James Cracknell: "I was definitely a shy teenager"

Olympian James Cracknell, aged 39, on being a shy, un-sporty teenager, why women are like cats, and getting naked with Ben Fogle


I wasn’t especially into sport when I was 16. I was more interested in seeing my friends and trying to find a girlfriend. I quickly worked out that while boys are like dogs – simple, loyal and happy so long as they’re fed and stroked – girls are more like cats. They just bugger off and do what they want. And they give you that look. But I knew I wasn’t a dog lover, so I hoped there might be some cats who would be attracted to a sweaty bloke like me.

I was definitely a shy teenager. That didn’t look so bad when I was 16 and generally a bit shit at everything. But I met my wife just after winning the Olympic gold in Sydney and she thought, ‘This guy’s a bit too cool for school’. You’d expect me to be pretty confident and outgoing at that point but, actually, despite having that success, I couldn’t change my personality. And being shy can make you look arrogant. People think you’re not bothering to try. But really, you’re just generally shit.

I wouldn’t be quite sure of the teenage James if I met him now. I wouldn’t know how to interpret him, I might feel he didn’t have a lot of time for me. And he’s quite tall. I’d think, ‘You stand out like a sore thumb. Why are you hiding in the background?’ But I think he’d grow on me. And once I knew him better, I’d tell him to always back himself, and never be afraid of looking stupid.

My younger self would be impressed that he’d avoided getting a proper job in the years to come. But he’d be surprised by my success. My grandparents both died when I was 16. I’ve often thought it’s a real shame they didn’t live to see my sporting success. They didn’t see anything except an annoying grandson. It wasn’t long after they died that I represented Great Britain at rowing. They would have seen there was some point to me if they’d lived a bit longer.

I don’t think I’m addicted to pushing myself. But I’ve surrounded myself with elite sportspeople and people from the Special Forces. They tend to be stubborn, selfish to a point, maybe a bit grumpy. But they have faith in other people and like to push themselves incredibly hard. If you want to be a sportsman you have to have those qualities.

My cycling crash made me look at everything differently [Cracknell’s frontal lobe was damaged when a truck crashed into his bicycle in Arizona in 2010]. I look after myself well and plan meticulously. But I do think, ‘I’ve been to the South Pole, remote islands and jungles, but the place I had my biggest problem was on a public road’. I couldn’t have planned for that and I can’t change my life to avoid it happening again. The accident has made me value every day though. My wife and kids didn’t know if they’d see me again. Now I weigh up every new challenge and ask myself if I’m doing it for the right reasons. I ask myself what’s driving me. And I try to avoid trucks.

I speak to my wife [TV and radio presenter Beverley Turner] about everything I do. It’s understandable that she’ll say, ‘Why are you going there? There are anacondas’. But you think – we know way more than they did 100 years ago and we can use what they learned. So we know not to stand around in that bit of water for too long.

The ocean ride I did with Ben Fogle, both of us naked, that was memorable. We introduced our bits to each other and said: “Take it or leave it, that’s all you’re going to see for a while.” Still, I wouldn’t say I got entirely used to the view. 


In 1988, the year James turned 16...

The USSR began its programme of economic restructuring (perestroika)... The North Sea Piper Alpha oil rig explosion killed 167 men... Michael Jackson bought his Neverland ranch in California... Celine Dion won the Eurovision Song Contest... 



World’s Toughest Expeditions With James Cracknell, April 29, 9pm, Discovery Channel


Help us to help our vendors. By subscribing to the Big Issue you get more great articles like this one every week and provide us with the additional revenue to build our street-based support for our vendors. Subscribe here