Years ago I first meet Duncan Free when by chance I arrived at the Mercantile Rowing Club right when James Tomkins was out front and Duncan and his brother Marcus showed up. A World Cup event in the mens single scull was being held on the weekend coming up. A few international sculls had flown in and when I saw James we start talking as he had been one of my school coaches the year before. Obviously I looked up to James and I recall feeling pretty proud to be able to hang and and chat to him out front of the club. I knew nothing about these guys who just rocked up until James introduced me.
You see this was 1993 I was fresh out of school and so obviously I knew very little about the sport and even less about various athletes within Australia or overseas. Duncan was huge and as James explained was a junior sculler in 1991 at the Worlds.
In my mind I thought if this is the size of athlete coming through the ranks in our sport I am stuffed. He was 200cm and to me seemed bigger than James. He was a Junior World Silver medalist and was racing in this World Cup sort of event. James seemed to respect him greatly and my impression was it seemed like one of the senior elders of the sport who had a fondness of the young developing future star. I was impressed and in awe and to me I was simply trying to reconcile the obvious physical capacities they both possessed and what I had learned of their performances.
As the years continued I watched Duncan make those early quad scull in 1994 and 95 as I went through U23’s and made the senior eight in 95. I don’t know if it was a first impression thing but I always just felt and believe Duncan was super human. At the same Olympics in 1996 I saw the quad take home their bronze medal and saw the guys behind the scenes and they seemed like great young athletes who would all go on to have great careers.
Post 1996 Duncan become clear the best Australian scull and over time would show he would become as good as any our country has produced. For an athlete like my self forgetting results I had always believed him to be the most impressive athlete on our team. He seemed extremely capable in so many area’s. I remember a discussion in 1997 on a boat in Lucerne were Duncan, his Dad (Reg) and I got into a funny conversation. It was strange that I first learned that day they he and I at that time saw things quiet differently. His thinking to me was interesting and yet I thought I saw something that not until many years later showed me why he was not only a great athlete but a great person. His idea of the perfect race was where he dominated. He spoke of putting lengths into another crew or athlete and the satisfaction that comes from that. I challenged him about the reality of that and what it really means. I also at that moment when asked about what I believed it to be about responded with, “Its entertainment.” He shock his head as if in disgust or even shock. His Dad though laugh and I think got what I meant. The conversation went on and even around and around. Duncan refused to see what I meant and I refused to back down from this challenging notion of rowing being about / or should be about entertainment and that we as the rowers / scullers / athletes should be entertainers.
For year after that moment on that boat in Switzerland we would joke about that conversation. It was until 2006 when we partnered together that the jokes and jibes started turning into my interesting discussion and understanding about our role in this sport. This all came full circle when he would start to say you know I love to entertain. I think much of what we did together was about putting on a show in the pair. To create a form of magic together is and was a wonderful thing. The illusion of ease. The mystery and the movement and the strangeness of training partners living 2000 plus kms apart.
My first impression of him still stand. He is a mountain of a man. Impressive in every way. In the boat he desire the go faster was fantastic and his raw power, well that blew me away. I mean I had rowed with many great athletes. In particular the guys in the Oarsome Foursome. Duncan was like having Mike McKay and James Tomkins in the one person. Mikes strength plus some and James range of movement. Now this is the thing. Something else he had was a willingness to change, learn, pick up, work on and expose. I don’t know if he was like it all through his career and I suspect not, but over those year from 1993 to 1997, through 2000 and on the way up to 2004 I think he stood out and was performing, but add all the ups and downs together, Add the years up and the satisfactions and frustrations and by 2006 I sense an athlete who was not only resolved but malleable. His openness to learning to me seemed like he was a first timer. Maybe changing from sculling to sweep rowing did it. Maybe the disappointment of Athens and the clarity that comes from realising that certain concerns left unattended can be costly. Maybe achieving a Bronze medal as a young athlete set to take on the World and how gradually not being able to convert that potential / early success in to more hardware in the following peak periods being 2000 and 2004, had him ready. Ready to embrace change, ready to start fresh and ready to be challenged. This I believe was the stand out quality of Duncan Free in 2006 – 08. This was on top of the obvious stuff and to me transcended his physical capacities. Its also something that I think was always within him and yet over year that cheeky kids how loved challenges, plying and learning had been recognised for other things more tangible. Like any one when I are told your good for X reason over time when told enough you believe it and live it.
