By Mike Rowbottom

Mark Hunter’s mates at Leander rowing club will not have seen a lot of him in the last year. That’s because he’s been in heaven – living by a beach in Santa Monica, spending a regular but by no means overwhelming part of his week teaching rowing to novice crews at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the novices all being female, the sunshine being constant.

And when he hasn’t been doing that, well, he's been partying and having fun, in Santa Monica, in Westwood, in Bel Air, in Beverly Hills...

In short, as Hunter himself says, it’s been "heaven every day."

For as long as he can remember, this East Ender has fantasised about such a lifestyle. "Since I was a kid I always wanted to travel to California," he says. "I wanted to get away from the UK to relax and enjoy life, and it couldn’t have done any better."

The dream job had been arranged a couple of months before last summer's Beijing Olympics, and Hunter left for it just three weeks after those Games had finished.

As it turned out, he also left for the job as a newly established Olympic champion - another dream realised, a crowning glory to a competitive career that had begun 16 years earlier when he had joined his local club, Poplar, Blackwall and District, at the age of 14 and proceeded to show a succession of public schoolboys how it should be done.

The new career went well. The novices thrived. The UCLA head coach was more than happy for him to stay on.

Hunter had a season ticket to paradise.
And he traded it in for a single back to Blighty.

Thus he now finds himself in the grinding routine of old, getting up in the dark, braving wind and rain, labouring in the weights room and on the familiar reaches of the Thames.


December 19.

That's the date of the Second Assessment of Britain's would-be world and Olympic rowers, when the 31-year-old champion will put himself at the mercy of the selectors in company with a new wave of lean and hungry youngsters eager to overtake him during an extended trial in single sculls at Boston in Lincolnshire.

Hunter has been unable to resist the lure of a final four-year stretch that has the London 2012 Olympics at the end of it – a stretch he is set on covering, if he can, with the younger man whom he partnered to the lightweight double scull title in Beijing, Zac Purchase (pictured below right with Hunter left).

And, inevitably, the target once again is gold.

While Hunter deliberately took time off after Beijing, even though, as he acknowledges, it meant missing out on a good deal of post-Olympic jollity, Purchase - eight years his junior - was set on maintaining momentum at this year's World Championships in Poznan, Poland.

While Hunter was launched on his transatlantic adventure, Purchase was taking on a high profile at the 2008 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award as he gave the invited audience and an estimated six million viewers a mellifluous rendition on his saxophone – or as the BBC's Jake Humphrey called it, his Zac-sophone.

Four months later Purchase was still taking up his saxophone - but he was playing the blues, at home in Wallingford, having seen his prospective year of competition kyboshed by a nasty viral complaint.

Having  been advised to write the season off and make sure he had a really good rest, Purchase got back to work sooner than usual, in August. But he remains cautious about his capabilities, having missed so much training and competition.

"After so many years of competing solidly, I really enjoyed just doing nothing," Purchase says. "But it’s difficult to say how I'm going to do because I've never started a season having done no exercise for four months. It's going to take a lot of effort to get that basic fitness back."

Hunter may have taken things easy for a while, but by the time he returned to England, his junior partner assessed him as being "scarily fit." There is still a way to go, however, before the pair can have the security of knowing they will resume as before.

"We both know that crews do get changed around," Purchase says. "And if it means rowing faster, that is a price that has to be paid. We know there are good youngsters out there ready to push us – and that is going to be good for us. It will keep us on our toes. If we want to be the best in the world we have to be the best in Britain first.

"Mark and I are back training with each other every single day at Caversham now. He's always moaning about the weather, and saying things like 'If I was in California now I would be sitting on the beach in the sunshine...'"

But Hunter is not on the beach any longer. Having taken things easy for a while, he got back into the routine of working while still out in California.

Purchase adds: "I tell him that if he was in California now it would mean he was not going for another gold."

The time off, Purchase (pictured) says, has allowed him to sharpen up his saxophone playing as he improvises jazz and blues. "But," he adds, "I'm not trying to perfect it in the same way as I am my rowing."

Clearly Purchase, who was recognised in his early teens as an outstanding technician, is gathering his resources for the next stage of a career that has already brought him gold medals at world under-23, world and Olympic level.

Hunter, too, is focusing his energies fully on the challenge ahead.

"Before I went to the Beijing Olympics I thought I would probably retire afterwards," Hunter reflects. "But now, after the year I've had, I feel like I have a new lease of life. I'm excited about things. When I was out there I could go to parties and live life the way I wanted. I really enjoyed my time. And now I’m back to the old routine, I'm more relaxed about it."

The level of fitness Purchase found so scary has been underlined by a recent performance on an ergo machine which saw Hunter come within 1.8sec off his personal best. "Physically, I'm going really well," he says.

What adds to Hunter's feelings of anticipation is the indefinable but undeniable rowing chemistry that exists between Purchase and himself. Some combinations, for whatever reason, work; others, for whatever reason, don't. Hunter and Purchase fall into the former category.

"I remember seeing him during the 2005 final trials," Hunter recalls. "I came first, but I saw this young kid, and watching him race you thought: 'Bloody hell, he could be pretty good in a couple of years.'

"He developed really quickly. In the trial two years later he won - I led to 1,800 metres, and he went through me with 100m left. Mind you, I'd done the work to get rid of everyone else over the first 1,000!”

That year, 2007, saw Hunter (pictured at UCLA) and Purchase team up to win double sculls bronze at the world championships, Purchase having won the single sculls in a world record at the previous year's Championships.

The following year they were unbeaten all season, with their 13th and final win coming in the Olympic final as they set an Olympic record.

"We have a mutual respect for each other," Hunter says. "We both want to win, we both always want to be better.

"Zac and I are a really special combination, to do what we have done. You can't hide that fact. Last season, even at 90 per cent we were faster than most competitors we faced.

"As rowers, we are very different. I'm the consistent guy who will put in good performances from day-to-day. He fluctuates, but when he needs to be good, his is good."

Chemistry in rowing is a strange but undeniable thing. Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent worked ideally, but for all their talent, and despite their occasional outstanding performances, Pinsent and James Cracknell didn't.

As a member of the British squad for almost a decade – he rowed in the lightweight four at the 2004 Athens Olympics at which Cracknell gained his second gold in the heavyweight coxless four – Hunter is familiar with all three of these rowing musketeers.

"Matthew and James never seemed that comfortable.

"Steve and Matthew always seemed comfortable about what they did, and what they could do. It's probably the way that Zac and I were last year," Hunter says. "If we did things right, no one in the world could beat us. If we can get back into our stride, that’s how it can be again.

"That first Olympic win was special. If we could win again in London it would be pretty amazing. It is going to be a lot of hard work, but we've done it once and we know how to do it again."

That sounds like a warning to the world. But there's tricky water to be negotiated in the coming months – starting with the cold and forbidding reach in Lincolnshire.

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected].

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.