Below is an interview with Kieran West, an Olympian who competed in the Men’s 8 rowing in several Olympics, winning a gold medal in 2000. The interview is from the 2001 edition of our old magazine ‘Left Clip’.
Since the interview Kieran has gone from strength to strength, winning a gold and silver medal at the Rowing World Championships in 2002 and 2003 and competing in the GB Eight in the Athens Olympics. He returned to Cambridge in 2005 to read for a PhD and rowed in 2 more Boat Races (2006 and 2007), winning the second. He now works at a leading global Management Consultancy.
Exclusive Interview with Olympic Gold Medalist Kieran West
Kieran West is one of the very few people in the world who has achieved the ultimate sporting goal of winning a gold medal at last year’s Olympic games, representing Great Britain as a member of the Men’s Eight. He has twice rowed for Cambridge in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, once as President, winning both times. He is currently teaching mathematics and economics at a London Secondary school, and working towards rowing in the 2004 Olympics. Kieran won his Olympic medal only 3 years after taking up rowing again after a back injury!
We are delighted that Kieran agreed to an exclusive interview for Left Clip – we hope that you will be too…
LC: How did you become interested in rowing?
KW: I was taken to the Henley Royal Regatta every year – I don’t think I’ve missed a year since I was born! I became interested, and joined a rowing club in London when I was 10. My dad was keen on rowing, having started himself while he was at school. My brother also rowed, in fact he rowed for Oxford, but Dad never pushed us into becoming interested. Whatever either of us did was our own decision.
LC: You and your brother rowing for opposing teams! Did you ever row against each other?
KW: No – perhaps luckily! I was injured when he rowed, so I supported Oxford that year, and he wasn’t rowing when I raced, so he supported Cambridge. That all worked out quite well.
LC: When did you realise that you were really very good?
KW: I gave up coxing when I was 12 and started sculling (rowing alone). I entered my first competition in November 1989, and didn’t lose a race for over 2 years. That’s when I began to realise that I was quite good at this! At the time I was involved in all sorts of other sports, so I gave them all up to concentrate on my rowing.
LC: How did you go on to get involved in national and international competitions?
KW: When I was 16 I tried out for the GB Under 18s World Championship team. I made it to the final trials, but then injured my back and had to pull out.
LC: What happened?
KW: I couldn’t row for 3 years. I was growing very fast at the time and the rowing put my back under a lot of strain. I think I experienced some sort of extreme growing pains. I was told that I wouldn’t be able to play any sport at all and had to look after my back all the time. When I took my ‘A’ levels, for example, I was given special permission to walk around to stretch my back. I didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to row again. For 2 years I did nothing about it because I’d been told that there was nothing I could do, but then I realised that I could either accept it, or decide that I would not be like that forever. I chose to do something about it, and started physiotherapy. For over a year I did 4 hours of physiotherapy every day, even though I didn’t know whether it would work and whether I’d ever be able to row again.
LC: I guess it did work!
KW: Yes. I started rowing again while I was at Cambridge. I was in the reserve boat in the 1998 Oxford-Cambridge race, and was on the winning team in 1999. I also rowed in the 1999 World Championships in the Eights [they won a silver medal – Ed.], and pretty much the same people ended up rowing together in the last Olympics, where we won the gold medal.
LC: What would you say have been the best and the worst times in your rowing career?
KW: There are a couple of ‘best’ times: winning the Olympics was one of them – for obvious reasons – and also winning the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1999. Winning in both races was good, but they’re ‘best’ moments because the teams and I knew each time that we’d rowed the race of our lives, and that’s a great feeling. I rowed in the Oxford-Cambridge race again this year, and it was different this time because I was president for the Cambridge 2001 Boat Race Campaign and therefore captain of the boat. It gave me a huge amount of satisfaction to have won, having had a different sort of responsibility this time as well as rowing. I feel very lucky to have been able to row both in the Olympics and for Cambridge, since it’s not possible for many people to be able to do both. Another
good moment was receiving my MBE early this year. I don’t row for other people to admire me, I row for myself and knowing that I do the best that I can, but it’s still nice when people say ‘well done’!
After winning a gold in the 2000 Olympics, Kieran told the Olympic Rowing News:
“We’d like to think of every mistake as a learning experience. Every time we’ve mucked up, every race we’ve got wrong – we’ve gone back, we’ve ripped it apart and we’ve made sure we came out of it stronger than before.”
Olympic Rowing News: Olympic Team Talks report
Another ‘best’ aspect of rowing in the Olympics is the closeness between all of us on the team. We went out to one of the crew’s wedding recently, and it was the first time we’d met up together since the games. I remember sitting in a café in Italy chatting about the race and being aware of the bond between us, which will always be there.
LC: Winning a gold in the Olympics really is an extraordinary achievement. Can you say something about what that was like?
KW: It’s quite difficult to describe what it was like. I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with it yet myself. It’s having something that you’ve aimed for and worked hard to achieve suddenly stop being a dream and becoming a reality.
LC: Can you remember how you felt when you realised you’d won?
