From Belmaduthy to Brazil: Alan Sinclair's journey from the Highlands to the heart of the Rio Olympics
Written byJamie Durent
Rower and Courier columnist Alan Sinclair will be flying the flag for the Highlands when the 2016 Olympic Games gets underway next week. Sports editor Jamie Durent talks to some of the key figures in his journey to Rio to get a flavour of what has carried him to sporting stardom.
Alan Sinclair flies out with the rest of the GB Rowing squad for Rio.
THE journey: that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Each of us has a destination or an end point, even if we do not know where it is yet. The journey is something to be enjoyed along the way.
For Alan Sinclair, the journey has been longer, more circuitous and with more speedbumps than he would have hoped for. But he has arrived at his destination.
An Olympian at the age of 30, Sinclair is one of 366 British athletes bound for Rio de Janeiro today.
After one of the most arduous and mentally-draining selection processes imaginable, he can finally call himself an Olympic athlete.
Sinclair and men’s pair colleague Stewart Innes booked their places after a race-off with Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell and Matt Tarrant.
“He’ll give it his best shot and we’ll be with him all the way,” said his father Roy who, alongside wife Glenda, will jet out to Brazil, following their son’s performances as they always do.
“We had a discussion with Alan and he told us we’d hardly see him,” said Mr Sinclair. “We’ll probably see him once or twice a day maximum because it’s much stricter than the World Cup events where you’d see him every day after training and races for a chat. But this is something we just can’t miss.”
For the start of Sinclair junior’s Road to Rio, you have to rewind 25 years to the banks of the Caledonian Canal.
“Alan’s very first experience in a boat was when he was three,” said Mr Sinclair, who was Alan’s first coach at Inverness Rowing Club. “He just sat in the bow of the boat, staring away.
“When he was about 12 or 13, I stuck him in a single scull boat and tied a rope to the back of it. I told him to row to the other side of the canal and I would pull him back. I did that four or five times and he didn’t think it was too bad.”
During his formative years at Munlochy Primary and later Fortrose Academy, it was never just rowing that captured the young Sinclair’s attention.
Snowboarding, golf, rollerblading and ice-hockey provided outlets for his sporting prowess before his enrolment at Aberdeen University and a chance encounter with the institution’s rowing club.
“It was the beginning of the season and I was speaking to our rowers about what the aims for the season would be,” said Ali Paterson, the university’s former rowing coach and cox of the GB women’s eight boat at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“I think Alan came down to have a look at the river at first then heard us saying we’d be aiming for the Henley Regatta and the national championships.
“I told him we’d be doing 12 or 13 sessions a week and I don’t think he had heard of anyone training for their sport so often.
“Alan’s role within the club changed over time. When he first came in he was like the little brother. When we were making trips into Europe, it was the first time he’d been away that wasn’t with family or school.
“But he was always very pleasant, enthusiastic and had an easy-going personality. He’s hard-working and you can see why everyone likes him.”
By the end of his university days, Sinclair was one of the best young rowers in Scotland, if not the UK.
But having missed out on getting his degree he had a decision to make – study for a resit or move to London and further his rowing career.
In the end it proved a no-brainer. Sinclair joined the hugely-successful Leander Club in August 2007 – the breeding ground for legends of the sport such as Sir Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell.
There he met future Olympic bronze medallist Will Satch, someone who would occupy the role of flatmate, drinking buddy, teammate and, most importantly, close friend.
“I rowed with him for two or three years and we got on like a house on fire,” said Satch, who will be sitting near his Highland compadré on the plane today. We’ve always been there for each other. He’s a funny chap and he loves his Scottish roots. We used to go out quite often but we’ve reined that in,” said Satch.
“With Alan, everything takes a long time, whether it’s eating, getting changed or just general day-to-day activities.
“But his place is well deserved and I’m really pleased for him. He’s shown great diligence and discipline to carry on.”
Satch won a medal at London 2012 at the tender of age of 23, in the same event Sinclair will compete in next week.
A broken leg during a bounce game of football prior to the 2012 Games came at the wrong time for Sinclair.
He was on the verge of his breakthrough into the GB squad, and at 26 was primed for his big step.
But rather than wallow in self-pity, Sinclair did what he knew best – ground down and persevered.
“He trained on bikes doing upper-body stuff for the next four-to-six weeks. After the Olympics the squad had four weeks off but the medical staff were still there. Alan was the only person doing any training,” said his father.
