Feel No Pain
Rowing's unlikely hero has dedicated his life
to the most gruelling sport.
From The New Yorker
July 22, 1996
Early one morning in June, I rode a bike
along the towpath next to the Thames, watching the three-time gold-medallist
Steven Redgrave and his partner, Matthew Pinsent, row up and down
the Henley Reach, the most famous stretch of water in the rowing
world. They won the gold medal in the coxless-pair event in Barcelona,
in 1992; they have won the last three world championships; and they
hope to add the coxless-pair final in Atlanta, on July 27th, to
their string of victories. They looked smooth and powerful as they
glided past the other, slower crews, and although they have somewhat
different rowing styles--Pinsent, in the stroke seat, was stiff
and upright, while Redgrave looked more relaxed, his shoulders rounded
over the oar--the boat moved as if it had entered the quasi-mystical
state of oneness that rowers call "swing." Redgrave, who is the
"toe" in the boat--the steersman, so called because you steer with
your foot--was hugging the riverbank, where there was flat water
Redgrave has won thirteen events at Henley since
1981, and last year, after he and Pinsent won the Silver Goblets
race, they did a ceremonial paddle past the Stewards' Enclosure
and the cheering grandstands, because Redgrave, who is thirty-four,
had announced that this was going to be his last Henley. Sixty years
ago, Redgrave, a workingman's son, would probably not have been
allowed to row at Henley at all, because of the Amateur Rowing Association's
rule excluding anyone "who is or has been by trade or employment
for wages, a mechanic, artisan, or labourer, or engaged in any menial
duty." This is the famous rule that is said to have kept Jack Kelly,
Grace's father, who won three gold medals in sculling in the twenties,
from competing in the Diamond Challenge Sculls race, because he
had once worked as a bricklayer.
Among Olympic oarsmen, virtually all of whom
are university graduates with their careers on hold while they do
the training necessary to row at the Olympic level, Redgrave is
the exception. He has a wife and two kids, and is for all practical
purposes a professional oarsman--probably the only rower in the
world who earns enough from sponsorship deals, product endorsements,
and motivational-speaking fees to support himself above the poverty
line. Unlike the twenty-five-year-old Pinsent, whose father is a
country vicar, and who is an Old Etonian and an Oxford Blue--a classic
representative of the upper-crust side of the sport, which I encountered
when I spent a year at Radley, an English public school--Redgrave
was a poor student, because of a learning disability, and left school
at sixteen. (Sometimes, when he is giving autographs and a fan asks
for a special inscription, he gets flustered, and worries about
reversing the letters or misspelling the words; Pinsent helps him
out with inscriptions when he can.) Redgrave is not going to be
a doctor, a lawyer, or an investment banker, like most of the other
athletes you see rowing in the Olympics: young men and women from
good schools who are enjoying one of the last refuges of amateurism--the
chance to play in their own versions of "Chariots of Fire"--before
getting on with their real lives. For Redgrave, rowing in the Olympics
is real life.
As I cycled along beside the pair, I was also
thinking about my own rowing career. I was good enough to make the
Princeton heavyweight varsity as a sophomore, and I like to think
I might have made a good bowman in a national boat if I had reordered
my priorities. I was remembering in particular a timed piece I rowed
on this course with a guy from Radley, who was trying out for the
British Junior Olympic team. He was the dominant personality in
our boat, just as Redgrave is in his, although I secretly thought
I was the better oarsman; Pinsent no doubt thinks he's better than
Redgrave, too. This is how rowers are. In a pair, the central dynamic
of rowing with other people, which is that you need each other absolutely
but you compete with each other relentlessly, is boiled down to
its essence. If one oar is pulling harder than the other, the toe
will have to use the rudder to keep the boat straight, and this
will slow the boat down. It's not unusual to hear pairs oarsmen
screaming at each other as they go down the race course, and this
is not necessarily a bad thing: if you have two oarsmen thinking,
You bastard, I'm going to pull you around, you can have a very fast
After their row, Redgrave and Pinsent
showered in the Leander Club and went upstairs to the Members Bar
to have breakfast. Each of them drank a pitcher of squash and ate
a bacon sandwich. The plan was to rest for an hour before starting
the second workout of the morning, a session of heavy weights. Both
men are six feet five and weigh about two hundred and twenty-five
pounds, which is large for pairs oarsmen. Heavyweight oarsmen have
the approximate strength of weight lifters and the metabolic capacity
of cross-country skiers, a combination that gives them their unique
balloon-chested physique. The pectorals are pushed high and squashed
nearly flat by the amazing oxygen-into-energy processing machines
underneath. The back is more muscular than the chest: it looks like
a second chest, facing the other way. The thighs are the most "cut"-looking
parts of the body, but the calves are oddly slender; rowing is not
a "weight-bearing" sport.
