Throughout his rowing career, Cop competed against ten of the previous winners of the Thomas Keller Medal and now joins their ranks. “I liked to row against legends,” he says. “I never planned to become an Olympic Champion. I could never have done it on my own. This happened because of the many talented partners that I had.
“Rowing was tough, but I also had the right people on my side, including my family. They were always there when I needed them."
When Cop received his award he highlighted the great atmosphere within the world of rowing and the many friendships that rowing allowed him to make. “Friendships among athletes are better than medals. Friendships last forever.”
In an exclusive interview with World Rowing, Cop reviews his rowing career, revealing more of what made him such a strong and successful athlete for more than two decades.
World Rowing: What does the Thomas Keller medal mean to you?
Iztok Cop: I’m honoured and proud to be among the “rowing legends”. I’m also happy that I was fortunate enough to race against many of them who made rowing history, to beat them occasionally, but also to still be in contact with some of them. I think Bled (Slovenia) was always kind of connected with Thomas Keller. That was where I started rowing, when I got to the junior level. I could say that Bled became an eminent rowing venue because of Thomas.
WR: What is your definition of success?
IC: First of all, that you enjoy what you’re doing, that you manage to show the best you’re able to and that you’re happy with your performance, not just with the result of the performance. If I gave everything I was capable of at that time then I was more or less happy with my performance even if the result was not the best possible.
WR: Did you ever dream as a young athlete that you would have such a long and successful sports career?
IC: Not even close. Rowing was actually the last sport I tried. When I was young I tried everything that I could do where I lived and rowing was the last. I liked that it was much more serious than anything I had ever done before. Some guys also started winning medals at the junior level. My goal was that if I worked hard I might become a member of the national team. That was in Yugoslavia and it was quite hard to do that. At that time, earning the national team kit was something almost unreachable for me. In the final junior year we started getting results in the double sculls and from then on it was quite a steep way up.
WR: What would you say were the factors that allowed you to keep going and medalling for so long?
IC: I always enjoyed what I was doing and I was always looking for new challenges, so the best possible result was not the issue. At the beginning I was forced to change from the pair to the single because there were not many of us. I was always eager to test myself in the single - I wanted to test how good I could be on my own. That turned out much better than I expected.
After winning Olympic gold when I basically had all of the medals possible, the challenge was finding what could be changed and done the hard way. That’s why we doubled up (quad and double at 2005 World Rowing Championships).
WR: Do you still row?
IC: I do row if I have time. Unfortunately mostly because of my role at the National Olympic Committee, I don’t have enough time for rowing. When I go out in a boat that still means serious training for me. In my mind, it’s still that typical rowing session which takes three hours and after that I’m useless and too tired to do anything else. I do more ergometer than I did when I was a rower.
WR: You are known to be a friend of Olaf Tufte. You first raced him when he was still in the men’s double sculls, back in 1999. You also raced him at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in the double. Both times you won gold, and he won silver.
IC: He was a tough competitor. When we switched to the double in 1999, we weren’t sure if we would do the double or the single. They were the number one in the double, so they were the ones to beat. Like every other opponent, I paid huge to respect to him. I was never afraid of my rivals but I always respected them a lot so I took them seriously. At the start line I tried to figure out their way of racing. It was the same with Olaf.
WR: And how was this big rivalry that you had?
IC: Actually, it was fun, a lot of fun. Once, somebody said in rowing: 'You can’t be friends with your rivals since you can’t beat your friends.' That is so not true. Beating friends is so much more fun than beating someone you don’t like. When you beat friends you tease each other a lot. So, in the first two years in the double, I teased Olaf a lot.
For example, a funny story happened in Lucerne in the single sculls. I told Olaf, 'OK, I’ll win tomorrow in the final and then I’ll let you win in my sprint race in Ljubljana a few weeks after.' He said: 'Deal!' And then I finished second and I said: 'Come on! I thought we had an agreement. I didn’t even push hard.' And he said: 'Yeah, I was waiting for you at the finish line, then Vaclav (Chalupa)was coming in and I didn’t want to win bronze!' But I think the distance between Olaf winning gold and Vaclav winning bronze was one and a half metres or something. That’s one of the stories, and we have a million of those.
We trained together. Winter training, summer training. We rowed in the double together as well. These are the things that kept me going, refreshing me. And now what I can see is that many, many athletes are good friends. They visit each other off-season, train together.
WR: Luka Spik was your main rowing partner throughout your rowing career. How would you describe him and your partnership?
IC: As a rower, what I respect the most about Luka – maybe that was also his weak point – is that he always gave everything he had. You could always expect him to spend everything. Sometimes you had to pace him so that he would last the whole 2km. Whether the single, the double or the eight, he will always try to move the boat on his own if necessary. You could always count on him.
Also, when we joined together he was quite a novelty. He was easy-going. He didn’t care about anything. At least he looked that way. Deep down he was also under big pressure. When I was already tired of doing the same thing and thinking of retirement, with him it was a completely different story. I think in the end we both gained a lot from our partnership.
We are totally different characters. He knows what he needs to do. He’s a great, great partner. Also physically completely different from me. Very fast, very explosive. I think that combination really made the boat go fast, especially in the first few years.
I really tried hard to stay ahead in the single sculls – I never let him beat me, even though I was sometimes dying in the training sessions. I was sure that if he would beat me once he would realise he could do it and that would be the end of my single sculling. You know, because I think he was better than me.
WR: What would you say are your most valuable strengths?
IC: I don’t know. I was thinking about that lately. One things I got from my parents was that whatever I did I should do the best I could and take it seriously. It was also that way with rowing. When you are a kid you always find some excuse – like you have to do something for school in the afternoon. My father would say 'No problem, you just need to make a decision: either you row or you don’t.' It’s still that way. Like my mom, if I promise I’ll do something, I’ll do my best to fulfil my promises.
