An open, unflinching, unashamed desire to each prove themselves the best rower on the team was the driving force behind Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent’s extraordinary triple Olympic gold medal-winning partnership. That is the truth according to the man who joined the then already two-time Olympic champion to deliver an unprecedented glut of golds for Great Britain.
“That was the reason – I was trying to prove myself against him and he was trying to hold the younger guy off. That became our schtick,” Pinsent said of a relationship that produced three Olympic titles and seven World Championship gold medals during 10 exhilarating but exhausting years.
“We would talk openly about it, the fact that we were very happy to compete against one another because by pushing each other we knew we were getting the best out of each other and then when we came together as a team, we had a lot of confidence in our fitness and ability. It was self-feeding and very positive.”
At 1.96m tall and blessed by bulk borne of years of good eating and schoolboy rowing, Pinsent had looked like a good match for Redgrave from the start. But it was character just as much as physical power which would prove critical for the 18-year-old, who was hoping to replace injured compatriot Simon Berrisford and join the already-legendary Redgrave.
“I was not nervous as much as excited,” Pinsent recalled of the moment he first got on the water with the man who had won coxed four gold in 1984 and coxless pairs gold in 1988. “I certainly didn’t see it as something I’d never done before – I mean I’d never been in a boat with Steve before, but we weren’t racing, we weren’t trying to do anything particularly technical other than just row up and down and see how it felt.”
It felt good. Pinsent had showed that not only could he live with Redgrave’s rowing capabilities but also, more crucially, he’d revealed he could handle the champion’s reputation.
“It was important for me not to feel junior,” the Englishman said. “I mean I did, for long periods of time, but I absolutely knew, as everyone does, that a rowing boat is made out of equals and so the only way for me to make it go quick was to fight my corner and be confident and outgoing and to be an equal partner as best I could.”
The duo was first given until the 1990 World Championships in Tasmania, Australia, to prove they belonged together – a period of around four months. But the real breakthrough which indicated to those in the know that this was something special came long before the bronze they took on the other side of the world.
“We thought very alike about racing and training and preparing. It really did feel quite an easy move from ‘Right, this is an experiment’ to ‘Right, this is something we are going to race in at the Olympics’. That felt very smooth and very simple for both of us.”
Success came quickly. The pair won their maiden World Championship crown 18 months after that fateful first outing on the river, with a first Olympic title following a year later in Barcelona. In the subsequent four-year period running up to the Atlanta 1996 Games, Great Britain’s finest went undefeated.
Not that things were all sunshine and roses. In fact, the reality was far from it. The duo argued regularly and passionately but, critically, always about the right things.
“We were very lucky. The clashes that we had were around process and how we were getting to where we wanted to be, rather than personal (things) or personality or lifestyle or anything,” Pinsent said. “We were forever arguing about how we wanted to make the boat go quicker, but that is a very healthy dynamic in any sports team.”
“Friendship has nothing to do with moving a boat quickly, but it certainly helps pass the time when you are on planes and buses and in hotel rooms,” Pinsent smiled. “We’d play golf, go bowling, play cards, go go-karting.”
You may not be surprised to hear that they did none of the above activities for simple pleasure.
“We were pretty competitive,” Pinsent laughed. “And we still are. He’ll say he is a better golfer and I will say I am. It’s always close. And likewise on the go-karting track.”
“We found two fairly like-minded people in Tim (Foster) and James (Cracknell) and they became quite a gelling, attractive force that kept our unit very strong through those four years,” Pinsent explained. “It was a similar approach, similar principles.”
And it produced a similar result: Olympic gold in the coxless four at Sydney 2000.
Even when Redgrave, after winning his fifth Olympic gold medal in a row, finally left the water Pinsent found his motivation still inexorably linked to the record-setter.
“After Sydney I was really looking forward to the challenge of doing it without him and proving to myself that I could do it without him,” Pinsent chuckled.
It was no surprise that Pinsent achieved just that, winning his fourth Olympic gold at the Athens 2004 Games in the men’s coxless four.
For 20 years, the names Redgrave and Pinsent towered over Olympic rowing, making the latter forever grateful that he did not fluff his lines during that 1990 trial on London’s river Thames.
“The prospect of rowing with someone as experienced as Steve was daunting,” Pinsent recalled. “But at the same time, I realised these things don’t come along very often in life and you have to seize them.”