Injury forces Duncan Free’s retirement
One of Australia’s most respected and decorated rowers Duncan Free recently announced his retirement. Free is an Olympic Champion and Olympic bronze medallist, as well as a two-time World Champion. After suffering from a bike accident last year, Free defied the odds and, despite one of his legs being shortened by remedial operations, Free was back in the boat five months later. But earlier this year rib problems caused another setback. Free’s dream of a fifth Olympic Games has come to an end.
“He will always be a champion of our sport and he will always be my great friend,” says his former partner in the men’s pair, Drew Ginn.
World Rowing had the opportunity to talk with Free from Australia’s European training centre in Varese, Italy where he is helping prepare the team for the London Olympics.
WR: What were some highlights of your rowing career? And a couple of low points?
DF: Highlights obviously the gold in the pair in Beijing in 2008, I really enjoyed winning the Worlds in 2007. It was really an enjoyable race, winning my first Olympic medal in 1996 in the quad and also winning a bronze in the double with my brother and dad coaching us at the 1997 Worlds. The low points would include all the events and injuries since my bike accident last year, which caused my early forced retirement. Also, not making the final in Athens in the quad in 2004.
WR: Your rowing career got off to a fast start when you medalled as a junior, did it make you think it was easy?
DF: No, it was never easy. I guess I always doubted my ability for a very long time, but I think that helped in the way that it pushed me to train hard and take no shortcuts.
WR: When you became an elite rower did you have any idea how long you thought you would continue for in the sport?
DF: Put it this way: I didn't think I'd be in it this long! Early on I took it a year at a time, then later on it became a four-year commitment each Olympiad.
WR: What will you miss most about being an elite rower?
DF: I will definitely miss the racing along with the feeling attached to it when you have a good race. I'll also miss the relationships and friendships that you make along the way. Finally I'll also miss never being under 100kg again after retirement!
WR: And what about the parts that you won't miss at all?
DF: Being able to spend more time with my family. Having been really committed to rowing over the past 20 years, I won't miss the structured days. I'll be able to do what I want when I want and eat what I want!
WR: After winning bronze at the 1996 Olympic Games there was a long gap before your 2008 Olympic gold. What kept you going?
DF: I knew I could win a gold! It just took me a while and a change from sculling to sweep.
WR: After 2008 was it always your intention to go for 2012?
DF: Even before Beijing I was considering to go on for another four years, but that didn't pan out the way one would hope with my accident then ongoing injuries.
WR: Following your accident last year did you ever think of giving up on aiming for 2012? Do you remember your thoughts immediately after the accident?
DF: Immediately I thought 2012 would be ok, my initial thoughts were on missing out on the 2011 season in the four that I was selected in. In the end, my leg took a lot longer to heal than I thought. It is still healing now.
WR: How would you describe your perfect race?
DF: I don't know about perfect, but 2007 the pair was close to it. It was intense, yet an easy speed of movement resulting in a good performance. The race plan comes together well, no bad strokes and getting to the finish line realising you are completely stuffed (tired) and glad you didn't have to take another stroke.
WR: Do you have a favourite rowing anecdote?
DF: In my second year of rowing as a 13-year-old, my race was extended from 500m to 1000m and I only found out when I got on the water. I wasn't happy, so I rowed up the lake and rowed up an inlet and watched my race come down. I blamed a broken foot stretcher for missing the start. But when I got in, the foot stretcher was miraculously fixed???
WR: Your decision to retire, was it one you've been thinking about for a while or one that you just decided recently?
DF: It was forced to due injury. My bike accident resulted in a 2.6cm leg length difference. We made allowances in the boat for it but that combined with leg strength differences was putting my rib cage under unusual and different loads and pressures resulting in multiple rib fractures.
WR: Do you plan to stay involved in rowing in some form?
DF: In some form I'd like to definitely.
WR: Who has been your biggest supporter over your career?
DF: I would have to say from early days from the age of 12 it was my mum and dad. Dad used to row, that's how I got into the sport and he coached me almost my whole career. My wife also is a huge supporter. We've been married for over 14 years now with three children. My career would have ended years ago if there was lack of support there!
WR: Where will you be at the time of the London Olympics?
DF: I'll be in London watching it and cheering on all the Aussie crews.
WR: What about the next generation of Free rowers, are your kids interested in rowing? How much do they know about your achievements?
DF: My little six-year-old boy only in the past week said that he wanted to row and also that he wanted me to coach him. I was chuffed! He also added 'that's if you're still alive dad!' I asked him why I wouldn't be alive and he said that I could get hit by another car while cycling! I assured him that that I'd avoid that at all costs and that if I did have another accident, the car would be in worse shape than me!
I have two girls aged nine and seven and a boy, six. They know their daddy rows a lot, goes away a lot and won gold in Beijing in an Olympics but knows that I'm not racing in London but they still hope to meet the queen!