Redgrave, who is handsome in a slightly haunted
way, was chewing his sandwich slowly, as though to conserve as much
energy as possible, even in his jaws. Exhaustion was written in
his face; he looked older than thirty-four, like someone who'd been
breaking rocks every day for twenty years. Pinsent looked fresh
and healthy, sitting in his characteristic correct posture, with
his head thrown back--a schoolboy god. Watching them interact, I
was thinking that rowing with an oarsman as famous as Redgrave,
who ranks with Nick Faldo and Torvill and Dean in terms of name
recognition in England, cannot be easy. Redgrave's first partner,
Andrew Holmes, with whom he won a gold medal at Seoul, became so
fed up with his fame that they split up after the Olympics, and
Holmes dropped out of rowing. Redgrave's second partner, Simon Berrisford,
was injured in 1989 and dropped out of rowing, too. It says something
about Pinsent's resilience that he has kept up with Redgrave for
The sport of rowing actually has a bias against
superstars, which is one reason that it seems somewhat out of place
in modern sports culture. In both boarding school and college, we
were taught that rowing wasn't about personal glory but about doing
what's best for the crew. The very best rower on the crew was the
same as the worst in the boat, and believing this was the only way
to achieve swing. Of course, there were silent stars--standout athletes
who were three or four levels above the rest of us--but generally
only the other oarsmen knew who they were.
To a certain extent, Redgrave's success has meant
flying in the face of the crew ethic. Redgrave was once quoted in
the Sunday Telegraph as saying, "My biggest failing is that
I have to rely on other people if I'm to win"--a statement that
is the very antithesis of the team ideal I learned as a rower. He
demonstrated early in his career that he was not particularly interested
in rowing with men who did not have the same commitment to the sport
that he had--which was virtually everyone else on the national squad.
Why should he, who was giving his whole life to rowing, haul along
a boatload of student amateurs (like me), who were dividing their
loyalties between rowing, school, and their careers? It is not surprising
that Redgrave's first ambition was to be a single sculler. "The
eight is a country's blue-ribbon event," he told me in Leander,
"but can you name the people who were in the gold-medal-winning
eight in the last Olympics? Whereas you would at least stand a chance
of naming the winning single sculler." But Redgrave wasn't good
enough to beat Kolbe and Karppinen, of West Germany and Finland,
respectively, who dominated that event throughout the eighties.
In the 1985 world championship, Redgrave, trailing in a semifinal,
stopped sculling in the middle of the race. This is a famous event
in international rowing circles, because it is, as one oarsman put
it to me, "the only proof we have that Redgrave is mortal." (Redgrave
maintains that he injured his back during the race, and points out
that he had to be carried from the boat.) After that, he gave up
his dream of single sculling and focussed on the pair.
Pinsent got up and said he was going downstairs
to start on the weights. I tried to get Redgrave, slumped in an
ergonomically incorrect position in a chair against the wall, to
talk about the small pleasures of rowing, or to wax poetic on the
mystical pursuit of the perfect stroke (Steve Fairbairn, the longtime
coach of Jesus College, Cambridge, used to say that you could never
really row; you can only imitate the act of rowing in a boat), but
Redgrave didn't seem interested in my collegiate enthusiasm. He
said, "I don't row for pleasure, I row to win gold medals." He doesn't
pay much attention to his diet, or take vitamins, or stretch before
workouts. He hates to train. Nevertheless, he works out six hours
a day, seven days a week--all this for perhaps ten six-and-a-half-minute
races a year.
