Monday, December 20, 2010

Unsung heroes: Andy Holmes

There seem to be two kinds of famous people in the world: those who are famous in their lifetime and those who have to die before they are recognized. Andy Holmes falls into the second category.

I got into rowing for the simple reason that the friend of mine with whom I went jogging said that it was easier than running "because you got to sit down". It certainly was at first - the guy at bow (at the front of the boat) used to row with one hand while smoking with the other - but, one day, I was plucked out of that boat and put into another one, by virtue of my height if nothing else. I can still remember being in the cinema with my parents (how long ago was that?!) when we bumped into my coach and he told us we would be rowing on the Thames in the Fours Head of the River race, over the 4.25 mile long Oxford Cambridge Boat race. Now I think of it, it was pretty crazy for that to be our very first race (it may not seem far in running terms but the Olympic rowing distance is only 2000m)! I remember thinking all the way along the course that I would stop after just ten more strokes and then apologize to my crew mates for letting them down terribly. But then I would find it in me to do another ten strokes and another... That day we overtook the senior men's squad from the club in their nice shiny yellow plastic boat (ours was a very sturdy wooden one) and that was the turning point from which I never looked back. From then on, it became very much a part of my daily life for the next 6 years.

Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes quickly became adolescent heroes for me. At this time they had already won gold medals at the Olympic games in 1984 but, in spite of this, rowing was still very much a minority sport, limited to being a backdrop to Henley Royal Regatta or an excuse to go to the pub by the river once a year on Boatrace day. To give him credit, Steve Redgrave had to win 5 Olympic gold medals in 5 consecutive Games to really capture the public's imagination, somewhat helped by his spontaneous remark just after bagging the 4th one, that if anyone should see him near a boat again, "they have my permission to shoot me". Andy Holmes also won no less than two of those Olympic gold medals (and a bronze one, to boot) but not many people have heard of him. Matthew Pinsent who won the other three golds with Steve Redgrave is much better known, more than anything else, because he was at the tail end of Steve's career when the sporting audience had finally woken up to this amazing achievement that was unfolding.

For me, I still think of the original pair of Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes - teenage worship doesn't get forgotten so easily. For some reason Andy and Steve split up and went their separate ways after the second gold and Andy eventually gave up rowing. It was a great shame because he was clearly an incredibly talented oarsman - anyone who can stop a boat that Steve is rowing in from going round in circles must be. It seems so very poignant and tragic that, 17 years later, Andy should finally get back into rowing, at a more low key level only to catch a rare water borne disease (Weil's disease) and die from the infection. I was very shocked to read this when it happened a couple of months ago and found a lot of old memories getting stirred up. We were always told that, if we should get a fluey cold then we should go to the doctor and inform him that we were rowers, so that he could check for Weil's disease.

Greg is the one on the left and, yes, they are all standing on the same step of the podium
On a brighter note, while digging around on the internet to fill in some of the blanks in this post, I just noticed that Greg Searle - who last won an Olympic gold medal 18 years ago and had long since retired - is back in the running for the London 2012 Olympic team (when he will be 40)! Not only that, but he won a silver medal at the Rowing World Championships in November. This has filled me with irrational hope, that it's never too late.

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