Athlete of the Month - November 2011
It is Wednesday evening and Drew Ginn has just finished an hour on the Wattbike before putting his son, Jasper, 6, and daughter Kyra, 10, to bed. Ginn then squeezes in a phone interview with World Rowing before dinner. But that just scrapes the surface of Ginn’s day. He trained in a four this morning before flying to Canberra for work. Ginn flew back to Melbourne at 3pm in time to squeeze in an afternoon training session.
Father, husband, consultant, rower. For Drew Ginn rowing has been part of his life for 20 years beginning as a member of the Olympic Champion ‘Oarsome Foursome’ followed by two spectacular comebacks after back operations – one that forced him out of the Sydney Olympics just a couple of months before the event and one that came directly after winning gold at the Beijing Olympics. Ginn returned to rowing earlier this year and finished the season off with an A-final place in the four.
From his home in Melbourne, Australia, Ginn talked to World Rowing as the November Athlete of the Month.
World Rowing: In your career as an athlete you have been involved in a number of different sports competitively. What is the craziest event that you have entered?
Drew Ginn: The one that was the most demanding and took the most out of me was the Ironman in 2005. It took 10 hours. I came out of the swim in seventh and seventh off the bike but then I was in a lot of pain, a whole world of hurt, and still had a marathon run to do. When I crossed the finish line I realised how resourceful you are and how you find a way to keep going and find a way to cross the finish line.
WR: How much would you say luck has played a part in your rowing career?
DG: I wouldn’t call it luck and people call me on it if I say I’ve been lucky. I’ve opted for the saying, ‘I’ve been fortunate.’ I have been in the right place at the right time but I’ve also made the most of the opportunities that have come my way. I have made the best of situations. When I got to be part of the ‘Oarsome Foursome’ as a 20 to 21 year-old I think it was about timing. If that hadn’t happened I would have had success but it would have been later.
WR: After the Beijing Olympics and your back operation what were your thoughts then about rowing at a competitive level again?
DG: I thought that was it. I had resigned myself to the fact that I just needed to get through Beijing, just race one more race. Just hold myself together one more time. So I was relieved once the final was over. But then I knew that I had come back after Sydney [when Ginn also had to have a back operation]. So about six to 12 months after the operation, I started to foster the idea of going to London in some sport, not necessarily rowing.
WR: You started off with competitive cycling. Why did you then switch back to rowing?
DG: Simple, because I wasn’t good enough in cycling. I was on the bike six months after surgery. I’ve always loved riding bikes and used to race BMX when I was younger, so I jumped into it and gave it a go. I gave myself a timeline of 18 months. I realised that I had potential but I still had a long way to go and as a 36-year-old I thought that if I can row then it made sense to do that rather than do everything that cycling would require – like I’d have to become semi-pro and join a team and travel overseas a lot. I also didn’t see the opportunity available to me. I still saw rowing as a possibility.
WR: You are aiming for London in the four. Why did you choose this boat and not the pair?
DG: I talked to Duncan [Free] the most. He was regularly on the phone to me asking, ‘is there a chance that you will come back?’ I said to him, ‘but what would we do,’ as I didn’t want to do the pair again. This was before Eric [Murray] and Hamish [Bond] had stamped their authority on the pair. I looked at what would be a challenge, but also what would be part of creating a sense of legacy in the sport. In 1996 I got to row with older guys who helped me and I’d like to offer that transitioning to some younger athletes. I want to do that with Duncs.
I have wondered if I’m kidding myself, but I still think the right event is the four.
WR: Have you ever had aspirations in the single?
DG: Yeah, every week (laughs). But then I’m reminded I don’t go that fast in the single. I like it as a training tool, so then I want to race it. But I don’t quite have the raw physiology to do it like others have. And they [the single scullers] seem to enjoy the isolation of doing it. They’re a different breed, they’re crazy. I think I’m better in a team.
WR: Where are you based at the moment?
DG: I’m at home in Melbourne until the December [national team] trials. We’ve also got a brief camp in Canberra for three days next week for the sweep squad. Then there’s the long distance trials at the end of December. We’re building up to the March 2km  Olympic selection trials.
WR: When did you get back into training after the World Rowing Championships?
DG: About two weeks after getting back. It’s a bit sooner than I normally would but I’m taking my age and situation into account. I started casually doing ergo work and on the bike. Then four weeks after the Champs the whole squad training started. I’m training in a four at the moment.
WR: Do you have any races coming up this month?
DG: There’s the state-based long-distance trials. One is a 3.8km race first in the single then an hour later in the pair. There’s also 5km and 8.6km head races in the eight.
WR: Are you expected to go to Canberra, to the national training centre?
DG: Athletes with families aren’t requested to go.
WR: What do your kids know about your rowing and successes?
DG: They know it makes me sweat lots and they know it takes me away from home. My daughter does know a bit about the Olympic stuff as they talk about it at school. But they don’t understand when I’m tired. They have a very practical view, that I’m just not at home even when I’m in the garage training. They have completely different needs.
WR: How do you talk to your kids about rowing?
DG: I asked my daughter if she’d be interested and she said, ‘not really.’ My wife and I want them to choose what they want to do. I do use rowing analogies a lot when I’m explaining why you do things a certain way, like the teamwork thing.
They’ve both been on the ergo and they got the sequence right, but there’s no more interest than that. As a parent I wouldn’t want them to row and have huge expectations on them. I just want to let them be kids.
In this second part Drew Ginn talks about getting through back pain, giving wise advice to Mahe Drysdale and what he does to make sure his body is up to any physical challenge.
World Rowing: What do you enjoy more, training or racing?
