22 May 2019

The hero of the Cambridge
team in the boat this year
has lessons for us all

James Cracknell, the oldest crew member ever in the Cambridge/Oxford boat race (Times Photographer Marc Aspland

Patrick Comerford

What are your favourite sports?

Mine include rugby, cricket and rowing.

One of the sporting events I really enjoy watching is the boat race each year between Cambridge University and Oxford University.

The hero of this year’s boat race, which took place last month, is James Edward Cracknell, a famous athlete, rowing champion and double Olympic gold medalist.

When he was 24, he qualified in the double scull for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. But he got tonsillitis and he was unable to race.

Undeterred, he went on to be part of the crew that won the World Rowing Championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and then he won gold medals at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. He is also a Marathon runner, an Atlantic rower, a triathlon athlete, a journalist and a television presenter.

He must have felt he was at the pinnacle of his sporting career: in 2001 he was made MBE in the honours list, and in 2005 he was appointed OBE for ‘services to sport.’

His home was burgled in 2006, his Olympic gold medals were stolen, along with his wedding ring and a computer on which he had 20,000 words of a new book and family photographs.

If that was not bad enough, in 2010, Cracknell was hit from behind by a petrol tanker in Arizona while he was cycling during an attempt to cycle, row, run and swim from Los Angeles to New York within 18 days. The accident happened at around 5.30 am on a quiet stretch of road. He believes he survived because he was wearing a cycle helmet.

In the crash, he suffered a contrecoup injury to the frontal lobes of his brain, and he almost died. He was put into an induced coma, and his brain injury left him with epilepsy and a changed personality, including a short temper.

Doctors warned that his injuries would cause an inability to read emotions, irascibility, laughing or crying out of context, and arguing.

His wife, the television presenter Beverley Turner, was once a competitive swimmer. Together, they wrote a book, Touching Distance about his life before and after his brain injury.

Since that accident, he has been conspicuous in advocating the use of bicycle helmets. In 2013, he stood as a candidate in the European elections, but did not get elected. Where do you go from there?

Last year [2018], at the age of 46, James Cracknell went back to university. He enrolled at Peterhouse in Cambridge University to study for an MPhil degree in human evolution.

With all these pressures on his life, in sport, and in education, his marriage broke up a few months ago.

Then, last month [7 April 2019], he was on the Cambridge team in the boat race that beat Oxford. This is one of the oldest boat races in history – Cambridge and Oxford have been taking part in this race for 190 years. And James Cracknell became the oldest competitor ever. At the age of 46, he was the oldest rower in the boat race.

He was 47 earlier this month (born 5 May 1972).

So what does James Cracknell and his story tell us this morning?

Even when you have what others see in life as great successes, there are also going to be dismal disappointments.

Never be jealous of someone who seems to have everything … you never really know what is going on in their lives.

People can be successful in other people’s eyes, yet their world and their life may be breaking up.

Remember that if you neglect your family life, there will be heartbreak.

Despite great blows in life, it is worth looking forward in life. Have courage. Have hope. Have faith.

You are never too old – whether it is in sport or in university – you are never to old to start anew, to have a new beginning.

It is never too late to begin again.

And that is an Easter message too. Because the story of the Resurrection is about the promise of new life, new hope, and the promise of new beginnings.

From 21 minutes to 24 minutes in this clip:


This reflection was prepared for a school assembly on 22 May 2019

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