Lockdown Podcast: Pete Reed OBE, Triple Olympic Champion

Pete Reed OBE Lieutenant Commander, Royal Navy & Triple Olympic Champion

Series 2, Episode 4

So, how does “an unremarkable pupil” – as described by his P.E. teacher at a parents’ evening – become a triple gold medal Olympic rower?

Pete discovered rowing onboard HMS Exeter of all places and his determination, hard work and resilience took him to the Olympics.

These attributes have served him well, perhaps none more so than right now. Pete recently suffered an unexpected spinal stroke which “almost feels like it’s added fifty years to my life overnight”.

Pete relates his challenges to the hardship that everyone is facing with Covid, “we’re all going through a massive life-changing event” and we can all take inspiration from how he approaches difficulties, “we don’t choose these things, we can choose how to handle it”.

Currently “medically downgraded from work”, we join Pete at “an astonishingly exciting time”, having just heard that the Royal Navy, despite the severity of his physical condition, has decided to “retain him in Service” and he awaits his first assignment. 

 As Pete’s coach used to say to him, “Never, never give up”.

Here’s what everyone said…..

Rachel Owen  00:09

Hello, and welcome to ‘Lockdown!’ Hosted by Steve Bomford with Mike Davis-Marks. Our Armed Forces operate in challenging environments. Week-by-week, we’ll explore what we can learn from their experiences.

Mike Davis-Marks  00:24

Hi, Steve. I understand your next interviewee for the podcast is someone I know actually pretty well, Lieutenant Commander Pete Reed OBE.

Steve Bomford  00:34

OBE and an Olympic gold medalist several times over. What a remarkable chap. 

Mike Davis-Marks  00:40

Yeah, I know his story quite well. I think the listeners are going to be fascinated by this, I  really do.

Steve Bomford  00:47

Yeah, it doesn’t pan out quite the way you expect, in some ways does it. But yeah, a remarkable guy. And let’s have a listen to what he’s got to say.  So Pete, thank you for joining us on the podcast. I have to admit, I’ve got a bit of inside knowledge here in my first question because Mike has told me this is an interesting story. So, do you mind telling me how did you discover rowing? 

Pete Reed  01:11

I don’t mind. So hi Steve, nice to chat and it’s really good to be on so thanks for that warm invitation. And a really nice starter as well. I found rowing almost by chance and very late on and it’s a story I tell to lots of schools. Particularly as I was never very good at sports at school, to say the least. My PE teacher once described me as “an unremarkable pupil” at a parents’ evening to my Mum. And it’s true. I wasn’t very good at rugby, or football or basketball. I tried hard, but I never really found my thing. And it wasn’t until I joined the Navy when I was 18 and then went to sea for the first time and I was on onboard HMS Exeter in the Gulf back in 2000. And the Club Swinger on board the ship’s PTI, physical training instructor, sat me down on the rowing machine and he was gathering up all the young guys and girls to have 1000 metre blast on the rowing machine, because there’s a fleet wide fitness test. And so just sat me down in 50 degrees on the upper deck and I remember him just telling me to go as hard as I possibly could, so I did and duly did what I was told, and I remember the numbers. And I remember how I felt afterwards, I was sick and heat exhausted and went back down to three Papa mess. But later on, the Commanding Officer bothered to come and find me to say that it was a really good time. And it was the fastest time in the fleet that year. If anyone wants to have a go on rowing machine then it was three minutes and five seconds. And even looking back now it was a pretty good time for my first ever effort on a rowing machine. And the advice from the Commanding Officer was, when you go to university next year, then take up rowing. And that’s how it all started. So I joined the Navy before I found rowing. Then I duly took it up at university and I was good at sport for the first time. I found my thing. I liked being up early. I liked being with a like-minded bunch of people. Getting out and getting some exercise. And I got lucky same with so many. I got lucky with the people I rode with, my coach Fred Smallbone and just my transition into being in better and better boats. And it sounds funny, but I was always the worst in the boat. I was always technically the weakest and the least experienced person in the boat and as soon as that changed as soon as I made good progress, I just went to the next higher boat. And before I knew it, I was in the senior team for Great Britain. And then within a few years, in fact, within four years, we’d won a senior world championship gold medal. And then it took off after that.

Steve Bomford  04:06

So I’m gonna have to ask… this PE teacher, have you spoken to them since?

Pete Reed  04:12

So, if Paul Christianson, if Mr. Christianson is listening, no harm done, sir. No harm done. No, I haven’t seen him since but…

Steve Bomford  04:22

So can we track him down? Can we track him down on the podcast and see what he has to say?

Pete Reed  04:26

I’m sure he’s, yeah, he is a good man and no hard feelings. You know, he didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I wasn’t great at sports. I was pretty unremarkable on the sports pitch, always offside in rugby, always missing shots in basketball, but I did try hard and that’s I think… working hard and being prepared to come back, welcoming the failures and coming back is a hallmark of a good rower. You know, you’ve got to be determined. I’ve rode with so many champions now and so many great athletes and they’re all very different, they’ve got different physical and mental and technical attributes. But the one thing that defines a good rower is that they’re determined. And I think that’s probably what I harnessed through being bad at sports is school is coming back for some more punishment.

