Meeting a legend, and living to write about it

Updated: February 24, 2006, 6:26 PM ET
By Brian Church | Special to ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- The man "widely regarded as the greatest Olympian of modern times," according to Guinnessworldrecords.com, visited a Torino rowing club on Friday. ESPN.com was there.

Rowing great Sir Steve Redgrave won gold medals at -- you ready for this? -- Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.

That's a 16-year stretch. Nobody else in an endurance event has ever won at five straight Games. Britain's Redgrave is the only sportsman in history whose future obituary, for reasons of space, may not mention he also won nine world championships.

Brian Church/ESPN.comSir Steve Redgrave, The greatest Olympian of modern times, with ESPN.com writer Brian Church (left).

In short, a legend. Actually, the legends' legend if the story of U.S. superstars at the Athens 2004 Olympics queuing up to speak to Sir Steve is true.

(A wet sidebar: In the photo, I'm soaked and homeless-looking because of a mad rush through city streets in heavy rain and a shortcut down a steep river bank after suddenly learning of Redgrave's visit. Sir Steve, representing Team Visa, is pictured with his coat because he heard I was on my way and wanted to come out and greet me. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Redgrave has been drenched a thousand times getting up for pre-dawn training, so I don't expect any sympathy, but the 6-foot-5 gentle giant is instantly friendly.

Now, I'm about to make my editors at ESPN.com very unhappy with a massive confession. I went to interview Sir Steve for one and only one reason: Is he, or is he not, from my English hometown of High Wycombe? Let's ask him first and then I'll explain.

Q: I'm from High Wycombe. Where are you from? High Wycombe or Marlow Bottom? And please don't say Marlow Bottom.

A: Um, I'm from Wycombe district.

High Wycombe or plain Wycombe is 25 miles west of London. Tiny and boring, Marlow Bottom is just up the hill from Wycombe. Both places claim Redgrave. Technically, Redgrave's house is in Marlow Bottom, but he's from High Wycombe, period.

(I know you're bored, but High Wycombe is also right next to Penn, from where the state of Pennsylvania through William Penn got its name. No joke.)

Ah, what the heck, might as well ask Redgrave some sports questions while I'm here. Like which Winter Olympics event is equivalent in toughness to rowing?

"Rowing is very much an endurance-based sport so the endurance sports are obviously cross-country skiing," Redgrave answers before I unthinkingly cut him off.

Which Winter Olympics sport would he be best at? Easy one this. "I missed selection for the [1988] Calgary Olympics by one place on the bobsled team. It was something I did for a number of years and really enjoyed it."

In the end, Sir Steve had to make a choice -- rowing or bobsleigh -- as the taxi driver was getting very upset. "Those two sports do not mix at all," Redgrave observed Friday. "One's very explosive and the other one's very much endurance based." He chose rowing.

I ask him if he's the biggest winner of all time, which is the kind of question people ask me all the time. Redgrave modestly points out that Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich won gold at six straight Summer Olympics (if you ignore World War II), namely 1932 Los Angeles, 1936 Berlin, 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki, 1956 Melbourne and, at aged 50, 1960 Rome.

"I've only won five [gold medals] consecutively," said Redgrave, who is 43. There's not many people who can use the word 'only' like that.

But let's be fair. Gerevich won in an era when gold medals were like M&M sweets. (It's near the end, I no longer care about my Hungarian-American readers.) Besides, you can kill a man with an oar, but you can't row with a sabre. End of argument.

Which was the hardest triumph for the man from High Wycombe? "They're all hard in different ways," Redgrave said, who looks back at each four-year Olympic cycle rather than a single Games.

"Within those time periods, there's always something that goes wrong, that you have to try and put right," said Sir Steve, whose grandfather worked in High Wycombe's famed furniture industry.

"Probably the hardest was the last one [Sydney 2000], coming down with diabetes three years before the Games, and trying to deal with that condition and trying to compete at high level, and age catching up, [it] was very tough."

After winning gold in Atlanta, Redgrave famously told millions of British TV viewers: "Anyone who sees me go anywhere near a boat again, ever, you've got my permission to shoot me."

But to get a better idea of the mental steel, he's also said: "If you feel fit and strong then there's something wrong. You're not training hard enough."

Enjoy your run.

Redgrave was knighted in 2001, so please don't take offense at this link (Advice on English Titles for My Slightly Backward American Friends).

Bjorn Daehlie was also there Friday, and I regret not speaking to him because I love the music of Abba. Yes, yes, I know, he's a Norwegian who won a record eight gold medals at the Winter Olympics (Albertville 1992, Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998) before retiring in 2001.

Well, I've now moved house five times and walked the streets of Torino for 15 days, carrying voice recorders, a digital camera, maps, guidebooks, notebooks, mobile phones, battery chargers, press accreditations, and a heavy laptop that was obviously made for Orson Welles' lap, not mine.

Chasing interviews, happenings, anything unusual ... that's the beat. Often nothing's there at the end, just a long walk back. It's life. But today, I won big time ... with the man from Wycombe district.

Advice on English Titles for My Slightly Backward American Friends
For knights: You say the title and the first name or both names together, so it's Sir Steve or Sir Steve Redgrave, but never Sir Redgrave. For Lords: Lord Griffith is best and Lord Andy is nice, but wrong.

Brian Church is a columnist with the Athens News in Greece. He will be contributing to ESPN.com throughout the Olympics.