Sir Steve Redgrave is the greatest competitive rower in history, one of the greatest Olympians ever and, arguably, Britain's greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. His feats as an oarsman are legendary—gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games; nine World Championships; a string of four unbeaten seasons; and countless awards in Thames River competitions. "Most of us dream of winning one gold medal, but to do it at five Olympics is something else," Australian rower Bo Hanson told Time International. "It's just a shame he had to race against us."
Pursuing his Passion
Redgrave, the son of a carpenter, was a frustrated, dyslexic student when he left school at age sixteen to become a rower—and began more than two decades of six-day-a-week, five-hour-a-day training sessions. "When you're dyslexic, you are always trying to get around situations, to find another way to do some things," Redgrave told Diane Pucin of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. "If you find something you are quite good at, then you tend to stick with it. Some people call me obsessive, but I think it was just that, at a time in life when you need to fit in, I found something that I was good at."
Redgrave claimed his first Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in the coxed four race. Two years later, in 1986, he won the first of his nine World Champion gold medals and won three gold medals in
the Commonwealth Games: in the single sculls, coxless pairs and coxed four events. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Redgrave teamed with Andrew Holmes and they blew away the field to win gold in coxless pairs. The next day, on a whim, they rowed in the pair with coxswain race—and won the bronze medal.
Holmes retired after the Seoul Games; Redgrave teamed with Matthew Pinsent, an Oxford-educated vicar's son, in 1990. "The two shared nothing but a love of rowing, yet that was enough to make them inseparable," Brian Cazeneuve wrote in Sports Illustrated. "When fans would ask Redgrave, who is dyslexic, to write a special inscription with his autograph, he sometimes called on Pinsent to watch over him so he wouldn't reverse the letters." The pair was relentless on the water, going undefeated for five years and winning gold medals in coxless pairs in four World Championships and the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
The 1996 Games in Atlanta offered Redgrave a shot at his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal and a place in the history books. Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom had won gold medals at four consecutive Olympic games from 1948 to 1960 and Americans Al Oerter (1956-1968) and Carl Lewis (1984-1996) matched that mark in track and field. The Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich leads all athletes with six golds in consecutive games between 1932 and 1960 (no games were held in 1940 or 1944.) Redgrave downplayed the distinction of joining this elite group as he headed into the 1996 games. "I row to do my very best," he told Pucin, "and it is silly to think about pressure. There isn't a lot of hype in this sport. It is filled with good people who are never arrogant, and so the people who win will have done their best. That's what's important. If I win another gold, that is wonderful. If not, then that is too bad, but that's all."
A Brief Retirement
Redgrave and Pinsent won the coxless pairs in Atlanta; Redgrave's place in history was secure, but he was physically and mentally exhausted. "If anyone sees me go near a boat again," he gasped after racing to his fourth Olympic gold, "they have my permission to shoot me." Redgrave's rash retirement did not last, however. Four months later, he was back in training. "He has lived with the job so long now he doesn't know any other way," said his wife, Ann, a physician with the British rowing team. "My training as a doctor tells me people just can't switch off like that."
|1962||Born March 23 in Marlow, England|
|1984||Wins first Olympic gold medal at Los Angeles games|
|1986||Becomes triple gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, winning the single scull, coxless pairs, and coxed four|
|1986||Wins first World Championship|
|1988||Wins second Olympic gold medal as well as a bronze at Seoul games|
|1992||Wins third Olympic gold medal in Barcelona; flagbearer for British Olympic Team|
|1993||Completes first of four consecutive unbeaten seasons (1993-96) during which he records 61 straight victories in the coxless pairs event|
|1996||Wins fourth Olympic gold medal in Atlanta; flagbearer for British Olympic Team|
|1996||Receives honorary degree from the University of Durham|
|1999||Wins ninth World Championship|
|2000||With victory at Sydney Games, becomes second athlete ever—and the first in an endurance sport—to win gold medals at five successive Olympics.|
Redgrave, Pinsent, Jim Cracknell and Tim Foster began preparations for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where they would compete in the coxless four. Some commentators suggested the move to a fourman race was due to Redgrave's dwindling abilities. The team worked hard, however, averaging "370 kilometers a week on the water, plus weights sessions in the gym," Time International reported. "About 65 percent of the rowing time is just grinding out the kilometers at 18-20 strokes a minute, at a heart rate of 140. Two or three times a week they do more intensive exercises to up the heart rate, and once a week get up to competitive pace of 36 strokes a minute, which has the heart racing nearer to 170-180 beats a minute. It would be a grueling schedule for an athlete in perfect health. But Redgrave, 38, is not." Redgrave was diagnosed with colitis, appendicitis, and diabetes after the 1996 Olympics. To manage his diabetes while in training, he consumed 6,000 calories a day in six meals, each followed by an insulin shot. "There are no athletes who compete in an endurance sport with diabetes," he said, "so there's no form guide."