That made life hard after my rowing career. You cannot see as quickly as in sport if the progress is the way it should be. If I have a problem in sport, I try to make a plan to change it. It might take one month, two months, half a year or a year to fix it. But I knew what I was doing. In real life or in business you’re not so sure so you’re insecure if the results don’t show immediately. It was quite a tough transition but now I get used to the fact that things take more time. Now I set some goals and stick with them and hope I will reach them.
WR: Do you have a favourite medal or highlight in your career?
IC: Sydney for sure because it was a gold medal. Otherwise I would say the highlight was 2005 when we doubled up in the double and quad. Because that was a big challenge, also a big risk of not winning any medal in the end. Honestly my plan was – ok, it’s the post-Olympic season, there will not be that many quads and if we are fast enough we will qualify directly for the final and that’s it.
I think everybody thought the same thing because the whole double sculls crowd was in the quad that next year. I raced Vaclav, Jueri (Jaansen) and the French double, everybody in the quad. So in the end it turned out the quad was tougher than the double. But it was a great experience and also a great outcome in the end. That would be one of the highlights because it was something different.
WR: What are your dreams for the sport of rowing?
IC: I wouldn’t say dreams, I would say more like fears for rowing honestly. I think rowing needs some changes. Unfortunately times have changed. I love the sport the way it is but I’m afraid we’ll have to find another formula to get closer to media, closer to people because otherwise the public will forget about us. We all know our position in the Olympic family – the pressure from the outside that we need to cut down the number of athletes. So I think it’s up to us, to the rowing world, to make a decision. Often I say we have to decide which finger we’re going to cut off. If somebody else decides, our hand might be cut off. The decisions are not easy but I think they’ll have to be made. I think that it will be better if the decision is made from the inside of rowing than if it will be made from the outside.
Globally, I would just like the sport to get the public recognition that it deserves. Because it’s a tough sport, a healthy sport, a gentleman’s sport.
WR: What are your hopes for rowing in Slovenia?
IC: For Slovenia, I hope we’ll manage to get back on to a high level as soon as possible, maybe with this generation or with the youngsters. As soon as possible to be back into the A-finals. Hopefully we will get at least one boat to Rio – that would be a big wish in the short term.
WR: What advice would you give to an aspiring rowing athlete?
IC: Just try to improve from day to day. The big thing for me was looking for the perfect stroke all of the time. When you know what you are looking for that’s a big success, you’re half-way there. But mostly try to improve from day to day, reach your limits wherever they are - not everybody can be a gold-medal winner. It’s a cliché, but really enjoy the path and not just the goal because when you reach the goal, then what? Make yourself challenges and try to reach them and enjoy them. Don’t always take the easy way.
WR: How many coaches have you had throughout your career?
IC: Only one coach. That was Milos (Jansa). He was a club coach and a national team coach. After Sydney, I started to work a lot on my own. I was listening to myself. I knew what I had to do through the season to be fast in a boat. But off season, after the worlds, usually until the spring training camp I was more or less on my own. I did the same amount of work, or even more, but I changed the type of training. So I was more on the bicycle, cross-country skiing, doing outdoor sports. I tried to make my training fun. In the winter I was trying to avoid the ergometer as much as possible. I also joined Olaf (Tufte) on many occasions at their training camps in Norway.
I also tried to change the environment - that always helped. When we changed the venue for training or for racing, I could always perform much better at the beginning, because I felt refreshed. I think that helped make my career so long. I also did not have any injuries throughout my career so I was quite fortunate for that.
WR: What would you say helped you not ever having any injury?
IC: I don’t even dare to say what my rowing mileage was. In the last few years I could do many kilometres in one single rowing session. On the other hand I got into the boat quite late in the spring, because I didn’t need so many kilometres any more to make the boat run. After the season, after the worlds, I tried to avoid the boat as much as possible. I think that helped, as well as doing other sports, so that I wasn’t doing the same movements over and over again.
The other thing is that even if I did something wrong technically I’m not strong enough to be able to put a lot of pressure on my spine for example.
I was not very strict about stretching and warming up. For a very long time, for me that was a waste of time!
WR: How busy do your various roles at the Slovenian National Olympic Committee keep you? (Vice-president of the Executive Committee, Vice-president of the Athletes commission)
IC: I am much busier in these roles than I expected I would be when I ran for them. I expected it would also involve politics, not just strictly about sport, even though my position there should be as it is more professional and I am in charge of the competitive, or 'top' sports.
I’m eager to make some changes, to 'update' sport, because every few years you need to update the system, not change the system – I was never a fan of total revolution. It was the same for me in training, I added things to see how they would work, up or down, and then changed if possible or if needed.
WR: What led you to reintegrate the men’s double sculls in 2004?
IC: Probably I realised I had more chances to win gold in the double than in the single. After a few years in the single, I also got tired of the single, like every boat after a couple of years. Also after Sydney, that is why I switched back to the single - I had some unfinished business finishing fourth when I left the single. But also I was sure that if I kept on going in the double I would get tired of that boat class so I needed to change it. Even though it seemed like an irrational decision because it seemed we could keep on winning. But you could never say if that would really have happened.
WR: Which medal would you say was the most difficult to win?
IC: It’s hard to say. When I look back maybe I was under the most pressure in Sydney, or the whole year before Sydney. But that was because of me. I knew that was probably the only chance in my life that I would be the main favourite to win gold. Finishing second would be a big disappointment. That was a lot of pressure. I still remember after finishing the race that it was a lot of relief.
On the other hand, it was also quite hard in Athens four years later since I got really sick two weeks before the Olympics. I had high fever over 40°C for ten days. My doctor was also under a lot of pressure since I was under heavy antibiotics.