Steve Bomford  05:19

So key learning here, if anybody’s got a bad report from school, it’s not over.

Pete Reed  05:24

No, it is certainly not over. And the more people I meet on this journey of life, the more stories I hear about how hardship comes first, and that was a bit of hardship, you know, great things born from hardship. And that’s a nice lead into what we’re going through, we’re all going through at that moment. This is a particularly hard time. I don’t want to date the podcast, but we’ve just had a January of 2021, which I don’t think many people are going to forget. It’s a gruelling time, no matter what’s going on in life. And so there’s, there’s a lot to be learned from that, and a lot of opportunity as well, I think. You know, we don’t, we don’t learn much from the easy times when we’re cruising, when we’re easily winning, no one learns from those times. And good man once said to me, “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy”. And it’s so true. If it’s easy, what’s the point?

Steve Bomford  06:21

Absolutely. So what does it take to become a triple Olympic gold medal winner? I ask this question because I was thinking about this, asking this question without sounding like it’s such a dull question but, as someone who’s not an athlete at all, you sort of see Olympics and you see sporting events, and essentially, I think what you see is a race of some description, or a sporting event or something, and then a medal ceremony; and that is almost the extent of the crowd, the viewers’ involvement and clearly, there’s a lot more work that goes on behind the scenes.

Pete Reed  06:54

It takes years and years of dedication and determination and sacrifice, and it takes it takes a very resilient, it takes a resilient team. I know it’s a person. But rowing is a team sport. And even if you’re in individual sport, whatever you do, there’s always a team involved. It’s never just one person picking up a trophy, there’s this, there’s a massive pyramid underneath. It takes a lot of resilience. And I know I mentioned it, I have already, but the sacrificing. What what are you prepared to give up that no one else is prepared to give up? And it sounds, that sounds a really boring answer but doing anything to that level, it takes so much discipline, determination and sacrifice, and a… willingness to fail and being prepared to fail. So that when it does happen, you, you take it well, you learn from it, you grow from it, you come back you, you dust yourself off and pick up the rowing oar again and off you go; because… and I realised this when I was going through my latest chapters, I think the reason why I’m handling myself quite well is because when I fail, and I regularly do, especially now; I mean everything is an opportunity to learn, everything is a failure. I’m so used to failing every single day, there was never a stroke, that was good enough, there was never a number that was big enough, there was never a weight that was heavy enough. You’re always sizing yourself up against someone in a competition, someone else in the world, or someone else next to you on your team. You’re never good enough. And every debrief, there’s always a way to improve. So that’s what it takes. Years and years of resilience and dedication and sacrifice. And if you’re prepared to go to bed at 8.30, to be asleep for nine o’clock every night, so that you can wake up feeling fresh and fresher than the next guy, then you’re gonna get in the boat, and they’re not. It’s easy for a day. And it’s easy for a week. And it’s pretty hard for a month but you can do it. It’s almost impossible for a year. Then four years and eight years and sixteen years. It it adds up. So what are you prepared to do? How much do you want it? That’s what it takes. 

Steve Bomford  09:23

Wow. That’s a level of commitment I don’t possess, I can assure you. So ‘resilience’, I have to admit, this is another word that Mike pointed out to me that’s something you would be able to talk about. And I think obviously it’s going to be quite important when we come on to talk about where you’re at today. What do you mean by resilience in the context of sport?

Pete Reed  09:40

In the context of sport, I think, I think being able to bend but not break. So you’re going to get knocked by a whole number of things every day, and how much can you withstand and then come back to be your best? and very early on on your journey, I mean if, and I think about this quite a lot, at the moment we’re living at a time, COVID notwithstanding… technology and life has become quite easy in some respects.  So you can pick up your phone and you can go to an app and search for a movie and watch it immediately and stream it over the fastest broadband. And you can, if you want a pizza, you can say what you want, and you’re annoyed, if it takes 30 minutes, you know, it really should be at my door in 15 minutes. Everything is immediate. Immediate gratification, we all know about that. But that trains you in the wrong direction, or trains you that, you know things should be here now exactly as I want, cheap. And unfortunately, life’s not like that. Life is the opposite. I mean, it’s very, very tough. And you’ll get these moments of happiness and these moments of progress, but they’ve got to be balanced out with moments of hardship and moments of sadness and moments of trauma. And I think resilience for me is, it’s something developed over time. I know that I’m resilient. But I didn’t start off that way. You just get slowly chipped away at and yeah, I can, I can weather the rain, that’s all right. The rain that life’s throwing at me and, okay, now it’s hailing; oh okay, now I’m in a thunderstorm, this is tough. I need to take shelter. Okay, and as you go through life, you’ll get knocked and hit and hurt more and more and more. And how much can you take and then come back and smile through it? And then when the storm disappears, and when the rain clouds disappear, you’re still there and you’re still strong. I think your ability to weather those storms in life is what resilience is. And it’s, the key thing is it’s trainable as well. It’s trainable, just like anything else. And you do a little bit. You suffer, you rest, you come back stronger. You learn, you grow. The basics. And it’s so simple, but it’s so hard to do and I think that’s why we don’t practice it as much perhaps as we should.

