Approaching 40, Greg Searle swapped his business career for another shot at a rowing gold for Britain.
Twenty years after winning the coxed pair with his older brother Jonny in Barcelona, the management consultant who advised Nestle SA is part of the men’s eight that’s going for Olympic glory. He left the sport after a fourth place at the 2000 Sydney Games, then came out of retirement three years ago to try to win a medal on home soil. At 40, he’s the oldest member of a British rowing squad that may win at least 10 medals.
“I recognized that I could win a gold medal 20 years to the day from when I won one as a 20-year-old, and I could win one as a 40-year-old,” said Searle in an interview at the British team’s training lake in Caversham, 36 miles west of London. “I didn’t want to go to my grave and not have tried. I had this belief that I could make it back into the team.”
Britain’s men’s 8 will race tomorrow in the second heat, against world record holder Canada, favorite Germany and the Netherlands. The U.S., Australia, Ukraine and Poland meet in the earlier heat.
Searle isn’t the only rower over 40 in London. He’ll be racing against 42-year-old Diederik Simon, the oldest rower in the competition. Simon, who won gold in the Dutch men’s eight at the 1996 Atlanta Games, will be competing in his fifth Olympics. Belarussian Ekaterina Karsten, 40, is rowing in her sixth Olympics, twenty years after she won bronze in the quadruple sculls in Barcelona.
“I see him as a bit of an old man in the boat,” joked Searle’s former crewmate Dan Ritchie, who is missing the games because of an injury. “But he’s an inspiration to see how he approaches training. I learn things from him. Sometimes I come to training and I am like ’Yeah, let’s get this session done.’ Youthful exuberance. And Greg is there, stretching, getting the arthritis moving in all the joints and everything. And he performs well.”
Searle had worked for Lane4 Management, a consultancy firm run by 1988 Olympic swimming champion Adrian Moorhouse, since 1997. Searle, who is from the London suburb of Ashford, advised companies on leadership and psychological preparation for performance.
For his second rowing career, Searle applied the same business principles he’d been teaching.
“I was working with companies, looking at their three-year plan,” Searle said. “Where do you want your company to be in three years? How are you going to break that down, what are you going to do to make sure you get there? What are you going to do tomorrow to make sure it happens? When I decided in 2009 that I wanted to win a gold medal in 2012, I had to make a three-year plan exactly like that.”
It’s worked out.
He made the men’s eight for the World Cup series in May 2010. He kept his seat for the 2010 World Championships in New Zealand, his first appearance at the championships since 1999, where the crew took silver. It was Searle’s first championship medal in 12 years. The men’s eight also won silver last year, and is the 11-2 favorite to win gold at U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc behind Germany at 1-5.
Searle has been getting advice from another Olympian who knows about longevity; Steve Redgrave, Britain’s most successful Olympian. Redgrave won rowing gold medals in five straight Olympic Games, his last one at Sydney 2000 at the age of 38.
“He told me: the Olympic Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a very special day when anything can happen,” Searle said. “And it’s open to anyone to take hold of it and perform and deliver when it matters.”
Dara Torres, an American swimmer who has won 12 medals in five Olympics, said age is no barrier to Olympic success. She retired at age 45 last month after missing out on a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“There is such a stigma on being older and competing,” Torres, who is working as a global ambassador for McDonald’s Corp., said in an interview. “Age shouldn’t really matter, though there does come a point when the body recovery is not as easy. That makes it a little more challenging. But I think that forty is the new thirty.”
Britain dominated the rowing event in Beijing four years ago, taking six medals, two of each color. With 52 athletes competing at Eton Dorney in 13 of the 14 boat classes, Britain is once again expected to do well.
“We will have the strongest team ever,” said Jurgen Grobler, chief coach for the British men who has coached champions at nine Olympics since 1972, said at a press conference in April. Grobler, a former East German, is aiming for as many as five gold medals in rowing.
“We’re in it to win it,” Searle said.
Searle is looking forward to returning to business life once the games are over.
“I’ll definitely go back,” he said. “Whether I’ll go back full-time, or how soon, it will probably all depend on how well I do at the Olympics and how it feels afterwards.”