The Windy Row to Olympic Gold: A Q&A with Alex Gregory
You might recognise Alex as one of the world’s leading rowers, with 2 Olympic Gold medals and 5 World Championship titles to his name, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
We caught up with Alex to talk about the ups and downs of being a world champion, his fight to the Olympics, his treacherous Arctic adventures and what’s on the horizon!
During the 8 years it took you to become a World Champion, you must have gone through many ups and downs. How did you stay motivated on your journey to the podium?
The journey to the point of change was painful, a relentless struggle often it seemed, with no light at the end of the tunnel. There were many times when stopping seemed like the obvious and sensible solution, but thankfully I didn’t!
After an opportunity which saw me selected as a reserve to the 2008 Beijing Olympics everything in my mindset changed. It was while I was there sitting on the side-lines without any expectation on me that I could see things in a completely different light and in a different way. I was able to understand how I needed to change physically and mentally in the approach to the sport and my training. I understood WHY I was pursuing this sport, WHAT I needed to change and HOW I was going to do it.
On return from Beijing the path I had to take was clear. I set about it and almost overnight everything changed. I won my first race in the sport 9 years after starting, becoming World champion. Over the course of the following 8 years I won a further four World titles and two Olympic gold medals in London 2012 and Rio 2016. There’s no doubt in that time period I encountered problems and issues, problems that once would have stopped me in my tracks and caused me to falter and fail, but knowing how, why and what meant these remained small challenges that I could simply navigate around. The path was obvious, the motivation was clear and drive was strong and the results came relentlessly.
What teamwork and leadership lessons did you learn which enabled you to bring out the best in each other, develop a strong team and then perform at your peak on the Olympic stage?
It took me many years to understand the value of others. I was someone fixated on being the best myself, to do it alone. This doesn’t work, and it’s unnecessary.
The first stage in my change in mindset was to accept that I can’t achieve anything alone, so I sought help from those around me. I began by asking questions, seeking the experience from those that had been there and done it before and those who were on the same journey as me. This opened up conversations, gave me insights I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered and importantly displayed my vulnerabilities to others. When you do this, it becomes acceptable to show weakness, to be vulnerable and honest! In a highly competitive male sporting environment this approach is traditionally is rare. It was a refreshing change, one that was much needed within our team and the environment started to change, the culture became one of support, sharing and helping each other.
In addition to this, the effect of pressure on me changed. The more I began to talk, discuss and share ideas, thoughts, worries and problems with my team mates, coaches and support staff, the less pressure I felt. Pressure had been a huge contributing factor to the problems and failures I encountered earlier in my career. I didn't have to tools in my repertoire to be able to cope with the pressure of performing. Once I became confident in my own self improvement and used those around me to learn from and share stress, the game changed for me. Pressure became a challenge and something we shared as a team. It was broken down, shared equally and became much more manageable!
Over the years working relentlessly towards absolute performance in teams, I discovered that to create a team that consistently performs and exceeds expectations requires individuals to work for each other. While in Olympic crews my focus was on making it easy for my fellow crew mates to do their jobs to the best of their ability. This way I was performing better and helping those around me to do so too. when this happens teams become greater than the sum of their parts, this is when top performances are delivered consistently whatever the occasion.
You made the decision to explore the waters of the Arctic for a month. What was the decision to embark on this adventure?
I had retired from competitive sport and found myself in a period of uncertainty. My real passion in life is the outdoors, wildlife and exploration so when an opportunity arose to join a pioneering rowing expedition to the far North I didn’t need too much persuading! The timing felt right, I needed a new challenge, a direction and a goal and something to work towards which is what I’d had in my life for the previous 32 years. Without that I felt lost, this gave me exactly that! In addition I’d spent time in the Arctic as a 16 year old before embarking on my sporting career. I was excited to have the opportunity to experience that once again.
What were some of the lessons you learnt during the expedition?
The expedition was fantastic and terrible. It was an extreme adventure where at times life and death was a tightrope we were walking. I had thrown myself into that project based on an emotional need. There was a space in life that I needed to fill so I filled it by doing something I’d always wanted to do without thinking too much of the consequences. The result was that I failed to prepare in the clinical, detailed way I had learnt to in my previous career.
Our team of six rowed on circulation, three at a time, constantly day and night for a month. We rowed further North than anyone had done in history and then crossed the Greenland sea in serious storm conditions, gaining numerous Guinness World records as we went. Working together was not just a case of getting to the finish line as fast as we could, it was a case of survival so we were forced to pull together and create a positive working environment to allow us to live. Despite the dangers of the natural environment, the most significant obstacle we had to face during the expedition was human. An individual who refused to become a member of the team, to support those around him and to engage with the combined goal lead to an ultimately disfunction relationship between that individual and the team. The way an individual interacts with another can change performance for good or bad. This experience taught me the value of positive leadership and the effects of negative attempted leadership. We all rely on others to achieve, it’s our role (whether our title is leader or not) to help those around us because our own individual performances are reliant on this. The experience was fascinating from a human perspective and taught me a great deal.
If there was one message that you would want an audience to take away from your talk, what would it be?
My story wasn’t a straightforward continuum of improvement and success. I wasn’t naturally gifted at the job I chose to pursue or destined for a particular role in life. I was a young guy at school who took an opportunity and pursued something relentlessly despite numerous reasons to quit and walk away. In the end it came down to a change in mindset and a lesson in becoming consistent. Understanding what my true motivation was and working consistently became the most important ingredients to achieving what I intended. There was no magic involved, it was a long arduous slog which was worth every painful second in the end. Anyone can achieve this, anyone.
Finally, what’s on the horizon for you Alex?
Leaving a job that was so relentlessly intense for such a long time, (7 days a week, 350 days a year for 16 years) leaves a gap in one’s life. It has been three years since I retired from the sport and I’m still learning how to adapt to a new life. ‘Athlete transition’ has parallels to military transition where an individual becomes institutionalised and reliant on the single goal and the structure that has been put in place around them for so long. This comes with many positives and negatives but involves a period of adjustment and development.
I’ve learnt that it’s important for me to do what I love. For my own health and for those around me, and knowing what it is I’m truly motivated by is essential in becoming successful once again. I’m working on a number of projects including writing more books, sharing the insights and experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have so far in my life through speaking and writing and I’m working to provide people with unique, life changing experiences in incredible parts of the world. My priority of course is to manage this while spending time and making memories with my young family!
Thank you for taking the time to chat to us Alex, we look forward to hearing about all of your projects!
For further information or to book one Alex Gregory, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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