In August 2008, Hammersmith and Fulham Council invited representatives of local sports clubs to drinks at the Town Hall to celebrate the achievements of local athletes at the Beijing Olympics. Two Olympic rowers brought their new bronze medals, a fencer who hopes to compete at London 2012 was introduced to the audience, as was a member of the Sydney 2000 gold-medal rowing eight, resplendent in his Great Britain blazer.
The coach of Furnivall Sculling Club was part of the crowd, lurking in a corner, wearing a lounge suit, chatting to friends. Andy Holmes – the most decorated Olympian in the room, with two gold medals and a bronze too – wouldn’t have minded not being introduced, and probably didn’t expect to be. However, as his former pairs’ partner Sir Steve Redgrave pointed out during a recent BBC television tribute, Holmes was one of those responsible for the situation British rowing finds itself in today: one of the country’s most successful - and consequently best funded - Olympic sports.
As Martin Cross, a third member of their coxed four – which won Britain’s first rowing gold for 46 years at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 – said on Saturday: “His dedication and hard work ethic, along with the belief that he, and other British rowers, could beat the seemingly-invincible East German crews and one day dominate their discipline, is part of the legacy that he has left.”
Cross was speaking at a memorial for Holmes, who died last month aged 51, at his alma mater, Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. The school’s main hall was packed and the atmosphere celebratory for the life of a man whose energy enthused others, but occasionally cracked with emotion, with his absence keenly felt. Family members, including his mother and two brothers, spoke of his love of fun, and habit of getting into scrapes.
Holmes’ first wife, Pam, read a poem about their 20 years together – from their first meeting at a disco, being chauffeured around in his black Cadillac, the birth of their four children and his “mid-life crisis”, when they split up in 1999. Members of the Latymer 1st VIII of 1978, the junior national champions whose recent reunion, with Holmes back in the five seat, saw a group of 50-year-olds beat their current counterparts – one of the strongest school crews in the country – recalled his inspiring influence on their group on the water, and his anarchic side of it.
Those present had no doubt that it was Holmes, rather than actor Hugh Grant, who was the more prestigious graduate of their school in 1978.
Cross spoke of the ruthless drive and dedication that saw Holmes – in the days before central funding and plentiful sponsorship – work on a building site, carrying huge hods of bricks to improve his endurance, in the hours between his morning and evening training sessions.
Richard Phelps, himself a Latymer old boy who made the Great Britain squad, spoke of his awe and fear when Holmes asked to join him in a pair on training camp. “Andy was the hard man of British rowing. He did not sit behind Steve Redgrave, he drove Steve Redgrave,” he said.
Now a teacher, journalist and TV commentator, Cross also read the transcript of an interview he held with Holmes about his “lost years” – the period between leaving rowing in 1989 and resurfacing, thanks to the entreaties of a school friend, as a coach three years ago.
Holmes was setting up a removals business in south London but threw himself into his second passion, drumming, with the same dedication he had once put into rowing – two hours in the morning on the legs, an hour in the afternoon on the fingers. Holmes was no friend of authority. A job as ambassador with the French Rowing Federation ended shortly after he undermined coaches by giving an unregarded duo a training programme that saw them beat the rest of the squad.
He refused to brag about his Olympic success. A cousin was disappointed when Holmes forgot to bring his gold medal to a dinner he had organised, but both were pleasantly surprised when the oarsman discovered the medal in his suit pocket. When Holmes retired, the trophies and medals were consigned to a suitcase in the attic, and daughter Amy only found out about her father’s past life when she saw him featured in a book at school.
The family, including Holmes’ second wife Gabrielle, have attempted to record many of the tributes that have been received over the last weeks, in part to show to his daughter Parker, who was four weeks old when her father died.
Cross said: “One day Parker is going to ask about her Dad and she is going to have the same journey of discovery that Amy did and learn about what a remarkable Dad she had.”
Many, many thanks to Martin Gough for his nice contribution!