Members of The Salon at The Relais recently enjoyed an insightful talk from Tokyo Olympic rower Oliver Cook on the world of elite sport. Ollie Cook spent nine years on the GB Rowing Team, during which time he became both a World and European Champion, and won the Boat Race for Oxford University.
As members enjoyed coffee and pastries, Ollie shared the story of his rowing journey from his very first event representing GB, all the way to the Olympic Games. Whilst telling the tale of training camps, injuries, races won and races lost, Ollie also gave his perspective on what it was that he felt made him successful in the team. Reflecting on his time in rowing, he said that he identified three things that led to a good performance: physical training, mindset, and your why (or your heart).
Ollie first represented GB as a junior in 2008, and joined the senior team after racing at the World Rowing U23 Championships in 2012. He won gold in the men’s coxed pair at the World Rowing Championships in 2016, and became European Champion in the men’s four in 2019. However, despite many successes in the GB Rowing team, it took Ollie nine years to reach the Olympics, having been selected as the non-travelling spare for the Rio Games.
Ollie was selected to race the men’s four at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, but had to undergo Olympic trials again the following year after the games were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully, he earned his seat for a second time and was selected to compete in the four in 2021. Speaking about the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, he said, “For me it was incredible because it was the Olympic Games, I was here. It was nine years in the making. I knew it wasn’t the same but it was still the same. We didn’t have any of the normal fun stuff you would associate with the Olympics, but it was still the Olympic Games, so it was pretty cool.”
Ollie then played a clip of his Olympic final, in which his boat lost its course in the latter stages of the race and veered into the next lane. This steering issue meant that the crew (composed of Ollie, Sholto Carnegie, Rory Gibbs and Matt Rossiter) finished fourth overall. Ollie said, “That was the hardest thing I have ever, ever, ever had to deal with, and it’s still pretty hard, but I don’t think I could do a talk about my stuff without showing you that. I was steering and your job as a steersman is obviously, mostly, to keep your boat in the lane. You’re going as hard as you can, and the final bit of the Olympics I thought we could win. With about a minute to go, coming through the 500m, I remember thinking we could still do this.”
He continued, “We knew the conditions were quite bouncy – a crew in the race before capsized. We also knew that we hadn’t raced the Aussies yet. We had been undefeated, they hadn’t raced anyone, and we were going to race them for the first time in the final. We knew it would be between us and them, and we never talked about anything other than winning. For us there was never really a conversation about what a silver medal or a bronze medal would mean; the GB 4- has won that event every Olympics since 2000, and for me it’s still very raw because that was an absolute nightmare. To hear the Marshall saying ‘Great Britain move over’ in an Olympic final when you’re going for it, and knowing that he’s talking to me and I’m the only one who can do anything about it, was pretty hard.”
Despite the pain of not winning an Olympic medal, Ollie stressed that his biggest achievements in rowing were not the races he had won, but the people he had met and the lessons he had learned along the way. He said, “I don’t think I really need to have an Olympic medal (obviously I don’t), but really it’s about the people I do it with and the philosophy that underpins the why. I remember someone saying to me that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s how you do something, and I think that for me is absolutely applicable to being a GB athlete.”
After his speech, Ollie was asked whether he felt he had reached the pinnacle of his career so far, or (given his optimistic nature), whether the height of his career was yet to come? He responded, “I am very lucky to find a great job that I’m doing at Oxford. I would love for there to be a book and for rowing to be an incredible part of that, but not the whole book. I don’t have a book coming out, but in my mind, if rowing could be a consistent theme running through it but not the entire topic of the book, that would be really cool.”
Ollie also told an amusing anecdote about how he and his teammates had joked about buying the hotel. He recalled, “Every time we would walk past here to get to Leander, and this place was for sale, we always talked about, could we all club together and buy the Red Lion because it would be an amazing place to have over the regatta for us to come and have a few drinks and then crash out. I’m glad to see that it’s been bought; we couldn’t quite put our performance grants together enough to buy the hotel, but it’s great to see that it’s back in its glory, and to see an event like this happening. I had a look through the event list of the various different speakers, and I feel very privileged to be included in that list, and slightly humbled because there are some really cool people coming in.”
The Salon membership offers breakfast and evening events, as well as the exclusive use of the Palm Court for work in the daytime or social drinks in the evening. There are two upcoming events in November: an evening of history and gin cocktails with Highclere Castle Gin on Wednesday 16th, and a breakfast event with Henley MP John Howell on Monday 21st.
If you are interested in becoming a member of The Salon at The Relais Henley contact the team on 01491 523288 or email email@example.com