James Cracknell returns to compete in the Boat Race – 15 years after he gave up rowing

The Olympic gold winner will be the oldest ever participant at the age of 46

James Cracknell (Getty Images)

I don’t know. You start off with the idea of asking James Cracknell what it’s like to row four and a bit miles at racing pace along the River Thames when you’ve reached the advanced age of 46 and you end up talking about the glories of the National Health Service and the best way to save it.

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Cracknell won gold medals for rowing at the Olympic Games of 2000 and 2004, so he was – and indeed still is – one hell of an oarsman. It’s not really surprising that he fancies a new athletic challenge: people like that always do.

What’s far more startling is that he wanted to be a student again.

He’s at Cambridge University studying for a masters degree in human evolution; the chance to row in the Boat Race and become the oldest ever participant is a mad bonus. “I’m here to study,” he says. “The course comes first. If there’d been any problem about keeping the course going, I’d have dropped the rowing.”

All the same, there’s a kind of inevitability about it. You work hard, but you turn up at the boat house and find yourself “taking the option to put yourself in the mix”. Like the cavalry charger responding to the whiff of cordite, the fascination of sinking your ego and your ambitions into a crew and moving a boat at speed across the water becomes irresistible.

Winning gold with Steve Redgrave, Sydney 2000 (Getty)
Winning gold with Steve Redgrave, Sydney 2000 (Getty)

But not at the expense of his studies. He wants to lay down a serious academic qualification so that he can help the NHS in the best possible way. “My mother worked in the NHS. The NHS is something we should all be proud of,” says Cracknell. “But as a society we put so much pressure on it, and to make it a more effective organisation we must take the pressure off.”

That means making sound decisions about healthy living. Cracknell’s passion for the extreme tests of sport is only a part of what drives him. “It’s not about policies for the middle classes; it’s about everyone’s ability to make effective choices. We can change our attitude to diet as we changed our attitude to smoking.”

Cracknell’s inability to resist the challenge of taking part in the Boat Race is something you expect from someone half his age – and yet he brings to it a well-honed technique, along with his “feel for the boat”, an inescapable but essential part of the sport.

It’s not as impossible as it sounds. Cracknell hasn’t exactly been taking it easy since he won that last gold medal in Athens 15 years back, in the company of the weeping Matthew Pinsent. He has a 2 hour 43 minute London marathon on his CV, and his knowledge of the complex mix of ingredients that makes a boat work has never left him.

“It’s different from what I’ve done before. The crew has people from Poland, Australia, the United States and Britain: we all began with slightly different techniques and the challenge was to work together. In some ways it’s easier for me than it is for the guys of 19 and 20. They are missing out on the social side of being at university, having to get up very early to train. I have kids; early mornings are no shock to me.”

In training with Cracknall's Cabridge University crewmates (Getty)
In training with Cracknall’s Cambridge University crewmates (Getty)

One other advantage Cracknell has is that the brutal training required to bring your body and mind to a peak holds no surprises. “Everyone struggles in the winter,” he says. Harder, perhaps, was the mental side of the challenge. “I had to learn the way that people row now – 15 years after I stopped doing it. The sport has evolved, so I had to change with it.”

It’s easy to see how, bit by bit, the old enthralling magic of being in a developing crew has him by the throat once again. He is relishing the deep experience of belonging that comes from being part of a team – and a boat crew is more than most teams: its eight members, plus the cox, must seek to become one in a sense that you never find in any ball game.

“No one can stand out. No one person can win the race on their own, though any one person can lose it. So it’s about absolute trust in each other: a real trust that they will do their job. And for me, I know that what I will always remember will be waking up on race day, thinking of the crew, knowing that their dreams are in your hands – and your dream is in theirs.”

It’s often been said that youth is wasted on the young. Cracknell has taken on two great youthful pursuits in maturity: to race, give all and win if you can, and also to set about making the world a better place. If there’s a touch of craziness in it, it’s exactly the craziness we all need.

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The Women’s Boat Race is due to start at 2.13pm; the Men’s Boat Race begins at 3.10pm. Both take place Sunday 7th April and air on BBC1