Friday, November 18, 2011

RR Interview: Beijing Gold Medalist and Reigning World Champion Mark Hunter of Team GB

Hunter (left) and Purchase after the A final in Bled (Photo: B. Kitch)
Mark Hunter is a racer, through and through. From his earliest days in the sport, he exhibited the right combination of talent and determination that it takes to succeed, and in September of this year he and fellow GB lightweight Zac Purchase successfully defended their world championship title (for a video interview with Hunter and Purchase from Bled following the race, click here). Next year in Eton, Mark and Zac will look to defend their Olympic crown on home water–something that means a great deal both of them as they embark on the path to London 2012. Here, Mark shares a little about his past, present, and hopes for the future with RR.

RR: You've been involved in the sport of rowing for quite some time now, and are currently among those GB oarsmen favo(u)red to win a second gold medal in 2012, in your home town (well, I guess technically closer to Slough, but near your hometown, anyway). How did your experience of rowing begin, and how much does the possibility of winning on home water add to your own and to team GB's determination to succeed in London?

MH: My experience of rowing began way back in 1992 when I was 14. I started the sport at a place called Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club on the River Thames. I use to wade in the mud to boat and then row between the Thames Barrier and Tower Bridge with ships and tankers creating a lot of wash. The thing that made me want to be an Olympian was watching the Barcelona Olympics on TV, watching the Searle brothers win gold made me want to embark on that journey to becoming an Olympic Champion.

Winning gold in Beijing was incredible and to achieve that was too special for words. London is the only thing that will be able to top that. Winning on home water would be something utterly unique and special in a very different way, with all my family, friends there and the immense support that every British athlete will be getting from the British public.

RR: In the US system, there is a tendency to change lineups nearly every year. When you and Zac Purchase first rowed the 2x, was there an immediate sense that it could work? Has the lineup ever changed during training?

MH: When we first got together we were two very fast single scullers who could move our sculls quickly, but we didn't have the skills to harness that in the 2x with other people. From the moment we got in the boat together, however, we knew it could go places. There is a saying that 2x either works or doesn't; and it's not something which you can make, it just clicks. But a double does need time to progress and develop so each athlete can learn about the other and work on helping each other with their weaknesses, and, most important of all, how to get the best out of each other. We have tried other combinations in training, but we know ours is unique as we have worked hard to establish ourselves as the best at what we do and the way we move and work together. It's about us as a crew now–not as individuals.

RR: During the journey toward Beijing, you and Zac posted better and better results on the World level, in pursuit of what had been a very dominant 2x in Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist. After taking bronze at Worlds in 2007, was there a feeling that all you two needed was time together in the lineup to find yourselves on the top of the podium?

MH: Our results did improve over the 18 months leading in to Beijing, and if you look back at the event all bronze medalist crews bomb out the following year, so we were up against it. We worked really hard behind the scenes with our coach and support team, we had a great plan on how we were going to improve and change the colour of our medal from Bronze to Gold. We covered every angle possible so we could give ourselves the best chance of Winning and make British rowing history.

RR: 2008 was a golden year, with three World Cup wins going into Beijing, and an Olympic Gold at the end of it. During that run, did you feel any added pressure being at the top of the heap? Or were you feeling still more confident as you were clearly at the top of your game?

MH: It was a perfect World Cup season in terms of results but we were never totally ready for those events, and to be honest we won most of the races because we are a good racing crew. But arriving in Beijing we were favourites and back home we were one of Team GB dead certs for Gold, so the pressure was building along with the expectation.

It was a strange week of racing at the Games. I felt in the shape of my life and somehow knew it was our time to win and the only way it wouldn't happen would be if we did something stupid. But the pressure was mounting as the week went on, and I became quieter and quieter because at my previous Games I came last in the LM4-, so this was truly my chance of going from the very bottom to the very top! The easiest way for me to give people an idea of being favourites at the Olympics, would be comparing it to sitting your college/school exams. Your studying is my training, every day turning up doing the best job possible to learn and improve. The world cups are like mid terms, and the Olympic final is like doing the final exam hoping the work you've done day to day will pay off on that final test where you have to get 100%. The only plus side of an Olympic final you know the result straight away and picking up your degree with the world watching!

RR: After Beijing, you took a year away from the UK and from training at the elite level, in order to pursue coaching in Los Angeles, California as a member of the UCLA Women's Rowing coaching staff. When you returned to full-time training after the Spring of 2009, it was clear that you were ready to pick up right where you left off in 2008. How important was it for you to have that time away, and how do you think it helped you as you stepped back into the Olympic training cycle?

