British Rower Steven Redgrave tried to persuade everyone that he'd taken his final stroke of genius at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Still cottonmouthed and jelly-legged after winning his fourth Olympic title minutes earlier, Redgrave, the greatest oarsman in history, wobbled out of his two-man shell on Lake Lanier and said, "If I ever go near a boat again, just shoot me."
By that evening, however, Steven was pondering how to tell his wife of eight years, Ann—who was also the British rowing team's doctor, charged with nursing her husband's body and psyche—that his promise of undivided devotion would have to wait four more years, enough time, it would transpire, for him to be stricken with diabetes and appendicitis. "Without the odd trauma, life would be a dreadful bore," says the 38-year-old Redgrave, who struggled with dyslexia and left high school at 16.
After living and training on money he had borrowed from his father, a carpenter, and his mother, a part-time driving instructor, he won the gold in the coxed four at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. That victory was the first of his 13 world and Olympic titles, a record for a rower. Since L.A., Redgrave has led Great Britain's coxless pair to victory at three straight Games. In Atlanta he and bowman Matthew Pinsent won Britain's only gold medal in any sport. They extended their winning streak to 61 races over five years before switching to a coxless four-man boat three years ago in a search of a fresh challenge. Only Aladar Gerevich of Hungary, who won six gold medals in team fencing between '32 and '60, has earned titles in five Olympics, as Redgrave is trying to do.
Though he can still beat the knickers off his teammates in training camp card games, there are worries about Redgrave's racing. He has had to give himself six insulin injections per day since his diabetes was discovered in September 1997, around the time he ceded his stroke position to Pinsent, a 29-year-old Oxford-educated vicar's son whose partnership with Redgrave began in 1990. The British four suffered a stunning first defeat last month at a World Cup regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, finishing fourth behind Italy, New Zealand and Australia. When asked recently about suggestions in the British tabloids that he was having trouble matching the stamina and pace of boatmates Pinsent, Tim Foster, 30, and James Cracknell, 28, Redgrave snapped, "I don't read the newspapers." He then made it clear what he thought of any predictions of his demise, saying, "I'm not as good as I was in the past Olympics; I'm better."
The story goes that after Redgrave won his first Olympic crown, Richard Burnell, a British gold medalist in rowing at the 1948 London Games, welcomed him to the fraternity. "You're Olympic champion for life," Burnell told Redgrave, neglecting to add that Redgrave need not keep renewing his membership.