Weekend Interview: '˜Tall Paul' Bennett and the '˜fab five' making waves as they go for gold in Rio

MEASURING in at just under seven-foot, it is highly appropriate that Yorkshire rower Paul Bennett would have lofty ambitions.

London-born but Leeds-raised Paul Bennett, at the opening of the Leeds Rowing Clubs new £1.2m boathouse in Stourton, is setting his sights on a gold medal in the mens eight at the forthcoming Rio Olympics having helped his country to glory in the last two World Championships

First on his hit-list is claiming gold in the men’s eight at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.

But, thereafter, it is rowing as a whole that Bennett wants to see succeed with the 27-year-old hoping to prove an inspiration to others in Yorkshire and Leeds.

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Bennett, who is 6ft 10in, is one of five Yorkshire rowers heading to this summer’s Olympic Games and three of them will compete in the men’s eight.

The Leeds rower will sit alongside double Olympic gold medallist Andrew Triggs-Hodge, who grew up in Hebden, as well as former University of York student Tom Ransley.

The Yorkshire quintet is completed by Middlesbrough’s defending women’s lightweight double sculls champion Kat Copeland and Richmond’s Zoe Lee, who, like Bennett, is another Olympic debutant, in the women’s eight.

But despite the presence of a ‘fab five’ from Yorkshire heading to South America, Bennett is fully aware that rowing is not a sport associated with his adopted home city Leeds.

Born in London, the rower moved to Yorkshire’s biggest city when he was three due to his parents’ occupations as doctors.

Already well in excess of 6ft as a teenager, the Roundhay School pupil knew rowing might be his bag.

Just over 10 years later, Bennett will put Leeds firmly on the map at this summer’s Olympics in South America.

It was at Oxford University where his initiation in the sport thrived and now he hopes he will only be the first of many top-level rowers to come out of Leeds.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post at this week’s Team GB kitting out week at the NEC in Birmingham, Bennett explained: “Until recently there hasn’t been much rowing up here in Leeds.

“I know British Rowing ran a campaign called Sporting Giants which was trying to promote tall, strong people to give rowing a go.

“I couldn’t take part in that obviously because I was up north but I went down to University and my mum was adamant that I had to do rowing.

“On top of that, it kind of fitted with a few of my other goals because I wanted to get fit and I wanted to feel like a part of something while I was at university.

“I just happened to be doing quite well in it and it seemed like a good thing to pursue so I just kept going with it. You just follow the path and now I have been a given a Team GB kit!”

He reasoned: “Rowing is a difficult and expensive sport, ultimately. You buy expensive things in rowing and they don’t serve any other purpose in your life. If you buy a nice pair of trainers or you buy a nice bike, you have them for other leisure things.

“It doesn’t really work in the same way with rowing and so you need to find a cohort of people who all want to do rowing stuff together.

“There isn’t really any history of rowing in Leeds in general, or not recent history anyway so it’s quite hard to get off the ground with that. But rowing is a great sport and I would really like to see it take off in a bigger way.

“The guys at Leeds Rowing Club are doing a great job raising funds and pushing more people to try rowing but I would really like to see that grow more.”

His blossoming career in the sport has ultimately led him to remaining in Oxford after his university studies – a degree in maths and post graduate in computer science.

But the athlete nicknamed ‘Tall Paul’ remains a regular visitor to Yorkshire where his parents Chris and Anne still live in Roundhay.

The perfect opportunity to further enhance the growing reputation of rowing comes in six weeks’ time in Rio.

Bennett is already a double world champion, having helped the men’s eight to glory in both Amsterdam in 2014 and then Aiguebelette, France in 2015 but the adopted Leeds star knows it is a gold in Rio that would create the biggest waves of all.

Bennett and the rest of the men’s eight team had to settle for silver at last year’s Europeans in Poznan and he admitted: “The men’s eight is having a fairly tumultuous season thus far.

“We are coming off the back of second in Poznan and we feel quite strongly there is quite a lot of work still to be done.

“We’ve made really good improvements and we do have pedigree in this boat so we are definitely planning on converting that into gold. That’s the single aim that we are setting our sights on.

“I think one of the really good strengths of the squad this is Olympiad is it’s really diverse in terms of experience.

“You have everyone from Hodgy and Pete Reed and Matt Langridge, all of whom are in my boat, to people like me, Matt Gotrell, Scott Durant, who have wildly different experience levels in the sport.

“Some people have been to three or four Olympics, for other people it’s a first.”

Monday, August 8 will provide the initial proof in the pudding – the date the men’s eights heats start, with all lanes leading to the final at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Copacabana the following Saturday.

Bennett will be roared on by a large contingent that includes his parents and both of his brothers plus aunties, uncles and one of his cousins.

For long-term Greek girlfriend Dimirouli, however, Rio is out of bounds.

Furthermore, the rower does not fancy his chances of one day getting his other half to relocate with him back to Leeds.

Bennett continued: “Her dad is petrified of her getting Zika so she won’t be coming to Rio!

“My girlfriend is actually Greek so she very much does not want to move to the north of England. Sun and sea and sand versus the north of England is not something she has quite got her head around yet!”

Bennett remains determined to see both the Yorkshire and Leeds rowing scene thrive, even if that means he personally only gets to star at one Olympics.

The selfless athlete reasoned: “My personal ethos has always been that I always want to keep moving forward and I don’t want to kind of merely hold on to a spot.

“If I go to Rio and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life and I need to do it again then I would definitely do it again.

“But I definitely feel I would like to offer to other people the opportunities I’ve had. There are only a certain amount of people who can be in the squad and there are other incredible young oarsmen coming up.

“Maybe I could sit here for another 15 or 20 years but there are other people who want to have this experience because it’s genuinely an incredible experience.

“It’s not just about what’s best for me but what is best for the next generation as well.”