Steve Bomford  12:10

How interesting. So I think resilience is going to come up again in the next question here. And I’m really quite struck by what you said there as well about you just do not know what life is going to throw out. You don’t know what’s around the corner, and you can’t prepare for those things can you?

Pete Reed  12:25

No, you certainly can’t. But it could be a sideswipe. You really don’t know and the latest chapter I’ve been going on, I’ve met some remarkable people, and none of them knew that this was going to happen. And to what extent. None of them would have chosen it. But the way to prepare is, I think, working as hard as you can, and resting as well as you can, with whatever you’ve got right now. So you’re a little bit stronger than yesterday, you’re a little bit more tired as well. You rest and tomorrow, you’re even stronger. And I don’t dwell. That’s a key thing. I really try not to dwell on the past. But if I look back, I’ve got the fondest of memories. And there’s been some wonderful successes in the Olympics. There have been some epic failures as well, but when I look back, I’m really proud of what I did. Because I feel like, you know I didn’t I do everything, I never stood  on top of Mount Everest, and lots of things that I missed out on, which are the things I regret. But if I look back at what I did do with what I had at the time, that’s quite comforting. So I can almost let that that chapter of my life go. The sports chapter, I don’t look back and think, ‘Oh, why can’t I be 25 again and standing on the podiums?’ Well, you know, guess what, life catches up with you, age catches up with you. And then the latest of what’s happened is, it almost feels like it’s just added 50 years to my life overnight. And you know, that’s cruel, but we don’t choose these things, we can choose how we handle it. And then, and as long as I’m prepared to have a quick reassessment of what success is for me, and what good looks like, as long as I’m prepared to do that, which necessarily I am, then we can move on in life. And actually, I can find fulfilment elsewhere, it doesn’t have to be in the middle of an Olympic podium anymore.

Steve Bomford  14:34

Fascinating. I think that’s a really good answer. So, if we talk about where we’re at today, or where you’re at today. So, more recently, things have taken an unexpected turn and you suffered a spinal stroke, which I have to say, I’d never heard of. I think most people’s knowledge of a stroke would be something to do with the head. So first of all, what is a spinal stroke and how in practical terms is that affected you?

Pete Reed  14:57

Don’t feel guilty about not knowing what it was. I went to an acute spinal ward, sorry an acute spinal acute stroke ward in my first hospital and there were consultants there who’d never seen a spinal stroke. So they are rare. A stroke that we all, that we know of, is a stroke in the brain, so an impingement of the blood flow to an area of the brain, which means that the cells in the brain aren’t getting oxygen and they die, or become dormant to an extent. And what a spinal stroke is, the same process but in your spinal cord, so there’s an impingement of the blood flow, impingement of oxygen getting to your spinal cord and the spinal cord cells die. And your spinal cord is, it’s like your motorway of neural traffic that goes from your brain to the rest of your body to tell it, what to do and how to move and all of those bits and pieces. And unfortunately, in my case, the blood stopped going into my spinal cord. And now instead of having a motorway of millions and millions of neurons, every second flying around your body, telling your muscles exactly how to behave and what sensory signals to send back to the brain, it’s not a motorway anymore, it’s more like an overgrown footpath. And my spinal cord is still in one piece, there’s been no car accident or trauma from the outside. But inside, there’s just, there’s no flow of that neural traffic. And it’s happened at a level just below my chest. So it means that my core, and we’re looking at each other now; my core from here down, and so from just below my chest initially there was nothing. I mean, there’s no core strength at all. There’s no leg movement at all and, and it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, what happens to you overnight. A great analogy that the nurses told me early on was that, the bottom half of your body below your injury line, learns a different language or speaks a new language now. So I guess if it’s a small stroke or a small trauma, then maybe it’s speaking German, a fairly easy language to learn. But I think mine is speaking Martian. I can learn it. But it’s going to take an awfully long time. And it’s a horrible feeling when you’re lying in a hospital bed, you can’t, you can’t sit up.  You know, I couldn’t, couldn’t lift my shoulders off the bed. And this realisation of what’s happening. It’s, it’s shocking. And, and it’s bad luck. And it’s sad. Unless it isn’t, you know. Unless, unless it isn’t. And that, that’s just a decision that you make, it’s in your it’s in your mind, and you can really make the best out of what looks like the worst of situations. And that, that’s it. That’s a mindset. 

Steve Bomford  15:01

So the languages that you’re talking about, metaphor that you’ve used, or the nurse used for you; does this mean that you can learn this Martian language and help improve your condition or…? Is that the right way to think about it?