MH: My time coaching at UCLA was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done. To leave the UK after all the expectation of winning at the Olympics and be able to completely switch off and, in my eyes, have the best job in the world was unbelievable. I was living the Californian dream in Santa Monica by the beach, coaching in Marina del Ray then on campus coaching at UCLA– how does it get any better then that? At that point I had no interest of competing in London as I was enjoying normal life and I'd accomplished my life-long goal and dream. The Chief Coach at UCLA Amy Fuller Kearney was the one who planted the seed in my mind of a home Olympics after she told me about her experiences of stepping away from the sport, and the WOW factor of a home Olympics (Atlanta). Then after watching my novice/freshman girls race made me remember why I started rowing and why I enjoyed racing so much. Looking back now, that break helped me hugely as you realise that there is a real world out there, let me know that I can survive in it, and also that I had some unfinished business with rowing and needed to come back to defend my title in front of a home crowd.

RR: While you were away, Zac Purchase struggled for some time with a viral illness that hampered his training, and caused him to take Spring and Summer 2009 off as well. When you returned, was he ready to jump back into training? How long did it take until the two of you were once again physiologically ready?

MH: We started at a identical points having missed a year of racing and both believed the standard of the LM2x hadn't moved on. It was pretty much where we left it, but the depth of the event had grown.

We knew we had a lot of work to do as we were there mentally, but not physically, up until the World Champs in New Zealand. Winning at our first world cup back racing in the 2x in Munich was great but we purely did that with our skill of racing as a double. Then in Lucerne the bubble of winning was burst when we got 5th. We hadn't lost in 19 races until that point. That was really the turning point and what we needed. After that we trained better and harder than we ever had before and it was amazing and exciting to see how much more we both were able to get out of ourselves compared with 2008.

RR: Your performances in Karapiro and in Bled have strongly stated that you and Zac are the 2x to beat in the coming season. In the US, we often use the saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' With things going so well, has the structure of your training plan changed at all? Or has it remained consistent?

MH: We performed well in Karapiro and due to the challenging conditions we never got to race over the full track, due to winning all our races in the first 1000m. We didn't get to use all our hard work from our intense training because we were never really pushed. As a combination I suppose we are the crew to beat, but the event has other great combinations which we always respect and enjoy racing against.

Going in to this year's World Champs in Bled we had no racing from the World Cup season to look back on. We got back in the boat 6 weeks before Bled and were essentially starting from scratch. We knew we had a lot to do and we knew it was going to be quite stressful and challenging, but it would put us in a position to challenge the inform crews.

Our speed over the 6 weeks was increasing all the time, but we wouldn't be the fittest crew in the event, so our skills of racing as a unit would need to be even better than before.  We progressed really well through the regatta and made improvements and stepped up each round.

In the final we knew what we had to do and how we would win. When I look back I think this was our most satisfying victory as we were nowhere near our best, but could still turn it on and make things happen when we needed to. For me this summed up why we are such a unique and successful combination, and showed our total belief and trust in each other.

At home we still have to go through the selection process just like anyone else, which can make it difficult to totally focus on the big races at London 2012. The people after your seat don't look at the bigger picture they just want to beat you there and then, so it's always important we put in solid performances as individuals at trials and testing along the way. I can't tell you about the training plan as it's top secret, but all you need to know is we are working very hard!

RR: Following the London Olympic Games, do you have a sense for where you'd like your rowing career to take you? Did the experience of coaching at UCLA spark an interest in future coaching opportunities, at home or abroad? Or are you purely focused on your preparation as you build toward defending home water at Eton?

MH: After 2012 I'm keen to enjoy life once again, but I won't be dashing off and leaving the UK in the same way. It is hard to think about things after as I'm totally focused on having my ultimate row on August 4th, 2012!

I did enjoy my experience of coaching at UCLA very much, It would be something I'm keen to carry on with and maybe try and get to the top in once I'm finished competing. With my free time outside of training I do enjoy talking to youngsters and trying to inspire them in to following their dreams and making them understand it's a lot of hard work but anything is possible. I also enjoy speaking at corporate events, which involves me telling my story of how you can turn things around (Athens to Beijing), using certain attributes in the right way -- so I'm keen on some (or all) forms of teaching!

Thanks very much to Mark Hunter for taking the time. Also, along with many other members of the GB national team, Mark has a 'mospace' in honor of Movember, through which you can donate to the fight against cancer (direct link: http://uk.movember.com/mospace/1870014/)


-RR

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