Beijing countdown, rowing

The little guy with big brains and Olympic ambition

Cox for GB men's rowing eight, Acer Nethercott, tells Andy Bull about the Boat Race, the semantics of complex demonstratives and why his job is so crucial

Anyone remember Gary Herbert? If you don't then you need to cast your mind back to the medal rostrum at Barcelona '92, and try to picture those two mammoth Olympians the Searle brothers towering over it. Herbert was the tiny man stood alongside who was crying his eyes out. The cox. The scene was like a Charles Atlas before-and-after ad. You couldn't help but think "who the hell is that guy, and how did he get there?"

The cox looks like the runt of the litter. So even though I'd never met him before, it was easy to find Acer Nethercott at the GB rowing camp - I just looked for the smallest guy in the room.

The perverse thing is that the cox is in many ways the leader of the boat. He's the guy with the whip at the front of the galley ship. It's a tough job that Nethercott has got. He's in the men's eight. In a boat of that length effective communication is all but impossible between the rowers. At the same time, their success depends on their total synchronicity, on unity in thought and action.

This is Nethercott's job. He says he is "the eyes and ears of the boat", and I'd say he's the brain too. In the melee of the race, Nethercott does the thinking so his rowers don't have to. He watches the teams around them, and decides how to respond to them.

He is also watching the cox-box by his feet, which tells him how many strokes his crew are taking each minute. If they dip below their target, Acer needs to work out why, and whether they need to worry. At the same time he is working the rudder, balancing the boat against the crosswind and keeping it from moving out of its lane, which would lead to disqualification.

A dapper, donnish looking man with a mop of curly hair and a sharp, smooth face, Nethercott needs to have the total trust and faith of his crew. If they stop to doubt his awareness and decision-making, they will lose concentration and the race is lost.

Likeable, and clearly happy to be in Beijing, Nethercott is indecently intelligent. Two months ago he completed a DPhil in the Philosophy of Language. "What exactly?" I ask with all the confidence of a man who has a 2:1 in English Lit.

"Linguistics. The semantics of complex demonstratives."

"Uh-huh".

In between qualifications (he has a BA in Physics and Philosophy and a Masters as well), Acer says he "fell into" international rowing. Surprisingly, he didn't start coxing until he got to university. Less surprisingly, that university was Oxford. He got there from a comprehensive school in Essex.

"When I got in, the first thing my gran said to me when I got in to Oxford was 'so am I going to see you in the Boat Race?' My grandparents lived through the war in the East End of London, in a working class district. They had really vivid, fond memories of going down each year to watch the race and randomly picking a side to cheer on from the bank."

At the time this was just one of those over-optimistic suggestions that grandmothers are so fond of making. "'I doubt it, nan,' I said, 'I've never been in a boat in my life.'"

Turned out she was right. Intrigued, he started coxing with his college and just got better and better. He graduated through the Oxford women's boat and reserve boat until he made the Blues in 2003. He was a member of the winning boat that year, and again in 2005.

"My nan was hugely proud when she stood on the Battersea bridge watching it. Never in a million years did she think that this could happen, I mean she was from the working class area of the East End, she didn't even think people like that could get to Oxbridge. She's taped all the races and she still watches them once a week, every Sunday."

Now I know how he got there, I want to know what he does. I ask him to talk me through the race as he's visualised it with his coaches hundreds of times, the race that he hopes will take the boat to a gold.

"There's a lot of dead time on the start line, and an awful lot of noise. Not just the crowd, but the other crews. A lot of other nations go in for this caveman style grunting. They slap their legs and growl, so there are all these bizarre sounds coming over the water.

"I don't know whether it's a reflection of our national character but us Brits don't tend to go in for that. I'll just say one or two quiet things. Simple technical points, Then there's an amazing contrast as the call over comes, a deathly silence. You hear the buzzer and suddenly it's all noise again: 48 rowers, six coxes, all yelling and urging.

"I don't do much talking here, we've practiced it so that in the first 30 seconds or so I say very little. Some coxes yabber away, yaddayadda, but I don't think a rower can process all that, so I just give one or two cues the team are expecting to hear. Bang, we do that. Bang, we do this.

"Then from the sprint we manage the transition into racing pace, that's when the contest really starts. I look around and look at how we're going. The Germans are up on us, the Australians are half a boat back and the Dutch are a length ahead but they'll be soon be spent. Don't worry.

"Into the race plan, check the strokes, 37, 39. Are we where we want to be? If not, then why? A headwind? Then fine. We're still rowing well.

"The further down the track we go, the less prescriptive we can be with our strategy. We prepare for the final sprint. Are we defending a lead, or are we trying to sprint through someone? It's my job to make the call. Then the push for the line."

And then maybe, just maybe, a medal. I hope his grandmother has set the timer on her VHS machine.

Beijing Olympics 2008: Andy Bull interviews GB rowing cox Acer Nethercott

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Thursday August 07 2008. It was last updated at 13:49 on August 07 2008.

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Medal table

Overall medal table

Last updated: Aug 22 2008

Pos
Team
Gold medalGold
Silver medalSilver
Bronze medalBronze
Total
1 China 47 17 24 88
2 United States 30 36 35 101
3 Great Britain 18 13 11 42
4 Russia 17 18 22 57
5 Germany 14 9 13 36

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