Double Olympic gold medallist Tom James to officially start this year’s Chariots of Fire
PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 September 2018
© Peter Spurrier/Intersport Images
We talk to the Cambridge University graduate on life after rowing and what life has been like on ‘civvy street’ ahead of his return to the city.
Back in March 2012, Telegraph writer Simon Briggs penned an article on the Great Britain rowing squad ahead of the London Olympics.
“All that education has clearly fed through into his bladework, because he is rowing’s answer to Lionel Messi: the (relatively) small guy who relies on technique rather than brawn,” wrote Briggs about Tom James, a member of the men’s coxless fours.
“His exemplary timing improves the rhythm of the whole crew, so that their muscle power is converted into maximum speed.”
It was a piece that echoed the sentiments of Martin Cross in the Guardian six months previously, whose description of James was: “At ‘only’ 85kg, his exceptional boat-moving ability is something of an enigma, especially in a sport sometimes perceived to reward brawn over brain.”
With similar narrative bestowed by all who saw him in a boat, there is no doubting that James, a former engineering student at Trinity Hall, was one of the best rowers in the world.
He climbed to the very top of the tree, being a double Olympic gold medallist – at Beijing and London – in the men’s coxless fours, but that victory in 2012 was his final competitive race.
Having dedicated 16 years to the sport he loved, at the age of 28, James decided to walk away from rowing to step into ‘civvy street’ for the first time.
Since 2013, he has worked for management consulting company Oliver Wyman, by-and-large leaving behind his days as a professional sportsman.
In many ways, it was a huge leap into the unknown as James had gone from Cambridge University straight into the GB set-up, with only brief spells away from training during that period.
He was also entering the professional world for the first time not too far short of being 30, and in the unusual position of having two Olympic gold medals.
“When I retired, I definitely wanted to step away from it. I wanted to make a reasonably clean break from the sport,” said 34-year-old James, who is returning to Cambridge this Sunday (September 16) to start Chariots of Fire.
“I think I’ve been quite lucky in getting into a job which suits me quite well and a company that’s been very open and it’s got a very supportive environment.
“Having had Beijing and London, two pretty phenomenal experiences and an enormous peak in my life, I think for anyone an Olympics is an enormous peak.
“With London it was exceptional in so many ways. Home Olympics, incredibly tough opposition so the racing was pretty stressful, but when you win on home soil and all the things that ran with it, the high was amazing.
“The Olympics were fantastic to be part of, the stands were so crowded, all the volunteers, there was a real good buzz around the country.
“When you have something like that, it’s an enormous peak. You’ve got to come down and settle into reality afterwards, and that can be quite a bumpy ride when you come down the other side.
“For some people it’s easy and they’re fine, they just sort of get on with it. For others, it can be big ups and downs, you’re trying to figure out what to do.
“I’ve got a couple of friends who have found it really difficult to adjust into getting the right job, meeting the right expectations. You’re perhaps a little bit older and you’re starting with people who are younger.
“It’s definitely hard starting something from scratch, because whatever you start at you’re a novice.”
Moving into a profession brings with it other challenges, but the transferable skills from sport – such as dedication, commitment, a competitive nature – aided that transition.
With that in mind, the way work can be measured and assessed is very binary in nature, while in sport it is much more clearly identifiable.
“The beauty of sport is it’s just a very simple, pure environment,” said James. “Your objective, your goal is just incredibly simple, you’re purpose is very simple.
“You know what you’re doing. It doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still a hard, stressful environment and you’re constantly worried about selection and how you’re performing, but it’s just a much greater sense of purpose about what you’re doing.
“In a working environment, you’re just juggling balls all the time. Your role definition is just a bit more chaotic, and it’s just a very, very different environment which in a lot of ways is also more fun.”
When James decided to retire, he made the decision knowing that he wanted to step away from rowing completely.
There was no interest in going into an elite club as that would require a level of commitment that James was unable to provide given his new career, and nor did he feel it would be fair on potential crewmates or that the motivation would be the same.
Having reached the pinnacle of his sport by not just competing at three Olympics, but winning two gold medals, it does beg the question how he is received in the corporate world?
After all, going back to the Messi comparisons, it is difficult to imagine finding yourself suddenly working alongside the Argentinian talisman.
“There are some people that get a bit surprised because they say ‘Oh wow, awesome, double gold medallist, wow, that’s cool’ and then they say ‘What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be some celebrity or going in Big Brother or on TV’,” said James.
“That’s always a bit of a shock and then I have to explain that I first of all need to pay for myself and get a job.
“The other big thing is it’s quite interesting seeing the post-athlete world because there are a lot of people who have gone down the track of trying to make it as a TV pundit, or they do after-dinner speeches and things like that, and it’s not a very secure or ideal route to be honest.
“You’re still only living off who you were when you were in your early to mid-20s and it’s also incredibly unstable, I think.
“Effectively, you’re in the same reach as entertainment and actors and you’ve got to build your own personal profile so you’ve got to be very entrepreneurial, you’ve got to be outward going, you’ve got to be quite extrovert in selling yourself.
“All of which are contrary skills to most sportsmen, I think. Most sportsmen are almost quite introvert because – certainly from my observation in rowing – you’ve got to be very dedicated to what you’re doing, focused on what you’re doing and internalise that.
“Or rather, just a personality that’s observed, you’re not outwardly selling yourself.”
James does occasionally return to his past – helping as a summariser with the BBC’s Boat Race coverage – and he is still picking up an oar, though in a more sedate setting.
He goes out to row socially with an eight from Crabtree Boat Club, a Cambridge alumni boat club.
“What I do now, which is very low-level rowing with mates, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s bad rowing,” he said. “You’re just going out, enjoying each other’s company, enjoying the sport.
“The boat still runs well, it still sits up. It goes pretty slowly because no-one’s got any horsepower any more, but it’s amazing as you don’t lose your technique, you don’t lose the feel, which surprised me.”
So it just goes to show that the technique of which Simon Briggs talked has still not deserted James, even after five years away from the top level.
Solid foundations built at Cambridge University Boat Club
Tom James may have taken a backseat in a visible sense from rowing, but he is still heavily involved behind the scenes.
The 34-year-old was appointed a steward at Henley Royal Regatta in 2014, and he is also on the committee of Cambridge University Boat Club.
He is enjoying giving back to the Light Blues, having rowed for them four times in five years – having taken a year off to go to the Athens Olympics – and admits there is an awful lot of administration that is required within the set-up at Goldie.
Cambridge are about to embark on a new era with Rob Baker as chief coach, after Steve Trapmore left to become a high performance coach with Great Britain.
“Cambridge has had a tough time in the last decade or so,” said James. “Oxford have been on the front foot on average.
“It’s not been entirely their way – we’ve definitely won a good share of races – but it’s been Oxford’s side of it. It’s meant the club has been feeling a bit like it’s on the back foot.
“Now we’ve got the boathouse [at Ely] sorted, which is a fantastic facility and shared by all the clubs – the lightweights, women and the men.
“I think it’s fantastic from a collaborative point of view, and I think we’re now in a good healthy position to move forward.
“After last year’s win, it was sad to lose Steve, particularly as he’d had a tough time of the races but every year working on it, building on something, putting the programme in the right place.
“The commitment and effort he put into the programme got it to where it is now.
“Rob is a fantastic person to take that on and give a good shot going forward. He knows the club very well. We’re very excited, and it’s good to have him back.
“I think he’s a great coach and he’s got a fantastic personality. I think he will be very good for the club.”