How Jürgen Does It

By Alan Oldham

Reading, Great Britain. Top table. left, Jurgen GROBLER and Paul THOMPSON. 2011 GBRowing World Rowing Championship, Team Announcement. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

Anyone who knows even one thing about Olympic rowing probably knows about Jürgen Grobler. And if not the man himself, they can name at least one of the athletes he’s coached—many of them legends in their own right, with Sir Steve Redgrave first and foremost on that list.

You have to reach back almost 35 years to find an Olympics where Grobler’s crews didn’t strike gold, and that was because the boycott of Los Angeles 1984 meant that his East German rowers and those of several other Eastern Bloc nations didn’t even get to race. Moving past that blip, you have to keep turning back the clock another three Olympiads to arrive at an era before he started producing international champions.

In short, the man is a living legend. As with all good legends, of course there is some mystery to the man, who has dominated the world of international rowing for so long. With every win, with each new champion produced, the inevitable question is asked anew: How does he do it?

***

I hadn’t exactly been putting off contacting Grobler, far from it in fact. It was just the problem of a little ocean between us that prevented me from heading over to Henley for a face-to-face meeting. A phone call would have to do and we eventually made the necessary arrangements.

In the meantime, I dove into some serious research to uncover what information was out there about Grobler. I wanted to know what questions have been asked already and look for some way to find new insight into a career spanning half a century.

As I sifted through newspaper articles, book chapters, web pages, quotes, interviews, and memories about Grobler and the many rowers he’s trained, a picture of the man began to emerge. Here was a coach with a reputation for making ruthless selection decisions, yet cares deeply for his athletes.

At worst, he has been portrayed as a pawn or even collaborator of the powerful East German Stasi (secret police), embroiled in acknowledged state-sponsored doping during his time in his home nation; at best as a man of conscience, expressing regret for the suffering of athletes, who, like him, were unable to change what they could not control in unimaginably difficult situations.

The grim realities of an East German sporting policy that ensured systemic compliance through coercion and suspicion aside, one thing is certain, Grobler’s winning ways successfully transitioned with him when he took over the reins of the British team that has by all accounts remained clean throughout his tenure.

***

As the phone rings, I’m still not sure how the conversation is going to go. To those that don’t know him, I have heard that Grobler can seem distant, impenetrable.

The voice that answers is quiet and reassuring, his calm German accent lending precision rather than austerity to his English. After our introductions, we laugh about something small and I feel completely at ease.

This ability, to be both approachable and insular as the situation demands, I would learn is one of Grobler’s strengths as a leader. “He is not one dimensional,” Mike Teti tells me when I ask him for his thoughts about Grobler’s methods as a former fellow Olympic coach, who has come to admire him and considers him a friend.

“I think the thing that separates him is he is not just always serious,” says Teti. His first impression of Grobler was decidedly more social than most, as he found himself near the end of his own racing career in a championship eight at the Head of the Charles with an already famous Steve Redgrave and an-up-and-comer named Matt Pinsent among others with Grobler as coach.

“Right before the race,” Teti remembers, “he pulled us together and said, ‘Alright, we’ve had our fun, now it’s time to race’. It was a completely different tone. He loves the sport and also takes it very seriously.”

With the ice broken, our talk turns to rowing and I ask Grobler what he feels are the most important elements of an elite training environment, the things he couldn’t do without if all else were taken away.

“First, it is always about having athletes who want to do it,” he tells me. “For these rowers, there is nothing too far, there is nothing holding them back.”

“Of course, we need the boat and a piece of water,” he adds. “I think of course that is how I began in the sport. I really enjoyed it; I enjoyed the environment, the teamwork, and so on. But I started rowing quite late and was too small, so I thought, ‘Fine, if I can’t be an international rower, I will coach’.”

“I was not in the fanciest boathouse when I started as a coach,” he says. “Even when I came to Britain and Leander, we had the River Thames and there were boats. There was in the boathouse a corner, a little room with spiders where we did the weights. And there we go.”

Most of all though it was the athletes’ willingness to work that defined those early days, he remembers. “We had a motivated group of people; I knew what I was doing and had a good scientific background and could judge things right even without testing lactate all the time for instance.”

“I am not saying I want to go back,” he adds with a laugh. “I just want to say as a message for young coaches, I think if you look always to have a palace first and the most beautiful office or whatever, it doesn’t make a rower fast.”

“Of course, the athletes are the key player, they are like gold dust,” he says and laughs again as he jokes, “I wish sometimes to be a rowing coach without athletes; that would be a nice life.”

It is a good thing for Grobler, however, that athletes are in the picture since one of his great skills as a leader has been in managing people. This has allowed him to navigate the often-turbulent waters of high stakes and even higher emotions surrounding the difficult decisions that have ultimately led to his crews’ many successes.

Grobler’s exceptional skill in this area has extended beyond the athletes. In his role as chief coach, his capacity to provide the needed feedback and support for the coaches on his team was something not lost on a young Martin McElroy, long before his most recent stint with the Canadians through to the Rio Olympics.

McElroy, who entered Team GB’s coaching ranks in the late 1990s with an eight making the leap from under-23 success to the senior level, would help guide the British to their first Olympic win in the eight since 1912 at the 2000 Sydney Games. It was another 17 years until the British would win the men’s eight again, and in Rio it was under the direct coaching of Grobler himself.

“He wasn’t just a manager,” McElroy says. “He was a mentor.” At times, McElroy recalls that the advice was difficult to hear, but acknowledges the wisdom in hindsight. “My job was to take that and integrate it into the athletes I was working with.”

