In a world of giants Sir Matt Pinsent stands like a Colossus, revered by his peers and inspiring awe in all who have watched him row. Interview by Sandra Fraser, image courtesy The River and Rowing Museum. Front cover image by Eamonn McCabe
Matthew Pinsent is big – physically and in terms of his international sporting achievements. Even surrounded, as he is the first time I meet him, by gold medal-winning Olympians at Henley River and Rowing Museum, he rises head-and-shoulders above everyone present. His four gold medals in four Olympic games, and ten world championship medals (two of these won in the same year, in races held only two hours apart), mark him out as one of the world’s greatest sportsmen. Beacon-like, he is an example to all 2012 Olympic hopefuls, no matter what their sport or aspirations.
Even if you’re not a rowing or Boat Race fan, you’d be hard-pressed not to notice Sir Matthew as he walks down the street. Superlatives spring to mind when dealing with British rowers. Size, strength and mental toughness are pre-requisites for the sport – that’s before you add technique and dedication into the equation. Matt Pinsent, as the world came to know him, also has hands like shovels, a chest like a barrel, size 14 feet and, at 1.96m (that’s 6ft 5in) tall, and weighing 110kg (17st 4lb) during his rowing days, an imposing presence. For years, when he was training, he lived in Henley-on-Thames – he retains connections with the town through the Leander Club, the River and Rowing Museum, where he is honorary vice-president, as well as at various rowing events and regattas held every year.
So how did Sir Matthew start rowing?
“I had a choice of cricket or rowing in school. I had a few friends going down to the river, so chose rowing,” he says. He was neither big for his age, nor naturally talented at the sport, initially, he says, and rowed in the second crew, but he loved the sport. As he grew, and by the time he reached 16, his physical size began to play its part.
“When I was about 17 I got it all together and obviously being bigger also helps in this event,” he says. Naturally tenacious, he found something he was very good at.
“I was always competitive,” he says. “And there was nothing in my life which was going to take me off in another direction.”
Matthew attended Eton College, then read geography at the University of Oxford, St Catherine’s College. Anyone who watched the television preamble to this year’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (Matthew was twice in the winning boat and once, as Oxford Rowing Club president, on the losing crew) will have noticed academic standards are upheld at these institutions, studies and exam passes have to be juggled with the training required to keep a top-flight athlete in world-beating condition – something Sir Matthew endorses as good discipline for future life.
In 1992, the age of 21, he won his first Olympic gold medal in the coxless pair with the legendary Steve (now Sir Steve) Redgrave. So is Sir Steve the man who has most inspired him?
“I guess on a rowing level Steve would be a very strong personality in my life – along with Jürgen [Grobler the national rowing coach] – both of those two,” says Matthew.
The decision to bring Grobler to Henley in 1991 had a marked effect on Matthew’s – and, he suggests, Steve’s – future rowing careers. It was a partnership that shaped both their lives not least when, as part of the coxless fours, Matthew won his third, and Steve his almost unprecedented fifth, consecutive Olympic gold medal. The sight of Matthew’s massive bulk, powerhousing the boat to the Sydney Olympics finish line, and clambering over Tim Foster to reach his friend to congratulate him and give him a hug, before ignominiously falling into Penrith Lake, is one few people will ever forget. It highlighted the close bond the two men had forged over years of hard training and tough set-backs.
After snatching his fourth gold medal in 2004, Matthew wept openly, both immediately after the race and on the podium. The journey the four, James Cracknell, Steve Williams and Ed Coode, had been on as a crew had been tough and the emotion flooded out. In allowing it to do so, Matthew unwittingly endeared himself to millions of viewers.
“We had had so many injuries in the run-up to the games,” he says.
So are his feelings very close to the surface or were the tears shed because he knew it was his last Olympics?
