Drew Ginn's dazzling career in rowing
When Australia's Drew Ginn became the 2014 recipient of rowing's most prestigious award, the Thomas Keller Medal, he was out coaching. The three-time Olympic Champion is still entrenched in the sport and, as was his nature during his rowing career, Ginn continues to share his knowledge.
Ginn was presented with the Thomas Keller Medal during a gala dinner at the World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland last weekend and during the weekend, in between coaching , the colourful and eloquent Ginn talked to World Rowing.
World Rowing: You had a very long rowing career.
Drew Ginn: Thanks for reminding me!
WR: Maybe you have some highlights. What was your favourite medal or moment?
DG: The '96 Olympic Games, in particular, was a huge highlight. I think I was 20-21 years of age with the Oarsome Foursome, the young kid in the boat, ten years younger than the others guys. It wasn’t just the Games experience, but being here (in Lucerne) racing with them in '96.The year before, they came fifth and then there were some changes in crew, like me joining it. We still hadn’t found the groove, but we came to Lucerne and over the weekend we found a way to be competitive. So the huge highlight was the realisation that a gold medal might be possible.
WR: When you look back at yourself when you were 18 and you started on your international career, could you ever have imagined what your career would be like?
DG: No, not at all! I think I aspired to be similar to the guys in the four, because in Australia at the time they were pretty iconic and hailed as sporting heroes. I was coached by James [Tomkins] at school in '92, when I was 17, so I probably aspired to do something sort of similar. But the reality was that you never thought you could ever bridge that gap. At that age you’re making a lot more mistakes than getting things right in life as well as sport.. You never plan for it, you just take every step as it comes. I remember watching Steven Redgrave and Matt Pinsent in '95, and I was blown away by how amazing they looked and what they were doing. You never consider doing anything remotely close to that, but 16 or 17 years later you get lucky.
WR: What do you think contributed to your success?
DG: Look, I think you’ve got to have something genetic making you predisposed, a capacity to row and compete. That has got to be there. I suppose what I had was a huge desire to overcome challenges, whatever they might be. Either potential physical limitations or injuries, or that sort of stuff, so for me the determination was always critical.
Between the genetics and the determination, I think the other real factor is really good coaching. If I were to prioritise one thing I think I was really lucky to have great coaches all the way along my sporting career.
Dad coached me in sport as a young kid, then I had coaches like James at a school level. Noel Donaldson coached me at under-23s, Reinhold Baatchi, then Noel Donaldson again, and finally Chris O’Brien. I’ve had what I would regard as some of the best coaches in the world from the start to the finish of my career.
WR: How did each of them add to your career?
DG: Really simple: James talked about process equals outcome. What was nice about that was that if you focus on the process, the outcome takes care of itself. And that was calming and made things simpler. The Oarsome Foursome did this process - we simply row long, we row well, and we do it together. That’s the process and that will take care of the outcome.
Reinhold was fantastic because he was the hardest person I ever had coaching me, ever. He expected more of me than I ever thought to expect of myself. He brought something out of me, as a young athlete, which was realising that I could do the hard work and I could put up with the frustrations and disappointments.
Noel was fantastic in taking a young athlete and showing them that he cared. He could guide the process and he had a lot of passion.
Chris was fantastic in managing the process, in managing us. Chris and I became a rowing partnership based on trust and honest feedback. So for me, working with him was about being vulnerable, learning how to let your guard down and learning how to trust each other and say, “well, no one else is going to give you feedback, because everyone looks at your performances and goes 'you’re doing well'."
So they’ve all brought something a quite special. And it’s all been needed, obviously!
WR: Now you are in the position of mentor, what is the main message that you want to communicate to the next generation?
DG: What I try to focus on as much as possible is the learning opportunity that every day’s training is. Every session, every stroke, it’s all just learning. I want people to share more and engage more in the process of what it is to understand how to move a boat, and to move the boat well. I love the idea of hard work, I love the physical challenge. For our athletes, I often tell them to embrace that challenge, embrace the physicality of it all and don’t lose sight that even if you fail, it’s actually OK. Make the mistakes if that’s where the learning comes from, but also, if you have a great outcome, don’t get lazy and complacent.
