Watch James on Sports Life Stories, Tuesday 22nd October at 10:00pm on ITV4.
In this brand new series to ITV4, James talks to Gabriel Clarke about his career as an oarsman and as an adventurer, as well as the cycling accident which caused life-changing brain damage.
Featuring top names from Olympic gold medalists to Champions League winners, Sports Life Stories focuses on the lives of iconic sporting figures.
With contributions from five-time Olympic champion Sir Steve Redgrave and James’s wife, TV presenter Beverley Turner, the programme reveals how he approached the challenges in front of him - from rowing to physiotherapy - and he talks candidly about how the brain damage has affected his personality, his relationship with his family, and his attitude to life.
When he wasn’t selected to represent Britain at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, James says he made up his mind to quit the sport in a fit of pique: “Selectors sat me down and said, ‘You will never row for Britain again, we are going to take away all your funding.’ I went, ‘Well it’s a boring sport, I don’t want to do it,’ and went away. And that’s when it hit me that I had the talent to do that and I had wasted it.”
After having to sit out the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when he contracted tonsillitis at the last minute, James was determined to find success in the cox-less fours in Sydney four years later. So much so, says Sir Steve, that he became the driving force behind the gold-medal winning team, giving the other three rowers a hard time in training: “He would be sort of boiling under the collar, and this is almost every session, every day. He was our motivation, he was the one who was sort of pushing us.”
Beverley provides an insight into what happened after James went on to win gold again at Athens in 2004: “There’s a sense with James that all of his achievements haven’t meant as much to him as they might for you or I. So he very quickly moved on. We had dinner when he won his medal and the next day he was thinking about what he was going to do next. He is relentless, and you know he always has been.”
James explains that after retiring, rowing the Atlantic ensured he never wanted to row again. He then took to skiing across Antarctica, and later ran seven marathons in six days. Sir Steve says he believes James may have taken on challenges like these because he felt unfulfilled as an athlete: “Maybe because he stopped slightly earlier than I think he should have done.”
After being hit by the wing mirror of a lorry while cycling across America as part of another challenge in June 2010, James suffered brain injuries which meant his personality changed. He reveals that he now suffers from epilepsy and has lost feelings such as empathy and motivation: “After a brain injury you react differently to situations - my kids had one dad for six years and a different one for the last three.”
He and Beverley talk about a moment when the pair argued and he grabbed her by the neck. She says: “James got very agitated one night, I was wound up, I was newly pregnant as well, tempers frayed and James kind of got me by the neck, and it was really scary. The most important part of that story for me is that my sister walked through the door and just took him in her arms and just said, ‘It’s not you James, it’s not you.’”
Despite the impact of his brain injury, Beverley says she is trying to stay positive: “I think the man that I married did disappear, yeah he did. But there are elements that I have grown to admire about who he is now that I probably wouldn’t have done if the accident hadn’t have happened. There was a lot about the old James that I wasn’t very keen on, to be honest.”
Now James plans to stand as a member of the European parliament in the next elections in May 2014, and he explains he is determined not to be defined by his Olympics medals. He says: “There’s no doubt it is a huge gamble because as a sportsman you have a different level of good feeling from people which politicians especially over the last five years haven’t generally had. But the one thing I’ve always lived by is that the Olympics were something I did, not who I am. And for me I want to test myself and show that there is more to me than a decent physiology for rowing, that I can be on top of a variety of complex issues, which is what you need to be as a European MP.”
Taking part in the World Duathlon championship in Holland, he admits that he is addicted to pushing his limits. Yet he says the thing he most wants to achieve is to get his personality back: “Probably to hear Bev say, ‘You’re back’, it would be nice to hear that.”Back to Videos