As a big athlete he has great vulnerability. He has a care for people like family and friends which goes deep, but because of the obvious first impression most don’t see this or get to see this. In a sport were being physical and tough appear to matter and resilience or at least the presentation of resilience and toughness seems to be re-enforced here was this giant who had to play the game. He had to be what was expected and the expectations of him were huge. We all wish to live up to expectations but with Duncan I believe this also created some of his protective layering. You only have to see him with his kids to see he is just a big kid. The pranks and humour flow in both directions, and in fact he probably leads the way. This is one of his great qualities and I am sure influenced greatly by his Dad. Reg was regularly playing little jokes and lightening a situation. The lightness of the energy with either of them in these times is amazing.
In 2004 I witnessed a shattered athlete. Duncan was disillusioned by the quads final result. He was disillusioned by the process and by trust some of the people around him who contributed to the final outcome. To not make the final of the Olympic Games after winning the final World Cup in Lucerne and beating the eventual winners of the Games, Poland was devastating for him and the guys. What made this worse was the conversation he had had with me in the lead up pre and post Lucerne about some of his concerns and his seeking advice about things we had done over the years to back up performances and in addressing issues within a team. In 2004 we had very different experiences and one thing I knew for sure was I wanted to see him as a great athlete who would go on and achieve success at the Olympics and if not by result then by the performance. At that time he was an athlete who was going to give it away then. This leads me to a final quality of Duncan Free. His capacity to trust is a great quality. Sure you have to earn trust and if you break that trust it can be a hard road with him, but trust I believe stands out. He like to trust those around him. He will believe in you and back you to the hilt. There are advantages and disadvantages to this though. It has made him vulnerable at time and also set him up for failure. It has also I hope provide him as I experienced with an amazing journey into the unknown. To venture into sweep rowing, and to embark upon a project like ours from 2006 – 08 was hugely testing of his willingness to trust. Its one of the things I felt was underlying in our relationship and still is.
To see Duncan in 2008 never loose his way and be exposed and vulnerable at times as we challenged ourselves to learn how to perform together and improve was a great thing. He showed very little resistance to change and the undeniable grin that crosses his face when like an kid who’s found something cool, it was amazing. He is solid, calm, trusting, open and cheeky. The joy I felt while in pain after we crossed the finish in Beijing was something I will never forget. To work with him and to in part help him realise his one of his childhood dreams was a huge reward.
Over the last few years while getting back into rowing we spoke greatly about possible rowing together again. It was a difficult journey for both of us. For me returning from back surgery and then Duncan making his comeback from his broke femur. The reality to rowing or racing together again around selection trials start to transpire. Duncan this time developed a rib injury and funny thing is 12 months early I had had a rib injury. It was a tough time but as we spoke on the phone after trials it became clear we both had to do what we had to do to be the best we could be going to London. I watched from a distance and was so interested to see how he would progress. Its hard watching a team mate deal with a situation like that. When he pulled out of Lucerne I fear the worst and this week final with a new scan he has been ruled out of the season. Scary things is how much damage seems to have occurred over the months of trying to train, restart training and rehabbing. A new fracture has occurred and between four obvious points of remodelling on three ribs he has been obviously in a compromised state for a long time.
He has persisted when many would be forgiven for giving up. Even with a prospect of not making selection led alone being in a great position for perform to his best come London, he stuck it out. I think he saw it through because he felt he had to. He started something after Beijing and the journey could end until he was ruled out. So my final thing about Duncan is his persistence. To be as good at this sport for as long as he has is legendary. To go through the full range of outcomes over 18 years is extraordinary. To make it back to a competitive level in Australia after his bike accident just amazes. All this and to still be able to smile about it and laugh and embrace the situation highlights his remarkable character.
He will always be a champion of our sport and he will alway be my great friend.