Pete Reed  18:13

Yeah, I think it is. So I know that I’m never going to be standing on the middle of podiums again. I’m not going to be on arduous courses again. I’m not going to be jumping up and running around. So there’s a finite window that you’ve got to learn these languages. And the rate of progress that you make is, how much work you’ve put into it, and how… and the expertise you have around you. And the facilities that you’ve got are a big factor. But the biggest factor is the magnitude of the injury. So I’ll do everything I can with the facilities that are available to me to increase that rate of progress. But after about two years, good medical understanding is that you stop making progress to the same extent. So you’ve got this two year window to make most progress. There have been cases where five years and 10 years on small things have changed here and there in individual cases. And but realistically, you’ve got two years to get back what you’re going to get back. And and I think as long as, as long as I and the team have put in all the work that’s possible, then hopefully, I’ll be an old man one day and I can look myself in the mirror and know that we did everything we could. And when it comes to learning the language again, there are some really exciting changes that have happened. But rehab isn’t about being back to where you were, it’s about having an independent, fulfilled, transition back to the real world where you can contribute and help and have a purpose and have a life and, and get on with things. And I’m looking forward to the time where my problems are the same as everyone’s problems. Like, just normal things rather, rather than ‘how am I going to use the bathroom today?’ You know, early on my problem was putting my own pair of pants on, or not fouling the bed, waking-up and it being clean, you know. Horrible, horrible, new life transition things. And rehab is about how can you navigate back to a healthy fulfilled life and if there’s a wheelchair involved in that, well, okay, fine, people have it worse. I think all the time, I’m so lucky. And I’m so lucky to have had the help I’ve got. Lucky that I’ve got my arm strength. Jeannie’s been incredible. Role Navy have been incredible. There’s all sorts of things going for me. And also, just when I reflect back, and how I appreciate life now, the peers that I train with in rehab, are just remarkable people. And if I, even if I could, I could go back in time and change this, you know, I wouldn’t want to give up the lessons I’ve learned and the people that I’ve met this last 18 months, I wouldn’t do that. I’m desperate to walk again. And, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully accept what happened. But walking again and an acceptance of it is in my future. It’s not in my past. And it would be wrong of me to sit and stew and dwell and blame and, and curse. And these are all forgivable and very understandable responses to any trauma that’s happened to anybody. But it’s not helpful. And I think as soon as you realise that you can make your peace with it, and you can breathe in again, and then crucially, make progress in the right direction. No one made progress through dwelling, you know, that’s a, that’s a fast way to go the wrong way. So that’s why, that’s why I think I’m lucky and my background in, in the military and my background in sports has helped considerably with coming to those realisations more quickly, because it’s a very, very familiar route that I’m doing now; from hospital bed being completely paralysed to growing and making the best of it, probably about four years later. You know, that’s exactly the same as turning up on day one of an Olympiad and being a terrible oarsmen and athlete and then working, chipping away, every hour of every day and every sacrifice, to being in the middle of the podium in four years time.

Steve Bomford  22:38

So I saw a video I think, on your Twitter feed, which was showing you walking in a pool? Is that right? So yes, what you just said about, you’re ‘desperate to walk again’, which I think we can all empathise with; how did that feel? That kind of walking in a pool? Because that’s obviously walking, I know, it’s aided by the water and the buoyancy, but that must be quite a big step for you as well?

Pete Reed  23:00

Yeah, I put a couple of walking videos up. So I don’t want to get too far in my head ahead of myself. They are, the videos are upright and it’s, it’s me supporting my weight. But everything is heavily assisted. So there’s a buoyancy aspect to being in the pool. And maybe, if I only weighed a kilo, then I might be able to walk again. But I’m 97 kilos and so it’s a different matter. The walking in the pool, the reason that was a breakthrough is because although my legs ever so weak and neural fatigue sets in after maybe three or four repetitions of any movement, suddenly, they’ll just grow, grind to a halt. It’s it’s, it’s almost funny to watch, but my left leg has gone from absolutely nothing, you know, not only lights out, but no light switch and you can’t even see where the light switch is. I couldn’t think of how to send a signal to my left leg. Whereas my right leg has always been a little bit further ahead, you know, just been able to try…think I could send a signal. So as the months have gone on, we’ve done more rehab and then I look back on that, look to the walking in the pool video and think ‘both legs, look they’re moving there, I’m sending a signal, it’s getting through’ and rather than perhaps the overgrown footpath that I was dealt with back in September 2019. Maybe now it’s a bit more like a bridle way, like a nice clear bridle way. Certainly on the right leg and traffic can pass down there. And on the left leg… I’m really abusing this metaphor now, but if, if I’ve got perhaps a bridle way down to my left leg, maybe I’ve got a person on a pair of roller skates trying to get down there and it’s just a bit slow and a bit arduous and it’s not quite right… where my right leg, at least I’ve got so on a horse on a bridal way that can get down. So I think as, as we do more work, that bridal way might get a bit smoothed out, the person on the roller skates might learn to take his skate off and put a pair of walking boots on, something that’s a bit more suitable for the job. And hopefully, hopefully, we’ll be able to do some walking, that’s a bit more coordinated, it’s got a bit more strength in the legs, and my, my glutes, fire a little bit, which is what keeps my hips forwards. But the crucial thing is that, I’m sort of boring myself when I’m talking about this to you, but the crucial thing is I’m, I’m I’m, I’m learning all the time about what my muscles can do, how they fire what needs to happen, where my weaknesses are, what I need to work on. And, mercifully, I’ve been given the time to be able to do that with the people that can help me. So it’s, it’s back to school. And, and the aim, I guess, is to get back everything I can. That’s the only tricky thing for me. In my previous life, I knew what race day was, I knew what the standard was, I knew how to get to that standard. I pretty much knew who the opposition were going to be, we knew all knowns and it was something to work towards. Our aim, our ambition was to get an Olympic gold medal. I knew who my team was pretty much and we sat down on day one of a four year project and said, ‘Yeah, gold, is this the aim?’ We knew the time. ‘Are we all agreed?’ This time, I don’t quite know what the goal is. I don’t know what the date is, or how long weve got. There are a few unknowns. But what I do know is the process. As long as I’m doing the process and I’m on a curve, then it almost doesn’t matter what the end state is. Which was, the end state is what it is, the rate of progression is, is the goal and I think, I think I’m on that curve in a healthy way and I can live with that.

