Why Eskild Ebbesen won the Thomas Keller Medal: my take

You are nervous. It’s the start of a big race. You look across. In the boat across the lane is one of the world’s most exceptional athletes. It’s not that you won’t try to beat his boat. But in your heart you have probably already settled for second place. It’s not so much that your nemesis has won the Olympics – probably on more than one occasion and bagged a hatful of world championship titles, in the process. More that he’s been at the cutting edge of his sport for well over a decade. In truth, he’s probably your role-model too. Of course, it helps that he’s a ‘nice guy’. But when your crews are level with just 200m left the odds are that nine times out of ten, the crew with Eskild Ebbesen on board, will emerge victorious.


Know rowing…you know Eskild. His achievements, physicality and élan have been woven into the very fabric of the sport right from his first Senior World Championships in 1992 up to the last of his five – yes five– Olympic Games. That was in 2012. On paper, his achievements look like this: three Olympic Gold medals and two bronze. Those go together with the six world championship titles that he bagged over that 21-year period. For sure, that makes an impressive resume. But the executive summary does not explain why this lightweight rower from Bagsvaerd in Denmark has been awarded the 2013 Keller medal ahead of a stellar field.


In short, the 41 year old’s influence transcends the worlds of lightweight and open-weight rowing. Sometimes. The ‘big’ guys might have ‘looked down’ on their smaller colleagues. In 1992, lightweights  – who had to weigh in under 72.5k had no place in the Olympic Regatta. What’s more, their crews weren’t as fast as the 100k men. But Ebbesen, together with a series of remarkable Danish rowers and coaches changed all that. Out on the Rotsee fourteen years ago, Eskild’s crew set a time for 2000m of 5:45.60 that bettered the open-weight mark for the same event.


From his favourite position in the stroke seat, Ebbesen also dominated the way that his crew approached both training and racing. They showed the world that it was possible to row strokes that seemed impossibly long – throughout the race – even when the rate-meter hovered around the 40 strokes per minute mark. In short, Ebbesen’s crew effectively turned the lightweight fours event into a sprint. Their radical approach and commitment to training meant not only could they hold that phenomenal pace through the race but they could also finish with a race-winning sprint.


No wonder opponents were overawed. “I think his presence in the boat had the same impact on his opponents as Redgrave’s did.” Explained Thomas Poulson. Coming from Ebbesen’s former crewmate that’s not a compliment that’s given away lightly. Particularly as Poulson rowed with Ebbesen in 1998 and ‘1999, when the Danish lightweight four raced Steve Redgrave’s ‘super four’ at Henley. The Danes were already Olympic champions from the Atlanta Olympics and unbeaten in lightweight competition since then. But despite giving away over 30k a man, the Danes run the British very close race.


It was typical of a crew led by Ebbesen to seek new challenges –  because success was never something that came easily to him. “In the early 90’s he was very strong but his technique was not so good.” And Poulson went on to say: “On one occasion, the whole crew went to the coach and said that you have to take Eskild out – he is disrupting the whole boat!” According to Poulson, Eskild did not become a really technically proficient rower until the years before the Athens Olympics.


It was there that Ebbesen really showed his worth. “The crew had kind of a crises before the final. They weren’t going so well” Poulson, explained “they sat down on a beach and Eskild took the lead dealing with the crises. It was because of him that they won that Gold medal. He is such a positive guy to have in the crew.”


Underpinning this philosophy is a belief that through repeated practice, focus and attention, he could turn his hand to anything. Perhaps this came in part from his farming background. There’s a saying in Denmark that when the going gets tough, country people don’t complain, they just get on with it. According to Poulson, that sums up Eskild. And he’s also a very clever guy, with a Masters in Human Physiology from the University of Copenhagen who has really shared his studies in sports science to help others understand how to improve themselves.


Out of the boat, he’s a family man as well as Denmark’s most successful ever sportsman. He’s both articulate and approachable. And has showed that he’s far more than just a ‘powerhouse’ when he finished second on Denmark’s Dancing With The Stars programme in 2005 – check out his cha-cha on youtube!


In his last Olympics, Eskild’s crew led through every mark – except the last. He finished with a bronze. Like all great athletes, he knows what it’s like to be defeated. But his indelible legacy can be felt in the tribute that Sizwe Ndulou, stroke of the winning South African paid to his 40 year old Danish opponent very soon after crossing the finish line: “I look up to the man. He’s been there. Today, I had to find a way to beat him…”


This piece was written for: http://www.worldrowing.com/athletes/keller-medal-award