Stay True To Who You Are
An Interview with Alex Gregory
Alex Gregory is one of the leading rowers in the Great Britain Rowing team and was part of the renowned GB coxless four that took gold at the London 2012 Olympic games.
Alex has not always been on top of the podium. A long and difficult journey, painful at times to watch, full of highs and lows saw him eventually reach his goal to become the first man across the line in an Olympic final on August 4th 2012. Learn more about Alex over at his website.
Thanks for agreeing to chat Alex!
No worries, I’ve been looking forward to it!
So my first question I guess is why rowing? I’ve seen that you didn’t take it up until your A Levels? That’s quite late.
So one of my best friends did a summer course down at the local club and he really enjoyed it, and because he was a good friend of mine he knew what I was like and the things that I liked. And also I was tall, so I quite suited rowing. So he kept pestering me and was saying “you should come, you’d really enjoy it. Please come and have a go.” But at that time I was heavily involved in swimming both before and after school, and played rugby and cricket at school and just didn’t have the time. I just didn’t have time and I had no interest in rowing. I’d barely ever watched it and had certainly never done it. But in the end I gave in and went down just to stop him going on at me. And I figured out very quickly that I could be good at it, and I loved it, which was obviously key. I loved being around nature, and out on the water amongst the trees and the wildlife and made a welcome change from a swimming pool. Plus all the swimming I had done meant I was aerobically pretty fit which meant I was already pretty good at rowing even though I didn’t have the technique.
Sounds like you owe your friend a beer!
Yes, I actually met him recently whilst at the world cup (for rowing) in Sydney and it was so nice that he was able to see me compete and I was able to say thank you to him for getting me into the thing that I love.
So swimming, rugby and then rowing. Did you love sport? Did you know that it would one day be your career?
So I always had this thing in me where I knew I wanted to be a champion at something. I wanted to do something that I loved, that I really cared about and that I could succeed in. I am not that much of a competitive person when it comes to the trivial things. So if I am playing Monopoly I don’t care if I win or lose but if I am in the boat, or in the water, and I am doing something I care deeply about then I have to be the best at it. And I knew, pretty early on, that rowing was something I loved and because it was something I loved I wanted to be the best I could be. I wanted to be a champion.
Do you think any one can take up rowing, and compete at a decent level or does the sport attract a certain type of individual – someone who is single minded and aggressive?
This is an important point. Absolutely not. Early on I was told, especially by rugby and swimming coach’s that I had to toughen up. I was always told you had to be hard, macho and aggressive when you were racing and playing and that just didn’t fit in with me or my personality. I even tried to be like that but it just wasn’t me. And people used to say I smiled too much to be good at sport. But actually that just isn’t the case, that is just a myth. I accept it works for some people, that some people like and need to be hyped up and chests pushed out and aggressive but you absolutely don’t have to be like that. And I think that has been the motivation for me. And I have realised over the years just how important a motivation that is for me.
So the lesson you’d like others to learn is that you believe you can be a world champion and still be yourself? If you know you’re talented then that’s enough. You don’t need to go and make big changes to your personality and change who you are to go and win at something?
Exactly, yes. And I hope I am living proof of that. I spend a lot of time going into schools, where the macho type attitude is really promoted, and I try and teach that actually it just isn’t important. You will do much better in life, and be more successful if you stay true to who you are.
You will do much better in life, and be more successful if you stay true to who you are.
According to your website you were not an over night success. Did you always have belief you’d one day win that gold medal?
No definitely not. It was definitely there to start with. I knew I wanted to be as good as I could be, and I knew I really wanted to succeed. When I learnt more about the sport I set my sights higher and higher and really fell in love with rowing. But on that pathway on getting to that gold medal I lost an awful lot of confidence over the eight years or so. Over those eight years at various time I would nearly make it, or make it to a certain level but I would then always fail. For example I would end up at the under 23 world championships with the potential of getting a medal but year after year something would go wrong – I would be ill, or I would just fail because I couldn’t hack the pressure. It was just getting worse and worse every year and in the end I was just thinking that actually I am not good enough. I didn’t think I was cut out to be a rower and I very nearly quit.