“The muscle on his leg disappeared because of the injury. But after a week of normal training he was back in the boat.
“He asked if he could train with the squad and by the beginning of January he was in it. He’s shown immense dedication and commitment to what he wants to do.”
That sheer bloody-mindedness to push through his injury and come back better made Sinclair into a vital cog in the GB Rowing machine.
Back-to-back third-place finishes at Senior Trials in the pair preceded his first big event, the World Championships in 2013, where he came fifth as part of the four.
The following year saw GB’s Mr Versatile really hit his stride. Three silver medals came his way – one in the eight at the World Cup in Aiguebelette and two in the coxed pair, at the Lucerne World Cup and the World Championships in Amsterdam respectively.
A world bronze medallist and European champion – both in the four – in 2015, raised his stock even further.
The boy born in Inverness and raised in Belmaduthy with siblings Colin and Rhona, had done good.
“My husband and I watch as many of Alan’s races online as we can,” said Ali Paterson, who relocated to Perth, Western Australia, eight years ago. I’d like to think the shouting I was doing here from my sofa helped get him over the line in Poznan!”
That battle with Reilly O’Donnell and Tarrant on a Polish Sunday morning in June, after months of intense build-up, was what ultimately sealed Sinclair’s place at Rio.
In the final of the men’s pair, Sinclair and Innes beat their GB colleagues by 0.2 seconds, a victory the Invernessian admitted was soured somewhat by the fact that it came at the expense of two good friends.
So what lies in store next? Sinclair is not going to be short of sounding boards for what to expect when the rowing gets under way next week.
“What’s great about Alan’s situation is that there’s not as much pressure on him because he and Stewart (Innes) have only been together this year,” said Satch, who will be in the eight in Rio.
“They’ll go in as underdogs and I think that’s the best way to go into any race.
“It’s the pinnacle of the sport every four years – you could be world champions three years running, but that means nothing unless you win the Olympics.”
While acknowledging that the beasts from New Zealand – Hamish Bond and Eric Murray are unbeaten since 2009 – Paterson has a more rounded message for her former pupil. “Normally when you’re with your country, rowing is the only event,” she said. “But there’s not just you at the Olympics.
“There are gymnasts, basketball players and weightlifters walking around. Because rowing is in the first week, what Alan will probably find is that when he is able to watch other events he’ll find he’s part of something very special. It’s much bigger than just your own sport.Official logo of the GB rowing team.
“But at the end of the day you’re doing something you’re very familiar with and have worked at for a long time.
“You don’t need to change anything, just refine it. Fingers crossed he comes away with an experience he is pleased with – for some people that means medals and for others it is just doing their very best.”
When the closing ceremony concludes in Rio and the thousands of athletes are eventually given their merited time off – Sinclair and Satch are heading to Ibiza. But it will not be long before this Highlander is in a boat again.
“Several months ago he thought about taking a year out and doing some coaching. But he changed his mind and said that if he wanted to keep going, he would have to stay in because other guys coming up,” said his father. “It took him five years to get into the squad and he wants to work at staying there.”
Name: Alan Sinclair
Education: Munlochy Primary, Fortrose Academy, Aberdeen University, University of East London.
Clubs: Inverness Rowing Club (honorary member), Aberdeen Boat Club, Leander Club, University of East London Boat Club, GB Rowing.
Coaches: Roy Sinclair, Ian Hunter, Ali Paterson, Christian Felkel, Jurgen Grobler.
Event: Men’s pair (with Stewart Innes).
GB record: World Rowing Championships – fifth, 2013 (four); silver, 2014 (coxed pair); bronze, 2015 (four). European Championships – fourth, 2014 (pair); gold, 2015 (four); silver, 2016 (pair). Best Senior Trials finish – third, 2013 and 2014. World Cup Regatta medals – Silver x 3 (2013, 2014 (Aiguebelette), 2014 (Lucerne)); bronze x 1 (2016).
Rowing in Rio
Scheduled dates: August 6-14
Venue: Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas
Men’s pair timings: heats – August 6 (10.30am, 10.40am, 10.50am); repecharge – August 7 (9.30am); semi-finals – August 9 (9.50am, 10am); final – August 11 (9.52am).
Total competitors: 13
Champions: Hamish Bond and Eric Murray (New Zealand).
World record: 6:08.50 (Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Summer Olympics, 2012)
A BROKEN leg prior to the 2012 Olympics is something Alan Sinclair can now look back on and smile. But at the time it was a completely different story.
