A Little Help From Henman

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Tim Henman reacts to the news that the Guardian have posted a link to this website.

So Henman crashed out of Wimbledon in the first week, denying thousands of housewives all over Britain their chance to screech "Come on, Tim!" at the television for the rest of the tournament. Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and this cloud is no different.

While the housewives bite their fingernails and plead with the television, the Guardian website (Guardian Unlimited) does a sterling job of providing the office-bound masses with a means of following Wimbledon from the comfort of their desks. In the case of Tim’s calamitous loss last week, Sean Ingle was the game-by-game correspondent keeping the nation up to speed with proceedings at SW19.

The format is simple: Sean sits in his office watching the match on TV and posts updates to the website as events unfold. He also fields e-mails from those of us following his commentary, occasionally beefing up his analysis with the nonsense he receives.

I loaded up the page in good time on Thursday afternoon, only to find that at five past one Mr Ingle still hadn’t posted any preamble. I e-mailed him, and so it was that his second post read:

We’re off! Tursunov to serve. Meanwhile John McClure (who may or may not be related to the fictional Simpson’s character, Troy) is in fighting mood: "Hurry up, Ingle," he says. "Step away from the strawberries and get with it." Will do, John. Once they’ve finished warming up.

I’ve had the odd e-mailed comment posted on the Guardian’s over-by-over cricket coverage over the years, but as far as I can remember, this was my first appearance on the tennis coverage. I was quite chuffed. I e-mailed back and, a mere five posts later, I was in again.

First set: Tursunov* 2-3 Henman I'd be lying if I said this was scintillating feast of tennis - both men are making mistakes, and finding the net more times than Andrei Shevchenko. However Tursunov holds on, despite facing five breakpoints in his last two service games. Meanwhile John McClure (see earlier email) is back. "I'm no relation to the Simpson's star, but I have been offered money to name my first-born 'Troy'," he writes, sadly declining to mention just how much.

Of course, that required a response too, so I took a shameless punt to see if I could get Sean Ingle to tell the nation about the Ultimate Olympian. Sure enough, eight posts later (and I should warn those of you who find foul language offensive that Mr Ingle does nothing to sanitise Tiger Tim’s potty mouth in this one):

Second set: Henman leads Tursunov* 6-3, 1-3 "Come on!" cries Henman as he recovers from 40-15 down to have a breakpoint. The inevitable screams follow but it does little good as Tursunov wins the next two points. Henman fights back to earn another chance, but Tursunov produces an amazing drop volley to hold. The British No1's response? A loud "Fucccccccccccccccccck!" - but amazingly the umpire does nothing. Meanwhile John McClure is back. "I'm doing all 136 Olympic sports", he writes. "If your avid readers can contribute a grand to the charity I'm doing it for, I'll change my name and enter next year's London marathon as Troy McClure." Well, any takers?

Like I said, it was a shameless attempt at self-promotion, but it worked - the "136 Olympic sports" bit was posted as a link to this site. Still, no one was going to pledge any money for something quite so silly as me changing my name, right? Wrong. A mere three posts later:

Second set: henman leads Tursunov* 6-3, 2-5 Another Henman service game, another struggle. From 0-30 down he recovers to 40-30, only for the Russian to win the next three points. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. "Which charity is John McClure supporting?" asks Luke Williams. "If it's a good 'un, and if the offer is verifiable, I'll put up £50 notes." Top work, Luke. Anyone else?

Crikey. But still, a grand is a long way off fifty quid. I e-mailed again. Two posts later:

Third set: Henman* - Tursunov* 6-3, 2-6, 1-0 After watching his serve go into meltdown in the second set, Tiger Tim holds comfortably to 15. "The charity is the Sobell House Hospice," says John McClure. "They provide care for people with life-limiting illness and support for their families. It's a very worthy cause. And I'm off to the Deed Poll website."

And so I was. To my dismay, according to the website, it seemed perfectly legal and entirely inexpensive for me to change my name to ‘Troy’, even if only for the duration of a marathon. I got a slightly sick feeling in my stomach at that point.

I thought about how I’d react to hearing of some stranger doing something similar - the vehemence with which I’d call him an idiot - and I thought about that occasionally asked question on forms one has to fill out, ‘Have you ever been known by any other name?’

