You hear a lot about marginal gains in elite sport. Top class rowers, cyclists and runners all jostle to get that tiny edge over their competitors that will nose them over the line in front. But it always feels a little silly and self-indulgent to be bothered about that kind of thing when you’re an Ordinary Joe, rowing at club level and struggling with basic things like rushing the slide and steering in a straight line. Yet as we crossed the line at yesterday’s British Masters Champs, the fight for the silver medal really did come down to some tiny, miniscule, invisible advantage that made me rethink the whole idea of marginal gains for people like me.
Four minutes and 22.51 seconds earlier things hadn’t looked great. Unbeknownst to my crewmates, I’d pulled a muscle in my calf during an ill-advised warm-up (note to self: you’re a rower, not a runner). With gritted teeth I’d managed not to limp as we carried the boat to the water; there was no point worrying everyone. An injury was out of the question and I reminded myself that the calves only play a minor role in the rowing stroke. To make matters worse, I managed to catch a boat-stopping crab in our last-minute practice start.
It was time to give myself a stern talking to. There were only gold and silver medals up for grabs and I was in no mood to miss out on one of them, so there was no room for self-doubt. I silenced the inner voice chattering on about how I might catch another crab on the start, how my calf was hurting and how there were two tidy-looking composite crews in the line up (not to mention an even tidier-looking crew from Wallingford).
“Heads in,” commanded our Supercox, Kathryn, and for once I obeyed. When your coxswain stands head and shoulders above you and has coxed you in every medal-winning race you’ve been in, you tend to pay attention.
By 250m in it was clear this was a race for second place. The classy crew from Wallingford had established a strong and unassailable lead. It was down to the rest of us to battle it out. And battle we did. Urged on by our Supercox to find reserves we didn’t know we had, we dug deeper and deeper.
By the half way point it was neck and neck between us and the crew in the next lane. We dug deeper. So did they. We edged ahead. So did they. On we went, stroke after stroke after stroke, in a blur of exertion, until we crossed the line with no idea who’d got the medal.
Then finally, “Monmouth, come to the pontoon,” called an official and we realised the silver was ours. What we didn’t learn until later was that it had come down to photo finish with a difference of just 0.13 seconds. One-tenth of a second. A hairsbreadth. A heartbeat.
Who knows what gave us that split second advantage? The beetroot juice I’d been downing? Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. Last weekend’s session working on our start? Quite possibly. Our cox’s rallying cries? Certainly. Our strong squad spirit born of cold mornings, hard ergs, sore legs and shared laughter? Without doubt.
Whatever made the difference, it was a beautiful moment and I shall cherish that medal for everything it represents. But we won’t be resting on our laurels. Our next challenge is to figure out how to make up that distinctly non-marginal 15 seconds that the magnificent warriors from Wallingford had over us. That, my friends, really is a work in progress.
Racing pics by Ben Rodford. Go to http://benrodford.photoshelter.com/ to get your pics of the event.