Athlete of the Month - December 2011
London’s River Thames has always held an appeal for lightweight sculler Mark Hunter. He has spent many, many hours not only rowing on its waters but also working as a waterman. Now, as a full-time rower hoping to defend his Olympic Champion status in the lightweight men’s double sculls, the Thames is Mark’s second home. Mark is World Rowing’s final Athlete of the Month for 2011 and what a great choice. Mark tells us why the boat moves so well with rowing partner Zac Purchase and how he went from openweight to lightweight rowing.
World Rowing: How did you got involved in rowing?
Mark Hunter: I was introduced to rowing by my dad in 1992 when I was 14. My first time on the water was at Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club on the River Thames. I used to wade in the mud to boat and then row between the Thames Barrier and Tower Bridge with ships and tankers going past creating a lot of wash. I think this is why I enjoy racing in rough water! My dad was my coach and my brother started the sport totally unexpectedly as a cox, which he hated, but that’s probably why he has such a great feel and eye for boat moving. I was really lucky as a youngster because my parents gave up all their free time to take me to practices and matches of all the sports I participated in, so everyone in the family was really involved.
WR: Do you know when you realised that you wanted to become an elite rower?
MH: When I was younger I always wanted to be the best at every sport I participated in and always dreamed of competing at the highest level. I do remember the day when I decided rowing was the sport for me. I was watching the 1992 Barcelona Olympics on TV and one particular race caught my attention. It was the coxed pairs race with Greg and Jonny Searle and cox Gary Herbert. Their sprint finish to win gold along with their emotion and excitement on the podium made me want to embark on that journey to becoming an Olympic Champion. This journey really started to move in the right direction once I joined Leander (Rowing Club). Being around the best athletes at the best club showed me how hard I had to work and how to perform.
WR: Tell us about your time as a Thames waterman (transporting passengers along the River Thames).
MH: I had very close connections with the river when I was younger because the rowing club I started at was full of watermen and lightermen who worked on the Thames. I was always interested in learning about the river and liked the lifestyle that goes with the job. I never saw myself as a person who would sit inside an office. I suppose I just enjoy being on or close to water!
WR: Your real success seemed to begin when you teamed up with Zac Purchase. What do you think makes the combination work?
MH: We have a great mutual respect for one another. We both know we are with the right and best person to work with and with this comes a total belief and trust in each other. This really became visible in our win in Bled this year, after the terrible season we’d had. We work hard, but also have a good laugh behind the scenes - it’s never a dull moment!
WR: What are your different roles in the boat?
MH: I’m stroke and do all the work and he sits in the bow doing all the calls, pretty standard in rowing! On a serious note, we do have different roles and skills, which we both know and understand, and the most important thing is we know how to maximise and use them to our advantage. I’m the consistent day-to-day work-horse who just keeps going and Zac is the younger guy who hates training but has all the flair and when the big event comes it brings out the best in him, so we have a great mix.
WR: You moved from being an openweight to a lightweight rower. Why did you decide to make this change?
MH: I had tried for years as an under-23 to compete with our senior heavyweights in the British team, but I just wasn’t big enough to be considered. I never wanted to rush into being a lightweight. There can be a bit of a panic with athletes after competing at juniors, feeling they have to make the big decision of staying open-weight or becoming a lightweight and losing weight straight away, but I was happy developing as an openweight knowing at the end of under-23’s I would give myself two years to make it in to the lightweight team.
WR: What did you change in your diet (and/or exercise) to make the change to lightweight?
MH: My diet changed quite a lot in regards to the mass of food I was eating. I became more aware of what was essential and cut down on all the junk food like fried breakfasts, takeaways, crisps and chocolate, but could never stop eating sweets as I have a sweet tooth. I started to exercise a lot more and it’s amazing how much you can learn about your body going through a change like that. Also trying to prove people wrong was a huge motivator, because I had a lot of people saying I wouldn’t make it and I was wasting my time. Nothing better than bumping into those people now!
WR: Where are you at present?
MH: I’m at home in the UK at the moment. November was our big cross-training camp in Majorca (Spain), but now we don’t have any more trips abroad until the New Year, so we have time for some Christmas shopping and catching up with friends and family.
WR: What is your schedule like for this month in terms of training?
MH: We will be training right up until Christmas. The week before we have our long distance trials in singles over 5km and then some crew boat training leading up to the Christmas break. Between Christmas and New Year we train in our own environment, which is always nice as I get to sleep in and train later in the day.
WR: What is a typical day like at present?