Thankfully, the tennis suddenly got exciting at that point and all talk of me changing my name subsided. The end of the match arrived and I had received no word from Sean Ingle that the thousand pound target had been reached. I logged off, slightly relieved.

A co-worker came over to my desk. “Getting a good bit of publicity there!” he enthused, presumably having spent the afternoon juggling work and tennis coverage himself. “You never know who might be reading!” he added. I agreed - you never do know. Even so, I was quite surprised to find an e-mail in my in-box the following morning with the subject ‘Book deal?’

It would seem that Ben Heywood from Chrysalis Books Group had also been keeping an eye on the tennis via the Guardian. He’d followed the link Sean Ingle had kindly provided to this site and made a few phone calls.

I’ll not go into too much detail yet, but suffice it to say for now that, by the end of Friday, Ben had not only sent my contact details to the editor of the relevant imprint at Chrysalis (Robson Books), but he had also (thanks largely to some apparent goading on the part of the rest of his office) agreed to be my partner for a synchronised diving event.

He was careful to stipulate that he’d commit to the 3m springboard, but only offer his services for the 10m platform provisional to his form in the former event. Oh, and that he would wear Speedos for no man.

I’ve since e-mailed the Southampton Diving Academy to see if they would be willing to help us out. Ben will no doubt be relieved to hear that they haven’t come back to me yet.

Needless to say, I’ll keep you posted as things progress.

[The full transcript of Sean Ingle’s commentary is here in case you missed it.]


In other news:

Triathlon training is going reasonably well, if not in terms of quantity, then certainly in terms of quality. This week, I have done something that I’ve never done in my life before - I’ve enjoyed running. Better still, on one run, I started off feeling dreadful and hating every step, but ran through that and was really enjoying myself by the time I got home again.

This afternoon I ran for 25 minutes (five laps of the park at the end of the road). That doesn’t sound like much I’m sure – probably about 6km - but when I think back to how I felt several weeks ago after a mere seven minutes (and one lap of the park), it feels like hefty progress.

Of course, to get to the running stage of the triathlon, I need to first not drown for a mile and then cycle a marathon. I’m off to bed shortly so I can get up for a swim before work tomorrow.

Golf vs Triathlon

Monday, June 13, 2005

I really enjoy playing golf, but perhaps not quite as much as these guys.

Several weeks ago, I was faced with a choice about what to do with the weekend that has just passed. In one direction, Tim was pulling at my sense of guilt and fear and trying to get me to go and do a half-triathlon with him in preparation for the main event in London in August. The other option was to go home to Northern Ireland and play in a not-very-serious golf competition being hosted by a close friend of my family.

In the end, I made my promises to the golf competition and my excuses to Tim. I didn’t want to risk injuring myself in the run-up to the main event – or, perhaps more truthfully, I didn’t want to risk terrifying myself to a sufficient extent that I pulled out of the main event altogether.

This morning, having read Tim’s blog entry about his race experience, I’m sure I made the right decision. Go and read it, then come back and read how my weekend’s sporting endeavours panned out in comparison.

The night before I faced my weekend’s sporting event, while Tim was no doubt forcing down as much spaghetti as he could lay his hands on and washing it down with an energy drink before getting an early night, I was basking in the warm glow of family and friends (not to mention a delicious 1995 Gran Reserva Rioja and a cigar) and arguing about the nuances of the rules of golf with my dad until half one in the morning.

Tim’s race day probably started with an uncomfortably early alarm call, followed swiftly by having to force some food down into a nervous stomach. Mine started with a gentle two-mile run to knock the edge of the previous night’s indulgences, followed by a leisurely drive around visiting yet more family and friends and eating breakfast as I went.

As the triathletes tugged themselves into wetsuits, I was wandering about the practice ground wondering whether I ought to try and find some sun cream from somewhere. As the neoprene-clad warriors were stretching soon-to-be-aching muscles, I was giving up on hitting practice shots and heading to the bar for a sandwich and a glass of wine. Halfway through Tim’s event, he thought he was going to drown. Halfway through mine, we stopped for a beer.

When Tim had finished his half triathlon, he was sat quaffing recovery drinks and feeling glad not to be dead. When I had finished my golf, I was sat drinking pints of Guinness in the sunshine feeling glad to be alive.

His evening was most likely spent gently nursing his injuries and knotted muscles. Mine was spent stuffing my face, dealing with some awkward questions (“John! How long are you back for? What are you drinking?”) and dancing with my mother to dodgy cover versions.

