- Photography by Mr Mark Kean
- Styling by Mr Tony Cook, Junior Fashion Editor, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER
The tranquil waters of Eton Dorney lie in the shelter of a stretch of wooded parkland some 3km west of the famous British boys' school that gave the lake its name. On any given morning there's little here to disturb the calm, save for the rhythmic clunk-swoosh-splash of schoolboys sculling, or the megaphone-distorted vocals of their coach barking instructions from the bank. But on the morning of Saturday 4 August 2012, the silence was broken by something bigger. It's a moment that still sends shivers down Mr Alex Gregory's spine. "A year on, people still talk about the 'Dorney roar'," says the 29-year-old, recounting his Olympic gold medal-winning performance in the men's coxless four, British rowing's most prestigious event. "That's something that I'll never forget."
At full Olympic capacity, Eton Dorney held around 30,000 spectators - a figure that was reached with ease that Saturday. The crowded stands were positioned at the finish, however, leaving the starting line, some 2km away, an eerily quiet place. "All I could hear was my heart beating," recalls Mr Gregory. "It was horrible - like an out-of-body experience. They called out the names over the loudspeaker: 'Germany, lane one, Netherlands, lane two...' It was all quiet until they called out our lane. And then we heard this massive roar, rushing down the water from 2km away. It sounded like all 30,000 were shouting for us."
I don't even really like sport;
my drive just comes from wanting to
be the best at something
There's a tendency not uncommon among British athletes to adopt an almost mystical tone when recreating the events of 2012. They speak of destiny, of "our time". And well they might - the question of fate must be an irresistible one for anyone blessed with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in a home Olympics. For Mr Gregory, though, the path to success has been anything but certain, and while he remembers the glory, he's not ready to forget what it took to get him there. After all, at the previous Olympics in Beijing, he didn't even make the boat.
For some reason, one thing that hadn't occurred to me is just how big Olympic rowers are. It can be a difficult concept to grasp. Spotting one from far away brings to mind a lighthouse looming on the horizon: it's easy to misjudge scale, and assume that they're a lot closer than they actually are. Even face to face, their sheer size isn't immediately obvious. Perhaps it's because, at first glance, their physiques appear so natural: athletic, without a doubt, but nothing like the bloated, cartoonish musculature of your local gym obsessive. Take Mr Gregory, for instance, whose near 100kg are so evenly distributed that you wouldn't think, to look at him, that he packs a 44" chest. Nor would you expect a 25" thigh measurement. You wouldn't necessarily assume that he can propel a boat through water faster than just about anyone else on the planet. His appearance - delicate features, tousled, strawberry blond hair and a fair, slightly sun-blushed complexion - doesn't exactly scream "Norse god", either. But then you look again. And you stand next to him. And you realise: he is huge.
The British men's coxless four (from left: Messrs Andrew Triggs Hodge, Tom James, Pete Reed and Gregory) celebrate gold at the London 2012 Olympics. Photo: NI Syndication
"To make it as a rower, you have to be," says Mr Gregory, who, four years prior to his Olympic triumph in London, missed the cut because, put bluntly, he wasn't. He was, he admits, "a bit underweight" - albeit in comparative terms. "Every time I'd come away from a disappointment, I'd tell myself that I needed to improve my technique," he recalls. "But my technique was good enough - I just wasn't strong enough, and that's what I realised when I was sitting on the sidelines in Beijing. So I made some decisions, and while everyone was taking time out after the Olympics, I locked myself in the gym."
Another 8kg of muscle packed onto his already statuesque, 6'6" frame was enough to propel Mr Gregory from Beijing's nearly-man to a gold medal winner at the 2009 Rowing World Championships - something he describes as his first meaningful victory, a mere 10 years after taking up the sport. "Beijing was a real turning point. Before that, I'd nearly given up so many times. I didn't think that I could do it, mentally or physically. The problem was, I'd never considered doing anything else.
"I've always liked the idea of pushing yourself, of finding your limit," he continues. "I love those old stories of mountaineers and explorers. It's something that I got from my dad and my granddad. I don't even really like sport, I don't follow it; my drive comes from just wanting to be the best I could be - at something."
The best he can be, as it turns out, is very good indeed. And, five years on from his watershed moment in Beijing, he's got a few gold medals around his neck to prove it.