The Olympic Champion Steps Down

Jurgen Grobler, the man behind the champions. Picture: British Rowing.

28 August 2020

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd says farewell to Jurgen Grobler, who announced he’s retiring.

‘You are going to go into the darkness and come through a very uncomfortable area, but you’ll get through it. The most important thing is to trust each other and trust the rhythm.’

This was Jurgen Grobler’s address to oarsmen on the night before they were to take to the water to row themselves into Olympic champions.

Since he arrived in Britain in 1991, Grobler has steered eight crews comprised of 20 men through darkness into golden Olympic light. No coach of any discipline, let alone rowing, has gotten near his record of guiding Olympic golds at every Games from 1992 to 2016. But when Corona struck the Tokyo Games, the 74-year-old chief coach of British Rowing found himself between a rock and a hard place.

Grobler’s first day at Leander in January 1991. Picture Catherine Shakespeare Lane.

Last year, Paul Thompson, Britain’s chief women’s and lightweights’ coach, signed up for Paris 2024 – but for China, not Britain. Consequently, Grobler found himself in charge of all the squads. One reason he gave for hanging up his stopwatch now is that he can’t commit to another four years, having intended Tokyo 2020 to be his swansong.

The announcement of his retirement states that British Rowing has a plan for Paris. The astonishing thing would be if they hadn’t a plan. I’m guessing that it’s to win gold medals. But do they have a strategy? Retirements since Rio have left the programme lacking in experience than it has been for many a year.

During the run-up to the Athens Olympics in 2004, Grobler’s squad was stretched. ‘We can’t buy medals, we can’t breed the guys, it’s not a self-runner,’ he told me at the time. ‘Athletes are like gold dust. If I lose another athlete I am in trouble.’

Tokyo 2021 has the hallmarks of a similar situation – a challenge to Grobler’s outstanding record, a record that in addition to his Olympic achievements with two pairs, five fours and an eight, includes taking 21 British crews to world titles. How we would have hated to witness a tumble from the gold standard in Tokyo. How we would hate to witness it next year. This inspiring genius deserves to leave when he’s at the top. He deserves to bask in his life’s work.

Grobler’s tenth Olympic win – the Men’s Four at London 2012.

Jurgen Grobler, of course, had two careers. The first began when he gave up ideas of becoming a TV cameraman in his native Magdeburg and enrolled at Leipzig university, from where he graduated to East Germany’s professional coaching programme. Klaus Filter, the boat builder, puts Grobler’s success down to curiosity:

‘He was the most curious one who reads, listens and tries everything.’

He rose to take charge of East Germany’s scullers and women’s squad. Such senior posts entailed keeping on the right side of the state and not offending the secret police, known as the Stasi. The latter’s imaginative code name allotted to him was ‘Jurgen’. Jurgen ‘understood that collaboration with the other key elements would bring the results the state required,’ according to Filter.

He coached Olympic golds in Montreal, Moscow and Seoul (missing Los Angeles 1984 because East Germany boycotted the Games) before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded a united Germany.

The Dream Team of Redgrave, Grobler and Pinsent in 1991. Picture: British Rowing.

Coincidentally, Leander sought a coach for Steve Redgrave and his new pairs partner, Matt Pinsent, when Mike Spracklen left for Canada. The club dangled the two best oarsmen in the world before Grobler with a relocation deal attached. His interview took place during Henley Regatta in 1990, and his contract was signed on flimsy fax paper by the water at Lake Barrington, Tasmania, during the World Championships, where he saw his future charges win a bronze, their first medal together.

He began coaching the pair at Leander in January 1991. He didn’t say much, a typical de-brief being: ‘Steve, the catch… not so bad. Matt, the finish… not so bad. Now another lap.’ But he produced a world gold in Vienna in 1991 and an Olympic gold in Barcelona 1992, after which he became chief men’s coach at the Amateur Rowing Association, as British Rowing then was.

Part of Grobler’s secret is a typical German trait – thoroughness. He says little but monitors everything from diet to state of mind, from erg scores to equipment design. For Olympiad after Olympiad he has overcome setbacks and enabled crews to pull rabbits out of hats for the races that matter. Examples are Redgrave’s diabetes and Tim Foster’s two bouts of injury during the Sydney Olympiad, and Ed Coode’s accession to the Athens 2004 four when a punctured lung put Alex Partridge out of the boat. Both boats finished with gold. Somehow Grobler comes through adversity like no other.

Grobler: Thorough

Being a coach is a lonely job. On the one hand, you get to know the most there is to know about what makes your athletes tick. On the other hand, you can’t afford to get close to them. Jurgen put it like this in 2012: ‘I stay enough away so that nobody thinks they can manipulate me. One of my principles is that people must be able to trust me to make decisions.’

Alex Gregory, an Olympic champion in 2012 and 2016, describes the trust thus: ‘When you graduate from Sierra Nevada to Silvretta [altitude camps], you are safe in the knowledge that your coach knows where your edge lies – and you know that you would not stop in an Olympic final.’

Grobler is direct and to the point. His debrief to Neil Chugani, who coxed Pinsent and Cracknell in a nail-biting finish at the 2001 world championships, was: ‘Neil, you are a world champion. Now go and de-rig the boat.’

Grobler: Direct. Picture: British Rowing.

For the press as well as countless British athletes, he has been a meal ticket for more than a quarter of a century. In his constant search for the perfect, efficient stroke, Jurgen has found a way of imparting his knowledge to more athletes in more generations than any before him.

Aside from his pressure points, he combines conviviality with a private life. ‘I am a club man,’ he says. ‘I like the physical existence of a clubhouse where you can gather and talk to the old guys.’

After almost fifty years of 24/7 in the coaching launch, he can surely look forward to reminding his family who he is, and chewing the fat with the old guys. He’s a gobsmacking act to follow, but strategy for Paris 2024 is no longer his problem.

“More Power – The Story of Jurgen Grobler: the Most Successful Olympic Coach of all Time” by Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd. (HQ/HarperCollins, 2018).

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