In fact, the only thing that threatened to take the edge off my weekend was the text message from Tim at ten o’clock on Sunday morning telling me that the swimming is a tad harder than I’d been hoping for. When it arrived, I hadn’t been in bed all that long, and it would be fair to say that I’d maybe had a little more to drink the night before than would be considered prudent for the average athlete. It was OK though, the fear it instilled instantly cancelled out the power of my hangover.

I’ll always be more of a golfer than a triathlete, but I think I had better order my wetsuit sooner rather than later.

Swimming Lessons

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Photographic proof that I've always been this good looking.*

Before Tuesday night, I’m not sure when I last had a swimming lesson, but I’m going to take a punt and suggest that it was at least 20 years ago. Said lesson was given by a tall, lanky man called John. Other than that, we didn’t have much in common. He could swim underwater for a whole length of the 25-metre pool at the Avoniel Leisure Centre with a physical elegance that deserted him on land. I could spit water at my sister.

When I was younger still, the mentor entrusted with making sure I didn’t drown was the mother of a school friend. I imagine whole generations of children grew up feeling the same way about that woman. She was kind and caring and gentle, and you loved the fact that she was teaching you how to do something as important as swimming, but underneath all that, there was a simmering fear of, and something bordering on childish hatred for, the woman who first dared deflate one half of your bright orange water-wings.

It was all very well for her – she was on dry land. Mind you, even if she hadn’t been, the water in the learner’s pool would only have come up to her waist. We, on the other hand, poor, vertically challenged wretches that we were, having been rendered suddenly sinkable by her cavalier approach to armband deflation, had to try and make it to the other side of the pool (fully eight metres) without drowning.

She was encouraging and complimentary about our efforts but, beneath that, she was tough. Yes, you made it across without drowning, but you weren’t kicking your legs quite right. And it might be easier if you opened your goggle-protected eyes every so often to look where you’re going. And put your tongue back in your mouth even though you’re concentrating.

A few years later, I had an odd experience involving my swimming instructor’s sister. During a school trip to Holland, a nasty crazy-golf accident left me with blood pouring out of a cut in my forehead. As luck would have it, my swimming instructor’s sister was a nurse living in Amsterdam and had come to visit us that day (to see her niece). She examined my head and declared that I’d probably survive, but that I ought to have a couple of ‘plastic stitches’ just in case.

As she applied said stitches (which turned out to be not nearly as glamorous as I’d hoped for), I winced. Her hand held my head perfectly still and in it I could feel that same force her sister had dished out from the poolside. I’m not trying to be mean, but if you’d just do what I’m telling you to do this would all be so much easier.

Memories of all of these things came flooding back as my latest instructor put me through my paces in the pool two nights ago.

A tall, lithe South African triathlete, she had already been good enough to spend half an hour talking to me about how to prepare for the fast-approaching London Triathlon. She dispensed pearls of wisdom that I eagerly stored away (and wrote down later) about everything from training schedules to dietary requirements as though everyone knew about them.

Her biggest concern about my approach to the race was not how little training I have done or am doing, but that I was planning to do the swim using my most comfortable stroke – breaststroke. She pointed out that wearing a wetsuit would make my legs much more buoyant and I’d find myself struggling to get my top half high enough out of the water to breathe comfortably. “How bad can your crawl be?” she asked.

Ten minutes later, I was in the pool showing her just how bad it can be. To give her credit, she didn’t laugh at my hopeless flailing. Instead, she brought me a float designed to be held between the legs and suggested I try a couple of lengths without kicking. I was a child again – elbows on the side of the pool, looking up at a kind face telling me that “That wasn’t too bad, but maybe if you just try doing it this way instead.”

I tried a couple of lengths with the float. Breathing in became much easier, but I kept forgetting to breathe out first. After the first length, I was on the verge of hyperventilating. Again, my efforts were applauded before another drill was instigated. This one involved lying on my side with my lower arm outstretched and my upper one by my side. I was only allowed to kick my legs, and when I wanted to breathe, I had to roll over rather than whip my head out of the water.

Again, getting a breath in wasn’t too much trouble – getting it out again without getting water up my nose was a different matter. I coughed and spluttered my way back to my instructor who had one more drill for me to try. This one involved swimming like an underwater James Bond bad guy henchman – with both arms held by my side and furiously kicking my legs. Breathing again involved rolling to either side when I felt the need.

