We get the easy laughs out of the way first. The announcement that he will row for Cambridge in next month’s Boat Race only happened the day before but the theme surrounding it is well-worn already: James Cracknell is really, really old and the rest of his crew-mates are not. ‘One of the guys in the squad is a qualified doctor,’ says Cracknell. ‘And I’m older than his dad.’
Next, he smiles about the evening last term when he watched a documentary about the rock band, Nirvana, and its lead singer Kurt Cobain. The following day, he mentioned he had seen the band in concert when he was an undergraduate at Reading University in the 1990s. The other rowers met his boast with blank stares. Cracknell did some maths. ‘Turns out Cobain was dead before any of them were born,’ he says.
Then there were the occasions he turned up for training wearing old kit from his early days as an international rower. He had a couple of vests given to him by rivals from Czechoslovakia and East Germany, countries that had ceased to exist before the other occupants of the Light Blue boat had come into the world. ‘Once,’ Cracknell told them, ‘there was this thing called The Wall.’
James Cracknell will return to rowing by representing Cambridge in the Boat Race next month
Cracknell, who is studying for an MPhil in Human Evolutionary Studies at Peterhouse College, admits, too, he has had to ask his 15-year-old son, Croyde, to decode some of the text message acronyms sent to him by his fellow students.
The idea he is living a chaotic teenage existence in a student pigsty is nice but fanciful, he says, although he admits to struggling to keep up with his washing.
Cracknell, 46, who won gold medals in the coxless fours in the Olympics in Sydney and Athens in 2000 and 2004, has always had the kind of gentle humour and consistent talent for honesty and self-deprecation that make him immensely likable. But the truth is that the story of his quest to become the oldest man ever to row in the Boat Race is rooted in darker materials than a succession of funnies about the gap between the generations.
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There has always been something slightly wistful about Cracknell, too, as if he is chasing something he can never quite catch. His absurdly ambitious plan to win a place to study at one of the best universities in the world and defy the ageing process by rowing in the Boat Race is, he says, an attempt to rectify that restlessness and end the searching.
He wants to do something with his life, he says, that does not revolve around being wheeled out every four years as a brand ambassador as the Olympics approach. He has done a lot of think-tank work on non-communicable diseases, particularly childhood obesity and the challenges that our lifestyles pose to the NHS and to society. The MPhil will bolster his credentials in this area. He wants the chance to influence policy. He wants to be able to help.
He thinks about that as he sits at a table on the top floor of the Goldie Boathouse. I ask him if he is afraid of being still. Scared of being settled. He shakes his head. His motivation for committing to a frantic year of attainment that has led to long separations from his wife, the broadcaster, Beverley Turner, and his three children, he says, lies far away from the banks of the River Cam, by the side of a road outside Winslow, Arizona.
Cracknell is studying for an MPhil in Human Evolutionary Studies at Peterhouse College
It was there in July 2010 that Cracknell was struck on the head by the wing mirror of a truck that was overtaking his bike while he was in the midst of an attempt to cycle, swim and run across America in 18 days. It left him in a coma with a brain injury. His physical recovery went well. The mental challenges, including bouts of epilepsy and behavioural changes, were harder to overcome.
Nearly nine years further on, it is not age that is his enemy, despite everything that has been written this week. He still feels he is fighting a battle of perceptions. His initial forays into politics five years ago were thwarted when he narrowly failed to win a seat in the European Parliament for the Conservative Party.
As an accident survivor and an ex-sportsman, he feels as if he is struggling against scepticism on two fronts. What better way to dispel it than by earning a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world and setting a new mark for endeavour in one of the country’s most famous sporting events? People will see there are no limits to him then.
‘The one thing that frustrated me about that injury was people’s perceptions of it or that perception of how you are now after it,’ he says. ‘The perceptions are still there. For me, coming here and balancing out the academic side and the race side, people will stop asking: “Are you the same as you were before?” I wouldn’t have got into Cambridge when I was 18.
Double Olympic champion (second right), 46, will become oldest participant in event’s history
‘The frustration was people saying “You won’t be able to do that” if they were thinking of working with you. For anyone who has been through a setback — it doesn’t have to be an accident, everyone has a bad time at certain points in their life — it’s how you respond to that.
‘I don’t want people to see me through the prism of an accident. I had some bad characteristics before the accident as well so it’s not fair to label being stubborn and selfish on the truck driver.
‘Unfortunately, you have to blame my mum. It’s difficult in our society going from being perceived as a sports person to people seeing you as a politician. It’s hard to jump from one box to the other. I thought this would be a way to give myself an option to do that.’
He is full of admiration for the way his fellow student rowers balance their physical and intellectual workloads. Cracknell drives the bus to and from training and sees them with their heads in their books on the journey. One of the crew has exams the day after the Boat Race.
There were times when Cracknell did not think he was going to make the crew. There were times when he caught himself hoping training might be cancelled.
His name does not sit on top of the list of personal bests in times as it once would have done. He has had to get smarter and make himself more technically proficient in order to force his way into the boat. And he has had to rediscover his capacity to endure pain.
‘The coaches have to work out whether people have the ability to put their hand into the fire very quickly,’ he says. ‘Because October to April is not a long time to find the best eight people. It has taken me a while to become friends with lactic acid again. We’re still not best mates but we’re OK.
‘That feeling you have emptied the tanks is what I was searching for. You’ve finally answered the question that your body’s asking.
‘That’s what I missed more than anything. At the Olympics, it was nice that people came whether you won or lost. But it could have been done with no one watching and it would have meant the same.’
The Cambridge University Boat Club (L to R): Matthew Holland, Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk, Freddie Davidson, Sam Hookway, Callum Sullivan, Dara Alizadeh, Grant Bitler, James Cracknell and Dave Bell
I mention that the broadcaster Gabby Logan referred to him on the day his selection was announced as ‘one of the most focused, single-minded men on the planet’ and he does not demur. He does add a rider. ‘That’s part of the reason why I’ve been successful at some stuff and I haven’t at others,’ he says. ‘It’s a little bit too single-minded.
‘I’m from a corner of a Venn diagram that is of that make-up and it does help you in this area of goal pursuits but I don’t think it makes you easy to live with.’
His wife, he admits, has felt ‘slightly abandoned at times’ but his hope is that, when the Boat Race and this academic year is over, new horizons will be revealed.
‘There’s a temptation because those opportunities around the Olympics are still there, to live in that cycle rather than take control of what you are doing,’ he says. ‘But this is what I want to do, this stuff in public health and in order to get taken seriously and not be playing at it, I have to go and put myself in a difficult situation that will be hard for the family for a year.
‘I didn’t want to be sitting around waiting for stuff to come in, one of the old blokes they use because the athletes are busy training. I wanted to take control and coming here was part of that. Whether it works, I don’t know. We’ll find out.’
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