Sinclair was playing a bounce game of football, and by his own admission over-exerted himself while trying to make a save.
At first he brushed it off as nothing serious, but when his father Roy saw him hobbling around and encouraged him to go to hospital, a more serious story unfolded.
“I was down at the Olympics two days after Alan had damaged his leg. He and I went to watch Will (Satch) win his bronze that day and after the security guys saw Alan hobbling about on crutches they gave him an electric car,” said Mr Sinclair.
“Eventually we got back to Alan’s flat and I said we should probably get the injury checked out.”
It proved to be a strange case of family history repeating himself. Prior to the Henley Regatta in 1965, Mr Sinclair was playing football with his crewmates from Stirling Boat Club and after scoring a goal, another player landed on his leg.
After taking himself to hospital to find out the extent of the damage, Sinclair senior found he had broken his leg.
Forty-seven years down the line his son picked up the exact same injury.
“They showed me the x-ray and it was exactly the same break as I had done,” said Mr Sinclair.
“There was a chance they would have to operate and put pins in it. Alan was in a squad that was due to go to compete at the European Championships and an operation would have been a disaster for him. In the morning the consultant came to see him and said because the break wasn’t too serious they would just isolate it for six weeks rather than operating on it.”
The injury ended Sinclair’s hopes of making the European Championships but didn’t dent his determination to come back all guns blazing.
IT is a rare occurrence that Roy and Glenda Sinclair are not at a GB rowing event.
They were there in Poland when Alan booked his spot in the squad for the Olympics, and they will be in Rio to watch their son take his Olympic bow.
Trips down the A9 and across the world have been frequent over the years, but they are journeys the family never tire of making – even if they do not always tell Alan they are going to be there.
“I arrived a day ahead of the European Championships in Brandenburg this year but Alan didn’t know,” said Mr Sinclair.
“I went to the course for their first session and sat in the stand. I looked behind me and there was the coxless four. They asked me if Alan knew I was there.
“When they were rowing Alan spotted someone who looked like me but thought it couldn’t be because I had told him I wasn’t going.
“GB rower Moe Sbihi said: ‘We’ll play a trick on Alan with a game of 20 questions’. They went away with Alan and said ‘You’ll never guess who we met today’.
“By the 12th question Alan asked ‘Would I know him if I met him, more than just to say hello’, and Moe said ‘Oh aye’. It got a laugh from the whole team.”
Alan later posted the tale on his Instagram profile, accompanying it with the hashtags #numberonefan and #luckylad.
NEW Zealand will be the team to beat if Alan Sinclair and Stewart Innes are to bring home Olympic gold.
Hamish Bond and Eric Murray are unbeaten in the pair since 2009, winning all World Championship contests since then and smashing the world record en-route to gold at London 2012.
Their first international event together was the World Cup event in Munich in 2009. They were pulled from the coxless four boat following the 2008 Olympics in China, after they failed to qualify for the final.
Their record-setting effort came in their heat at the 2012 Games, finishing the 2km course in a blistering 6:08.50.
Bond and Murray took gold in the final from France by four-and-a-half seconds, with the Great Britain boat of George Nash and Will Satch in third.
Sinclair and Innes set their fastest time of the year in Poznan, taking bronze in 6:23.760.
Illness for Innes prevented him competing at the World Cup in Lucerne, with Sinclair moving to the eight and finishing fourth.
At the start of May they missed out on European Championship gold by half a second in Brandenburg, with Hungary’s Simon Bela and Adrian Juhasz, who will compete in Rio, taking gold.
Australia will be keen to build on their silver medal at the last World Cup event prior to Rio, where they pipped both GB boats.
Spencer Turrin and Alex Lloyd have only been together this year but saved their best time for Poznan, coming second in 6:21.290.
Dark horses for a Rio medal could well be the Dutch pair of Roel Braas and Mitchel Steenman.
The European Championship bronze medallists have not finished outside the top three in eight races this year, and edged out Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell and Matt Tarrant for silver in Lucerne at the end of May.
Thirteen crews will contest the men’s pairs, with representatives from Serbia, Italy, South Africa, America, Spain, Romania, Czech Republic and Hungary also set for the startline.
South Africa’s Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling have looked impressive in World Cup events this year, while America’s Anders Weiss was cut from both the four and eight before he and Nareg Guregian earned Rio berths in the final US Olympic trials.