So why didn’t you?
There’s probably not one reason. There was always that element, that tiny little glimmer where I thought I can do it, I just need to work out what was going wrong and figure out how I could improve it and change it. Added to this was the belief of some coach’s, and my family who felt I could be a champion rower and this showed me maybe I should carry on. And then everything changed in 2008 when Jurgen Grobler took me as a reserve to the Beijing Olympics out of no where.
So had he not done that would you have quit?
Yes definitely. I was at the absolute lowest point I could be in. I’d put everything into rowing, everything in my life revolved around it, and trying to get there. And this was the 8th year where I finished the year on the low. I was injured which meant I wasn’t able to qualify to go the Olympics, you know it was just so miserable. And then for whatever reason he sent me this lifeline and yeh that changed everything. And it was that week that I spent watching our teams, and other nations crews, and realised what the Olympics meant and what it meant to me as an athlete, and also what it meant to the families of those who were competing. One of the things that really changed me, and made me turn a corner, was when I was sitting on the sidelines watching the mens lightweight double Olympic final and I was sat just on the seat behind Mark Hunter’s Mum, Dad and Brother and basically the moment that Mark got into his boat, and they watched him paddle off behind the stand and do his warm up, and then move on to the start. They were hugging each other, shaking, in tears and I didn’t actually watch Mark’s race I was just watching his family. I was almost transfixed and shocked by their emotion and what was happening to them. And they just cried the whole way down and Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase won Gold, in that Olympic final, and the emotion that that family had was just astounding, I couldn’t believe how much it meant to them. They were so incredibly proud. And it made me realise that jeez, it’s not just about me. So many people, my family, my friends, have sacrificed so much for me and supported me through every up and every down and I realised that if I was to win a medal it wasn’t just for me, it was for them.
That’s incredible. Also it’s a huge show of faith from Jurgen to take you as a reserve. Someone who is known to be quite tough – this must have given you some confidence?
It did. For him to see something in me gave me a huge lift. The other thing that changed things was when I was watching all the crews race, and medal, I realised that technically I was as good as any of them but I just wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have enough power. This was a massively important realisation. When I came back I set myself the goal of increasing my strength and weight dramatically and it changed everything overnight really as eleven months later I became world champion. So that decision by Jurgen really did change everything.
So not being an athlete I would think that actually performing in front of your home nation is worse than competing in say Brazil – there must be so much pressure? You must surely tighten up and even weighed down by the expectation? Added to the fact you were one of the last boats competing and most of the other GB boats had delivered. I would have crumbled under that pressure! How did you cope?
Yeh that’s an interesting question, there’s a few elements here. We talked and we talked for months before hand and were very aware that there would be a lot of pressure especially in our boat the Coxless 4, as this boat had won every Olympics since Sydney. And no boat class had won 4 Olympic golds at 4 consecutive Olympics. So there was a lot of pressure. And the crew discussed it at length weeks and weeks before – and we played out those emotions in our minds, and just discussed scenarios and trying to live those feelings as a crew and this certainly helped. And another point was that the three guys I was rowing with had won Gold in Beijing so I didn’t want to let them down, so yes there was pressure. But because I was with these guys, and we’d discussed it all in detail I just managed to block it out and not let the pressure be a negative thing and actually enjoy it. That was my overriding memory – I was incredibly nervous but it was very enjoyable. Before the final I was sitting in a 5 meter squared room stretching/preparing and I remember sitting there thinking what this whole situation meant. I had been rowing for 11 years and here I was in the final, a 6 minute race and absolutely every stroke I had done, and hour on the river I had spent, all came down to these 6 minutes. And it just seemed so ridiculous to me that I actually found it funny, and remember chuckling to myself. Pressure can get to you but I think if you know how to let it out, and channel it in the right way, it can actually be a good thing and the combination of all of the above I think I actually used the pressure as fuel in the end.
