'You win two Olympic golds, but everyone knows you for your swollen hands'
The hands, you will be relieved to hear, have healed. Alex Gregory, known by his rowing feats as a picture of the ruddiest health, triggered a shudder of collective horror last month when he tweeted a photograph of skin so grotesquely puckered by the Arctic cold that it resembled that of a mummified Ice Age mammoth.
“Strange, isn’t it?” he says, clasping a restorative cup of coffee in his living room. “You win two Olympic gold medals but it’s a snap of your swollen hands that goes around the world.”
Today, they look back to robust health, but the psychological effects of his six weeks in the northern hemisphere’s most extreme latitudes run deeper. Marooned for a fortnight on Jan Mayen Island, an outcrop of volcanic rock populated only by wizened Norwegian meteorologists, Gregory reached an epiphany. For all that his compelling expedition, from Tromso to Svalbard and then on Iceland, brought the exhilaration he craved after hanging up his Olympic oars, the ever-present terror of capsizing into these icy depths brought a powerful reminder that his three young children needed him alive. His partner Emily’s father had written him a note before he set off, warning: “Don’t feel you have to carry on just to be brave.”
“Those words were ringing in my head,” he reflects. “That’s when you realise what your life is worth, what you mean to other people.”
My hands after spending so long in wet gloves.The blisters were never bad on this Polar row, but the wet & damp seeped into the skin... pic.twitter.com/N3Y6s3m4Uh— Alex Gregory (@AlexGregoryGB) August 30, 2017
It helps to understand what motivated Gregory to embark upon this audacious voyage in the first place. After calling time on elite competition with a second successive Olympic gold in Rio, sustaining the dominance of the British men’s four for a fifth straight Games, he felt both content and complete. While his body might just have stayed intact for a treble at Tokyo 2020, aged 36 – Sir Steve Redgrave, after all, won gold No 5 at 38 – his mind could not decide with certainty that the reward would be worth the sacrifice.
Instead, blissful days of sloth unfurled, of reconnecting with a family of whom he had seen precious little. For six months this satisfied him, until he woke up one winter morning in a state of existential panic. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God, who am I?’” Gregory says. “What was I doing? I didn’t have an identity. I had been a rower, but I wasn’t really anything now. I didn’t have a challenge, either. There didn’t seem to be anything to aim for.”
There are certain parallels here with the predicament of Gail Emms, Britain’s former badminton silver medallist, who has written poignantly about her struggles to forge a career beyond Olympic sport. By degrees, a light is being shone on the fraught transition that many athletes face in assimilating back into quotidian life. Gregory, by his own admission, stepped away from rowing without a penny to his name.
Before Rio, he had spent his Wednesday afternoons – the only time he enjoyed away from head coach Jurgen Grobler’s remorseless training regime – exploring an ambition to become a TV wildlife presenter. He arranged meetings, even compiled a show-reel. One senses he would be a hit at it, combining as he does the cachet of his sporting achievements with the preppy exuberance of a young Ben Fogle. But it is a capricious business, affording no easy entry even to proven talents. For now, he has settled for public speaking engagements in which he can share the accumulated wisdom of his life in a boat. Work is irregular, though: one week he might have three bookings, then for three weeks he might have nothing at all.
“It gets stressful,” says Gregory, who is a renting a house in the remotest part of south Oxfordshire, on the fringes of Rowan Atkinson’s estate. “I never wanted a nine-to-five, but I have bills to pay. I feel I owe it to those closest to me to use what I’ve done in the past, the rowing success. But it revolves around the need for money and the responsibility of supporting my family.”
An email from a Scottish friend, Newall Hunter, one of only 15 people on the planet to achieve the adventurers’ ‘Grand Slam’ of climbing each of the seven continents’ highest peaks and reaching both the North and South Poles, helped recover Gregory’s sense of self. Hunter flagged up a succinct advert on an explorers’ internet forum: “Rower wanted – Arctic.” Not long after, Gregory, forsaking the English summer to swaddle himself in windcheaters at the northernmost extremities of Scandinavia, was on his way.
For a few days, the journey was as invigorating as he had envisaged. Squeezed into an ocean-going rowing boat alongside fellow Britons Sam Vye and Danny Longman, as well as Icelandic skipper Fiann Paul, he watched puffins wheel through the air and a giant greyback whale lazily flute its tail alongside. Even the alarming crunch with which the boat ground against the permanent ice shelf could not break the spell. “It was raw, pure, pristine,” Gregory reflects. “We felt isolated, but in a wonderful way, alone amid all this cold, natural life.”
It was on the turn back towards Iceland that the experience went south. Millpond-like waters gave way to an angry, broiling sea, Gregory interspersing his 12-hour shifts to record a video diary from his cabin, at one stage saying plaintively: “Get me out of here.”
“There was never a relaxed stroke,” he says. “If we capsized, no one was going to reach us. We had lifejackets and we were clipped on to a safety line, but we would still be in freezing water. We would have minutes to survive, if that. The boat might right itself, but it was too much of a risk. If you fall overboard in the middle of the Atlantic, you’re not assured of dying. With this, I thought it was a 99 per cent likelihood.”
On the dry land of Jan Mayen, its shores strewn with desiccated bones from Norway’s whaling days, Gregory resolved that his own adventure had run its course. “A few things clicked into place,” he acknowledges. “I thought, ‘My kids don’t care that I’m here. All they want me to do is to have a bike ride with them, to cook them dinner. They don’t care if I’m a brave Arctic rower.’” That there was one last leg of the row left unfulfilled did not distress him. “Mountaineers climb Everest but they turn back 200 metres from the summit because the weather changes. If everybody comes back to Base Camp alive, it’s still a success. Getting to the top and dying on the way down? That’s a terrible thing.”
Thanks to a passing service ship that plucked him out of this stark and frigid wilderness, Gregory made it back to Britain in time to see his daughter Daisy through her first week at school. More sedate pleasures, he explains, will sustain him now.
He intends, for example, to start writing a parents’ guide to the outdoors life with children, describing how to make a den and sleep in it, how to differentiate one deciduous tree from another. As for soul-searching missions to the bleakest edges of the world, even this most stoic of Olympians has learned the hard way that it is more than his nerves – and his hands – can bear.