A retirement gone wrong - Alex

I hate the world retired. I’m not retired, I’m only 33 after all. But it’s the word that gets used when you leave a sport and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Six months into this new, strange life I woke up suddenly with a start. A sweat on my brow, a feeling of panic rising up inside me. Who Am I? What am I? What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Time is running out!

This moment that everyone had warned me about had arrived. It had taken 6 months, but finally it had arrived with a sudden forceful blow to my soul. What was I going to do about it?

I have a young family, three small kids who rely totally on me to put bread on their table. We rent a small cottage in South Oxfordshire and I have just come out of 16 years in a sport that supports but really truly doesn’t pay. People find it hard to understand, assuming that an Olympic gold directly equates to money. I can say with my hand on my heart that it certainly doesn't. I spent most of my time over the last 6 months meeting people, making connections, trying to discover where and what I wanted to do in my life. Trying to find a way to make my interests a reality. One of these connections came through with an email popping into my inbox: Newall Hunter - “This sounds right up your street”…

Newall is an explorer/adventurer who has done something so very rare in this world. Very few know who he is due to his understated confidence with what extraordinary accomplishment he has managed. Newall has completed the Explorers Grand Slam which is to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents and walk to the North and South pole, solo. What’s more, he completed it all without one single blister! My friend Newall was forwarding on an email he noticed on the explorer’s club web site - “Teammate needed to row the Arctic Ocean’’

Excitement surged inside me. This was indeed what I was looking for, a real challenge, something that was indeed right up my street. Very quickly I responded receiving an immediate response from a guy called Fiann Paul requesting to speak to me on WhatsApp. A little strange, we don’t usually make a call on WhatsApp here but perhaps he was abroad, what the hell, lets give it a go. After a short conversation and perhaps a little miss communication from my part I seemed to be in the crew. I was added to the main Whatsapp group ‘Svalbard 2017’ and welcomed by it’s members…I hadn’t even mentioned it to my family.

Working out a couple of date adjustments and talking it through with my partner Emily I felt confident enough to accept the place. We’d manage to get some form of sponsorship I was sure, it wouldn’t cost me anything to do the expedition I was also sure. The issue would be to work out how to support the family whilst I was away but blinded by the appeal of the expedition and the new challenge, the direction and focus I craved I was fully on board and prepared to cross those bridges when they arrived.

A couple of months down the line and after hundreds of thousands of messages, emails, calls and communications between crew members, boat builders, potential sponsors and any contacts I can think of, I find myself a matter of weeks away from flying off to Svalbard ready to row to Iceland. I have a group of new very good friends who I have never met, but I will get to know very well very quickly while out at sea! Before that I’m taking part in a race across the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Ibiza for the NOMAN campaign, a fantastic charity aiming to raise awareness about the HPV related cancer epidemic in men and women. I became involved in this race a number of months ago and I’m really pleased to be involved and supporting such an important campaign. This will be a three day race from Barcelona to Ibiza rowing continuously as a 5 man crew for the duration. A huge challenge in itself, hopefully the perfect form of preparation for the Polar Row.

I’m currently sitting at the very bottom of my overdraft, at this stage I can’t even pay my way onto the expedition, but I’m so heavily engrained and committed emotionally and time wise there’s no backing out now. Somehow, very quickly I have to find enough money to cover my extensive costs and cover the family while I’m away. To say this is a stressful time is an enormous understatement. I have work commitments I have to fit in before leaving and preparations to make for both expeditions. There’s no doubt I’ve left myself too much to do in too short a time. 

I’ve learnt some pretty enormous lessons, I’ve taken some pretty big risks. I’m stressed and stressing my family out, but strangely I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying the challenge even before it’s really begun. I’m enjoying the pressure, the planning, the complexities of the situation. Not everything is going to be perfect, but it’s going to be one hell of an experience. If I can get through the next few months this will make a crazy story, one which I’m really looking forward to telling!

Nothing more to do now than to push on, keep looking for those opportunities, keep planning and committing to the project. Exciting times ahead and for me, back in a boat with The Polar Row.

Alex Gregory