Drew Ginn: Over the years I have learned to enjoy training but racing is the ultimate test and measure. To build up to an event with all the emotions and to be able to get out there is what it’s all about and I really love the sensation being a part of the competition.
WR: How do you mentally bring yourself back from setbacks (such as your back problems)?
DG: Well I have had plenty of practice. Even last year coming back after the fractured rib took a good month and a half and so the frustration was huge and being able to keep it all in perspective critical. If time permits then returns are pretty easy as you can take the time required to build up slowly and systematically. I guess the mental side of it is about being realistic and resetting new goals and then breaking it down so each day you can have little wins.
Motivation is tricky and it has often been a big drain to come back but I have simply tried to stay focused on what I can do and worry less about what I can't.
Visualising the end game and seeing myself rowing well has always been a positive way to aid recovery from setbacks and having a great team of coaches, medical staff, etc., helping, plus having understanding teammates who are patient. So starting small and finding the little wins in simple sessions builds confidence and with that I have found I then start to take on bigger challenges. Over time I have found each setback, although hard at the time, has actually been a great thing which I feel has helped make me a better athlete over all.
WR: It seems that your pain threshold must be pretty high. Has this ever been measured or commented on by doctors?
DG: No not really, but I think most athletes in rowing can put up with lots of pain and discomfort. With the lower back injuries I guess my perception of what's painful has changed over the years so maybe my threshold has increased. I figure when I’m focused, it is possible to block out or see past the pain, so my thing would be that great focus helps.
WR: I understand that you had discussions with Mahe Drysdale over back issues. What was your advice to him?
DG: My advice was simple: I said he could still win and would win again but he would have to be smarter about how he prepared. We talked about the various approaches to training and racing that we had been exposed to over the years and I was just keen to help him understand it was possible to be even better than he had before but it would require some changes in training. Mahe has been amazing in the single so to have him come over and catch up and in some way share and help was very cool. He is a talent and his track record in the single is as good as any in history really. It was such a pleasure to see his win in Bled and know at least in a small way some of what he had gone through and to know he is finding a slightly different approach is working for him.
WR: Do you do anything different from the rest of the team to help keep your back in shape?
DG: It could be said I do a few things different. I have been pretty happy to share what I do. It's all come out of the injuries, exploration and exposure to some key people. To start, I have always been about testing the weaknesses I have developed through injury, like facing a fear. If and when my lower back has been an issue, once I have felt confident again I have pushed it to be as robust as possible. It's involved plenty of stability and functional movement work and then once I feel good enough I have always gone back to the concept that I must be able to deal with load – that’s specific rowing load, not load from weights in the gym. For example doing power strokes on the ergo with fan setting at 10 has been part of the build back process after 2004 and again two years ago. Add to this things like balancing activities, hand stands, squats on a Swiss ball, yoga postural work etc. Plus agility work is a great way to activate or reactivate. So it has always been about getting functional movement and specific strength back and trusting that by doing activities that enable greater posture, stability and control I feel like more is possible on the water.
WR: Will Samuel Lock and Duncan Free be back in the four for London?
DG: Tough question and one I can't really answer as I am not even sure it is between just them. I mean my seat is not safe either so to be honest as long as we all get a chance to impact the four and then see the fastest boat on the water at the end of the trials I think we can all be satisfied at least with the process. Who will be in and where they will be sitting is anyone’s guess. I have a lot of respect for Sam after this year and know he is very keen to do well. He has made his intentions clear that he wants opportunities and is willing to step up to take them. As for Duncan I am a big believer in him. When he is on, fit and healthy, experience tells me he is clearly one of the best rowers in the world. He still has a long way to go but I certainly am anticipating him being as good as ever. So time will tell as they say.
WR: Do you keep in touch with James Tomkins, do you still discuss rowing?
DG: Yeah I see James every now and then. Our kids go to the same school along with Nick Green. James and I don't talk rowing a lot as there is more to our lives but he does take a keen interest in how things are going with the team and he is sports mad anyways. On occasions we have talked about old times and it's enjoyable to reflect on our years in the boat but usually the nostalgia is quickly overtaken by current events. Funny thing he has been getting active again. After gaining some weight he is back into boxing and hasn't stopped playing golf plus he's been out running and obviously loves his surfing.
WR: Name two people that you would love to have dinner with?
DG: Just happy to have dinner with family and friends. Don't really have anyone special I can think of and besides I can be poor company at meal times. Actually I wouldn't mind getting the Ouija board out and calling up Steve Jobs. I would be asking him about his ideas for the future and figure if I could even turn one into reality it could be worth something.
WR: We understand that you juggle work with training.
DG: The reality is I have had to pull back significantly from many work commitments and my business is suffering for this. Most of my current work is as a facilitator and coach working with corporates. It involves energy and energy management as well as leadership and team development. Much of my work comes from a core group of clients who I have worked with for five years and also through the Melbourne Business School as an associate. As for my current work I fit in what I can, but most of next year I have declined any major work to ensure I don't spread myself to thin. Last season was very tough so I am keen to make things easier. Still have to pay the bills though so I can't stop completely.
WR: What is your typical day like at present?
DG: Since the worlds most days have involved two to three sessions with at least one water session a day. Depending on what we are doing it starts about 7:30-8.30 for the first session and if we have a second session before lunch, it usually means row first and then ride after that. Afternoon sessions have either been ergo/watt bike or gym sessions. Some days we are riding at 5:30am so then we might row after that.
WR: Any thoughts beyond London?
DG: At this stage my sights are set on London and I will be grateful if I make it and compete at my best. Beyond that I certainly don't rule anything out but seriously I probably don't see it happening. I will always be active but probably look towards other challenges. Rio does sound like fun though.