Steve Bomford  27:03

Having some control of your own destiny, I suppose? Because it’d be quite easy just to give up. I think, you know. That’s not your personality, I can tell. But I think a lot of people might think that.

Pete Reed  27:11

So it would be easy to give up and, and like I said before, that’s forgivable as well. Especially when I was at the Spinal Unit in Salisbury, which was chapter two of this rehab process, first chapter was in Derriford Hospital in Acute Care and then I went to the Spinal Unit to get educated on what it means to have a spinal cord injury and how you look after yourself. And I, I saw a lot of patients there who’d given up and were dwelling and blaming and stewing. And it’s horrible to see, and I don’t blame them, you know, it’s not like they’re weak characters or anything like that. It’s just that the, the blow that they were dealt was a little bit beyond what they were able to cope with at that time. And the process that they have to go through is perhaps a little bit longer. Now, no doubt, they’ll come back. But it’s very forgivable to, to give up. And I think if you have up until this point, don’t give yourself a hard time, don’t beat yourself up. Just give yourself a bit of kindness because if you feel like you’ve given up, it’s not over, it’s not over. And there’s a way to come back and I think, just use your words there, I’ve taken back control of the things that I can control. And letting go of the things that you can’t control is key. And just, if you can’t control it, let it go. And don’t dwell and don’t stew. And if you can do something to make your life a little bit better, then do it. Even though there’s a risk of failing, do it and if you fail, okay, no one likes it, but you can learn from it. Hopefully laugh about it, know that it’s a great story for later on, when you’re doing a podcast and telling everybody about your failed bowel routines (both laugh). I’m sorry, they’re the best stories for later on; the toilet mishaps and the shower mishaps; and that’s the way out, to see the funny side and control what you can.

Steve Bomford  29:16

Absolutely. So, I don’t if there’s anything you want to add, but I just wanted to know how you felt your training as an athlete has helped you with this unexpected challenge? I mean, you’ve obviously talked about resilience a lot and that is really coming through very strongly with the way you’re talking at the moment, but I was just wondering if there are any other sort of experiences you had as an athlete that you’re drawing on that you haven’t discussed?

Pete Reed  29:40

Critically, not everybody’s sporty and not everybody can relate to sport, it might not be their thing and that’s okay too. So, rather than talk about your time as an athlete, I, I don’t mind saying, I was, I was really good at this thing. And the same as all my teammates were. We were all just so, so good at delivering a perfect rowing stroke to make a perfect race for a certain six minutes once every, once every four years. We all had our individual strengths and weaknesses to bring to those projects. Now, if you’re, if you’re the best in the world at anything, then it’s the perfect analogy, analogy for life. If you’re going to be that good at anything, then it just takes years of hard work and determination and not giving up. And if you want to get better at anything, then just do that thing, just practice. And whether it’s… and I think a lot at the moment, I think about parents at home who are homeschooling, I think about the public servants on the front line of nursing and medical care and the NHS, I’m thinking about school, the teachers and the kids going into school; there’s just so much hardship going on at the moment. And people are right, right at the end of their tethers they are, they’re dealing with more than they ever thought they possibly could. Just keep going, keep going, take a deep breath, the stress is enormous, try and find ways to recover. And whether it’s making it through the day, whether it’s finding the next meal for feeding kids, whether it’s learning maths, or preparing for GCSEs, that might not happen. And all of these uncertainties in life at the moment. I just urge people to, to keep, keep practising, and then keep recovering. And an amazing, amazing lady called Tory James once came to speak to us when we were athletes, she was a mountaineer, so she’d summited Everest when she was very young. And she talked about the comfort zone and the stretch zone and the panic zone. And she talks about the comfort zone being where you need to be to recharge. The comfort zone shouldn’t be the aim in life. you know, the comfort zone gets very small if we were just seeking out comfort and we just want to be under our duvets in our warm beds. And that’s not the place that you want to be, that’s not living  and the comfort zone gets very small. That’s a great place to be if you’re recharging from hardship. And because of all the hardship we’re going through at the moment and all of the stress, find out where you recharge, and then get back into the fight and get a bit better the next day. And I think what’s particularly hard at the moment is everybody’s going through it. So normally, if you’re going through a chapter of hardship in your life, you’ve got friends or family or people that you can turn to who are doing well, that can pick you up. But right now the challenge is, we’re all feeling it. But the flip side of that coin is, everyone’s in it together. So keep talking to your friends and family, reach out, know that there’s solidarity in hardship, that we’re all feeling it and never give up. Never, never, never give up. That was the key lesson my coach used to say to me, Jürgen Gröbler, “Never give up”. And I think of that every day. I think of it as a message for the kids at school, for the workers on the front line, for teachers, for parents, through all this hardship, never give up. Because there’s, there’s something to work towards.

