In Defence of Jürgen

BY RICHARD HAMILTON

When did winning become a crime?

I have never responded publicly before about articles I read in the news. Still, having read a story in the Daily Mail on 30th July 2021 titled ‘The Blame Game Begins’, I felt an overwhelming urge to stand up publicly and defend a coach I have known as an athlete for 28 years, Jurgen Grobler.

As a Father, Olympian, International Coach and now Farmer, I feel I am in a unique position to write this article. I was an athlete in Jurgen’s rowing programme both at Leander and Great Britain for eight years, an Olympian and have had success coaching at the Junior and Under 23 World Rowing Championships. I was instrumental in establishing the World Class Start rowing programme in 2001. Consequently, this programme provided 50% of the GB rowing Medallists at the London Olympics in 2012. I am also the proud father of a son who was the spare for the Australian Olympic Rowing team this year and will undoubtedly be a leading contender for the 2024 Olympic Games.

I first met Jurgen in September 2003 when I was an athlete at Molesey Boat Club, and he pulled me aside with his traditional hold of your bicep and said, Hammers would you be prepared to come as spare to the World Rowing Championships? Jurgen, I replied – I would come as team Doctor if it meant it got me on the team! Wanting to be in his vision all the time, I moved clubs to Leander and started training under his ever-watchful eye. His training was challenging, relentless, and demanding. At the time, we had two of the very best rowers in the world at the club, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, whom I measured myself against daily. I was rowing at one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world; I was able to challenge myself against the best athletes in the world under one of the most successful coaches in the world. I had found my rowing mecca. I had many coaches in my rowing career, Peter Politzer, David Rendle, Michael Genchi (the guvnor!), Sean Bowden, Martin McElroy, to name a few, all of whom I am indebted for making me the person I am today. If it was the same slanderous attack I had read against their name and character as I had read in this article, I would be doing the same for them.

Jurgen created an environment where you wanted to win, not just against others but also against yourself. I still hear him saying to me in the last minutes of a 5km ergo test, “more power Hammers, more power”, to which I usually swore inside my head, questioning if he would like to swap places. We were all there voluntarily, and before 1996 on none or very little financial support, I wanted to have a crack at being the best in the world and Jurgen, I believed, was the man to do it; why? Because he had created Olympic Champions already.

One of Jurgen’s biggest strengths was understanding you as a human being, your strengths and weaknesses, when to push you harder and when to pull you back. Greeting you when you walked into the club in the morning with his cheerful greeting of ‘Hammers, you are looking strong today’ made you feel a little bit taller, and for me, well I wanted to go out and fight for my position in the team, I did not want to let his belief in me down.

Rowing is a simple sport complicated by humans; you will win if you row the longest, most powerful strokes for 2000m. Jurgen understood this and created an environment that allowed those that could achieve this to excel. I thrived in this environment; some people survived, others did not. There was a reason for this. Rowing is unique; you can not have substitutes at 1000m; you can’t have your coach come on at 500m to go and tell you what you need to do. The opposition is only interested in one thing: to beat you, and for that 2000m, they do not care who you are, what facilities you have or who your coach is. Jurgen’s training created resilient, physically and mentally-demanding athletes that could think for themselves in challenging situations and his results speak for themselves.

I never did win Olympic Gold, but I loved every single minute of trying. I did coach nine young men to become Junior World Champions, and yes, they all had the words of wisdom of “I need more power”! Yes, they were all made to feel bigger and better than every athlete they lined up against; yes, they trained hard, and some struggled at times. We won together, and we lost together. Our goal was to win, and win we did and a large part of that came from watching and learning from Jurgen.

I now run a large dairy and beef agricultural company in Australia, and there are so many similarities between Jurgen’s training and farming. Jurgen’s job is to win gold medals; my job is to produce milk and beef. We are both competing against international teams and food processors, respectively. No we can’t control what they do, and no, we certainly cannot control the weather. He wanted Olympic Champions; I want to have the leading agricultural company in Australia.

Life is tough; competition is tough; look at the new Covid world we live in today. Social media is alight with debates around mental health and that competing is more important than winning. For me, life is a game I am constantly in the pursuit of winning. Sometimes I am losing, sometimes on the subs bench, but ultimately you decide your success level and live by that. Jurgen’s was an Olympic Gold medal, and good on him for being brave enough to set his standard as that and accept nothing less.

Jurgen is a winner and a leader, and although I did not ultimately win under him in rowing, he has taught me to have a bloody good crack at winning the ultimate race of life.

So I would like to crack open a bottle of champagne and raise a glass to one of the greatest rowing coaches this world has seen, thank him for his support and wish him a very Happy 75th Birthday.

Richard Hamilton is a British rower. He competed in the men’s eight event at the 1996 Summer Olympics.