Matthew Pinsent may not be as iconic as mentor Steve Redgrave, but the British rower says he has no complaints.
He chased no one's shadows
It would be tempting for Sir Matthew Pinsent to spend the odd fanciful moment wondering how much more famous he could have become had he not spent almost his entire rowing career in the shadow of the greatest oarsman of all time. That thought has never crossed the mind of one of sport's gentle giants. Pinsent remains indebted to his long-time mentor Sir Steve Redgrave for providing him with the opportunities to make his mark in a sport that has rarely captured the imagination of watching global audiences.
Without Redgave, Pinsent knows he would have found it even tougher to make an impact in his chosen field. He readily acknowledges that and offers not even the slightest hint of jealousy that his own fantastic haul of four Olympic gold medals is one short of Redgrave's fabulous five. "I always knew that my career was infinitely better off because of Steve," said Pinsent who shared in three of Redgrave's five Olympic triumphs and went on to add a fourth, unaided by the great man, in Athens in 2004.
"He looked after me from day one. We started training together in 1990 when I was 19 and in my first year at university. He had a sponsorship contract that was worth £20,000 [Dh118,717] and and he decreed that in that first year I would get £6,000 of it. "For me as a student on a £5,000 grant I suddenly became incredibly rich. From that moment on, every aspect of my career became much easier because I was with Steve." The then teenage Pinsent was not just a strapping muscular figure but was mature enough in mind to realise that at the time he was playing the role of supporting cast to a genuine sporting superstar.
"When media people came to interview us I knew that they were only going to write or talk about Steve, but without Steve they would not have been there at all," was the philosophical view of a man who now has first hand experience of how the media operates in his duties as a broadcaster. "I still got my picture in the paper alongside him." Despite Redgrave's top billing Pinsent never felt inferior. which is not surprising considering the junior member of the double act weighs in at a daunting 105kgs, slightly heavier than his mentor, and is the same height at 1m 95cm in his bare feet.
"On a personal level there was never an imbalance between us," he said. "Steve needed a partner who was his equal physically, mentally and competitively. I don't think I fulfilled that role until about 1994. "It took me three years and an Olympic gold medal before I was in his face properly. "Physically I was able to carry it off because I was so big and strong and I could match him at almost everything he did. But I had to match up to him in other ways, too.
"People would love to make things about the differences between us - and there were differences - but broadly we were so alike in what we wanted to do. I was more like Steve than anybody else so it is a bit harsh to beef up the differences between us.We were very competitive between ourselves but that made us an incredibly powerful unit to present to the rest of the world for a substantial period of time."
Pinsent provided a fascinating insight into what made Redgrave such a dominant force in the world of sport by recalling with clarity the circumstances leading to their second Olympic victory together in Atlanta in 1996. "On the morning of our final the bomb went off close to the Olympic Village," Pinsent said. "I remember Steve sitting on the edge of his bed at six in the morning. "He was staring glumly at the TV and looked as though he was stuck there. I said 'come on it's the Olympic final let's go'. He replied 'no, there is a bomb just gone off in Atlanta'.
"Then we saw a message come on to the screen from the organisers saying that the Games were going to continue despite the interruption and Steve just flicked off the television and clicked into competitive gear. "If our race is at 10.30 in the morning we were not going to mope around thinking about what might have happened around us, no matter how damaging it may have been for those involved. "If the Games are on, this is our moment, we told ourselves - the product of the last four years.
"We were totally focused. Once the Games were declared to be continuing, you cannot think of anything else - and all we thought about was making sure that we struck gold again." And strike gold the imperious coxless pair did. "We ended up winning by over a second which was enough, but it was ugly winning," Pinsent said. "That was when Steve made his memorable comment that if anybody saw him near a boat again they could shoot him.
"We were relieved that it was over and that should never be the case after an Olympic victory. "You should always try to savour the moment and make the celebrations last as long as possible but we were just saying 'let's get out of here'." Pinsent believed Redgrave would carry through his declaration to retire after that fourth Olympic gold. "I was sure Steve was going to stop after that but I called him to discuss it and discovered that he was of a mind to continue," he said.
