Greg Searle is no ordinary man. While others at the age of 40 are content to factor in a weekly run, the Marlow veteran is competing in the Olympic games as part of the British men’s eight. This comes 20 years on from winning gold in Barcelona as part of the coxed pair with his brother Jonny.
Searle initially gave up rowing after the Sydney Olympics in 2000 but, clearly drawn to the water, tried his hand at sailing only to be part of the GB team in the America’s Cup in 2002.
I caught up with him on camp in Portugal two weeks prior to the start of the games and found out what sparked his decision to come out of retirement, how tough the journey has been to the Olympics and what it will mean to him and his family.
“I was commentating on the World Rowing Championships in 2009 and just didn’t feel it was for me. I didn’t know a lot of the guys that were rowing and it was all a bit sensible,” he said.
Admittedly there is a certain degree of insanity you must possess as an athlete, especially in a sport like rowing. Something which involves 6am training sessions in the icy cold water, being pushed to an absolute physical and mental limit on a regular basis and all with the possibility of being beaten by a fraction of a second.
His first step was to get the rowing machine out to test his capabilities but it was a conversation with his wife which gave him the belief to know he was making the right decision.
“I was on my way to work in Nottingham where I had some more thinking time. I called my wife [Jenny] and got quite emotional. I just said to her that it was something I needed to do. It was now or never.”
His next task was to approach the GB rowing coach Jurgen Grobler, who I first encountered when I used to train at the English Institute of Sport Centre at Bisham Abbey as an England cricketer. I would observe the rowers bench press 90kg (almost double my mass) during a tough weights circuit after their mammoth early morning sessions on the water, while I casually did body weight push-ups in the corner.
A steely character, Jurgen would patrol the area watching the rower’s techniques on the indoor machines much like a colonel studying his troops. To me he seemed strict and relentless; the type of man you would not want to get on the wrong side of, however, Greg believed that the conversation went extremely well despite being asked at one stage if he had considered coaching.
“He was as welcoming as I could have imagined. Jurgen said ‘You were not too young to win the Olympics at 20 so if you’re good enough then you’re not too old at 40 and it will be measured purely on merit.’”
From that point on the challenge was set and Searle would continue to train with the Olympics very much in his sights. He phased out of his job at Lane 4 as a leadership development advisor to businesses which was quite straightforward considering his company was started by another former Olympic gold medalist, Adrian Moorhouse.
“The training was easier than I thought. More so because I was so happy to be in the position of a full-time athlete at 40 rather than sitting behind a desk”.
I asked him how he managed to maintain a living but Lottery funding combined with sponsorship from Nestle Cereal partners and BT allowed him to focus completely on his 2012 dream, the only difference being that he would be part of a larger crew.
“It is a nice big group of people where there is real variety,” Searle said. “The diversity in ideas makes it more of a challenge as ultimately we all need to be working in sync but that is what makes it fun.”
In the past Jurgen has talked about harmony being an important factor when working with a squad. In any team sport it is imperative for everyone to be singing off the same hymn sheet but even more so in rowing whereby each stroke must be as one to allow maximum efficiency. Greg eludes to the camaraderie developed off the water which translates to their performances on the water. Part of it is the ability to laugh at each other’s expense.
“My teammates often call me ‘Old Greg’, a character from the Mighty Boosh [see YouTube].”
All I can say is that I hope it isn’t ‘Our Greg‘ disguised by all that make-up. In any case, it is this kind of tie that will stand the crew in good stead throughout the Olympics. No doubt Searle’s wisdom will also play a massive part in the team’s success but even he agrees that sometimes he has to control himself.
“Sometimes I will slip into a parental role and have to reign myself in. If I do feel my voice getting louder I have to manage myself as it can be quite dangerous to the team environment.”
It is obvious that the team is very important to him. Even at the time of our interview I have distracted him from playing cards with one of his crew. Clearly another way of bonding or just fuelling his need for competition, or even a way of keeping himself busy to avoid missing his family too much.
“Although I love what I do, being away from home is the hardest thing,” he continues. “For example I missed my son [Adam] scoring 43 off 18 balls for the U10’s for High Wycombe last weekend.”
Having been a former High Wycombe U15’s player I thought that was pretty impressive especially as his Dad considers him a bowler. Either way, I can certainly understand that is something he would not have wanted to be absent from. A true family man, he spoke of his daughter, Josie, equally with a lot of pride.
“My kids keep asking for a dog and I said to them that if I win gold we will get a golden labrador and call him Goldie. If we come second I’m getting a weimaraner in silver and it will be a chocolate labrador if we get bronze.”
With a fantastic support system around him I have every confidence that he will be standing on the podium alongside his crew come August 1st. However, the real question is which dog his kids will be running around with soon afterwards.