Steve Bomford  33:16

So we’re all going through one massive, great big life changing event, aren’t we? And I think, just picking up on the mood of what you’re saying there, if people just picked up the phone and talked to a friend or a family member it could make such a huge difference in a situation where isolation and separation are presenting some pretty serious challenges for day-to-day living, to put it mildly. You’re also, as you said, in the Royal Navy. What does the future of the Royal Navy hold for you? Have you got any plans? Do you know what that looks like at the moment?

Pete Reed  33:49

Yeah, I’m so close to being able to talk about it. It’s an anstonishingly excting time and  part of me wishes we were speaking about this next week because we might know an awful lot more but there’s some there’s some really key facts that I haven’t spoken about publicly yet that I’m really excited about. So I’ll share those with you now. When you’re injured, when you’re in the Forces and you’re injured, you go into a rehab programme ‘medically downgraded from work’ until you’re well enough to be ‘medically upgraded back into the work’ or ‘medically discharged’ because you’re not you’re not able to be employed and because we’re a fighting force. Back in December, an astonishingly exciting piece of news was that a medical board I was… I put in a personal statement and said that my intentions were to rehab until I’m well enough to come back to the full train strength, and that’s never been done for my level of injury before, but the doctors recommended that I’m retained in Service. And there are some limitations. You know, I won’t be going on a submarine again. All very, very sensible limitations. But it was astonishingly exciting news and a real motivation for me and I think great for the Royal Navy as well as in a very, very exciting and positive message about how, how creative this fighting force is. And then very recently the employment board agreed with that recommendation to retain me in Service. So now I am employable and waiting for an assignment order for a job. And it’s a very, very exciting time to bring me back into the fold to hopefully bring something from my background, from where I’ve worked in elite sports and then, back into the fleet in a time of huge transformation and huge delivery on that transformation. And I think it’s a very, very exciting time and I can’t say more than that, because it’s not absolutely confirmed yet. But, but but it’s, I, I’m very, very proud you know. I’m proud to be in the Navy and have always been proud to Serve. And when I was first injured, like, one of my first thoughts was, ‘That’s the end of my career’. And the end of my career before I was really able to get stuck into the career I signed up to before I started the rowing. I really wanted to Serve and what’s most exciting is that journey’s not over and I still have something that I can bring back and contribute. And it could be a career, you know, a real… if I can be a very visual beacon of how the Navy’s changing, to be perhaps in a wheelchair, perhaps not, but in uniform and delivery, again, is, is very, very exciting. And not just for me.

Steve Bomford  36:57

Excellent, congratulations!

Pete Reed  36:59

Thank you very much.

Steve Bomford  37:00

You’re also an ambassador, or were an ambassador, for the RNRMC, is that right? 

Pete Reed  37:04

So yeah, I am. That was way before my injury, but I still am now. And so I think the time is coming where my capacity is starting to increase again, which feels fantastic, actually. It means I’m starting to get on top of the rest of the aspects of life that take so much planning and preparation. But I love the RNRMC, I mean an important charity anyway, a charity that look after sailors and marines and their families when they fall on hard times. And they do some remarkable work. It’s so important, especially now for all the reasons we’ve discussed already. And now I’m living with their support and I’ll continue to support them publicly as an ambassador as well. And that capacity of mine, I mean, suddenly I’ve lived through it. The story and the messages that I’ve got are absolutely frontline from a beneficiary. We’ve fallen on hard times and the RNRMC was there for so yes, I’m an ambassador and no doubt that’ll never change.

Steve Bomford  38:14

Excellent. Well, I think you’re going to have to come back on this podcast because I think our listeners, and certainly I will want to know how you’re progressing with all of this. I don’t know when that’ll be but maybe in a year’s time? We’ve got another 20 odd episodes that we’re doing for the RNRMC. So firstly, I would like to invite you back on onto the podcast and hopefully you’ll say yes. But also secondly, I’d like to say thank you very much. It’s been an absolutely fascinating story and I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavours. I’ve learned a lot.

Pete Reed  38:44

Thank you so much Steve, it’s really nice to be on and it’s always nice to be invited back as well. So I’ll accept and we’ll chat in a year and hopefully, we’ve got some amazing stories to share.

Steve Bomford  38:55

I’m sure you will have. Thank you very much.

Pete Reed  38:58

Cheers Steve, all the best.

Steve Bomford  39:02

Mike, what a fascinating bloke. What a great pal of yours is too. What did you make of that?