“After the world championships in 1998 when the boat didn’t make the final, Jürgen was able to show me in the review that they simply weren’t fit enough against the standards that we needed.”

“That was a big development moment for me as a coach,” he remembers. “Lots of coaches think that you can somehow or other ‘beat the system’ in that if you find a way to make the guys row better, then they won’t need to be as fit. It just isn’t true. It is the highest levels of fitness and the highest levels of technique and highest levels of mental strength that are gaining results.”

The strength of Grobler’s philosophy, McElroy believes, is in focusing on the fundamentals of the sport. “Stick to the basics, and be relentless about doing them well,” he says. “Don’t look for any fancy twists; they’re not there.”

“I have always thought if the rower wins, it is his fault, and if he loses, it is the coach’s fault,” says Grobler, who has a profound respect for the work his athletes have put into the process of becoming the best in the world.

As I press him for something more than the standard modest reply, he acknowledges his own role in developing the right sort of environment where success can flourish. “An athlete is not born as a winner,” he tells me. “It is a process and you have to set up the environment around him so that he can learn a lot more about himself and create an atmosphere where he can go to his limits as well.”

“It is not just me,” he continues, “and I am sure every successful coach has that passion and can develop top athletes.”

There is a fine line, however, between sitting around, waiting for excellence to happen and making the hard decisions sometimes needed to ensure it. Grobler’s boating changes in the lead-up to major events—most infamously being accused of sacrificing the pair and eight in order to boat a winning men’s four for the Athens Olympics in 2004—are examples of a reality that can be frustrating for both athletes and coaches.

For Grobler it has been important to keep moving forward, but he admits these tough choices are never easy. “Of course, you have to question mark who is your decision,” he says. “I would say over all there are maybe only a few decisions I made where I said, ‘Yeah, I could do it differently. It is a tough job.”

“For me, selection is the hardest bit,” continues Grobler. “The guys are always with you and they ask a question and I know that the margin between being in the boat and out is so close that you can’t predict what will happen. When it comes to the last places it is always more difficult.”

“It is a time when I don’t sleep a lot,” he admits. “They trust you.”

“When I have made the decision that I am absolutely convinced of I can stand up for it,” he says. “Especially working in an environment with club politics and so on, you have to cut all of that out. I always try to make it as transparent as possible. My personal freedom is to fight for the best possible option and this has nothing to do with the person.”

Combined with the excellent training and technical ability of his rowers, Grobler’s uncanny ability to select the ‘best possible option’ when it comes time to form his crews has proven successful time and again and brought to the British team a reputation for tenacity, along with their dominance on the world stage.

“There is no big secret in what he does,” says McElroy. “His ability to build a relationship with the athletes he is coaching is excellent. It is a little harder as a head coach, but they clearly understood the direction he wanted to go and built upon that.”

“The other piece is his insistence that you have to have the best athletes and the training must be consistent,” McElroy continues. “It is hard. It is brutal. The rowers are on their knees physically, but when you have been through that then you are prepared for everything.”

“From the standpoint of a competitor,” says Teti, “if he is coaching the boat, I don’t care who is in it; you know it is going to be a good boat.”

While Teti’s rowers never did go head to head with any crews Grobler had personally coached, he counts himself lucky. “After Matt[Pinsent] and Steve [Redgrave] in the pair, he had all those years where he focused on the four and kept winning gold just about every year,” recalls Teti. “Then in 2005, while I was coaching the U.S. men’s eight, I was up on my bike at the starting line for a heat and there was Jürgen on his bike. So I said ‘Jürgen, this is the eight, what are you doing up here?’ and he just smiled and said ‘Mike, this is rowing’. I was just glad he wasn’t coaching the British eight at the time.”

***

“Winning is a process,” says Grobler. “You should of course have a vision if you are going to win a gold medal. You have to have that motivation, but winning starts from being competitive in the first place, winning the A finals at some level, and then with young athletes trying to build up from there.”

“With a win, you have already achieved something,” he continues. “The big medal is what every athlete wants as well as the coach, but on the way up, it can be a 7th place or a 4th place that can be the big breakthrough and bring satisfaction for developing athletes and for me.”

Every situation is unique, Grobler says, and he judges the success of developing rowers accordingly.  “I see how long I was working with a crew and know where they are coming from,” he says.  “Their success was not done overnight, so whatever place is deemed important is also a win.”

The fortunate position he enjoys in terms of a talented and determined athlete pool is something Grobler acknowledges. “I am lucky, of course,” he says, but he stresses that even at the top levels of the sport, a gold medal is never a sure thing. “Nobody can say that I must win or else. Sport is so variable. You have to be real with your expectations. You are not the only one in the world working this hard.”

As our phone call nears its end, I can see strong elements of Grobler’s successful strategies in all that we’ve discussed: a focus on the basics of hard work and technical precision; acting professionally and considerately with his athletes; understanding that it takes time to develop into a champion.

I can’t help thinking, however, that perhaps there is something else, some secret words of hard-won wisdom known only to him that he might not have wanted to share. But just as suddenly the answer is right there as Grobler once again begins to chuckle when I ask him about the future.

“Everybody asks me that and I am always thinking,” he tells me. “First, I really love the sport. I still love what I loved from when I was young: the teamwork and working with dedicated rowers over the years as they, like me, want to achieve something. So of course, if you are in that environment and they ask, ‘Are you still staying on?’ I say sure.”

Our good-byes said, I am once again alone on my side of the Atlantic to reflect on these final words.

The intractable passion for a sport he fell in love with over half a century ago has sustained Grobler through all these years. His love for rowing remains as bright a light as ever to guide him into whatever the future holds in store. This I think, more than anything, might be the true secret to Grobler’s lasting success.