A Lasting Legacy
The Britons prevailed in Sydney, and Redgrave had Olympic gold medal number five. He was the second athlete ever—and the first in an endurance sport—to win gold medals at five successive Olympics. "Steve told us, 'Remember these six minutes the rest of your life,'" Foster said. At the medal ceremony, Redgrave received his gold from Princess Anne of Britain, and International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch presented him with a special medal commemorating his fifth straight gold medal.
Redgrave lives in Marlow, England, with his wife, Ann, and their three children. He is off the water, but he's pushing as hard as ever. Redgrave has launched his own line of men's sportswear and has secured endorsement deals for a cholesterol-lowering spread, a brand of snack foods, and the luxury carmaker Jaguar. Also, the Sir Steve Redgrave Charitable Trust has a goal of raising £5 million over five years for philanthropic efforts focused on children's health. In Sports Illustrated, Cazeneuve summarized Redgrave's legacy: "If rowing has given value to Redgrave's life, he in turn has ennobled the gentleman's pursuit with his workingman's dedication."
Address: Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England. Online: Steve Redgrave Web site: http://126.96.36.199/.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY REDGRAVE:
(With Nick Townsend) A Golden Age: Steve Redgrave, the Autobiography, BBC Worldwide, 2000.
"Britain's Redgrave Gets Special Reward." New York Times (December 30, 2000).
Cazeneuve, Brian. "Never Say Never: Britain's Steve Redgrave, the Greatest Oarsman Ever, Isn't the Retiring Type." Sports Illustrated (October 9, 2000).
Noble, Kate. "On Golden Ponds." Time International (July 10, 2000).
Noble, Kate. "Steve Redgrave." Time (October 2, 2000).
Pucin, Diane. "Redgrave Ready to go for Fourth Rowing Gold." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 20, 1996).
Vecsey, George. "Five Games, Five Medals for a Determined Briton." New York Times (September 23, 2000).
Ware, Michael. "Kings' Row: Britain's Steve Redgrave Strokes His Way to Immortality, While New Zealand's Rob Waddell Doesn't Miss a Beat." Time International (October 2, 2000).
Sketch by David Wilkins
Awards and Accomplishments
|1984||Gold medal in coxed four, Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California|
|1986||Gold medal, coxed pairs, World Championships|
|1986||Gold medal in single sculls, coxless pairs, and coxed four, Commonwealth Games|
|1987||Silver medal in coxed pairs, World Championships|
|1987, 1991, 1993-95||Gold medal in coxless pairs, World Championships|
|1988||Gold medal in coxless pairs and bronze medal in coxed pairs, Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea|
|1989||Silver medal in coxless pairs, World Championships|
|1990||Bronze medal in coxless pairs, World Championships|
|1990||Indoor World Rowing Champion, World Rowing Championships|
|1992||Gold medal in coxless pairs, Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain|
|1996||Gold medal in coxless pairs, Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia|
|1997-99||Gold medal in coxless four, World Championships|
|1997, 1999||Gold medal in coxless four, World Cup|
|2000||Gold medal in coxless four, Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia|
|2000||Voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year|
|2001||Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, receiving Commander of the Order of the British Empire status|