(Being laid up in pain has given me the time to reflect and as such this is going to be a long one. At some point I will share two other posts, one about the race and another about the pain. As for the future of this blog beyond that and my future as a rower I am going take some time to decide what to do. Any thoughts are welcome)
This has been the most amazing experience. The games, our performance, others performances, the support, the expectations, the conditions, wonderful reactions, failure, crushing moments, elation, and family and friends. The list goes on and on but from where I have sat it has blown me away and even with the pain of my back now become an increasing concern as to my longer term health, I am still buzzing and excited and about everything that I have seen and been part of. In fact it is as if I can not type fast enough.
Firstly I need to thank many for their efforts, assistance, guidance and support.
My Wife, Melanie has been dare I say it my rock. Yes it is cliche but true. Her capacity to love me and care for me and take this journey as my partner has shown me what love is all about and to think that we have two great kids and a wonderful family is just some important in providing inspiration, balance and reassurance that not matter the result they will still be here for me. It makes a difference feeling and knowing that. Melanie has been with me through it all since 1996 and her words of encouragement and willingness to focus on the positives has been critical in this last two weeks.
My Dad and Nana came to Beijing and it was something that really brought home the connection with my family. Nana told me how proud she was after the final and for her to be here and see it live is something that I feel grateful to have happened. With my Dad it has been obviously a life long journey, with highs and lows. Like any challenging teenager we went through a few years of banging heads. I recall 96 and the hug I got from him, but this time with all the I had gone through it felt to me that the determination to perform with pain came directly from his influence.
My friends are crucial to keeping me balanced. They all have great out looks on life and with that comes and wonderful relationships. The understanding they show enables us all to share in what we all go through in way that embeds the memories with such energy and life.
Chris O’Brien has been an integral part of my journey since 2002. The day that I asked him back then what he wanted to do going forward as a coach. His response was vivid and with it and a simple conversation we have grown into a great partnership. Our relationship is important to me and he has allowed me to be the best I can. What does that mean? Well he has support and challenged me as a person and athlete. It has been over a long period of time and often quiet subtle. I have been involved with many great coaches, Bram McLeod, Laurie Stokes, Laurie Malcolm, James Tomkins, Paul McGann, Noel Donaldson, Rienhold Batchi, Harold Jarhling & Chris. Some names will be know other less so but they are equally are important to how and why I have developed the way I have. This is not to forget my first coach was my Dad. I can still hear his words echo in my mind, “concentrate, concentrate” and he would always say, “have and great start”. They all have given my wonderful opportunities to learn and improve.
Over the years things have changed and with time in the sport you receive certain opportunities to engage with significant people in the sport. It takes time and requires a level of performance for the doors to open. This I am appreciative of and a few people have directly or indirectly influenced me in ways they may not realise.
The support team we have develop a great relationship with and they include our team managers, physio’s, our boatmen, masseurs, our physiologist and doctors. They have been instrumental and we enjoy the interactions we have with them that goes beyond athletes and support staff, to wonderful friendships.
It has been quiet incredible this trip to work with so many great people who make a real difference to our performance. As we age the relationships change and this has made the experience of rowing all the more enriching over the years. To have lasting and engaging discussion about common interests and topics that range from traveling, to training, to competition, to family, likes, dislikes, life and much much more. Boy listen to me, it is important I get this down because I feel strongly about the connections we make. In the hustle and bustle of preparations and competitions it is ease to let slip the thank you. To have come through this I know how much the support, friendships and connections have meant to me and I just really want to say thank you.
This includes those who I may not have even met. Those who have follow this journey through this medium. The comments and well wishes have been very must appreciated. Rowing for me has always been about connection. On the water it is obvious. Off the water so essential and yet forgotten. Connection to self, other, the sport, the events, the history and the future.
This past three years I have had a particular connection with Duncan. This actually has been an extension of a friendship that began some time around 1997-98. The reason for the vague timeline is that I had obviously meet him before this time but during these years we began have different conversations. More meaningful, yet I say that not to marginalise our time before, but to define how the connection I think changed from being another athlete on the team to enjoying a good chat, some banter, some laughs and a deep respect. During this time he was rowing with his brother in a double scull and being coached by his dad. In fact I am sure one element we relate to each other well because our dads I think had a huge impact on shaping us as athletes. My dad really did coach me when I raced BMX and most of my athletes as a school kid.