The paradox of rowing is that this most physically
demanding of sports is about eighty per cent mental, and the higher
you rise in the sport the more important mental toughness becomes.
Rowers have to face the grim consequences of starting a two-thousand-metre
race with a sprint--a strategy no runner, swimmer, cyclist, or cross-country
skier would consider using in a middle-distance event. Since rowers
race with their backs to the finish line, the psychological advantage
of being ahead in the race--where you can see your opponents but
they can't see you--is greater than the physiological disadvantage
of stressing the body severely so early in the race. If you get
behind, something like "unswing" can happen: the cumulative effect
of the group's discouragement can make the individuals less inspired.
Therefore, virtually every crew rows the first twenty or thirty
strokes at around forty-four strokes a minute (which is pretty much
flat out) before settling down to around thirty-seven for the body
of the race.
As a result of this shock to the system, the
rower's metabolism begins to function anaerobically within the first
few seconds of the race. This means that the mitochondria in the
muscle cells do not have enough oxygen to produce ATP, which is
the source of energy, and start to use glycogen and other compounds
stored in the muscle cells instead: they begin, as it were, to feed
on themselves. These compounds produce lactic acid, which is a major
source of pain. In this toxic environment, capillaries in the hardest-working
muscles begin to dilate, while muscles that aren't working as hard
go into a state of ischemia--the blood flow to them partially shuts
down. Meanwhile, the level of acid in the blood continues to rise.
Mike Shannon, a sports physiologist who works at the new Olympic
training center, outside San Diego, told me that the highest levels
of lactic acid ever found in athletes--as measured in parts per
million in the bloodstream--were found in the blood of oarsmen,
about thirty parts per million. "That's a tremendous amount of pain,"
Marathon runners talk about hitting "the wall"
at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn't
a wall; it's a hole--an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second
minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh
muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain
becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the
runner or the leg burn of the biker but an all-over, savage unpleasantness.
As you pass the five-hundred-metre mark, with three-quarters of
the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going
to make it to the finish, but at the same time the idea of letting
your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable. Therefore,
you are going to die.
In a sense, all the training you do as an oarsman
is to prepare you for this critical moment in the race, which is
extremely dramatic, though it doesn't show up on television. But
heavyweight oarsmen are famously laconic by nature, and they almost
never talk about pain; it's a taboo subject. The feeling is that
if you talk about pain you might begin to fear it, and the fear
will get into your head in funny ways, both in the specific dread
of racing and the long-term dread of training, like a psychic version
of repetitive-stress injury. When I asked Redgrave about the pain,
he said, "What pain? There's no pain," as though he didn't even
know what I was talking about.
If Redgrave and Pinsent win the final
in Atlanta, as they almost surely will, Redgrave will become the
first athlete in an endurance event ever to win gold medals in four
consecutive Olympics. After that, he says, he is going to retire.
He sees no point in coaching rowing, either, since if he's coaching
he may as well be on the water. For the last eighteen years, his
life has been devoted to one thing--winning gold medals--and now,
more than most athletes, he is facing an affliction that might be
called post-gold-medal-trauma syndrome.
"I've got no plans," Redgrave said when
I asked him what he saw himself doing when he retires. "I'm taking
the kids to Disney World. That's the only plan I have."
"No more rowing?"
"That's it. Finished. I have no plans to
row after this race," he said. He added that his wife, Ann, wants
him to retire, so that he can be more available to do things with
their two young daughters. "She would like to lead a more normal
life, whatever that is. Not having weekends is tough. That's the
big family time."
"But what are you going to do?" I asked.
"You have no idea?" It seemed strange that someone who would prepare
so fanatically for one six-and-a-half-minute race would not be the
least bit prepared for life after that race.
"No idea," Redgrave said. The subject of
life after rowing, it seemed, was like the subject of pain--untouchable.
"Whatever I do, it won't be a nine-to-five job. I've been my own
boss for twenty years and I'm not going to work for someone else."
I asked Redgrave what his gold medals meant to
"Once you've won them, they don't mean
much," he said. "You look to the next one. I suppose knowing what
you've achieved is a way of enjoying them."
