Picture the scene. You’re having dinner with your wife, who is heavily pregnant with your first child, and a couple of friends. Midway through the evening your wife takes you to one side. “I think it’s started”, she says. Do you:
(a) fuss round her, checking and double-checking the hospital bag and asking every 30 seconds how she’s feeling?
(b) insist on driving her to the hospital for an initial check-up, “just in case”? or
(c) go upstairs and spend an hour on the ergo?
If you’re Greg Searle, the answer is (c). Searle is an obsessive – and that, it seems, is what it takes to be a multiple Olympic oarsmen with a gold and two bronze Olympic medals to your name and a rowing career twice the length of most sportsmen’s.
His autobiography, If not now, when?, takes us on a journey through the extraordinary ups and downs that have made up his sporting life. There are the highs of the spectacular wins, such as the gold medal won with brother Jonny at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and the crashing lows of injury and poor performance, the bold decision to make a come-back and the bitter-sweet experience of London 2012, all told with a startling level of candour and self-analysis.
Searle’s obsessive attention to detail occasionally makes the read a little laboured. He has total recall of every race he’s ever competed in, and blow-by-blow accounts of J14 races when he was at Hampton School had me glazing over; I felt during the early chapters as though I’d got stuck at a party with someone who was determined to recount their entire racing history.
Yet once you’ve got past the junior years, the book is genuinely interesting. Searle is not the easiest man to get on with, as he himself admits. He speaks out when he doesn’t think things have been done right. He can be prickly with his fellow rowing stars – Matthew Pinsent seems to have consistently rubbed him up the wrong way over the years – and the insight into the politics, insecurity and jostling for position in the higher echelons of the rowing world is fascinating.
There are also salutary lessons that even a novice, club rower like me can take from it. Searle proves again and again that hard work is unavoidable if you want to succeed, and the moment you start making excuses for yourself your performance will reflect that. Equally important is team spirit. If there’s an atmosphere in the club or the crew, it’ll be reflected on the water and may cost you the crucial seconds that make the difference between a victory and a loss. It’s also tremendously heartening for veteran rowers to hear that a 40-year-old can still cut it with the youngsters, though a higher-than-normal pain threshold is probably required to do so.
Searle announced his retirement from rowing yesterday. I think we can safely assume that he won’t be spending much of his retirement with his feet up.