Mike Davis-Marks  39:10

My jaw is still on the ground on this one, Steve. Tell me, when was the last time you interviewed a triple Olympic gold medalist? 

Steve Bomford  39:18

Well, you know, it’s like every other week.

Mike Davis-Marks  39:21

I mean… I think, what a story. I mean… so I openly admit that I knew him before he won his first gold medal. When I was working in the Navy, and he presented himself as someone that was, you know, into rowing and going, you know, for his first goal. This is pre-Beijing in 2008 and I said, ‘Well, we’ll support you and give you some RN merchandise so that you can talk about it and let’s see how you get on’. Well, what a story, you know, the first Olympic gold medal in Beijing. The Navy then said, ‘What a great ambassador for us, let’s keep him on’. Second gold medal in London, that brought tears to the eyes that one because it’s on home soil. And then, and very few people have done this, win three Olympic gold medals in a row in consecutive Olympics in an endurance sport. And he won again in Rio and only Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave have done better in rowing in the UK. Fantastic.

Steve Bomford  40:25

Absolutely. And I was really struck by the motivation to get up and do stuff. You do for a month, or you know, a week, a month, that’s fairly easy and then he went “four years, eight years, 12 years, 16 years”; I thought that’s just beyond my comprehension. I mean, that level of dedication. Remarkable. 

Mike Davis-Marks  40:43

Well, we’ll come on to dedication when we talk about some of the things that happened to him later. But I just, it just takes your breath away. You know, when you think that at school, he was declared by his PE teacher, as “unremarkable, not very good at sport”. In his own words, though, “I didn’t really do sport”. And it wasn’t until he joined the Navy, and happened to be coerced, I think that was the word, onto a rowing machine. I think they were rolling down the Suez Canal when this happened. And then just by chance, happen to set the fleet record for the year, without really knowing any other technique than just row as hard as you can. And his CO, turning around to him said, “You might be quite good at this. Why don’t you, why don’t you try it at university?” And that, from that, from that point in the early 2000s, to winning a world championship gold medal four years later in the senior GB team? That’s extraordinary. I mean, I think that is, you know… no previous talent known and, you know, I hope this teacher is listening because I suspect he will be remarkably proud.

Steve Bomford  41:54

We need to find him, that’s for sure. Yes, it is absolutely remarkable, isn’t it that you can go from… It makes me think about what are the talents out there and how they get discovered? You know, it’s not always… you don’t sort of wake up, like when you’re age five or something and think, ‘Right, I’m going to be an Olympic rower’. I mean, how does that happen? Amazing. 

Mike Davis-Marks  42:14

Well, I’m pretty certain I’ve got some world class talents that haven’t been discovered yet. But, but it may take my lifetime before anyone ever discovers those. So there you go. But I mean, in every aspect of that interview, you come across an individual whom I do know, who is committed, determined, resilient, intelligent, compassionate, and above all, humble. I mean, how many Olympic gold medalists, you know, are as humble as he is? It’s, I mean, he’s extraordinary. He’s a fantastic ambassador for himself, for the Navy, for the nation; and actually, for the world really, there need to be more Pete Reeds in the world,

Steve Bomford  42:58

I will just check my address book of Olympic gold medalists to check (laughs), I have absolutely no idea how to answer that, I don’t know; but yes, he’s a lovely guy, I must admit,

Mike Davis-Marks  43:07

Well, we’ve got Ben Ainslie down the street, perhaps we should invite him on and say, ‘Look, we’ve had Pete Reed, you know, you’re just another Olympic gold medalist, would you like to come and have a chat?’ You know, perhaps we’ll do that. Let’s move on to resilience because I think this was a thread that came through his interview, and you’re, you know, surprisingly intelligent questions, if you don’t mind me saying; through time and time, again, resilience. And it wasn’t just the resilience that he talked about, that you know, in order to be the world’s best, three times over; in fact, that’s just the Olympics, he was a world champion many times as well; in order to be the world’s best for as long as he was, the resilience to take all the knocks that life gave him, to learn all the lessons of failure and, you know, and perfect the perfect rowing stroke. I mean, that is extraordinary. That, just that alone, and then in September 2019, something else happens that’s extraordinary. And he gets a spinal stroke, which even some consultant doctors had never heard of, and you know, turned his ‘motorway’ of his spinal cord, his words, into ‘an overgrown footpath’ – great metaphor, by the way. But I mean, and the resilience that he’s now showing, with that sort of, what 16 months ago, is, again, just mind blowing in my heart. 

Steve Bomford  44:33

Yeah, I would agree. I think that’s enough to stop most people in their tracks forever, I think, you know. Having achieved so much and thinking and this is the reward I get? You know, the kind of introspection that might come with a scenario like that. And I don’t know if it’s occurred to him, I’m sure he has had his moments where he’s had to really think long and hard, but yeah, that must be a real challenge to get over. You know, that going from, what he’s achieved to, like ‘I’ve got to learn how to walk’, and other things. 

