my kids. So I’d buy a small farm deep in the countryside somewhere, with a bit of woodland, a little river or stream, and give my children an idyllic childhood of sleeping outside, adventuring outside and raising animals.