Let me go back a little further, Duncan and I went to the same Primary School in Queensland. When I was in grade 6 he was in grade 7. We never knew each other but years later worked out that we had while I was living in Queensland for a year and a half. It’s strange and to think the next time we were introduced was by James Tomkins out side of the Mercantile rowing club in 1993. It was two years after he had been to the junior World Championships and I was fresh out of school. As I arrived at the shed I saw James and went up to say hi as he had coached me a school the year before. Duncan appear and I was blown away by the size of the guy. He and James stood tall and I felt like they towered over me. I remember think something like, shit if thats what you have to be to be good I may struggle. The size, presence and physicalness struck me and they spoke about a World I was yet to know, understand or even fathom. One I held as a hero, an idol and the other quiet simply struck me as having all the attributes of an amazing athlete and the other I sensed was beginning to grow and fill out his potential. I remember t clearly because it made me feel small and so very far away from what has become possible. Duncan and his brother rowed their singles up the Yarra River as I headed home. The future was obvious to me that he surely had to become a great rower for Australia, like James and others.
In 1997 I was on a boat ride while on tour with the Australian eight and Duncan and his Dad we there too. During this trip we got into on fantastic discussion about rowing. By this stage we had both been to the Olympic games in 1996 and had enjoy achieving some great results. The topic for that day was about getting excited about everyone having their best row and how in the end we are all entertainers. Crazy I know but maybe we had to much time on our hands. The point I was making on the day was that it is never really just about us. It is about so much more. And as athlete we need to understand the value of races beginning exciting to watch. Of us showing the audience amazing things on the water. We had different views which was great and as was debated the nature of being there just for you or being there for more than you we shared an interaction that went beyond the usual to the unusual. Well maybe not so unusual but meaningful. Why? Because as the conversation it was testing our ideas, our interests and our willingness to stay engaged. In principle we were stretching, contraction, accepting, resisting and ultimately harmonising. All this long before jumping in a boat. To consider this in principle it is much like the relationship I have enjoyed with James. Before James and I ever rowed together we had developed a great relationship as coach and athlete, to surfing buddies, to crew mates in the four and eventually partners in the pair.
With Duncan by the time we step into a pair we had a great connection. Actually it was the connection off the water that enabled us to get past the reaction to our first rows together that were not particularly flash. Yes our pair was not made in heaven as some would say needs to happen to be great in a pair. Our friendship lead us to try the pair. A friendship built on respect, commonality, difference and a genuine sense of exploration.
I have thanked Duncan, but write this because it needs to be known. I thank him for taking on the challenge of a conversation, of a first time rough as guts row in the pair, of being open to what was often a constant barrage of ideas and thought coming his way, of his deep desire to keep going until he finally won an Olympic Gold and on he heart. For a big man he has an equally big heart and what really sealed it for me was during this last year. Two occasion not all the long apart I challenged him and saw the emotion and care for being involved in our pair. To see the meaning it held for him to be in this combination was not expressed in words or talk. It was not expressed in strength or brute force. He was on the edge and vulnerable. I was pushing because I needed to see what was at his center. His reason to live and his reason to perform. In this relationship I was needing to know how far he was willing to go to ensure we left nothing to chance. On the first occasion we sat in Chris’s hotel room and I felt a little lost and frustrated at our situation about a week before Luzern World Cup. It was time to change gear and shift thing into a new space. I push and questioned him because I felt we need to push and question each other. The three of us sat there. And I could not settle for letting things go. I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in us and yes part of me was disappointed in both of them. In hindsight it made no difference to the immediate competition but I feel it open a new door.
So I pushed him about what had happen during our rowing session. I was like a dog trying to get through a small hole to some food. Our friendship could have been crushed that day, our relationship could have soured during that moment. Maybe this was all just in my mind or maybe they both felt it too. So I kept pushing, throwing it out there and talking in circles. When final I saw the opportunity for silence. The space was create and as it stretched nothing came. Nothing moved, not shifted. We were revving the engine but had it in neutral. So I backed off the gas for a moment and gathered my thoughts. I thought to myself that I could really say something that could stuff all that we created. With a few glances at Chris I tried to grasp the state of play. Was this the time to push again, or just leave it and hope no damage had been done that couldn’t be forgot with a good row or race.
To explain this we had been involved in a session where we really underperformed in the last workload. During I had so many thoughts. We were working against the double and had been going pretty well comparatively when in the final rate step we folded. The double screamed past us and even the reserve pair stayed in front until the end. When we crossed the line I let rip with a few statements. I was fueled, obsessed, emotional and feel the competitiveness. Duncan went quiet and that was that. We both went our ways, our personalities and traits surfaced in an extreme manner. He walk and I talked. Firstly with Chris and I just kept saying, you can always find away to dig deeper. You can always find more. You should never give something away for nothing, not a competitor thats for sure.
