Master of the Month – Simon Dennis

As champions of men, SCRUBD are passionate about helping men to be masters in every area of their life. Every month we interview a true master, who is making a difference in the world around him.

This month we are interviewing former GB Gold Medal Winner, Olympic Rower Simon Dennis MBE

1. What was it like to be in the Olympic village in 2000 surrounded by sporting masters?

The Olympic Village can be overwhelming. We were lucky to have Steve Redgrave in our team who gave us some solid advice about not getting drawn into the distractions; at least, not until we’d finished racing. Rowing is in the first week of the Olympic fortnight, so we had one week of work and one to relax. It was fun to spot sporting celebrities but as a crew we kept ourselves to ourselves as we built up a sense of our own indestructability.

2. You were born in The Rowing Capital, Henley. Do you think this impacted your career path?

I think it was a coincidence because I didn’t start rowing until I lived in London. My earliest memories of Henley Royal Regatta were a week of gridlock and packs of Americans on the streets. The idea to try rowing must have existed on some subconscious level I suppose. When I was older and rowing for Imperial College we took great delight in beating one particular club based in Henley.

3. When you were training what was your motivation to get you through the early starts and strenuous days?

I was lucky in that I started in the British team at the same time as the introduction of National Lottery funding, so I didn’t need to have a job as well as train. This meant training times were more civilised and there were not so many early mornings. Before that it would have been a sense of wanting to not let other people down who you were training with. Plus, there’s an enormous sense of satisfaction at 8am, knowing you’ve already done more than most people will do with their whole day.

When it comes to getting through all the strenuous days of relentless exhaustion and training there are deep psychological scars! I don’t think there are many top athletes who have well balanced personalities or a sense of perspective, especially when they are training and racing.

4. Before your gold medal win in 2000 the British Men’s Eight hadn’t won since 1912. How did it feel when you crossed the line in Sydney?

In terms of the history of medal success, I think we were more aware that only one gold medal had been won by all of Team GB at the previous Olympics and that the last rowing gold medal to be won by a British crew that didn’t have Steve Redgrave in it was about 40 years previously. In the 90’s British sport was a national joke, be it football, cricket or the Olympics. Just before we flew to Sydney I remember being furious watching some TV panel show as they made jokes about how badly the British team was going perform. National Lottery funding has made a huge difference, as you can see by looking at the medal tables from the last 18 years.

Crossing the line, I had an enormous sense of relief that everything had gone to plan. We focussed on the process rather than the result and so there was also a slight sense of surprise. This was all very quickly replaced by a feeling of total exhaustion: physically, mentally and emotionally. When we got out of the boat I sat for two minutes with my feet in the water just staring into the deep. Then gradually I got a feeling of immense relaxation and inner calm, but no feeling of great elation.

5. Do you have high hopes for the GB rowing team for Japan 2020?

I’m not involved with them in any way, but I know a few people who are. It seems that a lot of GB rowers have quit after Rio, so it will be a young and inexperienced team – but that didn’t do us any harm 18 years ago. The coaching team is going to change over the next 12 months too. Steve Trapmore, who rowed in our Olympic eight, is joining the coaching team and he knows a trick or two. Perhaps there won’t be as many medals as in the last two Olympics but there will still be some gold.

6. What is the biggest challenge you have faced during your rowing career?

It sounds obvious, but winning races. There are always more than two boats in a proper race and so to win, rather than do well and finish second, third, fourth etc. requires attention to detail all day and every day in the year leading up to a race. That monastic lifestyle can be a real challenge.

7. A) What qualities do you need to make it as a pro rower B) How do you transfer these qualities into your daily life?

A) Thinking you’re a perfectionist, a tolerance for suffering, controlled aggression, humility and big lungs.
B) Not all of these are desirable in daily life! Trying to be a perfectionist is useful; I’m pretty intolerant of inefficiency in myself or others and I always try to make things better. Tolerating suffering is useful in dealing with all the problems that life sends your way. Knowing that you can soak it up and having tried and trusted mechanisms to cope helps. And with humility you have respect for others and you know what a significant part luck plays in your success.

8. What do you wish you knew when you were first starting that you now know?

The true answer would be some boring point about rowing technique. But to be honest I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now because the journey was the best bit. The last 500m of the final in Sydney was infinitely better than crossing the line or getting the medal.

Quick Fire

How do you master your day?

A half hour dog walk the at the start and end of every day.

If you could have dinner with three male masters, who would they be and why?

Cliff Burton – I like Metallica
Douglas Adams – I like his outlook
J.B.S. Haldane – I’m a biologist
– Sorry, they’re all dead!

The best piece of advice you have ever received?

Never go back.