As he slumped over his oar in atlanta, British rower Steven Redgrave gasped: "If anyone sees me go near a boat again, they have my permission to shoot me." Redgrave had just joined the Úlite of sportsmen who have won gold at four successive Olympics, but physically and mentally he was exhausted.
That was 1996. Now, he's going to Sydney to try to become a member of an even more exclusive club. He won in the coxless four at Los Angeles in 1984, in the coxless pair at Seoul in 1988, at Barcelona in 1992, and again at Atlanta. Denmark's Paul Elvstr°m won successive golds between 1948 and 1960 in sailing; America's Al Oerter and Carl Lewis each won four times in track and field. Only Hungarian fencers Pal Kovacs and Aladar Gerevich surpassed those figures, with five and six successive golds respectively.
Before the Atlanta final Redgrave says he was "pretty certain when I went out for that race that I wasn't going to row again." He recently admitted that the decision to quit lasted, "in my mind, about two days." Publicly it took about four months before he was clearly hooked again.
Redgrave and his partner in the pair, Matthew Pinsent, predicted that they would win in Atlanta, but as the July 27 race drew nearer the pressure intensified. Media interest in rowing leapt. Post-race press conferences had been attended by about 25 regulars. After the pair won their first 8 a.m. heat, nearly 200 journalists wanted interviews. Pinsent understood Redgrave's decision after the final. "I was a bit surprised at the manner of his retirement speech," he recalls, "but at the same time I was aware of what was going through his mind."
Some four months after his never-again outburst, Redgrave was back in training. But this time in the coxless four, with Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell. Training for Sydney they average 370 km a week on the water, plus weights sessions in the gym. About 65% 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 their competition 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. He has dia-betes. When the disorder was diagnosed in 1997 he thought it was the end of his career. "There are no athletes who compete in an endurance sport with diabetes," he says, "so there's no form guide." To work out as arduously as he does he needs to consume 6,000 calories a day, which he does in six meals, each followed by an insulin injection.
The rigorous training schedule that has ruled Redgrave's life for 20 years, and which will allow him just three Sundays off in the six months before the Olympics, looks set to take his four into the final. Already this year they have an unassailable lead in World Cup races, making them favorites to win in Sydney. In which case, Redgrave will have set a mark no other endurance athlete has achieved ... and will probably really mean it if he asks to be shot if he's seen near a boat again.