I think the biggest thing is not talent, it's work and it's commitment. If you do it for long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll become a master of your craft.
Eventually, everyone rises. So for me the key one is even if you are at the best at some stage, don’t take that for granted.
I am excited when I watch world rowing. I want to see a men’s pair go six minutes, I want to see a four go 5:30. These are events that are close to my heart because I’ve done them. Why can’t that be possible? When is a men’s pair going to go 5:30? If an eight can go 5:19, why can’t a pair go 5:19!?
See how extreme I’ve gone there? But that’s how excited I get about what is possible for the sport. For instance, who is going to be the first country to win all 14 Olympic gold medals? I don’t know, is that sort of stuff possible?
WR: You’ve rowed in a number of different boats. Do you have a favourite one?
DG: The characteristics of the pair appeal. You’ve got to be uniquely in tune with that one other and you’re very reliant on the partnership in the relationship. It’s more like a marriage than anything else in the sport. If you don’t have a level of either understanding or acceptance of each other, or confidence to challenge and support, the pair doesn’t work. The bigger boats for me are complex because of the nature of the number of people.
I certainly found the energy of the big boats enjoyable, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. So the fours were ok, but definitely the pair. You don’t last two or three or four year or six years unless you can make that relationship work. It actually stops being about what happens on the water, it’s all about what happens off the water.
WR: How do you make that relationship work?
DG: Accept responsibility for mistakes I make and appreciate that we’re all just people. Some of the skills I learned with the four early on was the interpersonal stuff, and it meant that when I was working in pairs with James and particularly Duncan we kept foraging forward to say, we’ve got to develop the relationship off the water, to ensure that when we get on the water there’s complete harmony.
WR: So you were also friends off the water?
DG: Friends, competitors. The thing is, to make a pair go fast, you need to compete against each other, but it’s got to be healthy competition. To make a pair go fast you need to have a feeling of being one together. Our wives said that between James and I it was almost like we were married. James and I are married. And if you saw some of the rooms we stayed at different hotels, the beds weren’t very far apart!
You don’t have to be best friends, but you do need to be respectful of each other, understanding and tolerant. What we used to say was, 'I need to be who I am, you need to be who you are, but we also need to be able to work out how to complement each other as well'.
WR: Do you have a favourite medal?
DG: (Hesitates) No, how do you differentiate? The three Olympic golds are obviously very special.
WR: Which medal was the most difficult to win?
DG: Beijing, purely for the fact that I got injured. I ruptured my disk at the start of the regatta. Probably, in one sense, the most satisfying outcome was Beijing purely for the fact that no one knew it [my injury] at the time. It would have been really easy for us to not have made the final in Beijing. That could have happened so simply. It could have been very easy not to make it to the finish line in the final. But we were able to hold it together, to keep our unit together and to not let it on to anyone else.
WR: Mentally, how do you cope with that?
DG: You cry a little bit. I spent hours staring at the ceiling in the hotel room thinking to myself 'how am I going to get myself through this?' When the rupture happened, we realised there was only one way to get through this, and that was to only row again when we had to race. That took a lot of pressure off. Then the thing became for me mentally, 'I reckon I can put up with 30-40 minutes of pain, I reckon I can get through that twice'.
The first job became to get through it just once. The semifinal in Beijing was heart-wrenching. I handed a photo of my kids to my coach Chris, and he stuck it on the rigger arm. He looked at me, I looked at him, we both looked away, and it was just emotional because I think he knew how vulnerable it was. I knew that quite frankly it was going to take all my mental energy to hold together. To be able to finish that race was a huge relief.
In the final, because we had a clear plan and we just had to stick to that. I just had to stick to following Duncan, not try to do anything more than that, but just keep delivering on all the training we had done. I think it would have been a challenge if we hadn’t been able to start well and had to try to lift from there, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that at the time. There are a number of factors that helped, but a really clear plan made the difference.
WR: Where do you think your ability to cope with pain comes from?