When I asked Ann, who is the doctor for the British
rowing squad, whether she thought Steve really was going to retire,
she said, "I doubt it. He has lived with the job so long now he
doesn't know any other way. My training as a doctor tells me people
just can't switch off like that."
I said, "Maybe he could just row at Henley."
"That wouldn't be enough for Steve. It's
the Olympics or nothing for him. The rest doesn't matter. The thing
that has driven Steve all along is the desire to be the best--and
that's what the Olympics means. So he wins four gold medals, and
that makes him one of the very best, but if he won five that would
make him the best."
I asked Ann what motivates Steve to win.
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "I suppose
it comes from his dyslexia, his learning disability. That made it
very difficult for him in school--until he found rowing, which was
something he could do well. The others he went to school with who
had that problem had to face it earlier, but because of Steve's
rowing he never had to, and now it's a bigger problem, because he's
put it off that long. Rowing's given him an avenue away from facing
Steve disagreed with this. "If I don't stop rowing,
it's because I love to row. My dyslexia is not a factor."
The central tenet in the amateur ideal
of rowing, as I received it, is that the principles you learn in
rowing will be valuable to you when your athletic career is over.
According to this philosophy, Redgrave's incredible mental tenacity,
discipline, and commitment will be invaluable to him in anything
he wants to do. While I was in England, I tested this ideal on Richard
Budgett, whom I rowed with at Radley, and who was the two man in
the coxed four that Redgrave stroked in the Los Angeles games for
his first gold medal. (The boat was a decent one until Redgrave
got into it; then it flew.) "Success helps breed confidence," Budgett,
who is now a doctor, told me, sitting in his garden in London. "I'm
a lot more confident now for having won a gold medal." He added
that his gold medal had definitely helped him in his career. "I
could get into whatever hospital I wanted to," he said, "just by
putting the gold medal on my C.V.-- because people were interested
to meet me. And I'm not a complete idiot. Two years ago, when the
job of chief medical officer of the British Olympic Association
became available, I applied for it, and I'm sure my medal helped
me get it."
Budgett talked about his life as an Olympic athlete
as though he were talking about living in an ashram in India or
sailing around the world--as a higher life, totally outside his
daily existence. "Until about three years ago," he said, "I was
telling myself that I could drop everything, train full time, and
have another go at the Olympics. But of course I couldn't. I have
my practice and Sue and the children. It's over."
I also ran this credo past Michael Evans, the
god who stroked the boat that I rowed in at Princeton; he won a
gold medal in 1984, in the Canadian eight, and is now an investment
banker at Goldman, Sachs, in Fleet Street.
"You mean do I think, Last five hundred!
when I'm in a tough situation? No," Michael said. The phone rang,
and he said into the receiver, "What do you mean it hasn't been
priced yet? . . . O.K., but I need you at this meeting." He hung
up. "Let me tell you something," he said to me. "Nobody in the business
world gives a rat's ass if you win a gold medal in the Olympics."
(A classic Evans line, which took me right back to that boat.) "They
say, 'Oh really? That's very interesting! Now let's get to work.'
They have no idea what it takes, of the dedication and the time
and the training. Most of them are weekend warriors who play tennis
or do a little running--and they think they can understand. And
they have no clue!"
He added that he thought Redgrave was probably
the greatest oarsman ever, and that even if his gold medals don't
count for much in life outside the Olympics they have great meaning
to the few people who understand what it took to win them.
"Last month, we were doing an offering
for an athletic-footwear company," Michael said, "and a colleague
introduces me to one of the guys from the company and says, 'Oh,
you two have something in common,' and I go 'What's that?' and he
says, 'You both won gold medals in the Olympics.' And I just looked
at the guy, and he was the softest-spoken, humblest guy you can
imagine, and he didn't have to say anything. I knew what that meant
to him in his life. What an enormous event that must have been for
that guy, back in 1960. I didn't say anything, and neither did he.
We both just knew what it meant."
Copyright © John Seabrook 2003. All rights
Back to top
Home | Books
| Stories | Bio