IIt’s a bright, cool morning on the Redgrave Pinsent rowing lake near Caversham as, one stroke at a time, Britain’s elite rowers begin to put clear water between them and their disappointing performance at the Tokyo Olympics. For the first time since Moscow in 1980, a time so long ago that East Germany topped the medal table on the lake, Team GB rowers returned home without winning one of 14 proposed gold medals. Nearly £25million in mostly lottery-based funding sent 41 rowers to Japan, more than any other country in the competition, and a silver and bronze medal was all they had to show for it for it.
The bronze came in the men’s eight, on July 30, 2021, the last event of the regatta. It was the same day Beth Shriever, who was forced to raise £50,000 via crowdfunding to qualify for Tokyo after UK Sport initially decided not to support her, won BMX gold. It’s also the day Josh Bugajski, one of the eight, launched a scathing attack on legendary former coach Jürgen Gröbler, who abruptly left the program in August 2020, describing him as someone who “destroys the soul” of some of its athletes.
It was against this backdrop of disappointment and recrimination, and a budget shrunk to around £22million, that British Rowing embarked on the short three-year cycle leading to Paris in 2024. It must identify what went wrong in Tokyo and find solutions. And also what went well, as a basis for reconstruction. There are new names and a fresh approach to many senior coaching roles, while the ongoing team building process has brought promising young rowers into the program to replace veterans who have departed.
Between them, they will put thousands of hours of work on the road from Caversham to Paris, which will go unnoticed and unrecognized if the results do not improve. Olympic gold is the only currency that matters in the UK general public’s quadrennial cost-benefit analysis.
In 1996, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent won Britain’s only gold medal in Atlanta; only athletics and cycling have won more medals in Britain in Summer Games history and the British team was the top rowing nation at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. But ambitions de Redgrave as a coach were thwarted when he failed to make the final laps to become performance director after Gröbler.
Louise Kingsley, who was appointed performance director in December, is beaming with enthusiasm for the job at hand. Britain’s first female top rowing coach took the job after leading the Paralympic program in Tokyo, which unequivocally outperformed the Olympic team in winning two of the four gold medals on offer.
“It’s a bit of science and the clock, and a bit of art,” she says. “One of the things we look for in our head coaches is the real, deep understanding to look to see where the magic combinations are. We can see from our data and statistics where we have exceptional individuals, but there are only two single sculls on our Olympic team, everything else is a crew boat, so it’s about how people mix, work in harmony, physically, psychologically, technically, so to find the magic.
“Erg” scores, derived from individual performances on high-tech rowers, play a role in the process, but no more than that.
“When you watch the crews go around, there are some that just click,” Kingsley says. “A lot of our historic coxless fours, yeah, we had the powers in there, big guys with big lung capacities, big VOs2 highs, massive erg scores, but the fourth person in the crews is the crewmaker, who harnesses them together in a way that brings out the best in everyone. So it’s not always about putting the four highest erg scores in a boat and having it be the fastest.
It has been 18 months since Gröbler last oversaw training and crew building at Caversham, but the sense of his legacy is everywhere. The crews under his wing have won 33 medals in eight Olympic Games. The national training complex – something few Olympic sports can enjoy – is named after the duo that won gold in Barcelona in 1992, kicking off the former Germany coach’s second golden age. the East, with the GB team. Visitors arrive at the gate along Gröbler’s Way.
But even before Bugajski’s post-race criticism, Gröbler’s sudden departure after so many years of sustained success had raised questions about whether a no-compromise approach to training was appropriate for a modern Olympic program. While some athletes undoubtedly thrived under his watch, others perhaps paid an unacceptable price for their success?
The current coaching staff cannot escape or deny Gröbler’s influence, nor would they. Similarly, it is recognized that the program evolves with the times.
“Jürgen’s legacy, background and results are simply unparalleled anywhere in the world,” Kingsley says. “But as with all things, there is a natural end and a time to move on. Did we have an easy transition? No. Would Jürgen’s presence at the Tokyo Games have guaranteed that we would top the medal table? No. If we look closely at the results we’ve had since Rio, we haven’t performed well throughout the cycle and Jürgen was there for a big part of that.
“Times change, the athletes we work with change and we have to adapt and evolve. That doesn’t mean we can be gentle, because we absolutely can’t be gentle.
“Rowing is a tough and tough sport, we have to train and the athletes are hungry to train, but that doesn’t mean we can’t train and push the limits while taking care of individuals as people.”
Paul Stannard, who was named head coach of the men’s Olympic team in January, was in charge of the team that won a first medal for Team GB in the quadruple sculls with a silver medal in Tokyo. “I think Jürgen did a lot of things well and the approach should be similar,” he said.
“I’m probably more reserved but the guys are extremely competitive and internal competition is crucial. We had a very young and inexperienced team [in Tokyo] and the level of expectation and pressure on people was quite high. Rightly so, but in some cases, they let themselves be a little overwhelmed.
“Particularly with a three-year cycle, what we have to do is quite intense and what I hope I can impress on the whole team is that there is not a lot of time.
Bugajski, who drew heavy criticism from other members of the eight for his comments on Gröbler, is still part of the process and recently finished first in the duo with Matt Aldridge at the Team GB Trials. “Things have evolved so much since Tokyo,” he says. “Emotions were running high and looking back it probably wasn’t the right time to express my feelings. All these months later I’m proud to have won the men’s eight with my teammates and now I want to keep going and try improve this result in Paris.
“There have been a lot of positive changes at Caversham, with Louise as our new Performance Director and Paul Stannard as our new Men’s Olympic Head Coach. It feels like the start of an exciting new era for the UK rowing team and I’m in a much happier place and have been training well.
Stannard says, “At that point, Josh said how he felt. You judge people on how they act and right now he’s doing a great job as a duo, trying to make the squad for next season. If he said something in the press, he said something in the press, and you have to move on. If I can help him be the best athlete he can be, then I will.
There were plenty of margins for not succeeding in Japan, as Rowan McKellar, who narrowly missed out on a medal at his first Olympics, can attest. The experience, she hopes, will be seen as part of the process of working towards success in Paris rather than a step back from the golden age of rowers.
“It’s a heavy load on your shoulders to step into the most successful team for many Olympics,” she said. “And we lost so many people after Rio that it was a mountain to climb to get us back to the same point, but it wasn’t like we crashed and burned in the Olympics. We had some really unhappy performances and if we had taken all those fourth places to third, and some of them were milliseconds away, it would have completely changed the tone. It was disappointing, but it could be a really good stepping stone.
“It was a very young team and we will have a lot more experience in Paris from those of us who stay after Tokyo.”
A chance for the full Olympic experience next time around is another incentive during the three sessions a day, six days a week, of the training regime that elite rowing demands.
“I loved the experience and the village was really cool,” says McKellar, “but everyone who had been to Rio was like, ‘Don’t take this as the full Olympic experience.’ In Paris, everything will be even better.