So based on what you have said there will Rio 2016 be less pressure? You’ve now got one under your belt and not in front of your own crowd.
I hope it will be less pressure. I went into this Olympiad with the mindset of wanting to enjoy it. And I live to that a little bit but not as much as I thought I would. The pressure now is pushing even further and being even better and also I think I would have accepted any medal at London as that would have been my biggest achievement to that date. But now it’s gold or nothing which in itself is more pressure.
Are you rowing with the same guys or is it a different crew?
So last season (2014 season) I was rowing with just one of the guys. Andy Triggs Hodge. Three of us are still rowing, one of them has retired but the crews change every year.
Is that a hard adjustment to make? As I imagine you got very close to the three guys in London?
No it’s not difficult. It just part of our sport. It’s just what happens, every year we go through the trials and selection process and Jurgen ranks us and you’ve just got to be aware that you may not retain your seat so no it’s not really hard, it’s just part of the sport.
Back to that race in London. Going into it you’d lost to Australia a number of times before the Games, how were you able to reverse the fortunes?
This is actually quite interesting. We actually went round Matthew Pinsent’s house a few months before the Games and we realised that even this amazing rower, the hero of our sport who we all looked up to had always experienced difficulties going into Games. We always thought he just turned up and won, turned up and won, turned up and won but that just wasn’t the case. He didn’t win every race he competed it. He won the ones that were really necessary but that involved a hell of a lot of work and stress and problems along the way. So it was a relief to hear that the problems we were having in our boat – in the sense that we’d lost to the Australians – he had suffered as well. His boats also had suffered injury and illness problems and it just showed us that nothing was straight forward in his career either. And he gave us some great advice, and told us to really talk in depth amongst ourselves about how we could improve the boat and so we went off to our training camp and we did what he said. We talked at length, daily, about what we could do to improve the boat and to eek out marginal gains and we began to see results. Training times were improved, the times in our heats and semi finals were a lot better and then everything clicked and came together in the final and we won really well.
That’s great to hear that you were able to utilise someone who is so respected in your sport. Too often, in my opinion, Britain do not utilise past champions and sportstars in the way they should. It doesn’t make sense to me that in sports like football we don’t use our best footballers and get their thoughts and insights to help the current national team.
Yes exactly. We’re lucky that we have a huge resource pool in Rowing, all of whom are only too happy to offer advice and guidance and we often seek them out. I think the same is true of cycling.
It’s no coincidence then that these are two of our greatest sports!
So the moment you crossed the line and knew you’d won gold, can you describe that feeling? Relief or pure joy?
I had wondered my whole life what that moment was going to be like. I had dreamt of it my whole life. The immediate reaction was one of relief, I was just so relieved that I’d achieved what I and the guys had set out to do. But then everything happened in such a whirlwind. I was taken through the different media people and it wasn’t until I was standing on the podium and I saw my family as the flag was lifted that I realised what I had achieved. They’d been there on the entire journey and it was just so nice to share that with them. A key support network, like your family, are so vital if you’re going be a champion. You need to have people who believe in you when you sometimes lose that belief in yourself. That day was a special day for my family and I, and one that I will treasure.
You need to have people who believe in you when you sometimes lose that belief in yourself.
You’re a gold medallist, in front of your own nation, you’ve probably reached the pinnacle of your sport. Why not stop there? It’s not going to get better than that moment is it?