Mike Davis-Marks  45:00

Yeah, I mean, I thought the whole podcast was almost like a lesson in life to be honest, about how to take life’s knockdowns and come back, come back stronger. And he kept on going back to this about, actually ‘nothing in life is easy that is worth having’. You know, and, and there is one message that perhaps all the listeners, you know, should take away, which is actually we get strength from, you know, our knocks and our failures, if we have the resilience and commitment to get up and try again, and never, never give up. I thought it was fantastic what he said.

Steve Bomford  45:33

It was, yes. A role model for everybody. I’m quite looking forward to having him back on the podcast as well to see how he gets on.

Mike Davis-Marks  45:40

Well, I think the character he showed during your interview and the character I’ve known him over the last 15 years or so, is that if anybody is going to learn to walk again and take off the roller skates on the overgrown footpath or bridle path, and actually maybe even progress to a B road or an A road; that person will be Pete Reed. If anyone can do it, he’s the person that can show us how to do it. What, what a brilliant example for all of us. And, and I think you then, you know, sort of couched it in, you know, ‘what a year we’ve had in terms of COVID’ and he then related it to that as well, saying, actually, we’re all going through our own personal roller skating on on overgrown footpaths, in some way or another. And the aim is to, you know, pick yourself up and keep on going and never giving up. What a, what a great bit of advice for all of us.

Steve Bomford  46:30

Yeah, I think people are going through some really difficult times and I think, if people could take a little bit of inspiration, you know, take 1% of that, or maybe not even that and use it to maintain the motivation, the drive to sort of keep, keep going forward and knowing that all things being equal, we should find ourselves out of this pandemic at some point.

Mike Davis-Marks  46:53

You also got an exclusive on your podcast, which is he revealed the very exciting news that the RN, the medical board, and then the oversight board or whatever it was called, had decided that despite the seriousness of his condition, they were going to extend him in Service. And they never, they very, very rarely do that for people who have injuries as serious as he’s got. But the fact that they’re willing to do it is testament to their belief that he can actually, you know, get back on his feet and start walking; as he said, he won’t necessarily be running and jumping, but he will, you know, he will walk and the fact that the RN are putting their faith behind him, gives me… I’m really proud of the Service actually, doing something like that. I think that’s brave and really, but just shows what a great supportive network it is, as an organisation. So Bravo, Zulu, Royal Navy.

Steve Bomford  47:51

Is there a, is there a role for Head of Morale? Is that such a thing?

Mike Davis-Marks  47:56

Well, he’s an ambassador for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, as you discussed at the very end. He was that before he suffered his spinal stroke, and he continues to be that. I suspect he will be a talisman from around the Royal Navy and, and the example that he demonstrates not just how he conducts himself, but the fact that the way he’s supported by the Navy, in allowing him to continue in Service is a really, really good demonstration of what a great organisation this is.

Steve Bomford  48:29

I would agree. And it also gives you the opportunity, it’s certainly given me the opportunity, to sort of, you know, reflect back on my own situation, my own circumstance and think actually, you know, if people are out there that can do stuff like that, then maybe the things that I was thinking in my head, or maybe our listeners’ heads, aren’t quite as big as we thought they were, or insurmountable.

Mike Davis-Marks  48:48

I think you’re absolutely right, you know. And in my head, Steve, you’ve always been an Olympic gold medalist. I’m just not sure what the discipline was that’s all (laughs).

Steve Bomford  48:55

(laughs) I think that’s for another, for another podcast. You could have a gold medal for pathway metaphors in this episode, I think.

Mike Davis-Marks  49:04

Yes. Always, always good to have a metaphor thrown in here and there. So anyway, just you know, just to conclude this, just the journey he’s been on… from unremarkable schoolboy, you know, unachieving in sport, through three Olympic gold medals, to now fighting his way back to learning to walk again. You just think of that journey… he is a remarkable individual and what a pleasure to listen to him. Please, please make sure he does come back in a year’s time and I suspect the progress he’s made in those twelve months will be itself extraordinary.

Steve Bomford  49:42

I’d agree. I think if our listeners are interested in finding out more, he’s well worth following on Twitter. The video I referred to of him learning to walk in a pool… so if you’re interested in that story, in that journey, well worth a follow on Twitter.

Mike Davis-Marks  49:56

Yes and also you can follow him on the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity website as well where this podcast will be, amongst many places, published. And he you know, he nodded his head to the support he’s had from them since he had his stroke.

Steve Bomford  50:14

Absolutely. So thank you for that, Mike. I’m off to buy a rowing machine…(laughs)

Mike Davis-Marks  50:18

(laughs) I don’t think you’ll be setting the fleet record this year.

Steve Bomford  50:24

Well, not that fleet.

Mike Davis-Marks  50:27

Oh you mean the one in your bathtub.

Steve Bomford  50:28

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much, and we’ll see for the next episode.

Rachel Owen  50:37

Thanks for listening.  The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity exists to support sailors, marines and their families, for life.  If you, or someone you know, could do with some support, give them a call on: 023 93 87 15 68.  Or drop them an email on:  support@rnrmc.org.uk.  If you enjoyed this podcast and want to hear more, please subscribe.

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