DG: Years of stuff. I had the Sydney Olympic Games, the surgery. I had some reasonably significant loss in my life at different stages such as members of my family passing away. I suppose if you have enough things in your life happen, it makes you appreciate that, you know it’s uncomfortable, but that’s what it is.
I also wasn’t the athlete that had all the physical attributes, so I had to work pretty damn hard at times just to get myself into physical shape. I never thought I was a mentally tough athlete as a kid. My mental toughness developed over the years.
I was better for Beijing because of Sydney. If I hadn’t had Sydney, Beijing might not have worked out. So, you trade on experience. That’s why I think London was a really interesting experience of not getting the result that we wanted. But I was still very satisfied with the process we went through as a group. And then I sort of looked back and went “wow, that’s amazing” you got a silver medal, you’re proud of the performance, you’re hugely proud of your competitors, particularly for the GB four, it was fantastic what they did.
WR: What is your definition of success?
DG: Loving what you do, and doing what you love. In one sense, I got lucky to have early success, but probably at the time I was surprised that it didn’t make me happy. The first gold medal was awesome fun, but it didn’t make me truly happy. I worked out that I want to love what I do, I want to understand it, I want to be able to hand it around and engage with others about it, so that took 16 years to say well, I’m more comfortable here and I’m loving what I do here.
WR: What has allowed you to keep on going for so long?
DG: My wife. Your body is your body. Being able to persist is not. You put your body through a lot of stuff, but having family who was highly supportive, having work place opportunities which meant I could train as well as work has been awesome. And having the Australian rowing team and Rowing Australia supportive of an athlete like me coming back after injury. So there have been a number of factors which contributed, but if it wasn’t for my wife saying 'yep, I’m on board, let’s do it,' I wouldn’t have done it.
WR: What encouraged her to keep supporting you?
DG: She knew how unhappy I would be if I didn’t exercise. She knows that if I don’t do exercise every single day, I get cranky!
WR: What competitors did you admire?
DG: I think the Italian four, the British four and the French four. I put them all together, but the Italian four in particular in '96 were really cool to race because you knew how much passion there was. You knew it was an honest race. The way they put themselves out there was great. That helped me, as young athlete, to learn those skills.
Definitely (Matthew) Pinsent and (James) Cracknell as the pair was enjoyable for those couple of years. They had success, we had success. I really enjoyed racing the Kiwi pair, George Bridgewater and Nathan Twaddle. I loved that they kept trying to find ways to win the races, and the Canadian pair, in 2008, was really good - Scott Frandsen and Dave Calder. And, I have to be honest, the GB four in 2012. I always had a lot of respect for Andy Triggs Hodge, Tom James, Pete Reed and Alex Gregory. I think they brought out the best in us, and hopefully we brought out the best in them. I’ve been fortunate to have had those sort of experiences with competitors, whom not only do I respect, but I think it goes both ways.
WR: What do feel that you can transmit to the next generation of rowers
DG: Sharing. Ultimately we better ourselves by sharing with others, because then others share with us. It goes back to fully understanding that I’ve had the chance to be the athlete I’ve been because I’ve had people willing to share with me. Maybe I’ve asked questions and shown a bit of curiosity, but if we don’t keep sharing as a sport, and keep helping others to become better and helping ourselves become better, then the sport will not advance.
People think that it (not sharing) advances competition, because you get a competitive edge. But I think that to see athletes around the regatta site, discussing, maybe not how they race or what their programme is, but discussing the experience of rowing a boat fast, that is something inspiring.
We’ve all got the ability to play a role in the legacy. If we don’t share the inspiration of great races we’ve seen, and things we’ve been a part of, then it gets forgotten, doesn’t it?
WR: What does the Thomas Keller medal mean to you?
DG: A huge honour. I’m completely humbled by it. I do joke with people about it because I’ve been on the list twice before. I just figured I’d just never get it and I was actually OK with that! So, to be told the news, I am really lost for words.
And then you look back at the listof recipients, and at the people currently on the list for this year, great athletes, great experiences and great performances. For me to be part of that group, is a wonderful recognition.