- Alex Gregory MBE.
- Double Olympic gold medallist – five World Championship golds.
- Seven Guinness World Records.
- Age 35.
- Home: Somerset.
- Partner Emily Airey.
- Father to Jasper 10, Daisy 6 and Jesse 3.
Who inspired you on your first steps, or strokes, on the path that took you to two Olympic golds?
At the age of 16 I knew nothing at all about rowing. I don’t ever recall watching it on TV…I certainly had no intention in trying it out. A good mate from school gave a rowing taster session a go at the local Evesham club. He came back telling me I should come with him. It took me a while to convince me, but once I’d started I was hooked!
Very quickly I wanted to give this sport a proper go, to see how far I could get. Being a member of the club was a great start, then I discovered my history teacher was also a university rowing coach, so a few of us asked if he’d be interested in taking us on and training us up. That was the start of a long partnership which took us to the Olympic games. He became one of the first Talent ID coaches for rowing in the UK and I joined the ‘World Class Start’ programme with him. It was an incredible support network which set me on the pathway to becoming an international athlete.
Who do you look to as a role model in life, and in sport?
People who never give up. I’m inspired by people who have overcome serious obstacles to achieve what they’ve set out to do, whether that’s surviving extreme environments or individuals from unusually difficult backgrounds and upbringings. There are so many stories that highlight the strength of the human spirit.
The best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“Don’t judge a moment.” I feel I often do this, get sent into a feeling of despair or joy depending on the situation I find myself in. Something that can seem like the end of the world or the most disappointing bit of news in that moment in time may turn out to be the very best thing that ever happened to you. Patience and positivity is always a winner.
Your crowning sporting achievement. Did you manage to take it in that you had reached the pinnacle of sport?
There are two obvious moments in my sporting life that will live with me forever. Crossing the line first in the Olympic Games is something very special and I realise I’m incredibly privileged to have had the opportunities and support to pursue the sport for so many years and to overcome the many obstacles along the way. In both Olympic finals, in 2012 and in 2016, we’d been under a huge amount of pressure as a crew, so once it’s all over there’s a flood of emotion which for me was predominantly relief.
As it’s happening and in the succeeding months, even years, the feeling for me has been that I was simply doing my job – and just managed to do it well. While you’re in amongst it, working with people with multiple Olympic medals, the pinnacle does not seem so prominent, it’s closer to you.
What’s more the mental approach I had to take was that nothing was certain, nothing was secure. I needed to prove myself time and time again; in fact three times a day, seven days a week, 350 days a year for 16 years to gain selection and get the chance to compete for Olympic gold..
It’s only since finishing the sport and regularly talking about it, that I recognised it was something unusual and quite special. I’m incredibly proud of what we managed to achieve – we being my family because as much as anything it’s the people around us who really make it happen. Juggling three children, missing births and a whole host of other events while training and racing abroad for months of the year and still managing to perform is really what I’m proud of.
You won two Olympic golds but resisted the hat-trick for 2020. You would have been 36 – Steve Redgrave was 38 when he won his. What was behind that decision?
Life changes, sport changes and with something as intense as high performance rowing absolute motivation and commitment is necessary. I knew the Olympic final in Rio would be my last race.
Over the years I’d made many choices that impacted on those around me. They were choices that I needed to make in order to do what I did, but having missed two of my three children’s births and endless other aspects of life, it was time to be more present within my family and do things in life I needed to do.
I had achieved more than I thought I could or would in the sport, so I felt satisfied and content with the medals and experiences I’d had. It’s a dangerous thing when you start comparing yourself to others especially in historically successful environments so it was important I judged myself on my own level of satisfaction. I haven’t regretted the decision once.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Finding a purpose and a direction. I loved the freedom and flexibility I was afforded immediately after I stopped. I could, for the first time in life say yes to everything and anything. I had some wonderful opportunities, but after six months I woke up one day in a cold sweat. I wasn’t anyone. I didn’t have a real direction, goal or purpose.
For the first time in life I didn’t have someone pushing or guiding me, I had to do it myself, what’s more, with three young children there were some serious bills to pay. The pressure was on to find out who I was, where I want to go and become financially stable…it’s an ongoing process.
What is your life like now outside that bubble?
Life is becoming more stable. I’ve published a book on a concept I’m passionate about – getting young people outdoors. ‘Dadventures’ is a guide for parents to do simple things outside with their children, creating memory-making moments of time together. Having spent much of my time away from my children while competing and then on an Arctic rowing expedition where I nearly didn’t come home, the significance of time has become incredibly relevant to us and I love sharing that concept.
Most of my business now, however, is speaking. I talk to a wide range of companies and organisations giving keynote speeches and motivational talks where I tell my story of life in high performance sport, while pulling out the most significant and important aspects that might resonate with others. I believe there are similarities across the board, business, sport and life so I’m really enjoying sharing my insights.
Most importantly, I’m finding the balance of being a father who is present in my children’s lives while pursuing work opportunities I’m passionate about. I can do the school run, take the kids camping and do the things we love to do whilst paying the bills. It has not been easy, but nothing in life worth doing ever is.
You are patron of the British Exploring youth charity. Can you tell us a bit more?
I’ve always loved and been inspired by tales of exploration around the world so when, as a 16 year old I was given the opportunity to join a youth exploring charity expedition I jumped at the challenge! I spent the most incredible month on the Island of Svalbard, studying glacial meltwater rivers and exploring the icecap while climbing any mountain peak we could see.
The experience taught me so much and gave me a perspective on life, the natural world and people that I’d have struggled to get elsewhere. I believe the experience helped me in my life as an athlete and so on retirement I dropped the British Exploring society a note saying thank you.
I now work with them when I can to support their efforts into providing opportunities for young people from all backgrounds and abilities to experience the extraordinary world we live on. The expeditions cover the globe from the Amazon to the Arctic and have a purpose too, as young explorers help conduct scientific study. The society has been running since 1932 so thousands of young people have been positively affected by their work.
What attracted you to Sportside?
Sport means something different to everyone as I’ve come to learn over the years. Opportunity is something crucial in getting people started in sport whether they know they want to or not. Rowing for me started from an opportunity I didn’t know I needed yet it changed my life, so it’s exciting to think how an introduction, or making it easier for someone to get involved could change other lives for the better too.
As I’ve mentioned, the transferable skills I’ve learnt from sport are only just now coming to the fore, the more I talk about them, the more I realise I’ve learnt. As a nation we need to encourage positive attitudes, working and social behaviours and sport really does teach these skills and actions. Above all else the physical and mental benefits from regular activity of any kind is essential to a healthy life – Sportside is a significant game changer when it comes to encouraging and helping achieve this.
TV drama box sets and salt and vinegar crisps…oh and gin & tonic.
What’s your next big goal?
I need to find my real passion and direction in life, the thing I want to pursue with the same dedication as I did for rowing. I’ve discovered this can’t be rushed, so patience is a virtue in this regard, and I think it’s happening.
Alex’s book Dadventures – amazing outdoor adventures for daring dads and fearless kids – is available on Amazon. Alex says: “Time is the one resource we can’t buy but we all want. It’s so important to make the most of the time we have and create lasting memories.”