Rowing for gold: Rio glory sees Phelan Hill go from Treasury to national treasure

Ross McLean
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Phelan Hill (centre, being lifted) guided Great Britain's men's eight to gold in Rio de Janeiro this summer

Even Olympic gold medallists are brought back down to earth sooner or later. Twenty-four hours after sipping one final Mojito on Ipanema beach, Great Britain’s premier coxswain – and former Treasury high-flyer – Phelan Hill was back in Putney changing his son’s dirty nappy.

Most of the time that gold medal, the reward for excruciating practice sessions and endless sacrifices, is kept in the 37-year-old’s sock drawer, although it remains one of the most effective and exclusive door-openers in town. Next up is the Queen’s Enclosure at Ascot.

For rowers with designs on competing at the next Games in Tokyo in 2020, training has already recommenced – the World Championships in Florida are less than a year away – but Brazil was Hill’s Olympic swansong and what a fitting final chapter it proved.

In the shadow of Christ the Redeemer at Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoa, Hill guided world champions Great Britain to victory in the men’s eight, regaining an Olympic crown the nation had lost in 2004.

“You always have the dream and the ambition to win Olympic gold, but if someone had asked whether I would bet my life on it when I started, I certainly wouldn’t have bet my life on it,” Hill, a bronze meal winner at London 2012, told City A.M.

“It’s still surreal. I still have flicks between thinking I’m an Olympic gold medallist and then the reality of life. It’s a funny life at the moment.

“Sometimes I go back to the moment we crossed the line and me thinking ‘oh my God, I’ve just won’. But you go from one lifestyle to reality pretty quickly.

“I came through the door after returning from Rio, saw my kids again and then within 10 minutes I was busy changing my youngest child’s nappy after he’d done a huge poo.

“Then I was in Waitrose buying some milk and someone came up to me to pass on his congratulations. My wife finds it bizarre that I get adulation for doing my hobby.

“But it was such a good way to end, it’s never going to get better than the whole Olympiad being world champion every year and then finishing as Olympic champion. You can’t beat that, you can only equal it.”

The timing of the men’s eight final gave Leander Club’s Hill and the rest of his crew plenty of scope to maximise their new-found status as Olympic champions before boarding the flight home.

Obligatory parties, bedecked in gifts such as gold-tinted Oakley sunglasses, were followed by more daring enterprises which merely served to heighten their overall Rio experience.

“In London, security was really strict so it was really hard to get into events and you always had to have tickets. In Rio, it was much easier to get through security,” added Hill.

“We wanted to watch the athletics and see [nine-time Olympic gold medalist] Usain Bolt run but we couldn’t get tickets to the stadium so we all dressed up as if we were going to compete.

“Head down, we ducked onto the bus, got dropped off and went through the athletes’ entrance, and before we knew it we were on the warm up track.

“Compared to 100m runners, we looked completely out of place messing around on the starting blocks. The next thing I knew I had [Jamaican sprinter] Yohan Blake enquiring what on earth I was doing.”

Bedford-born Hill took an unpaid sabbatical from the Treasury for the majority of the last Olympiad to focus specifically on his pursuit of gold, a move which paid a healthy dividend. But after more than a decade, his days on Whitehall are over.

Later this month Hill will begin a new role as a management consultant at Portas Consulting, where he can mix his love of business and sport in a professional capacity. His job hunt, which he started before Rio, was not harmed by events in South America.

“I had quite a strong CV beforehand, but when you add a gold medal to that it’s amazing how many interviews you get,” said Hill.

“When I won gold, there were times when I had more offers for interview than I had time in the day. Every single day I would be having interviews with firms and each time managing partners would request I bring my gold medal.”

Prior to his sabbatical, Hill would return to his car from training to copious messages on his Blackberry, particularly during the financial crisis of 2008, with every conceivable measure taken to ensure a swift transition from aspirational rower to Whitehall suit.

“I look back now and think how absolutely crazy it was,” added Hill. “I remember driving along and trying to put my trousers on and do my shoes up on the M4 while having a conference call, doing ridiculous things.

“I had to have everything ready so I could just ditch my car and be on the tube in seconds. I will certainly enjoy having it much easier and it will be refreshing to be solely focused on work.”

Whether the itch to reprise former glories on the water returns remains to be seen