How East End club helped Hunter to Olympic success

By Rob Virtue on September 7, 2012 12:47 PM |

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Staring intently at Sir Steve Redgrave's Olympic gold medal at the age of 14, Mark Hunter would never have believed the owner of that prize would be there for him, lifting him out of a boat and reassuring him at the lowest point in his career.

That came 20 years later at last months London 2012 Games. Hunter and long time rowing partner in the lightweight double sculls Zak Purchase had narrowly been beaten by the Danish team.

Despite picking up a silver to go with their gold from Beijing four years ago, the pair were devastated. But it was five times gold medal winner Sir Steve who deserted his post in the commentary box to grab the inconsolable Hunter and offer the words: "Try to pull yourself together. You've won a silver."

For Hunter it was a huge coincidence because he said the veteran was the reason he was at the Games.

"It was back at Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club on the Isle of Dogs that I first met Steve," said Hunter. "He had lunch and gave us an inspirational talk. And when I saw the gold medal he brought in it had a huge impact on me. We've been friends now for years."

But even Sir Steve's words failed to dull a pain that continues today. Hunter and Purchase had been winning for a large part of the race before having to settle for second.

The 34-year-old Hunter, who grew up in East Ham and began his rowing career at the Isle of Dogs club, was so exhausted and deflated he could barely speak in the post-race interview apart from to say: "We gave everything. We tried everything. We wanted to win so badly. Sorry to everybody we've let down."

Speaking at Canary Wharf's Jubilee Park last week at an event to publicise a host of portraits of GB athletes by artist Teresa Witz the words were more coherent but the disappointment was still in his eyes.

"The pain is still there because we set out to win," he said.

"So it's difficult to deal with what happened but I've no regrets about the way we raced. They were just the better team on the day.

"At about 1,000m there was a roar and you couldn't even hear yourself think. The energy was intense. It was very special.

"I've never had that in a rowing event, ever. The atmosphere was completely different to Beijing. I've been to three Olympics and never heard a roar like that before."

By Rio 2016, Hunter will be 38, the same age Redgrave won his last gold. However, the east Londoner said he was undecided on his future path.

"If I was to make a decision now it would be driven by emotion and I don't want that," he said.

As for his roots Hunter said he was proud his name was still being linked with the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club.

"I still go back each year to an annual event," he said. "You come from a small club like that and move to a bigger club and then end up winning the biggest medal available, but it's fantastic for everyone involved. It's great for them and it's something to get excited about."

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Teresa Witz's portraits of the British Olympic and Paralympic stars have been on show at Canary Wharf's Jubilee Park from the beginning of London 2012.

The life-sized prints are of stars such as 400m hurdler Perri Shakes-Drayton and 400m runner Victoria Barr.

They can still be seen this before they are taken down at the end of this weekend.

Stratford-based Witz is one of 10 artists selected to tell the story of London 2012 through a series of commissioned works.

Last week the artist was reunited with the athletes she worked with including Hunter and sprinter Barr (pictured above).

Canary Wharf Group's public art consultant Sally Williams said: "Teresa's portraits are immensely powerful images and we're thrilled to be hosting the exhibition here at Canary Wharf.

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"She has spent a huge amount of time getting to know her subjects and her personal artistic style captures the essence of their dreams, determination and dedication. These athletes have devoted their lives to their sports and are some of the most inspiring and determined figures in Great Britain."

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