“I don’t think it was that I definitely knew I was going to stop – though I was fairly sure. I didn’t allow myself to contemplate retiring – that would have been quite limiting in the run-up to the Olympics,” he says. “When you get to Olympic level you can’t stand back and be unemotional, though it would be shattering if all you did was emotion. Your training is on one level, when you come to perform you dig down as far as humanly possible – the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive,” he says.
These days Matthew is enjoying mentoring across two or three sports – though he modestly says it’s on a small scale with people who are already at the top of their game – though he’s reserving judgement about becoming a coach. Now a journalist working for the BBC, he manages to neatly sidestep the next question – whether it was hard to watch the Olympics from the sidelines in 2008. Instead he heaps praise on the next generation of Olympians who put on such inspirational performances. He is relishing his new career and feels he has an ability in that direction.
“I do enjoy it. I find it very rewarding – it’s a different discipline to what I did before,” he says.
Sir Matthew, who was awarded a knighthood in the 2005 New Year’s Honours List is looking forward to 2012 both professionally and personally, though he doesn’t know if he will be commissioned by the BBC to cover the Olympics – that decision – even for someone with his gold medal winning record, will come later. Waiting for selection is something he grew used to as an athlete, he suggests.
In mentioning the London 2012 Games one can’t ignore the financial pressure the nation may come under, a point Sir Matthew – who has been a member of the International Olympic Committee – answers with tact.
“I totally take on board that in hindsight it looks difficult because we’ve had a recession. But I think it’s something that will only be good for sport and only good for the country. I think it’s something we do need.”
Hosting the Olympics should raise our nation’s sporting aspiration and leave a sporting legacy for future generations to enjoy, he feels. Now a father of twin boys, Jonah and Lucas and a daughter, Eve, with his wife Demetra, he would be happy if they showed sporting aptitude.
“There are a lot of decisions to make along the way, whether that’s in rowing in not,” he says.
It is only just dawning on the boys that their father is something special to the sporting world. They recently arrived at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley and were totally bemused by the statue of “Daddy” in the car park – pointing first to the bronze by sculptor Sean Henry and then to the real thing standing before them, much to Matthew’s amusement.
Though his broadcast career takes him worldwide and his base is now in London, Matthew’s next trip to Henley on Thames will be for the Women’s Regatta this month.
“The river marks the border,” he says. “And I’ve crossed from Oxfordshire into Berkshire more often than most people.”
He enjoys returning to the town where he lived, trained and where spent so much of his young adulthood.
Matthew particularly likes taking a walk along the Regatta course tow path.
“It’s pretty special,” he says. Anyone spotting him out for a quiet moment of reflection by the river will also pause and remember the thrill his successes brought to the nation.
Sir Matthew Pinsent’s autobiography “A lifetime in a race” is published by Ebury Press.
Matthew Pinsent’s lung capacity at the height of his rowing career was measured 8.5 litres – the largest ever recorded in Britain until recently, when Olympic rower Peter Reed’s capacity was measured at 11.68 litres.
Sir Matthew Pinsent’s Olympic Honours
Gold 1992 Barcelona Coxless Pair
Gold 1996 Atlanta Coxless Pair
Gold 2000 Sydney Coxless Four
Gold 2004 Athens Coxless Four
World Championship results
Bronze 1989 Bled Coxed Four
Bronze 1990 Tasmania Coxless Pair
Gold 1991 Vienna Coxless Pair
Gold 1993 Račice Coxless Pair
Gold 1994 Indianapolis Coxless Pair
Gold 1995 Tampere Coxless Pair
Gold 1997 Aiguebelette Coxless Four
Gold 1998 Cologne Coxless Four
Gold 1999 St. Catharine’s Coxless Four
Gold 2001 Lucerne Coxless Pair
Gold 2001 Lucerne Coxed Pair
Gold 2002 Seville Coxless Pair
Matthew Pinsent was awarded a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list announced on December 31, 2004.
This article first appeared in the June 2009 edition of Oxfordshire Life magazine.