It was always my intention to carry on because rowing to me has been in two distinct parts. The first part where I was unsuccessful and was actually miserable, and the second part after Beijing where things have been going right. It felt like a new start, and I feel like I am on an upward curve where I’ve yet to reach my peak and I am not as good as I could be. And I wanted to feel like what it would be like rowing and racing having known I’ve achieved a major goal which was that medal, and actually then enjoy it rather than being consistently under this grey cloud which is where I felt I had not fulfilled my potential. But everyday, every single day, I have a point in the day where I think ah I’d rather not do this session, or what am I doing out here in the pouring rain? But when those moments happen I instantaneously think of my friends and other people who are in office and who potentially would give anything to be in my position. So I recognise that I am very lucky to be doing what I am doing, and that’s a massive motivation – that I actually enjoy what I do. I’ve also just come back from Rio and seen where we will train and where we will compete and it is amazing. It’s in such a beautiful spot and right in the middle of the city. So I think Rio will be a really great games. It’ll be a lot different to London in a lot of respects but I think it will be a big success.
I hope so. Brazil seems such a vibrant country that I am sure the Olympics will be full of colour and fun.
Exactly. I can’t wait!
If we talk about your preparation. Are you on the water at some crazy hour?
Well no but we’re on the water seven days a week at 7.30 in the morning.
Seven days a week at 7.30 in the morning! Sounds horrendous!
Yeh so we train 7 days a week, and we do 3 sessions a day, two hours a session.
Oh my word! That’s commitment right there!
It can be tough but you have to put the hours in to get the results in. You’re very unlikely to succeed without first putting in hard work.
Very true! So if you decide not to go on after Rio, do you know what it is you want to do?
Basically no I don’t know what to do. I am trying to figure that out at the moment.
Does that scare you?
A little bit yes, but mainly because I’ve got a family to support. If I decide to stop after Rio then my funding that supports our whole family, just about, then that just finishes. So I have to have something to live off straight away so that is scary. But I feel like opportunities will come, and are coming. I am meeting interesting people and am doing some motivational talking but I realise that won’t last forever. Also rowing has great transferable skills – it gives you incredible teamwork, it shows commitment and hard work and all these things are quite desirable for future employers.
I imagine that a lot of rowers, and indeed sportsmen and women, are in your position. So because of this, and the pressure of having to suddenly find a job, do you think that depression on the rise in say rowing?
That’s an interesting point but it’s not something that is highly prevelent in our sport, as far as I am aware. I guess with sports like football, where the riches are so great, the difference from being at the top to then just leading a more fairly ordinary existence means the contrast is that much sharper which is possibly why it could be a bigger issue but I must admit I had not given it a lot of thought. We also have great support from UK Sport who help us with such matters and help us adapt to normal life. Going back to what it is I want to do, I am very interested in adventurous types of things and if I can somehow find out ways where I can turn that passion I have into some sustainable living then that would be great. Polar explorers and extreme athletes I find fascinating and I know you’ve recently spoken to James Ketchell who has done some crazy things, and I’d love to find out more about how he is able to earn a living from that.
Absolutely. It would be great if we can put you two in touch with each other. You may have just answered it there, but you’re an inspiration to many, who is it that inspires you?
So yeh polar explorers, and adventurers are amazing I think – how they push themselves. But a group like the Row2Recovery guys are simply amazing. So they’re two or four amputee soldiers who row across the Atlantic with a couple of able bodied individuals and they complete the whole 3000 miles unsupported. They’ve gone through horrendous trauma and to be able to do what it is that they do, after experiencing such hellish lows, is quite incredible, they are amazing.
They really are. The more I talk to people like you and become aware of some of these stories like these guys the more I realise just how incredible people are. So one last question is that we’d love for our readers to be able to get involved with ZIDI Leader projects and challenges. Is there anything that you’re doing at the moment that you think they could get involved in?
So I am in talks with a charity at the moment actually and doing some stuff for them but it is early days. I am also a big supporter of the Row2Recovery guys, their site is http://www.row2recovery.com/altantic-row-2013.html and any money that can be raised for them would be great. As well as that I’d certainly be interested in answering any questions to any would be aspiring Olympians and try and pass on any advice I’ve been given, or stuff that I have learnt that could be of use.
That would be great. Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me! We can’t wait for Rio. We’ll keep in touch and continue to find out how training is going and how the prep for Rio is coming along.
Thank you, been great to chat!