05 March 2019

Hard work the key to success, Sir Matthew Pinsent tells John Lyon boys

Hard work, determination and the willingness to go beyond perceived limits were the ingredients of success for Sir Matthew Pinsent, as told by the four-time Olympic champion himself to John Lyon pupils.

At a special John Lyon Excellence event on Tuesday 26th February, the rower who won gold medals in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens came to North West London to tell a Boyd Campbell Hall audience of pupils, their parents and siblings, as well as Harrow-on-the-Hill residents, that focus and dedication were key to becoming one of Britain’s most decorated sporting superstars.

After being introduced by Sixth Form student Rohan Batchelor (who joked, nervously, that we had initially tried to book Sir Steve Redgrave), Sir Matthew Pinsent delivered a wide-ranging and often funny talk which took the audience from the end of his school days, through university and into the UK’s elite rowing programme, where the young rower was paired with established oarsman Redgrave.

He spoke about how that relationship quickly clicked and how both men had a desire put their minds and bodies on the line each four-year Olympic cycle that boiled down to a single six-minute race. He said that the rowing team had a mantra – “Even when no one is watching” – to sum up the focus and dedication needed not just on the global competition stage but also during the long, early morning sessions on cold rivers in November and December.

He gave a detailed account of the closing stages of his final Olympic race, in Athens in 2004 as part of the coxless four boat alongside James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams. He described how an early push to the finish to overhaul the Canadian boat had left his crew physically empty and with nothing left to give, but that a mentality of ‘gold or bust’ saw them cling on to win by a fraction of a second.

In his time in the boat, a career which spanned 13 years, Matthew Pinsent would secure ten World Championship titles and two Boat Race crowns. After retiring he became Sir Matthew Pinsent.

But it is his Olympic success for which he will be forever remembered. Because of this, a highlight of the evening was when Sir Matthew took a small wooden box out of his bag to reveal the his four medals, not just to show the audience, but to pass around as he was speaking.

One audience member who was particularly struck by Sir Matthew’s talk was Year 11 pupil Koen Philippa-Gradillas. He said: “Grit, drive and tenacity. Greatly valued characteristics that Sir Matthew Pinsent has honed throughout his unparalleled rowing career, reflecting the transferable skills developed in rowing that are highly sought after in all sectors.

“Sir Matthew has mastered the balance of sports and academics: graduating from Oxford University with a Geography Degree the same year as winning an Olympic gold medal in a coxless pair. This was accompanied with his exceptional advice to always balance sport with a strong education due to the possibility of an injury that could ruin the athlete’s sporting career, a factor that is out of people’s control.

“His ability to win four Olympic gold medals shows his ceaseless ambition to be victorious making him an icon in his field. Truly inspirational.”


John Lyon’s Excellence Programme seeks to provide added opportunities for pupils who wish to aim high in different areas of School life.

The School’s Excellence Team provides activities to enrich and challenge all pupils. This may involve trips to cultural events or mind-stimulating lectures as well as in-house workshops and discussion groups.

Older students are encouraged to run workshops for younger pupils and act as leaders on trips. Pupils on the Excellence Programme also have use of the 1876 Reading Room, a quiet space designed for individual study. Here they can access a variety of books, publications and research for furthering their knowledge in a peaceful space.

Recent Excellence speakers include scientist Lord Robert Winston and BBC journalist Emily Maitlis.