When watching an Olympic athlete stand on the podium and sing their national anthem with a gold medal around their neck, it can be hard to imagine any other destiny.
But former Team GB rower Alex Gregory almost walked away from his dreams before going on to win two Olympic gold medals and five World Championship gold medals..
Gregory tells HuffPost UK that “nine years of miserable failure” had taken its toll on his self-belief and he was ready to throw the towel in.
“The pressure I was putting on myself grew to excruciating levels and I couldn’t cope with it all,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I couldn’t perform as I needed to when it mattered.”
Sitting as a reserve in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics, he refocussed his career and found a new motivation. He credits those who stuck by him through the tough times.
In 2013, in addition to his string of gold medals, he was appointed MBE for his services to rowing. In 2015, he was named male Olympic Athlete of the Year. And now, he’s writing a book.
He spoke to us about the highs and lows of a sporting career in the spotlight.
My Motivation 🙌
How do you stay motivated?
“I had to find my way with motivation. Initially in sport I was falsely motivated. I wanted to ‘win an Olympic gold medal’ but those were just words. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the side-lines in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as reserve for the GB rowing team, after which I was planning to walk away forever, did I realise what those words meant.
“My experiences there showed me why I was pursuing this dream, why I was putting myself through it and what it really meant. I’d found a true motivation which then gave me the drive to get through the struggles and turned me into one of the most successful Olympic rowers in recent times. Once I’d found my true motivation everything turned around very quickly. A year later, after nine unsuccessful years in the sport, I won my first major race (the 2009 World Championships). For the following eight years I was almost unbeaten.
“It takes time to find that true motivation but when you do you’ll achieve whatever you want.”
Do you have any specific goals you’re aiming for now?
“I’m aiming to ensure my children have a memorable, fun and happy life that they will look back on with fondness in the future. I’m trying to employ what I’ve learnt in my past career to help me towards that goal. To me it’s about valuable moments and memories, not so much possessions although that’s often the trap we all fall into.”
What’s your ultimate workout track and why?
“There are some great workout mixes out there. Something with a good beat, a rousing finish and you’re onto a winner! I must say though it’s Fleetwood Mac that I always go to when in doubt.”
My Journey 🌎
What do you credit to your success in your fitness journey?
“People play a huge role in my sporting success. I don’t think there’s very much we can achieve in life alone. Part of the fun and enjoyment of success is sharing it with others and achieving together. That is one of the reasons I love rowing as a sport - nothing is done alone, people rely on you and you rely on others completely.
“It took me many years to realise this and to accept it, to remove my selfish pride and accept I needed others to help me. Once I took that step the results came thick and fast almost overnight. Seeking insights from those around me, sharing worries, stresses and struggles with others and constantly learning from those around was key to my success.”
What’s one of the most memorable moments in your career and why?
“One of the most memorable moments was about 30 minutes after having my first Olympic Gold medal hung around my neck. I was walking towards my family whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of months in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic games. My son Jasper was running along the grassy bank on the edge of the lake to see me and I was thinking: ‘This is it! This is the proudest moment a dad can have!’ I knelt down to greet Jasper and, handing him my gold medal. He took the medal in his hands, turned it over, then looked at me as he threw it onto the ground saying: ‘It’s not chocolate!’
“He then proceeded to give me an enormous hug. It was a grounding moment, a huge moment in my life. It made me realise what was really important, what kids really care about. They live in the moment, enjoying time here and now, something we as adults really struggle with.”
Was there ever a low point where you wanted to throw the towel and how did you get past it?
“There was a string of nine years of miserable failure where I wanted to throw the towel in and give up on my pursuit of Olympic gold. The failures grew greater and as the years progressed I felt I was letting down more and more people. The pressure I was putting on myself grew to excruciating levels and I couldn’t cope with it all. I couldn’t perform as I needed to when it mattered.
“I was at a loss in a spiral of despair holding on by my fingertips. But I didn’t pack it all in because there were people around me who seemingly believed in me and encouraged me. They didn’t necessarily know the answers but they never gave up on me and were patient enough to allow me to find out the answers for myself. It was these supportive influencers around me who helped me keep my own spark of belief inside me from being extinguished completely. Everything turned around and I found my way.”
My Training 💪
Talk us through your week in fitness.
“As a retired athlete my training now is much more simple than it used to be, but as a full-time athlete in the GB rowing squad, the training was constant. We would train three times a day, seven days a week, 350 days of the year.
“A typical day would be: a couple of hours on the water, followed by a weights session in the gym to work on strength, followed by an hour on the rowing machine. Along with the physical strain of the training, it’s the constant scrutiny and need for performance. A bad day could cost you a seat in a world championship or Olympic boat, consistency is so important.
“Now my routine is all about efficiency. I have to fit in fitness around a busy working and family life so for me the obvious answer is the indoor rowing machine. I use a water rower at home and because of the nature of the movement and stroke, I can get a complete body workout in a very short amount of time.”
What’s your favourite type of workout and why?
“During my rowing career my favourite workouts were the long training sessions on beautiful flat water. As the sun rises early in the morning with mist floating on the water’s surface there’s not many better places to be. But it’s the crew harmony and unison which makes these training sessions. Much of what rowers do in the boat is in silence.”
What’s your favourite way to spend your rest day?
“Now I have many more rest days than I used to. I used to have one rest day (always a Sunday) every six weeks. It would be the only full day I could spend with my family so we always tried to make the most of it.”
My Food 🍳
What do you eat throughout the week to complement your training schedule?
“Food is fuel. That was always one of my great challenges in sport, to eat enough and fuel myself in the right way. I had around five main meals a day interspersed with snacks and drinks. The aim was 6000+ calories and 8+ litres of fluid. It’s expensive, time-consuming and a huge effort but a necessity to performance.”
What are your pre and post-workout snacks?
“I’m a big fan of the convenience of bars. I always try to keep a couple of high protein nutritionally valuable bars in my bag wherever I go. I love nuts and dried fruit so there are many options out there. I’m particularly interested in the idea of insects as a source of protein now and would really like to pursue that idea at some point in my life.”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about food?
“I’ve learned that in reality it’s extremely difficult to be absolutely regimented and obsessed with numbers, quantities and values. I think its important to cover the basics and a varied, well-balanced, healthy diet will give you what you need. Our bodies are amazing things, they tell us when we need something that we’re deficient in, whether it’s sugar or salt, protein or carbs. Listen to your body, satisfy those needs (within reason) and keep the healthy balance as the core of the diet.”
Alex Gregory MBE now shares his knowledge and experience from his sporting years with audiences around the world. Find out more here.
‘Fit Fix’ is a weekly dose of fitspiration from leading athletes and fitness fanatics. Each week we chat to stars about their weekly workouts, the food they eat and what keeps them going.