Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Rowers - and in particular Olympic rowers - and in particular Olympic champion rowers - don’t tend to be slackers in training. It’s a given. But even within this lunatic zone of masochistic endeavour, James Cracknell has always stood out as a loon of unmatched zeal.

A few years after Cracknell had retired, with two Olympic golds - from Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 - and six world titles to his name, I interviewed Jurgen Grobler, the British men’s rowing coach who has presided over the golden years since 1992.

He told me that Cracknell was always the one who wanted to do extra in training, no matter how punishing the session, to the point where he sometimes had to be dissuaded from blowing a gasket.

It has come as no surprise that the post-career of this phenomenal competitor has been a hyperactive blur of physical challenges, including rowing the Atlantic and trekking to the South Pole.

One of the boys - James Cracknell, who will be 47 next month, trains on the Tideway this week as part of the Cambridge crew that will contest the Boat Race against Oxford on Sunday ©Getty Images
One of the boys - James Cracknell, who will be 47 next month, trains on the Tideway this week as part of the Cambridge crew that will contest the Boat Race against Oxford on Sunday ©Getty Images

In 2010, while taking part in a cycle-row-run-swim effort from Los Angeles to New York within 18 days, he suffered a serious brain injury when he was hit by the wing mirror of a petrol tanker while on his bike. It took him three months in hospital to learn how to walk and talk again.

Just six months afterwards, Cracknell completed the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 430-mile cycle across Canada.

So if anyone were to seek to row back on their retirement and pit themselves once more against the youngest and fittest on the water, you would have put your money on it being Cracknell - who is due on Sunday (April 7) to become the oldest man to row in the Boat Race as he takes his place in the University of Cambridge crew just a few weeks shy of his 47th birthday on May 5.

The oldest person to compete thus far in the classic Putney-to-Mortlake sporting confrontation between Cambridge and their Oxford counterparts that was first staged in 1829 was Cambridge coxswain Andy Probert, who was 38 in 1992. The oldest to row was Mike Wherley, who was 36 when he was selected by Oxford in 2008.

"If I can make it to the starting line, it will be the proudest thing I have done in rowing," Cracknell, who is studying for a Masters in human evolution at Peterhouse College, told the Daily Mail this week.

"Driven" doesn’t even begin to cover it. Altnough "driver" does begin to cover it. Cracknell has spoken since his selection was announced last month of his regular role at the wheel of the Cambridge minibus, in which he is robustly heckled by fellow crewmen half his age. He is, he adds, seven years older than one of his team-mate’s father.

There are echoes here. Wherley, who now lives and works in Philadelphia, is an almost exact contemporary of Cracknell's - he turned 47 on March 15 this year - and, like the indefatigable Briton, he also made a return to Varsity rowing after he had officially retired, although in his case the gap was only four years.

By the time he first hung up his oar, Wherley had won three world titles in the eight, before turning to the coxless four in the later years of his career.

"James and his very famous boatmates beat me and the US Men’s 4 at both the Sydney and Athens Olympics," Wherley, who is now President at Penn AC Rowing Association, told insidethegames.  "I’m proud to have raced against him, and truly inspired by his achievements this year at Cambridge!"

Of his own Varsity experience - which ended in victory - Wherley recalls: "When I was at Oxford at 36, my teammates liked to call me ‘grandpa’. Too funny."

James Cracknell, right, in the aftermath of Britain's victory in the coxless fours at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as Matt Pinsent clambers back to embrace Steve Redgrave, and Tim Foster leans on his oar ©Getty Images
James Cracknell, right, in the aftermath of Britain's victory in the coxless fours at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as Matt Pinsent clambers back to embrace Steve Redgrave, and Tim Foster leans on his oar ©Getty Images

Of course, Cracknell is focusing very hard on delivering an 84th win in this event for the Light Blues. But to be in this river realm, aged 46, is the stuff of dreams for even the most dedicated of elite rowers.

Last month I conversed with Alex Gregory, who, like Cracknell, attended the University of Reading and then earned two Olympic gold medals in the men’s coxless fours, in his case at London 2012 and Rio 2016. He had also won five world golds when he announced his retirement in January 2017, aged 32.

"Retiring from rowing was the right thing for me to do," he said. "I felt as though I’d done everything I needed and wanted to do. Over two years on I haven’t regretted that decision once. That doesn’t mean however that I don’t miss some aspects of the sport I love so much.

"I miss being a part of something unique, working with a group of highly motivated individuals towards something that not many people do. To do this is painful, it’s a true challenge, but the only way to get through the relentlessness of it all is to have fun.

"You can’t afford to take yourself too seriously in that environment because if you do, you’ll be found out. The banter is a leveller - no one is greater than another no matter your results or collection of medals back home.

Alex Gregory, left, celebrates his second Olympic coxless fours gold medal at Rio 2016 alongside, from left, George Nash, Constantine Louloudis and Moe Sbihi ©Getty Images
Alex Gregory, left, celebrates his second Olympic coxless fours gold medal at Rio 2016 alongside, from left, George Nash, Constantine Louloudis and Moe Sbihi ©Getty Images

"If for a moment someone starts to get above their station they are brought right back into the group and it’s fantastic. This approach of constant mickey-taking, stupid jokes and stories brings everyone in close and forms a bond.

"It forms a protective shield and structure of support. When you embrace it, become a part of it you’re safe in the culture, protected by your mates who have your back in the boat and on the land.

"Pressure, stress and nerves are shared among everyone. I'm sure It’s a reason we would win. I don't have that now, I'm probably more of an 'adult' but where's the fun in that and am I performing as well as I used to? I don't think so."

It seems you can take the rower out of rowing, but you can never take rowing out of the rower.

But here’s the question - even if Cracknell helps deliver another Boat Race win for Cambridge this weekend, will he remember that more fondly than those joshing, jibing journeys in that mini-bus, travelling rather than arriving?