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St Andrews' Own 'Row' Model

The story of ex-Olympian Alan Sinclair

Only 0.0001 per cent of people will ever earn the right to call themselves an Olympian — but Saints Rowing coach, Alan Sinclair, is one of those people. 

Eight years ago, he was walking out onto the world stage in Rio De Janeiro as one-half of the Great Britain (GB) rowing men’s pair that would go on to take fourth in the world. Nowadays, he walks through the turnstiles of the AU, into a dingy, poorly air-conditioned sports hall, to coach a team of student-rowers that spend more time in BrewCo than they do in the gym.

From the Olympic bubble to the St Andrews one, it is safe to say that times have changed for Sinclair, the Olympian in our midst. On the eve of the annual Women’s Head of the River Race, in an overpriced cafe on the banks of the Thames in Putney, London, I sat down with Sinclair to discuss his time at the top. 

Sinclair’s road to Rio was hardly without its bumps. Whilst it is not unreasonable to expect those ‘destined’ for Olympic glory to stand out as athletic proteges from a young age, this was not the case for Sinclair. 

“I was bad as a junior — seriously bad,” he joked. “I was not good at all.” 

Standing at well over six feet tall, it’s hard to imagine how someone who — on paper, has all the physical attributes to excel at rowing — simply did not for so many years. Nonetheless, spurred on by a love for the sport, he persisted. Rising from the modest Inverness Rowing Club, to Aberdeen University, then finally to Leander Club — the Hollywood of the rowing world — Sinclair eventually made it to the national team.

This was by no means the final step in his journey to Olympic selection. “I was always the guy who had to prove himself over and above everybody else,” Sinclair recalled. “I had to get enough results so it was impossible for them not to choose me.”

Taking fourth place at the British rowing team’s final trial before the Games should have secured Sinclair a seat for Rio. Instead, it instigated what he described as “a crazy battle through the season” with another pair of athletes who the GB coaches believed “should have made it” but didn’t. 

The race at the 2016 World Cup at Poznan would decide the final spots on team GB, Sinclair said. 

Whereas “every other crew had been selected ages before then, [...] we got told whoever wins is going to the Olympics,” Sinclair recounted. Suddenly the rigorous selection process that they had been subject to for so many years meant nothing. It all came down to this one race.

While Sinclair and his partner Innes did win this ruthless selection battle, he admits he found his arrival at the Games “anticlimactic.” It wasn’t until he “saw the flags painted on the blades, and everyone wearing nothing but GB kit[s],” that Sinclair felt as though he was actually at the Olympics. By that point though, it was almost over.

The conditions on the day of the A final could only be described as “awful,” he recounted, as he remembered rowing up to the start line thinking, “this is bu***it.” “You just assume that conditions at the Olympics will be perfect,” said Sinclair. Unfortunately, the wind doesn’t care whether it is the Olympic Games or not. 

In seven minutes and eight seconds, the race ended with a fourth place finish for Sinclair and Innes in the men’s coxless pair. “We didn’t quite manage it,” said Sinclair, “to feel like you’ve lost when you’ve come fourth, and for there to be one place to change it from being a loss to a win, to coming home to a fanfare celebration, [in] hindsight, is ridiculous.” 

To think you have lost when you have placed fourth in the world, just shows the skewed perception of success and failure in what Sinclair described as “the weird bubble that is elite sport.” Still, he acknowledges that coming in “fifth would have been worse.”

Having reached the top, the only way for Sinclair to go was down. “Everyone suffers with depression after the Olympics, it’s just a case of when,” he admitted. Whilst British Rowing may be the best in the world when it comes to creating rowers, when it comes to looking after people, Sinclair dubbed them as “one of the worst.” 

Support is available to athletes for the first six months post-Olympics, but then as Sinclair put it, they “wash their hands of you.” Unfortunately for Sinclair, it wasn’t until after this six month period that the mental challenges really took hold, and he was left isolated by the system that he had dedicated his life to. 

Not one to give up the dream of winning an Olympic medal, Sinclair embarked on a second Olympiad, this time as “one of the top guys” — yet, it “didn’t feel any better,” he said. “It definitely felt like those favourite athletes were still getting that special treatment, even though I was performing better.”

The issues that Sinclair faced during his second Olympiad — from wrist injuries to social tensions — reached a climax in 2020 with the announcement of the first Covid lockdown. As all athletes prepared to leave the national training centre to train from home, Sinclair recalled how Jurgen, their Head Coach, “read out a list of names of the people in each crew for Tokyo 2020, and I wasn’t listed.”

“So I was effectively cut from the team without having one thing said to me,” he recalled, “and I just thought, this is f***ed. This is brutal.”

After being dealt this blow, he returned to his parent’s home in Inverness with his wife and three-week-old daughter, where he refound rowing as a “way of venting.”

Now training as a vegan athlete, Sinclair began smashing personal bests, and consequently regaining the attention of those at British Rowing.  They asked him to travel back to Caversham, Reading, for a total time of around six weeks to account for trailing, training, competing at the European Championships, and quarantining. 

With a newborn baby and a wife that needed his support at home, Sinclair asked if this time could be reduced to a month instead — British Rowing refused to cater to his arguably reasonable request.

When his coach asked him if he was coming to train, he replied, “No. It looks like I’m quitting to put my family first.” And just like that, his rowing career ended. Now what?

Luckily for Sinclair, when the Olympic door closed, a door at St Andrews opened. Now the University’s Director of Rowing, Sinclair has made it his mission to “address things that have bothered him as an athlete,” in the programme here. 

Acknowledging that “there are a lot of parallels between my rowing background, progression into the national team, and the rowing at St Andrews,” Sinclair’s latest venture can best be described as somewhat of a ‘full circle moment.’ 

From humble beginnings to humble ends, from one bubble to another, he has big plans for the rowing programme here at St Andrews, and as one of his athletes, I can confidently say that these plans are beginning to take shape. 

As Sinclair put it, “even if you’re s**t now, there’s no reason why you can’t be good if you want to be and you commit to it.” I think that holds true for more than just rowing.

Photo: Alan Sinclair


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