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Exclusive: GB’s Ed Coode on Olympic success, Newcastle University life and friend James Cracknell’s Strictly stint

Written by Sport

‘I did a lot of losing’, Ed Coode jokes at one point whilst speaking to The Courier.

He’s referencing the 1998 Boat Race where Oxford were beaten by Cambridge, but it was here at Newcastle University that Coode’s illustrious rowing career started to shift up gears.

When Coode jokes about losing, it’s largely a nod to the excruciating 4th place finish he endured alongside Greg Searle in the Men’s Pair category during the Sydney Olympics of 2000.

“I was a spoilt brat. I was so gutted and so was Greg, although he was less spoilt about it. Looking back, I’m slightly embarrassed about how I dealt with that. I was left feeling, ‘if only I rowed it again’, but that’s just missing the point – you’ve got to get it right and be good enough that even when you get it wrong, you still win.”

It proved a springboard from which the rower would leap into golden Olympic success four years later. Yet, when he crossed the Tyne Bridge from Cornwall in 1994, reaching those heights wasn’t even in his plans.

“I wasn’t really planning on rowing when I turned up at Newcastle. There were some key characters in the Boat Club from the year before who came and found me because I had rowed at the Junior World Championships two years previously. I was thinking I’d just be focusing on marine biology. To start with, I owe anything I achieved in rowing to those lot [Newcastle University coaches].”

Coode’s Newcastle University journey started at Henderson Halls, which he is only half disappointed to hear have closed, recalling that “they were miles out on the coast road”. However, despite the trek from Henderson to campus in the mornings, Coode speaks fondly of his fresher’s experience.

“I think everyone feels a bit nervous on that weird opening few days in Fresher’s Week. There’s so much new stuff happening. The amazing thing is the cliché that the friends you make in the first few weeks at Newcastle stick with you through life. It’s amazing when I think of mine, including my wife!”

Any Newcastle student will know that being asked to pick out one memorable anecdote from their time in the Toon would be next to impossible. Nonetheless, after racking his brains for a few seconds, Coode manages.

“The sport was pretty different at University then. One thing that I remember is that the Students Union had a sports budget of around £8,000 a year. The Boat Club had a new trailer two years before I got to Newcastle and that had pretty much used up the club’s budget for the rest of the decade.”

“We has absolutely no money at all, I’m sure it made the club smaller with fewer people involved, but it did drag an extra commitment out of everyone involved. We looked after boats like they were babies and travelled miles at our own expense to compete. It produced a really special club atmosphere.”

And now, as he catches Newcastle University Boat Club (NUBC) on the rowing scene he’s proud to note how great it is “to see NUBC in the top handful of clubs in the country now”.

“The Boat Club is special and the epitome of the ‘student club’, run by the students. Angelo [Savarino, NUBC Head Coach] buys into that totally.”

Another aspect of University life that Coode remains proud of today is his role in the creation of the Boat Race of the North. First run in 1997, the year Coode graduated from Newcastle, it’s a prestigious fixture in the Northern Rowing calendar that still reigns supreme today – even as other intra-University competitions like Stan Calvert have fallen.

“It focused both universities on the boat clubs in a way that never happened before – it was a peripheral sport until then. The North-East loves those derbies. There’s always been a lovely rivalry with Durham.”

After leaving Newcastle, an under-23 rowing camp saw Coode training with “a couple more loud-mouth rowers talking about the Olympics” and a seed was planted.

“I just thought, no way, you aren’t that good. But that’s how those things work. You think, hang on, these guys are serious. And even if I’m not as good as them, I’m not far behind, so I’ll give it a go. I thought at worst I’d waste a couple of years… [he chuckles] in the end I wasted more like 30!”

Fast forward, past the bitter fourth of 2000, and you get to the Athens Olympics of 2004. A gold medal alongside Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Steve Williams saw Coode finally scratch that Olympic podium itch.

“It was a long four years. Four years is a long time anyway, but I had a bit of a rollercoaster in between. We won comfortably in 2001 and looked dead set to right the wrong of the previous year. Then I was out with a training injury, everyone was coming up around me, I couldn’t compete, people were pulling funding… I suffered a virus in the Olympic year itself! I totally bombed in the final trials and wasn’t actually going to Athens at that stage.”

Ed Coode at NUBC (first in blue, top row)
Image: Fergus Mainland

Not down and out, Coode managed to work his way into the eight and all was going well again. Then, just before Henley Royal Regatta 2004, Team GB head coach Jürgen Gröbler came knocking. An injury to Alex Partridge made space for Coode to compete in the coxless four. With just 40 days to get to gold medal challenging level, the race to prepare was on and, in fact, continued right down to the line on final’s day in one of rowing’s most infamous showdowns.

“We were leading by about half a length at halfway, and 250 meters later the Canadian crew were leading by half a length. Whether you are in the zone or just fighting for your life at that stage, I couldn’t tell who had it.”

“I’ve seen the replay a few times and you go, wow we must have panicked. Clearly, we can’t have totally panicked because we managed to pull it back. We didn’t stick to the plan, but races rarely go to plan. You learn that over your career and the important thing is just to be ahead at the finish line.”

Hanging up his rowing blades shortly after the win, Coode now works as a lawyer in Cornwall – a radical change of career plan from Marine Biology, he admits. Asked if he still re-unites with the gold-winning crew, Coode says yes but “not as much as we would all like”. At the time of speaking, James Cracknell prepped to switch the lycra for dancing shoes on Strictly Come Dancing – a sadly short-lived career change that ended in the show’s opening weeks, as Coode foresaw.

“I haven’t got great hops for James’ dancing… I don’t know what it takes to win Strictly Come Dancing. James has got some pretty special reserves inside him, and if it’s just down to sheer hard work then he will do it… but I don’t think it is”, he laughs off.

As a new wave of arrivals settles into their Newcastle University journey, we finish by asking the alumni for any tips he has that might make school level rowers wanting to make the switch to University standard a little bit easier: “As a very general thing, Angelo will make a man or woman of you.”

“You’re always bringing the skills and the race experience that you’ve had up to now to add into the whole crew. Your experience, whether you’ve done a lot or not so much, will be useful. But you’re really only as good as the training you’ve done in the last six months – you need to put in the miles.”

And put in the miles Coode certainly has. From Cornwall to Newcastle to Oxford to Sydney and Athens, the former Newcastle man is a leading sporting light for students past, present and future.

 

Last modified: 14th October 2019

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