KW: I remember feeling incredibly tired, and also relieved that – thank goodness – our cunning race plan had worked! Actually, our cunning race plan wasn’t all that cunning – we had planned to row hard from the go and to go as fast as possible to the finish! The interesting thing is that we had planned for the Olympics by imagining that it was just like any other race. We had planned to win, and aimed to win, but we had never actually prepared ourselves for what winning would be like. In a way it would have been nice to have had a day afterwards, away from it all, to really reflect on what it meant. It still hasn’t sunk in.
LC: What about your worst moments?
KW: The worst time was when I had my back injury, and didn’t know whether I’d ever row again.
LC: How did you get through it?
KW: By deciding that I didn’t want to be stuck like that for ever, and that I still wanted to row. I realised that I’d have to do something about it, so I did. It actually made me a lot stronger mentally. I do sometimes wonder if I would have been on the winning team in the Olympics if I hadn’t gone through that – but that’s something I’ll never know the answer to.
LC: You’ve let me know that you were not able to enter the World Championships this year because you have an injured shoulder, how does that make you feel?
KW: It’s not a long-term injury, so I know I will be able to try out for next year. Of course I would have liked to have been there – but I now have the chance for a holiday for the first time in four years!
LC: What are your hopes for the future?
KW: I want to row in the next Olympics in 2004, and I want to beat the world record! I’m not making any plans beyond that.
LC: What sort of effect do you think having won an Olympic medal once has on how you’re thinking about the 2004 games?
KW: Well, I guess the pressure is on a bit because we won this time, so it would be easy not to risk it in Athens. On the other hand, though winning one gold is fantastic, winning two is even better! And it would also prove that it wasn’t a fluke winning last time.
LC: Would you be happy with a silver?
KW: No! One of the consequences of having won a gold is that a silver is like losing. It’s gold or nothing!
LC: What about the world record?
KW: I’ve come close to beating the world record twice, but have yet to actually manage it, although we have the British record. It would mean that, not only were we the best in the world on the day that we won, but that we were the fastest in the world ever, and there would be a record to prove it.
LC: How are you managing both rowing and teaching?
KW: Well, rowing can’t be a full time job. I know realistically that I’ll have to give it up some time. I want to go to the next Olympics and win – and know that I have a career ready for when I retire from rowing!
LC: Is that how most rowers manage things?
KW: Not really. A lot of people concentrate on rowing full time, but I like knowing that I have another career, and also I think I’d get bored if I didn’t have that too.
LC: What do you like most and least about teaching?
KW: I’ve only been teaching for a year, and I’m still getting into it. What I like most about it is the interaction between the children and me, and interacting with a variety of different personalities, which means that I don’t get bored. I also really like to see children manage to grasp something that had been difficult for them, whether it’s a major principal of economics or a relatively simple algebra exercise. It can be frustrating trying to help someone do well in their work when they just find it too difficult to understand. Mind you, just because someone struggles for ages, it doesn’t mean that they won’t get there in the end!
LC: You were born with a cleft lip and palate?
KW: Yes. My mum used to take me to the hospital where I had my lip operation to ‘show’ me to other mums, because it was such a good repair.
LC: Do you remember that?
KW: Not really, I was only about 2 years old. I do remember having a bone graft operation when I was older.
LC: Do you think that being born with a cleft helped or hindered you in any way?
KW: Not really. My cleft was always accepted as being a part of me, like my ears or nose or any other feature, from day one. I’ve never really thought about it very much. Whenever I went for treatment, I just knew that I had to have it done, so it wasn’t really a big deal.
LC: Do you have anything you’d like to share with Left Clip readers about being born with a cleft?
KW: I believe that people shouldn’t think of themselves as being defined by having a cleft. You are who you are, and being born with a cleft doesn’t affect any of your abilities. You are as tall, as clever or as fast, with or without a cleft. I know how good I am at something, and I’ve shown myself and the world that I am, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I was born with a cleft. I really don’t think that being born with a cleft matters at all, as long as it doesn’t matter to you. There will always be people who try to poke fun, and my advice is to avoid them – it’s their loss, not yours. If you don’t think of the cleft as being a major part of who you are, then generally other people won’t either.
LC: Would you say that you were an optimist?
KW: No, not an optimist, in that I don’t believe that things will all be ‘all right’. I’m more of a realist, in that I believe that if I put my head down and work hard, I will surmount any obstacles in my path. I ask myself: ‘What do I need to do in order to achieve…whatever it is that I want to be achieving?’ A lot of people have goals and dreams, and think that they can’t get there – I look at how I’m going to get there. I believe that a lot of people have talents, but that it takes talent and determination to really make it. When I injured my back, for instance, I was a reasonably talented 16-year old. When I came out of that time, I was a lot more determined, and I believe that it was both the talent I was lucky enough to be born with and my determination to do well that got me to the Olympics.
And we’re glad that he did! Left Clip would like to thank Kieran West for giving us this exclusive interview, to say an enormous well done for his achievements, and wish him luck for the next Olympics.