Soldiering on for Olympic glory

Soldiering on for Olympic glory and a greater challenge ahead Times Online 14 Jan 07.

Gold in Beijing is the target for one British rower, but tragedy has provided him with the motivation for a far more serious assignment

Robin Bourne-Taylor knows that his story is newsworthy, but that does not mean he is comfortable telling it. Rowing breeds tough, stoic types and Bourne-Taylor is a classically understated Englishman, a graduate of Oxford University and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

“I don’t normally bother with interviews,” he says. “I normally just get on and do my thing. It is easy for the press to get on the bandwagon.”

Perhaps it is best to stick to the facts. Bourne-Taylor is a member of the Great Britain eight hoping to finish among the medals at the Beijing Olympic Games in August. Within a few weeks of crossing the line and putting down his oar, he will pick up his rifle as a lieutenant in the Household Cavalry. He will head to Afghanistan as a troop leader in charge of 11 men and four armoured reconnaissance vehicles; a frontline role that Alastair Heathcote, his crew-mate and a fellow officer, says will be interesting and exciting, which is not how most of us would describe day-to-day combat with a dangerous enemy.

But tell Bourne-Taylor that he must be mad to put himself in the line of fire and he will reply that he has his reasons beyond serving his country. In April last year his girlfriend, Second Lieutenant Jo Dyer, was one of four soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. “She was in the intelligence corps and was on infantry attachment, so doing things that girls normally don’t do out on the ground,” he says. He brings it up only because, crassly, I have asked how his family will feel about waving him off to Afghanistan later this year.

“It is a bit of a touchy thing for me,” he says. “I am sure my family will be concerned - it is difficult for them not to be – but they know me, they know it is something I want to do. I am strong willed and decisive.”

He does not want to go much deeper than to say that “what happened gives me a lot of motivation. It has been very difficult, but it gives me a motivation for what I do”. Later he says that he finds inspiration not in sports psychology but in “the obvious. The people closest to me”.

British rowing may have lost its household names, but it can still boast men of real substance. Big men in every respect. “I feel sorry for the guys when they go back into the Army, but it shows their dedication, their responsibility to their friends,” Jürgen Grobler, Britain’s head coach, said.

As well as Heathcote and Bourne-Taylor, there is Peter Reed, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and supposedly the man with the world’s largest lung capacity. For the past week or so they have been gathered in St Moritz, the home of the Cresta Run, roulette wheels and expensive bars full of aristocrats. “Or so we hear,” one of the squad says.

All the British rowers are seeing is the cross-country skiing tracks and, as they slide endlessly up and down their ergometer machines, the blank white walls of the gym. An hour and a quarter on the ergo before breakfast, a long ski before lunch and then back on the torture machine in the afternoon. To see them train is to marvel at the human body’s capacity for endurance and, on top of all the physical punishment, comes the pressure of stiff competition. With places not yet decided, every stroke carries meaning.

Military training would appear good preparation for such a testing regime and of the three forces boys, Captain Heathcote, 30, has seen the most action, including time in Basra. “I did a tour in Iraq that was quite hairy at times,” he says. “It wasn’t at its worst, but there was always something happening.” If pressed, he can tell tales of coming across the wreckage of suicide bombs. “I wouldn’t say I was sad to leave,” he says.

With one eye on a place at the Olympics, he used to sit on a rowing machine in Iraq with his rifle and kit by his side. It is strange to think that his superiors once thought that Heathcote was too laid-back for officer training and sent him on a course designed to weed out those with “personality defects”. After four days being deprived of food and sleep, the recruits were told that they were being sent on a cross-country run. The fastest would be rewarded with a feast. On the promise of a cooked breakfast, Heathcote ran as if for his life, but when he went to claim his reward he found a box containing a dry biscuit. “They put you under incredible mental pressure,” he says. “With the rowing, it is far more physical.” As one of his crewmates puts it, pain is a daily reality.

At 6ft 3in and less than 14 stone, Bourne-Taylor, 26, is one of the smallest of these giants. He was worn down by all the training before Christmas, but no one questions his fortitude or durability. He competed four times for Oxford in the Boat Race, then concentrated on his Army training, before returning to the Britain squad last year. He was in the midst of trials when Dyer was killed.

“He had a few days away, but he was trying to get back in the team so he had to come out and perform,” Grobler says. “Of course that was very difficult to handle because it was not just in private. He came out of it all with immense respect from the rest of the team.”

Bourne-Taylor and Heathcote formed the stern pair in the eight that won bronze at the World Championships in Munich last September. To expect better in China would be a tall order, but they expect to compete.

Whatever the outcome, Bourne-Taylor will head from Beijing to a friend’s wedding in Hawaii and then report back for duty in Afghanistan having pulled his last stroke as an oarsman. Heathcote will also retire from rowing at the end of the Olympics, although his future is less certain. All he knows is that he will leave the Army in the next 12 months – “it is time to do something else” – but he is tempted by one last tour of duty. “It would be nice in later life to say I have done everything that the Army was designed to do and it is very rare to have conventional fighting like in Afghanistan,” he says. “No one has really done it since the Falklands, which was only a couple of regiments.”

Their double lives are amusingly illustrated when, asked to pose for photographs, they ask for five minutes to head upstairs for a shave. A retired brigadier spotted Heathcote with a beard at last year’s World Championships. “This guy drove from his house to the regiment just to tell the adjutant to get me back to England,” he says.

To give their crewmates an idea of their “day jobs”, Bourne-Taylor and Heathcote arranged for a couple of Scimitar tanks to turn up at the squad’s Christmas lunch at the Leander Club. “It was about as tame as you can get going up and down the road in Henley,” Bourne-Taylor said. “But it gave them a tiny idea of what we do.

“I didn’t join the Army to go rowing, much as some people probably think I did. By the time I get to Beijing I expect I will be pretty desperate to get out there to Afghanistan. It is what you join for and I don’t really feel I have contributed.” Men like him truly are a different breed.

Key dates in 2008

February 9
GB Winter Assessment trials, Boston, Lincolnshire

March 7-10
GB Rowing senior trials, Hazewinkel, Belgium

May 9-11
World Cup, Munich, Germany

May 30 to June 1
World Cup, Lucerne, Switzerland

June 20-22
World Cup, Poznan, Poland

June 26
Olympic team announcement (provisional)

August 9-17
Olympic Games, Beijing, China
Good luck fellas - in both endeavours!
not orificer sounding names at all, does it come from all tha punting practice at uni.
Interesting to see an article about that side of their lives. I knew they were Army RC because I'm a rower as well (although just at club level), and i've seen them around at events/parties but it's not often you hear much more than that. Very impressive athletes indeed and a credit to the armed forces.

They are well on track to do well this summer, they were ranked 5th at the last set of selection trials and had a couple of good 2k rowing machine scores.

Good luck to them and the rest of the team!

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