Bennett wins survival race to claim world champion status

GB men's eight with Paul Bennett
GB men's eight with Paul Bennett
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It took Paul Bennett six years to go from setting foot in a rowing boat for the first time to striding onto the top step of the medal podium.

Little did he know that had he followed the advice of a friend more than a decade ago he might have got there a lot sooner.

Bennett, 25, who was part of the GB men’s eight that won the world title in Amsterdam last week, grew up in north Leeds, just a swift paddle away from Roundhay Lake.

“An old friend’s dad is David Cottrell who was starting up a rowing club at Roundhay,” begins Bennett, who moved to Leeds from London with his family aged four, before heading back to the capital as a 19-year-old bound for university.

“My mate wanted me to get involved in rowing, but back in those days I was a footballer and a cricketer. The closest I got to water was a swimming lessons as a kid.

“I never actually went to the lake at Roundhay and rowed, which is a pity and a little ironic.

“It took me until I moved to London for university before I started rowing.”

Even then, rowing wasn’t a livelihood for Bennett until he finished his studies at first London, and then Oxford last summer.

It was just a hobby, but he was still able during a part-time programme of rowing to earn a spot as a spare for the men’s eight at the world championships, a learning experience that gave him a taste for what was to come and also gave his crew mates a little fuel to rib him with.

“I wasn’t needed by the men’s eight – I’d not been on the squad long enough so hadn’t earned the right – so what they do is they team up the spares for a pairs race at the end of the week and I was with a girl,” he says.

“We were given a 50-second head start against all-male and female pairs.

“Fifty seconds doesn’t sound long but when you’re rowing on your own on a lake, looking back at a start line where there’s opponents ready to hunt you down, it seems like an eternity.

“And we still lost – and I’ve not lived that down yet.”

His crew are certainly taking him seriously now, however.

Just as he is now taking the sport more seriously, after entering the programme a year ago not certain of the destination he was heading.

“When you join the programme you have to write a letter to David Tanner, the performance director, saying why you’re committed to the programme up to the next Olympics,” he says.

“I wrote it and felt passionately about what I wrote, or at least I thought I did, until I went through the last 12 months and realised everything that goes in, and everything that can come out of the hard work.

“And I’ve had a tough first year.

“Five months ago I suffered a stress fracture to my rib and was told to stay out of the boat for six weeks. That was hard.

“Before that, the first six months just went by in a haze of training and exhaustion. It was about survival.

“This journey has been unbelievable but so rewarding. It’s made me realise how totally committed I am to the steps that have to be taken on the road to the Rio Olympics.”

The affirmation came in Holland last weekend, when as part of the men’s eight they broke out of a narrow race with the German, Polish and American boats at the halfway mark and surged to the line, narrowly prevailing ahead of a fast-finishing German crew.

“I’m still not sure I can believe it has actually happened,” said Bennett.

“It’s quite something to be receiving emails of congratulations from people for being a world champion at a sport I only took up six years ago.

“I have to pinch myself at times when I think of the people I’m sharing a boat with and how far I’ve come.”