As I swam two lengths like this, that long forgotten but immediately familiar childish hatred welled up in me again. Why couldn’t I just do it the way that felt comfortable? Swimming was supposed to be fun, and this wasn’t. Why couldn’t I just go and spit water at my sister? I returned to the top of the pool to receive my commendation and await the sentence that began “But if you just…”

Instead I was met with “Right – now try swimming two lengths of crawl – just normally.”

So I did – and suddenly, without warning, I felt like I could do it. I was breathing to alternate sides with every third stroke and before I knew it I was at the other end, confidence already soaring so high that I found myself contemplating a tumble-turn (a skill I have never possessed) – fortunately, I thought better of it just in time.

I felt a great rush of gratitude to all the people who have had anything to do with teaching me how to swim over the years. Contrary to what my ego would like to think, I didn’t just pop into the world able to do it – I had to be taught. Someone had to be firm with me and make me do it a different way than the way I wanted to – the right way – the way that meant it would work.

I’m learning a lot from doing this whole thing – about sport in general, about certain sports in particular, about the people I encounter who help (and the people I encounter who don’t), and about myself. I’m learning that I’m usually far to eager to try and do things the way I want to do them, to stay within what I perceive to be my comfort zone, instead of trusting the people who know what they’re doing to teach me how to do it right. I’m learning that in the end, the instructors invariably break me down and I do it their way – and then I have these epiphanies about how much easier their way is.

Life, eh? Bloody hell.


* Swiss Toni, the keenest member of Team Ultimate Olympian for the London Triathlon, has been posting pictures of himself in lycra and neoprene over on his blog. He suggested I do the same ASAP, but for now, the picture above is about as close as I can get to his epic poses.

Hampered by a Picnic

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Jamie wasn't the first athlete to fall victim to the dreaded picnic hamper.

Ever since Jamie dropped out of the 50 km walk last week to “protect his softball season”, I’ve been trying to remember where I’d read about something similar happening before in an Olympic games. Finally, I found the story I was looking for in Geoff Tibballs’ book The Olympics’ Strangest Moments.

‘The 1912 Olympic marathon [in Stockholm] more than lived up to the reputation for drama set by its predecessors. Run in unusually hot conditions for Scandinavia, it witnessed the first Olympic death, a victory marred by accusations of broken promises and, most bizarrely of all, a runner who dropped out halfway to join a family picnic!

‘… Further down the field [Shizo] Kanaguri was struggling to cope with the heat. In a state of near collapse he stumbled into the garden of a Swedish family who were enjoying a picnic on that glorious summer afternoon. Invited to join the gathering, he needed no second invitation and, after being refreshed with drinks of raspberry juice, he accepted their generous offer of a bed on which to lay his weary head.

‘When he awoke, it was far too late to rejoin the race and so the family gave him clothing and put him on a train back to Stockholm. Embarrassed at having failed to complete the marathon, he decided not to tell anyone and quietly caught a boat back to Japan.’

Sadly, the day after the marathon, The Portuguese record holder, Francisco Lazaro, died in hospital having collapsed during the race.

‘While the Olympic fraternity mourned the loss of Lazaro, officials were trying to locate the other 33 runners who had failed to finish because of the extreme heat. All were accounted for except one – Shizo Kanaguri. Unaware that he had fled the country, the officials called in the Swedish police in a bid to find him and when the search proved fruitless, he was officially declared a missing person.

‘Kanaguri’s whereabouts became something of a joke in Sweden – akin to sightings of Lord Lucan in Britain in the 1970s – and some claimed he was still running around the streets trying to find his way back to the stadium. Other ‘sightings’ revealed that he had last been seen with a beautiful Swedish girl on each arm.

‘In 1962, on the fiftieth anniversary of the race, a Stockholm journalist was despatched o Japan to track down the elusive runner and found him teaching geography in the town of Tamana. Kanaguri had no idea that he had achieved cult status in Sweden.

‘Five years later, at the age of 76, he returned to Stockholm to open a new department store. From there he was taken to the Olympic stadium where, to the delight of the Swedes, he finally jogged across the finish line… to complete a marathon that he had begun 55 years earlier.’

There’s a lesson there for us all.

But I’m not sure what it is.