MH: I usually wake up at 6:45am, have a bit of toast and coffee, arrive at training at 7:40am, stretch with the rest of the lighty team before briefing and then hit the water at 8:00am. The first session is normally a long UT2 (aerobic session) in singles. Then I have a second breakfast which is always a chance to chat and catch up with the lads before second session on the water or erg depending on the day. After that we have lunch and a nice break before weights, which is always good fun and banter. We have a really good and successful squad, which likes to push each other on.
WR: When did you become a full-time rower?
MH: I became a full-time rower in 2001 when I first made the lightweight team. I would work causally on the river because I wasn’t on much funding, but it was nice to finally get recognised and be on the right path.
WR: What is your main non-rowing project at present?
MH: I’m trying to buy a house. I’ve been looking for ages and ages – maybe I’m a little too fussy! But it will be my first home so I want it to have everything in place. Other than that, time outside of rowing is precious as you’re always trying to balance recovery with events and appearances. The buzz that the home Olympics is creating means everyone wants to hear or speak with athletes, but I enjoy this part a lot.
WR: What do you like to do outside of rowing?
MH: I enjoy relaxing and chilling with friends, totally switching off and not thinking about rowing. I’m a big sports fan in general and will pretty much watch any sport. I’ve been a massive football fan growing up in the East End of West Ham and will take any opportunity to head to Upton Park to watch a match. I’ve also always been a big American football fan since my dad worked in the states when I was young. I grew up supporting the San Francisco 49ers, so when I’m in California I always try to make arrangements to go to a game.
Nadzrie Hyckell: When the going gets tough, what drives you to push on?
Mark Hunter: This is something every athlete goes through during a season -- sometimes more than once. For me, this is when I dig deep, stay focused on the end goal and keep grinding it out because those sessions are the ones that you always look back on which make you smile.
Lucas Harrison: Is it better to train over the weight limit for lightweight and then cut weight right before events or do you think it is better to train as lightweight consistently and not have to cut?
MH: This is a very personal choice for any lightweight. I prefer to train a couple of kilos heavier and then come down when necessary. This enables me to stay fit, strong, and most important, healthy.
World Rowing: You have just completed the Winter Assessment Trials, how did it go?
MH: The 5k assessment we had over the weekend in Boston was a solid piece. For me it was about seeing where I was in the single and what I need to do before we have our final assessment in March. Since I am in the squad, it’s not a trial you really taper for. We come off the programme a little, but it’s about the performance long-term.
WR: Do you have to prove to coaches/selectors that you and Zac are the right combination for the lightweight double? Are there opportunities for other athletes to try and be in the boat?
MH: We have to perform as individuals year-round like anyone else. This helps keep us on our toes, but at the end of the day we are always working towards the big performances at the big events.
WR: With Christmas coming up will you be training through?
MH: Over the Christmas break we don’t train as a squad but we are given a training programme to follow on your own. But Christmas Day is definitely a day off with the family. It’s important to have some down time and switch off before things get turned up a notch in 2012!
WR: What has been your toughest training session so far this month?
MH: Training is always tough, but the most rigorous thing this month was probably the 5km water assessment because it was the longest piece I’ve done at that sort of intensity for a while and it blew a few cobwebs away.
WR: Having already won Olympic gold, what is your main motivation going into next year's Olympic Games?
MH: The Olympics are the ultimate sporting event and to have the honour of representing my country is something very special; but to have the opportunity to compete at a home Olympics and work towards giving my ultimate performance in front of a home crowd is the thing that motivates me most.
WR: Does it feel for you like the Olympics are just around the corner, or a long way off?
MH: It feels close because it’s almost the New Year with 2012 about to kick off and that’s when it really starts to feel real; but there is still so much to do in the build-up to the Olympics, so it also feels miles away.
WR: Do you know your schedule and training up until the start of next season, or does the coach like to tell you as you go along?
MH: Our team and squad are very well organised with training, testing and camps so I know my schedule right up until the Olympics.
WR: What is your plan after London?
MH: At this point I don’t have any definite plans. I enjoyed my year off after Beijing, coaching at UCLA in America. It gave me time to realise I wanted to come back. Right now I’m just thinking about the next eight months, but whether I continue competing or move on to something else, I don’t think I could ever stay away from rowing!
WR: Do you have any sporting heroes?
MH: My sporting hero was Michael Johnson, the 200m and 400m runner. When he was at the big events his performances were incredible.
WR: Do you have a favourite saying?
MH: "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail” - Coach John Wooden, UCLA
"The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man's determination." - Tommy Lasorda, LA Dodgers
“Champions win on any day, under any conditions”- Mark Hunter