"I told him that we had to switch from a pair to a [coxless] four and he agreed with that. There was another ladder to climb and that's how the Sydney project started. "We started rowing with Tim [Foster] and James [Cracknell] and that unit stayed virtually unchanged for more than three years up to Sydney. "I am so pleased that Steve carried on because if he had stopped after Atlanta people at home would have been saying things like 'who's that rowing bloke who won four gold medals?'. Now everybody in sport knows who he is.
"I have often said that he was more famous for his fifth gold medal than the other four put together. "People cottoned on to the idea that he was trying to win his fifth. That was a big story running into Atlanta when he was going for four, but five took it into crazy country." Sydney 2000 was the time when, as Pinsent put it, rowing came of age in the United Kingdom. "We initially thought that the big time difference between Britain and Australia would mean there would be hardly anybody watching but it turned out that there were over eight million viewers watching us live at one o'clock in the morning. We were told that people were having late night parties just so they could watch us race. It was amazing.
"Steve became the star of the Games and we were in the boat with him. For a rower to be the top attraction to British sports audiences was incredible. We were so used to being in Row Z at the annual Sports Review of the Year and then all of a sudden we had a guy who was winning the thing and getting knighted. We have made it now, I thought." That memorable Australian morning/British night finally brought the curtain down on Redgrave's competitive career but it served to inspire Pinsent to greater glory and a knighthood to match that of his illustrious colleague.
"Athens in 2004 was my peak," said Pinsent who went to the Beijing Olympiad last year in his current media role and is looking forward to being even more experienced in that position when the Games take place in his homeland in 2012. "I think it was so important for me to win without Steve," he said about his triumphant link-up again with Cracknell along with new colleagues Ed Coode and Steve Williams. I had to prove to myself that I could do it without him. It was so important career wise. I don't think I would have the profile I have now if I had just been Steve's partner.
"They say Sydney was a close race but we knew that we had won it. That was by no means the case in Athens. There was no way you could have known who had won 10 strokes from the finishing line. "I remember the Canadian stroke man shouting across 'did you guys win that?', so he obviously didn't know. "Then I saw the crowd starting to wave Union Flags and thought that's a positive sign for us and then I was told that we had won by eight hundreds of a second. For me personally, that was my crowning glory."
Winning a fourth gold medal begged the question - and it was asked hundreds of times - whether Pinsent would try to equal Redgrave's record of five. "I considered going for a fifth but one important thing I learned from Steve eight years earlier was not to shoot your mouth off about future plans. "I suggested before the Games that I would retire but after the Games it was so crazy that I didn't rush into my decision. Olympic gold medallists had really high currency for the few weeks that followed the Games. You knew you had to enjoy it and fill your boots with it in the knowledge that it would soon die down." In the end, Pinsent's powerful body gave him a message he could not ignore.
"What persuaded me was my own physical energy and feeling about the situation," he said. "After Barcelona I was ready to train again in a week; Atlanta took six weeks; Sydney three months and after Athens it just went quiet. I simply didn't fancy it any more. "The desire to get back into the boat and do some serious training had vanished. So just before Christmas that year I made up my mind to pack it in."
While Pinsent was agonising over whether to stay or go, the wheels were being set in motion for his knighthood. "They must have had their meeting before I retired," he suggested. "It was four or five weeks between retiring and getting the letter. I think I knew there was a chance that they would do it but at that point sporting knighthoods tended to be awarded to older figures than me. "And the other key factor weighing against me was that I had achieved one fewer gold medal than Steve.
"Where do you draw the line? What do you consider to be a knighthood level of achievement in a sporting career? "Thankfully they thought that four was enough. I didn't have to buy my mum a Christmas present that year - I just gave her the envelope. It was hard keeping it a secret, though." @Email:email@example.com