Veteran rowing coach Mike Spracklen on his career, training Steve Redgrave and life in Marlow
PUBLISHED: 06:00 07 August 2018
While the sounds of national anthems as rowers collected gold medals yet again was once music to his ears, veteran coach Mike Spracklen is ringing the changes
When a sport is as tough and demanding as rowing, strength and endurance top the list of physical attributes needed for success. But they aren’t the only requirements. Skill, dedication and the right psychological attitude are equally crucial. Even then the mix isn’t complete without that special person, the one who has the ability to harness all these qualities, galvanising and motivating athletes to encourage them to reach the pinnacle of their sport: the coach.
Mike Spracklen is quietly spoken with an endearingly modest nature. In the upstairs study of his Marlow home, having discussed new local flood defences (his garden has been under water on several occasions) I’m as distracted by the numerous images of rowers adorning the walls as the stunning vista from his balcony overlooking the Thames. The setting befits a man whose adult life has been dedicated to rowing, an interest that began during his teens.
“I started as a young lad,” he recalls. “I trained hard for Marlow Rowing Club, winning a lot of club races. I’m very competitive.”
Limited by his slight physique, and aware that Lightweight rowing (individuals under 160lbs) had little official support in this country, Mike was drawn to coaching.
“I wanted to race in a Pair for the 1974 World Rowing Championships, held in Nottingham, but then discovered Pairs weren’t included so I looked around to form a boat that would be part of the competition and chose the main boat, an Eight. We trained through the winter and won a bronze medal, a turning point for Lightweight rowing in the UK.”
This milestone launched Mike’s coaching career. “At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, I was the Sculling Coach for the Quad and Double, The Double won a silver medal and the following year became World Champions.”
Part of Mike’s skill lay in recognising the importance of finding juniors with the right physical and mental potential. One of these became a household name: “I set up a scheme for six juniors to come here and row from my house. Steve Redgrave was a local boy who was already rowing. We trained daily, 6.30am to 8.30am each morning, and for an hour and a half in the evening. Winter was predominantly endurance training, covering up to 20 miles a session. During the summer we concentrated on speed, with a lot of work done over 500m followed by a short break then repeated.”
The youngster was ‘head and shoulders’ above his team mates and, not surprisingly, one of Britain’s Men’s Coxed Four, coached by Mike, who won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, GB’s first Olympic Gold since 1948: “Steve was strong and a very level headed, pleasant person, never full of himself. He knew he was the best but never boasted.”
As sponsorship and professionalism have seeped into a multitude of sports over recent years, it’s surprising to be reminded that Mike’s UK role as Chief Coach was unpaid. Not that this prevented him from being poached by other countries. He fondly recalls working in Canada and the US before returning to England to coach our women’s team. In each position he has always been conscious of the balance between himself and his rowers: “Close enough to be a friend, distant enough to be a leader.”
I ask him to detail his training style. “The mental attitude is the toughest job of all. When you push the body it adjusts to the stress; if you’re going to do this to me I’ve got to create a barrier, a safety zone, I’ll complain if you go beyond it. Training is about stretching that limit. You also have to build the brain to deal with those issues. An athlete is naturally competitive so people who come to you want to be successful. As a coach, you want to know the guy who won’t pull out and those who will. It’s natural selection. Athletes do it because they want to. Getting better is the motivation.
“If they improve they will want to keep going. You have to give them something to make them better so they want to keep going.”
This logical explanation is delivered in a typically understated manner. Even asking the unassuming 80 year old to name his greatest achievement is met with a humble and considered response.“Success is relative to what you had before. When you create something from nothing it’s much more rewarding, so wherever I’ve coached it’s because the team hadn’t been doing very well. That has given me a lot of satisfaction.”
Mike’s coaching career encompassed numerous Olympic and World Championships with gold, silver and bronze medals dominating his personal accomplishments. He was also part of Oxford University’s coaching team during the 1980s and 1990s Boat Races, and awarded an OBE in 1989. Having retired from the sport 18 months ago, however, he has since returned to two hobbies decades after discovering musical talent.
“When I was a child I picked up the piano pretty easily. I started playing again six months ago, the first time for 70 years.
“One of my favourite pieces I’ve relearned is Schubert’s To Music. I practise for a few minutes, several times a day.”
As Mike’s wife, Annie, arrives home, immediately coming upstairs to say hello and offer us coffee, I’m reminded of his other interest, including a recent gift.
“Between the ages of 10 and 15 I was a bellringer in Marlow. My next door neighbour was a ringer and he took me to church. Then rowing interfered and I had to choose one or the other. When I retired, Annie thought I needed to do something. She bought me a piano and encouraged me to go bellringing.”
Before long he joined a new band at St Mary the Virgin in Turville, better known to The Vicar of Dibley fans as the fictional St Barnabas. During one Monday evening rehearsal last year conversation centred on the band’s desire for a sixth bell. Within moments Mike offered to buy it. This latest addition (a treble), cast in Holland and officially installed at a Dedication Service in April, is dedicated to his wife who unfailingly encouraged her husband’s career.
After spending the morning in his company, I’m impressed as much by Mike’s calm manner as the successes he has achieved. His devotion to rowing means the sport’s profile is healthy and respected.
And that’s not all. If you’re debating whether there’s any connection between bellringing and rowing, think on this.
Each involves teamwork and relies on rhythm. But, of course, there’s another, more personal link because both the ancient hobby and international water sport have also benefited from Mike Spracklen’s skill, leadership and generosity.
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