Tom George may be making his Olympic debut, but he’s already accomplished something that eluded even rowing kings.
It was during last year’s first lockdown and training at his parents’ home in Cheltenham that George achieved the sporting equivalent of the four-minute mile – becoming the first Briton to break the 5-minute 40-second barrier for 2 km on a rowing machine.
“I was in a shed at the end of the driveway next to the lawnmower — it was pretty Rocky Balboa-esque,” recalls the 26-year-old Sports post. “I put a Union Flag up there, so I would walk into the shed every day and think, ‘That’s the goal, go get it.’ When I got the record I didn’t really know what to do. I just went to my parents and showered.’
Tom George is only looking at gold at the Tokyo Olympics with Britain’s eighth rowing team
He was the first Briton to break the barrier of 5 minutes 40 seconds for 2 km on a rowing machine km
A month later, Moe Sbihi, a Rio 2016 gold medalist in the coxless four and flag bearer of Team GB at Friday’s opening ceremony, improved his teammate’s time of 5:39.6 by two-tenths of a second. In doing so, he recaptured the British record by beating four-time Olympic champion Sir Matthew Pinsent for the first time in 2015.
What is less well known, however, is that George wrestled that record – which five-time gold medalist Sir Steve Redgrave once held – back by a further two-tenths in February. And this time it was in front of a cheering crowd at British Rowing HQ in Caversham.
“It felt like a phenomenal achievement,” George says. “There were so many people there to see it, which was very different from the first. I thought it was important to do it for everyone, to show the guys, “I want to win the Olympics and this is the standard I want to set”.
“Moe sent me a really nice text afterwards saying, ‘You inspire others and take others with you’, which was quite humble of him.
‘I went back to my parents’ house that day and on the way there I stopped at McDonald’s for a small milkshake – I treated myself to a little something! But it was never a big party.
“To be called in the same sentence as some of those guys is very, very flattering and I’m very proud of it. But Pinsent has won four Olympics and Moe has won the Olympics. Breaking the record is very cool, but it doesn’t really mean anything if we don’t win in Tokyo.’
And there we now find George, preparing in the early hours of Sunday morning for the eighth men’s first moto – the rowing event that Team GB brilliantly won in Rio.
Sbihi, whom George describes as a “captain, leader, legend – like John Terry,” is the only rower in the boat with Olympic experience. But the Brits have been making waves in recent weeks, beating rivals Germany, the world champions, twice in May to win the European Championship in Italy and then a World Cup in Switzerland.
“Every year it seems to come down to GB and Germany,” adds George. “It’s built into a huge rivalry, which is great. This Olympiad, maybe the Germans have had our number a bit, but we’re coming at the right time.
“Winning a medal at the Olympics is a phenomenal achievement, but ultimately we want to come back with a gold medal and continue that rich history for GB Rowing.”
George is preparing in the early hours on Sunday morning for the first heat of the eight men
For George, an Olympic gold medal would also serve a secondary purpose: downgrading the “career” he’s been a little more reluctant to do in the Google rankings.
“I’d say it doesn’t exist, but it’s not because you can look it up,” a shy George laughs about his modeling portfolio, which appears at the top of Google Images.
‘A friend from university introduced me to people at IMG, so it’s there, but I haven’t really done anything for it. Of course it’s very flattering to be someone who looks good or is a model.’
However, George has both brains and beauty, with a degree in politics from Princeton, the Ivy League University in New Jersey, USA.
His thesis was about Brexit, in particular: ‘Why did the people of Great Britain vote to leave the European Union?’ George concluded that the public had been “misled” into thinking there was more upside than there really was, with a major focus on the role of Vote Leave supremo, and man of the moment, Dominic Cummings.
“I watched each side of the campaign push information to the public,” explains George, who says he would like to work for a political think tank one day. Their focus was to achieve the desired outcome rather than necessarily acting in the best interest.
George trained in isolation on a rowing machine at his parents’ home in Cheltenhamham last year
“Whether you’re for or against Brexit, there’s no denying that we’re not getting the deal the Vote Leave campaign suggested we get out of.”
The conversation with the fascinating George also swings from the environment – ’I’m a bit of a tree hugger, I’ve just read about fungal intelligence’ – and history. He recently learned that his grandfather, John George, fought in the brutal Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II.
“He had his leg blown apart and was rushed to the hospital and refused to let them take his leg off,” he says. “They said he would probably be dead at 45, but he turned 92. That’s a pivotal moment in my family history. It’s on the bucket list to go to Monte Cassino after the Games.’
An experience that has already left its mark on George came in January when the British rowing team was invited to a training camp at St George’s Park, home of the England football team.
“My team was in the England dressing room and we walked in and they had English shirts with all our names and ’21’ on the back,” recalls George, a Newcastle fan. ‘That was such a nice gesture.
‘It was a special place to be able to train, not in a footballing capacity of course, although I would have loved to have pounded one into the top bins from 40 yards! Just seeing the scale of the place and what it means to be a part of English football has left a cultural mark on our team.”
Before England’s 2020 European Championship final with Italy, George and the rest of the eight crew were asked to send a congratulatory message to Gareth Southgate’s side. Now it’s their turn to try and take home the gold medal.