He took off and walked back to the hotel and I went for coffee with Chris. I knew I had reacted, but didn’t feel sorry about it. I judged our actions a weak, mentally weak. It was my reaction the the workload, the effort and our inability to compete. Duncan took it as I was calling him weak, mentally weak.
Difference is critical, he walked and I talked. It is what we do. So our meeting back in the hotel room some four hours later was surreal. Both of us being who we are and yet needing to shift to change if only a little. Eventually after pushing and leaving some silence which was a challenge for me as it is the way I sort things out in my own mind. Throw it out there, throw it around until it becomes clear, until other question it, agree or disagree. Sometimes I have learnt I don’t listen. This connect along with the connection with Chris and obviously my wife have been the ones that have challenged me to listen. So here we were. I was like a cat on the so called hot tim roof. Jumping around pushing, moving and pretty much trying any angle to find the next gear with Duncan.
Finally I burst out with something like, “Well that’s it, fuck me mate that shits me. you know we have a row like that and you say nothing. You walk home and obviously you been think, I don’t know. You get back here we have sat in our room and nothing. We sit here now and nothing. If this is the way it’s going to be I would rather go home.”
We sat there and I thought shit I have gone and done it now…
Then Duncan spoke and with it come a genuine emotional message. He said, “You really hurt me when you said I was mentally weak. Do you think I am mentally weak?” With that question he didn’t realise it but he subtly pushed back. He emotional exposed him self and exposed our relationship to an intensely honest question. To have your friend look you in the eyes, with the obvious hurt and emotion that he was feeling. Thats when I saw behind the exterior to a part of him that I didn’t expect, or know of, to a part that flattened me and shifted my perception of him. The question in any other context or situation would not have hang in the air like a timeless pureness to it. That moment opened my eyes to see the Duncan Free who I am grateful to have been able to row with. It hit home why we had connected all those years before as friends and it I know realise is like a thread that our experiences past, present and future are connected by. He was with me and with that I was with him. Our performance would be about heart and inspiration. That is how we connected and that was what enabled us to be the best we could.
Sharing this is important because I don’t want our performance to be remembered as that Australian Pair that won, but to include if possible something of the connection we have enjoyed together. My wife said years ago about James and I being like a married couple because effectively we spend more time together than our wives. This a great thing in life and to have been fortunate to have been involved in relationships like the ones I have with Melanie, Chris, Duncan, James is something I hold dear to my heart.
To mark the connection with an event like the games and to be able to highlight it due to the performance we had together is satisfying. To know the people around you and through that knowing to feel a compelling need to reward to relationships is what it is all about. It got me through one of the toughest weeks of my life. To row with pain, fear and stress is not new, but it was one of the most intense experiences I have been through. It was the connection that kept my head above water because on many occasion I thought I was going to drown. I thought that the struggle might become to much to handle. The nightmare of 2000 came back a was initially very unnerving. Don’t mind my pun, I don’t. It was as if out of the dark a child had come running inside scared beyond words. I though simply I was going to loss the plot and I am sure a few other we conversing about the possibility of it all going some what pear shape. In stead of sharpening up and coming to the moment of readiness I think the thought was the ass could fall out of the whole thing. An any chance of gold could turn to sand, dust or just vapor.
This is where I need to thank all the panel beaters for the great work in coordinating and working on my back. Which I can now say was killing me. At least now I am out the other side. Not home yet and not in the clear, but we did the job we cam here to do. The reports thus far indicate possible surgery again. Do I regret the injury? The fact that it grew over a few days I don’t blame myself. I know various things that would have impacted it and ignited the situation, but I have no blame there either. Not because it all worked out but because I knew we had done everything to be ready and that we made no mistakes from Luzern to here. With the nightmare returning and all that came with it I was no reacting to much think. Maybe I am less aware of how I was here but with Chris and Duncan, my family and friends I felt like they held me together. Their love, their energy, their support and care. A care that comes when you have been through much together. When you have gone through highs and lows. And when you have asked questions of each other that are less about the answer and more about the effect it and they have on you.
We were never not going to make it. For a reason I can fully explain a part from my attempts here, I can’t even express. It felt like a life test. One which for the first time in my life I felt I was seeing and responding to ahead of time. It is warped, but when it all began to unfold I remember thinking and feeling like this is actually what I have been preparing for. It was not just a race. It was much much more. It was not just a gold medal, but more. We were not just a pair and if any or all of this makes sense we were more.
All of us, thank you…