You could call it a head start, a flying start or a fast start but whichever way you look at it, the British Rowing talent identification program has given George Bourne the perfect foundation for an international rowing career.
In some ways, there is no conventional route into rowing. It is not an ‘academy’ structure where you pick up the sport from a very young age and progress through the ranks.
Athletes tend to be exposed to a range of different activities before finding their niche, often in their mid to late teens where rowing is concerned.
Bourne is one such example.
From Hauxton, just outside Cambridge, he attended Tonbridge School, not a rowing school per se, but it was where he first picked up an oar.
It was when joining Bewl Bridge Rowing Club that he got the bug for the sport, changing his plans in order to go to Durham University. But before pursuing academia, he took a gap year in Cambridge, rowing with Isle of Ely and Rob Roy boat clubs as part of the Start scheme.
“It was massive in a couple of ways,” explains the 24-year-old.
“From a purely practical sense, I was training hard, I had a brilliant coach and there was a squad of eight or nine of us and it was me and the rest of them were girls but all with the same drive and purpose.
“They were probably faster than me at the time anyway.”
Olympic gold medalists Helen Glover, Alex Gregory, Moe Sbihi and Heather Stanning are all products of the program that identifies, trains and develops athletes with the long-term target of reaching the national squad.
Bourne has now created what he calls a “little Start brotherhood coming back together” as his GB double sculls partner Matt Haywood was part of the scheme in Nottingham at a similar time.
It is with the benefit of hindsight that he reflects on how the training provides the right balance of realism and aspiration for those that approach it in the right way.
Having earned a place initially, Bourne had an idea mapped out in his head about a fast-track to the GB trials.
“When I look back at myself then, I think ‘what was I thinking’ because my skills and my abilities were nowhere near matched with that belief, but the way that the Start scheme does it so well is it sort of presents you this ladder ,” he says.
“You go ‘right, so all I’ve got to do is beat the next guy’, and then I’m going to beat the next guy and the next one, and then suddenly you beat 10 and you find yourself accidentally where Matt and I are now where you go ‘hang on a secondit doesn’t seem that long that we were trying to beat so and so and now we’re in a double together going to the world cup’.
“That is why it was so brilliant.”
Bourne’s time in Cambridge was spent living at home, training on the water at Isle of Ely, land training at Cambridge University RUFC and using the David Lloyd gym.
It was all done under the watchful eye of Peter Lee, to whom Bourne gives great credit.
“He was brilliant – I could talk to you for hours about how brilliant Peter was,” he exudes.
“He was basically a huge part of that development for me, turning me into a full-time athlete, despite my skills and strength not quite being that of a full-time athlete.
“Peter was brilliant at getting the mindset rolling for where I wanted to be and how I wanted to approach rowing as a goal.
“I remember Peter’s quote was ‘we can’t all be world champions’. It was a really good way of saying ‘it is up to you, but if you want to get there, then you’ve got to do it right’.”
Having been primarily sculling up until that point, Bourne’s first experience of sweep rowing was in the Town Bumps with Rob Roy
It was a skill that was developed further at Durham University, experiencing being part of a team, how different boats move and working with different coaches.
A first taste of the international scene came in the single scull at the European Rowing Under-23 Championships in Brest, Belarus.
The same year, Bourne had also been the spare for the gold medal-winning quad at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships.
He had subbed in at Henley when Rowan Law, a part of the victorious crew, raced for Leander, so when the same sculler aged out of the under-23s – following a trialling process – Bourne took his place in the crew to seal gold at the World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Florida in 2019.
He earned a first senior call-up in the single scull last summer as part of ‘Project Paris’.
“In my semi-final, I raced against Ollie Zeidler, who was the reigning world champion, and Kjetil Borch and Damir Martin who both got medals in Tokyo.
“I look back on it now and think that was awesome in my first race.
“It was a perfect way to get a taste of international racing and what it all entails.”
In the first year of a contracted Paris Olympiad, Bourne has been in full-time training with the national squad.
Alongside Haywood, they narrowly missed out on a medal in the first Rowing World Cup of the year in Belgrade at the end of May.
Much was made of GB’s medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics, but it is a new-look squad with many of those stepping into the senior team having already experienced success together.
“It’s really exciting because a lot of the guys who have come through all went to under-23 worlds together in 2019,” says Bourne.
They topped the medal table with gold medals in the men’s and women’s quads, men’s and women’s fours, men’s eight and lightweight women’s single scull, while there were silvers in the men’s coxed four and women’s eight.
“Suddenly, we have this huge crop of guys and we’ve all come into the team, most of us now, which is a really funny thing,” says Bourne.
“We’re all so excited to be part of British rowing and in the team, but also knowing what we’ve achieved as a team before, I think we’re excited to contribute to that and to GB Rowing’s success now.
“It’s not just a case of we’re excited to be here. We know we’re capable on the world stage as a team together so for Matt and I, for example, racing the double now, we know what we’ve done in the quad so it’s a case of yes be proud to wear the badge , but we believe we can contribute to its success as well, basically.”
It really is a fast turnaround as qualifying to reach the 2024 Paris Olympics will be held in the summer of 2023.
New GB men’s head coach Paul Stannard has already set out the goals for this year and next.
“I’m still at a stage where everything is a joy basically, on the whole,” adds Bourne.
“It’s hard training, but I’m very passionate about it and so this year is very much a case of how much more can I keep building on top of where I am now.
“I’m really excited this year to be racing in a double with Matt to start building up some international experience at this level and keep progressing into next year and the year after, fingers crossed.”
With such a strong Start, Bourne shows no sign of slowing down the pace any time soon.