Tom George may be making his Olympics debut but he has already achieved something that eluded even rowing royalty.
It was during last year’s first lockdown, and training at his parents’ home in Cheltenham, that George pulled off his sport’s equivalent of the four-minute mile – becoming the first Brit to break the 5 minutes 40 seconds barrier for 2km on a rowing machine.
‘I was in a log shed at the end of the driveway next to lawn mower – it was pretty Rocky Balboa-esque,’ the 26-year-old recalls to Sportsmail. ‘I put a Union Flag up there so every day I walked into the shed and was like, “That’s the goal, go and get it”. When I got the record, I didn’t really know what to do. I just went and told my parents and then had a shower.’
Tom George is eyeing gold only at the Tokyo Olympics with Britain’s men’s eight rowing team
He was the first Brit to break the 5min 40sec barrier for 2km on a rowing machine
A month later, Moe Sbihi, a Rio 2016 gold medallist in the coxless four and Team GB’s flag bearer at Friday’s opening ceremony, bettered his team-mate’s time of 5:39.6 by two tenths of a second. In doing so, he reclaimed the British record he first took off four-time Olympic champion Sir Matthew Pinsent in 2015.
What is less well known, however, is that George wrestled back that record – which five-time gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave also once owned – by another two tenths in February. And this time it was in front of a cheering crowd at British Rowing’s Caversham HQ.
‘It felt like a phenomenal achievement,’ says George. ‘So many people were there to witness it, which was very different to the first one. I thought it was important to do it in front of everyone, to show the guys, “I want to win the Olympic Games and this is the standard I want to set”.
‘Moe sent me a really nice text afterwards saying, “You are inspiring other and taking others with you”, which was pretty humbling coming from him.
‘I went back to my parents’ house that day and on the way there I pulled into McDonald’s for a little milkshake – I treated myself to a little something! But it was never a huge celebratory thing.
‘To be mentioned in the same sentence as some of those guys is very, very flattering and I’m very proud of it. But Pinsent won four Olympics and Moe has won the Olympics. Breaking the record is really cool but it kind of means nothing if we don’t win in Tokyo.’
And that is where we find George now, preparing for the first heat of the men’s eight in the early hours of Sunday morning – rowing’s blue riband event which Team GB brilliantly won in Rio.
Sbihi, who George describes as a ‘captain, leader, legend – like John Terry’, is the only rower in the boat with Olympic experience. But the Brits have been making waves in recent weeks, beating rivals Germany, the world champions, twice in May to win the European Championships in Italy and then a World Cup in Switzerland.
‘Every year it seems to come down to GB and Germany,’ adds George. ‘It’s built into a massive rivalry, which is awesome. This Olympiad, maybe the Germans have had our number for a bit of it, but we’re coming good at the right time.
‘Winning any medal at the Olympic Games is a phenomenal achievement, but ultimately we want to come back with a gold medal and carry on that rich history for GB Rowing.’
George is preparing for the first heat of the men’s eight in the early hours of Sunday morning
For George, an Olympic gold medal would also serve a second purpose – relegating the ‘career’ he is rather more reluctant about down the Google rankings.
‘I’d say it’s non-existent but it’s not because you can look it up,’ laughs a bashful George about his modelling portfolio, which appears at the top of Google Images.
‘A friend from university connected me with people at IMG so it’s there, but I haven’t really done anything for it. Obviously it’s very flattering to be someone that’s considered good looking or a model.’
George, though, has brains as well as beauty, with a degree in politics from Princeton, the Ivy League university in New Jersey, USA.
His thesis was about Brexit, specifically, ‘Why did the people of Britain vote to leave the European Union?’. George concluded that the public were ‘misled’ into thinking there was more benefit than actually existed, with a large focus on the role of Vote Leave supremo, and man of the moment, Dominic Cummings.
‘I looked at how each side of the campaign pushed information towards the public,’ explains George, who says he would love to work for a political think tank one day. ‘Their focus was to achieve a desired result rather than necessarily acting in the best interest.
George trains in isolation on a rowing machine at his parents’ home in Cheltenham last year
‘Whether you’re for or against Brexit, it is undeniable that we’re not getting the deal that the Vote Leave campaign suggested we were going to get out of it.’
Conversation with the fascinating George also swings from the environment – ‘I’m a bit of a tree hugger, I’ve just been reading about fungal intelligence’ – and history. He has recently learnt that his grandfather, John George, fought in the brutal Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during the Second World War.
‘He had his leg blown apart and was rushed to hospital and refused to let them take his leg off,’ he says. ‘They said he’d probably be dead by 45 but he lived to 92. That’s a pivotal moment in my family history. It’s on the bucket list to go to Monte Cassino after the Games.’
An experience which has already left a mark on George came in January, when the British Rowing squad were invited to a training camp at St George’s Park, the home of the England football team.
‘My crew were in the England home dressing room and we walked in and they had England shirts up with all of our names and “21” on the back,’ recalls George, a Newcastle fan. ‘That was such a nice touch.
‘It was a special place to be able to train at, obviously not in a footballing capacity even though I’d love to have been banging one into the top bins from 40 yards! Just to see the scale of the place and what it means to be a part of what England football is like, it left quite a cultural mark on our team.’
Before England’s Euro 2020 final with Italy, George and the rest of the eight crew were asked to send a good luck message to Gareth Southgate’s side. Now it is their turn to try and bring the gold medal home.