Big Interview: Graeme's Tokyo dream
Should Graeme Thomas achieve his sporting destiny in a little under three years' time, it could quite possibly be the biggest story of Tokyo 2020.
It would almost certainly be the most romantic tale of the XXXII Olympiad if the Preston rower was to step forward on to the highest part of the podium and have a gold medal placed around his neck.
In fact any medal would probably be more than satisfying for the 28-year-old, who has been to the proverbial hell and back over the past 12 months.
One of Team GB’s outstanding rowers, Thomas was on the cusp of turning his Olympic dream into reality when he arrived in Rio last year as a pivotal member of the quadruple scull crew which was targeting gold.
But Thomas suffered every Olympian’s worst nightmare when he fell ill almost as soon as he touched down on Brazilian soil.
And – in what seemed like the blink of an eye –his dream of Olympic glory was declared over due to a viral infection.
Despite there being around a week to go before his competition was due to start, Team GB officials made the heart-rending – but brutal – decision to cut him from the team on medical advice.
Replaced by Sam Beaumont – who flew out to South America at the 11th hour to join Peter Lambert, Sam Townsend and Angus Groom – Thomas arrived back home not quite believing his misfortune.
The former Corpus Christi Catholic High School pupil – who first took up the sport at the age of 20 – admits he is, even now, still coming to terms with what happened to him in Rio.
For days, even weeks after the event, he wandered around at home in a state of disbelief
But he is determined to ensure that all the years that he has dedicated to being a world-class elite sportsman will not go to waste. And despite the setback of undergoing his second round of hip surgery earlier this year, Thomas is now fit and fully focused on finally realising his Olympic ambition in 2020.
“It will probably be a very big story if I was to go on and win a medal in Tokyo,” said Thomas.
“I went out to Rio feeling confident that I could win a medal and I still feel confident that I can win a medal in Tokyo.
“That feeling inside of me hasn’t changed.
“I wouldn’t like to say I have got things to prove, but I think everybody does have something to prove.
“I am so determined to see this thing through and that one day I will be able to call myself an Olympian once and for all.”
A shudder will possibly always go down the spine of Thomas when he looks back at those fateful few days which ruined his Olympics, but at least he can smile wryly about it now.
“It was on the Friday after we arrived – I did not even feel that bad, I just noticed my heart rate was a bit high,” he recalls.
“I kept an eye on it, but it wasn’t too severe.
“It was on the Sunday when I started to feel quite unwell, but by the Monday I was feeling much better.
“But unknown to me, there had been a meeting and it had been decided that it would be too big a rush for me to be ready to compete and that I was out.
“It was really was out of my hands.
“When you have a virus, it can affect your heart – that was the main concern.
“The doctor felt it would be dangerous for me and that there was a possibility I may collapse. It’s like how we have seen some footballers collapse on the pitch.
“If you have had a virus, it can put your heart under a lot of stress.
“But as somebody who has trained for this moment for the previous seven years, I was willing to take that chance with my own life .”
When the news was broken to him that his Olympics were over, Thomas felt numb.
“It was the performance director who came to my room, sat me down and told me,” he said.
“I don’t think it was an easy time for anybody really.
“Obviously I vehemently protested the decision and so did my team-mates.
“Sam Townsend kept asking the doctor, ‘Are you really sure about this because if there is anybody who can recover and come back from this, it’s Graeme’.
“But they stuck by their decision and there wasn’t anything I could do.
“The feeling I had was just one of disbelief.
“I naturally thought that I would have a couple of days to prove that I was okay because there were still some five days before we were due to race in our heat.
“I was emotional. I am normally good at putting a handle on my emotions, but I think it was more the shock to be honest.
“It did take a while for it to sink in. I wouldn’t say there has been any one particular moment where I have snapped or got angry.
“It’s just taken a really long time for it all to sink in.”
Thomas chose to return home rather than stay in Brazil and weirdly found himself commentating on the final that he should have been involved in.
In his absence – and with their own preparations thrown into disarray due to the illness befalling one of their team-mates – the GB quadruple scull crew battled to a creditable fifth place as Germany took gold.
“I thought the team did great to get to the final and grab a place,” Thomas said.
“You have to remember, me falling ill was a disaster for them.
“They had gone to Rio thinking they had got a great chance of getting a medal only to lose one of their best guys in the team.
“So I thought they did fantastically – they really did.
“I chose to come home and I actually commentated on the final for radio.
“I didn’t really find it that difficult to do because I think I was still in a trance.
“But I wanted to watch it because the guys in the boat, they were my friends.
“Apparently halfway through the race, one of the guys shouted out, ‘Let’s do it for Graeme’.
“That was nice to hear because normally everything in rowing is very clinical, there’s no emotion but on the boat they shouted my name and gave it the power 10.”
This weekend Thomas heads to Florida, in the USA, for the World Championships in the city of Sarasota.
The recent hurricane Irma which has devastated much of the state put the championships at risk, but the rowing lake in Sarasota has managed to escape the worst of it.
Thomas has switched boats and goes in the double scull with Angus Groom in Florida.
With it being a new event for him and having spent large parts of this year recovering from hip surgery, Thomas admits that he is heading into a little bit of the unknown.
“It’s difficult to say how we will do because we haven’t raced together at any of the World Cup events or international meetings.
“There is so much depth in the double scull that there will probably be 21 teams who will feel that they have a great chance of getting to the final.
“Angus has been involved in the team since 2014, so I know how he operates and he knows what I am about.
“I think the target is to get in the final and then you have a chance of winning a medal.”