As a double Olympic gold-medallist and a top competitor in the hardest endurance tests in the world, it would not be stretching things too far to say that James Cracknell has numbered amongst the fittest human beings on the planet. But being at the absolute peak of human fitness could do nothing to save him from the wing-mirror of a truck smashing into him at 70 mph – a couple of inches of helmet was all that kept him alive.
That horrific crash, out in Arizona in July 2010, has changed Cracknell’s life irrevocably. But it cannot be the event that defines the man. The achievement for which he is perhaps best known is the first of his Olympic medals in Sydney in 2000, in ‘that’ coxless four with Sir Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and Tim Foster. Behind the mechanical rhythm of their performance on the water, the dynamic of the team, as televised in a fantastic documentary, was ‘sparky’, to say the least. As Cracknell acknowledged before he spoke at the Oxford Union last week, ‘You don’t want four robots rowing your boat … it wouldn’t be as productive if everyone was the same. We didn’t always agree, but the shared goal of wanting to win brought us all together. That was the one thing we did agree on’. And win they did – that crew picked up gold at the World Championships three years running before their Olympic success.
After Sydney, there were World Championship Golds in 2001 and 2002 and another Olympic gold in 2004 in a pair with Matthew Pinsent. In 2005, Cracknell took a break from the busy life of an Olympian to set off on a jaunt in a boat with his mate. A well-deserved rest? Hardly; the trip was the 2005-2006 ‘Atlantic Rowing Race’, a gruelling slog of nearly 5000 kilometres across some of the most treacherous seas in the world, with only a small pimped-out rowing boat separating the competitors from the mighty depths below. And the mate was Ben Fogle, who’s irritating enough in short bursts on Countryfile. The crossing of forty-nine days, nineteen hours and eight minutes must have seemed like a Fogley hell on earth, but it was enough to land them first place in the competition. This was later revised to second for the pair’s use of ballast tanks, but it was an incredible achievement that had raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Children in Need.
In February 2006, in the wake of the crossing, Cracknell decided to hang up his professional blades. Having been competing and training almost continuously for over a decade, you might have thought the man would want to settle into a comfortable existence on the pundits’ sofa, as so many of his peers have. He’d certainly earned it.
Not James Cracknell. He launched himself into a series of near-impossible endurance challenges, taking him from the Arctic tundra to the Sahara desert, via the European triathlon circuit and the South Pole. In the process, he has raised enormous sums for charity, and taken Ben Fogle’s career in directions he never would have expected. Between 2006 and 2010 Cracknell hardly had a week off, completing a preposterous number of challenges. And these were hardly half-marathons and sponsored walks: in 2008 Cracknell, accompanied by Fogle and Dr Ed Coats, traversed the Antarctic in the Amundsen South Pole Race, only coming second to a pair of Norwegian polar experts, and in 2010 he came twelfth in the Marathon des Sables, the toughest foot race in the world, which comprises six back-to-back marathons in the sweltering Saharan heat.
But why bother? As well as having a fervent belief in the importance of sportspeople in doing good, Cracknell is clearly a man who relishes testing his body to its absolute limit, something for which he has not lost the appetite for since his rowing days. As he says, ‘when you do one thing for a long time it becomes so all-encompassing … there’s a habit forming of pushing your body’. Leaving this environment at the relatively tender age he did – he was a sprightly 33 when he retired, five years younger than Sir Steve Redgrave – and when perhaps only just past the peak of his powers, he was always going to struggle to keep still. He concedes that ‘some people might say I quit too early’, but the tremendous feats he has accomplished show that he’s made the most of it.
It was only a few months after his stunning performance in the Marathon des Sables that Cracknell’s world was turned upside down. While on the cycling leg of his own self-styled ‘Race Across America’, which took in some of the States’ most inhospitable areas, in the summer of 2010, he was smashed in the back of the head by the wing mirror of a truck. The impact caused his brain to slam against the front of his skull, causing irreparable frontal lobe damage. His helmet was cloven clean in two. Hours from death, he awoke from his coma a changed man.
Mentally, it left some deep scars: ‘there are things that have changed – subtle things, longer-lasting. I get angry and frustrated at different things, and that aspect of your personality changes, no doubt about it. It’s a case of really working at it to get back, and also understanding what is due to brain injury and what is due to being a stubborn and selfish bloke’. In his campaign for greater cycling safety awareness, Cracknell presents a harrowing video which begins ‘I’m nearly James Cracknell’. For a man whose mind was perhaps his greatest asset as a rower, driving his body to extraordinary lengths, to have suffered such trauma must have been and continue to be a heavy blow.
Accompanying his mental recovery, Cracknell has slowly re-introduced himself to extreme physical activity. Six months after his crash, he competed in the ‘Yukon Arctic Ultra’, billed the ‘Coldest Race on Earth’, finishing a very creditable second. Only last month, he attempted to break the Land’s End – John O’Groat’s tandem record, but was pulled out by his safety team just sixty miles from the finish, to enormous frustration on his blog. Is this the crash leaving its mark? ‘The record’s been there for a while, and we thought we’d have a crack at it. Since the accident, one thing that neurologists and psychologists think does lack with a frontal lobe injury is motivation and determination, and there are periods in those 48 hours you’re awake for where those aspects are really tested, and that wasn’t lacking. So from that side of it I got a lot out of it’. One senses, however, that Cracknell is a man frustrated by the twin limitations of his aging body and his recovering mind.
Away from the gym, Cracknell will be playing an important role at the London Olympics next year, in his remit as a member of the LOCOG organising committee. He is confident about the success of the Games, but aware of the pressures he faces. Delivering on promises made in Singapore is ‘incredibly important not only for the country in terms of the eyes of the world being on it, but also for the people within the country that quite rightly question whether all that money for two weeks of Olympics and two weeks of Paralympics is justified’. His excitement about the Games is palpable, but several months beforehand he will be an avid spectator at the 2012 Boat Race. He has a profound respect for the ‘fantastic’ annual tradition, seeing it as in some ways more pressured than the Olympics; ‘you have just one day to get it right … there’s no heat, no semi; just a final, that’s it’. Cracknell is a bit actually a bit of an Oxophile; he describes the Union as ‘phenomenally worthwhile’, and compares studying here to rowing alongside some of the world’s best athletes. I am about to list the many, many differences between the two, but think better of it and accept his compliment.
As the bell begins to toll and the Oxford Union representatives demand their speaker back, a tentative suggestion that he pursue his love for geography (he is a trained teacher) and do a postgrad here, thereby making his way onto the Blues rowing squad, is rebuffed with a laugh, ‘I think my Lycra days are over’. They might be, but it is clear that this is one rower who won’t take life sitting down.
This Interview was arranged courtest of the Oxford Union