Mark Hunter: 'I watched my dad nearly die from a heart attack. 11 years later we won Olympic gold'

·7 min read

Watch: How To Raise An Olympian - Mark Hunter

This interview is part of the exclusive Yahoo series 'How To Raise An Olympian', in which we speak to Olympic stars and their parents to get a unique insight into what it takes to raise an elite athlete. Watch the full interview above - and for more see the links at the bottom of the page.

The mayday alert arrived as future Olympian Mark Hunter was coming up London’s River Thames, where he was serving apprenticeship as a waterman.

A heart attack had been reported on a nearby pier and the teenage Hunter knew instantly it was his father Terry. 

"It was horrifying to see your parent – who has done everything for you – with no life," he recalls.

Terry’s was saved four times thanks to a defibrillator, and it took Hunter "a long time to get back on track" in pursuit of a burgeoning rowing career alongside ferrying passengers across the river near the Isle of Dogs.

"The goals were always there even though I was suffering," he tells Yahoo, in the first time he has spoken in public about the traumatic event, which took place in 1997.

Hunter had an unusual background for a rower: he grew up in London's East End, was streetwise and wanted to play for West Ham as a child. 

His dad, a coach at Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club in Millwall, insisted his sons try out badminton, judo and football as a way of expressing themselves through sport.

Mark Hunter, right, with dad Terry
Mark Hunter, right, started out rowing in London's East End where his father Terry was a coach.

As an 11-year-old, Hunter was petrified of being unstable in a sculling boat. Three years later, however, he watched Greg and Jonny Searle win gold in the coxed pairs at Barcelona ‘92. 

"The Olympics blew my mind and I wanted to win a medal from then on. I had crazy dreams as a kid and I wanted to be different," says Hunter.

"My school friends and teachers had no idea about rowing, but it was unique and special to me. To prove people wrong – I was too small, I came from the wrong environment – was the big driving force."

Hunter then told his coach dad that he was making a list of goals. Terry says he was more pragmatic: "I always say to parents to make them attainable; that's so important. It wasn't about winning Olympic gold. So we broke it back and started by being the best British under-16. And he ticked every one off.”

After that, Hunter competed for Great Britain for 16 successive years. This also meant that the family took no summer holidays during that time as they ventured home and abroad to international regattas. On Hunter's retirement after London 2012, his mum said she was spending the summer in the garden.

"A lot of parents don't realise this when they go on this journey," Terry says of life as an Olympian parent. 

"It's a commitment that takes over completely if you want your child to be successful. But not everyone makes it and it's all about the enjoyment."

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A young Mark Hunter pictured with his idol Sir Steve Redgrave
A young Mark Hunter pictured with his idol Sir Steve Redgrave

Even more so if the parent turns out to be an all-encompassing coach and father. But Terry was quick to hand his son to another coach to continue his journey. "I've seen it in grassroots sport where parents don't want to let go," admits Hunter. 

"Having a parent as a coach is about having that detachment at home. Sometimes that can be destructive to families. Dad picked the right moment. It was hard but I thank him massively for that."

Progressing to the GB senior team in 2001, Hunter switched from an eight to a four ahead of the Athens Olympics, the crew finishing last at the 2004 Games. Three years on, he partnered up with single sculls world champion Zac Purchase. 

The pair first rowed out on a freezing January morning with ice hanging off the boat and knew instantly that "something special was in the making" ahead of the heat of the Beijing Olympics.

No GB boat had ever won the lightweight doubles Olympic gold, but Hunter had the knowledge, while Purchase was young and fearless, with no scars and without the torture of coming last in an Olympics.

"I learnt that a pair is made in heaven over the years," says Terry. "In Mark and Zac you had two athletes who blended. It was a wonderful thing to look at."

Heading into Olympic year, Hunter and Purchase still had to prove themselves. Needing to go from third in the world to first, they had to find three seconds in speed. 

The pair and their coach Darren Whiter narrowed every one of their 800-odd training sessions down to small marginal gains in fractions of seconds.

Terry, left, survived a heart attack on the river in 1997
Terry, right, survived a heart attack on the river in 1997.
Mark celebrates 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing with his mum and dad and brother Ross
Mark celebrates 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing with his mum and dad and brother Ross.

At a World Cup regatta they took on Denmark's double world champions, unbeaten over three years, in a "fist fight" to the line. The pair looked across at their rivals and knew the Danes' "invincibility bubble" had burst. 

After winning the event, Purchase was in tears and told his teammate that he believed Olympic gold was in the offing. Attention now shifted from the hunters becoming the hunted.

Six weeks later in Beijing, Terry says "tears were there before the race was over" in the Olympic final, such was the pair's dominance. 

"I've only ever felt like that with my children. I've had successes and failures with my other athletes but it's your own flesh and blood who can reduce you to tears like that." His drained son later sat in his room and thought, "How the hell did Steve Redgrave do this five times?"

Britain's Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter celebrate on the podium during the medals ceremony for the lightweight men's double sculls at the Shunyi Rowing and Canoeing Park in Beijing  on August 17, 2008.  Britain won gold, Greece silver and Denmark bronze.   AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo by Fred DUFOUR / AFP) (Photo by FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)
Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase celebrate during the medals ceremony for the lightweight men's double sculls at the Shunyi Rowing and Canoeing Park in Beijing after winning gold. (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)

Hunter spent the following year coaching in California before being lured back with Purchase ahead of London 2012. 

He knew the magnitude of competing in his own backyard, but ultimately it left the East End boy with the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ in three contrasting Olympic experiences. "Coming last is the bad, the good is winning and the ugly is London," says Hunter.

On paper they were favourites as Olympic record holders and double world champions, but their form was erratic heading into the event. Backs to the wall, they made the final but despite the Eton Dorney roar, couldn't scrape past their Danish rivals in an epic six-minute, pressure cauldron tussle. 

Dealing with a silver lining, says Hunter, took a long time to recover from after losing by 0.61 seconds, being helped out of the boat by Redgrave and saying in a TV interview that he had "let everybody down".

Watch Mark Hunter and Zak Purchase’s emotional interview after silver in 2012

Terry saw it differently. "In winning gold and silver at an Olympics," he says, "I hoped Mark had in his possession two things that were going to carry him through his life and open doors.

"I had this fear that Mark might not make it and that he wasn't good enough. But it went the other way and they were in awe of him in the end. It was a case of giving him as many sports as possible, support him and it would be a bonus if he became exceptionally good."

The family's tight bonds have also only grown stronger over the years, the relationship never wavering. 

"When people talk about idols or role models, mum and dad were that as a kid," says Mark. 

"As a parent, I now understand. I don't know how they did what they did to get us round every activity. All their time was committed to us and my family is such an important part of my upbringing because of it."

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