A couple of weeks ago on the cool, green waters of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, four men made history.
The silver medal won by Britain’s men’s quadruple sculls was the best-ever performance by this boat at international level.
Sitting in the bow seat of the quad in Lucerne was Tom Solesbury. But for his decision to start rowing while studying at Warwick University Solesbury would now be beavering away as a solicitor. Instead, he is aiming for glory at next year’s Olympic Games.
Solesbury used to play rugby at school and says he had hoped to carry on with the sport during his degree. But the relatively light training and competition schedule of the rugby team took him towards rowing.
“I thought I’d give it a go,” he says, explaining that his older brother had rowed a bit. “We were terrible, but I just got hooked and enjoyed it.”
Indeed, Solesbury’s first shots at success on the water were singularly unsuccessful, and he reached no higher level than a single round at Henley Royal Regatta.
Despite this inauspicious start Solesbury decided to keep up with rowing when he moved to London for his LPC at the College of Law. He joined Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club in Chiswick and slowly but steadily improved.
By the time Solesbury was working through a training contract at Nicholson Graham & Jones (now merged into K&L Gates) he was beginning to think seriously about taking the sport further.
Solesbury gives credit to his coach, Richard Tinkler, for encouraging him to begin trialling for the British team.
“He thought I was rowing well despite doing badly; he was a big influence on what I did,” Solesbury explains. “I trialled for a few years and didn’t set the world on fire.”
For a couple of years Solesbury juggled his developing legal career with his developing rowing skills, qualifying into Nicholson Graham & Jones’s employment team in the process.
As his rowing improved and he was selected for the British team Solesbury had to cut his hours in the office, finally working just three afternoons a week before being named as a member of the men’s eight for the 2006 World Rowing Championships. He praises his firm for supporting him, but says both sides realised the situation could not continue.
“When you’ve got to deal with clients and you’re only there three afternoons a week, you’re not there when you’re needed,” he admits.
Solesbury made the British team for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the men’s coxless pair, alongside Robin Bourne-Taylor. The duo had spent little time together and finished a disappointing 13th.
Confessing to finding the Olympic experience dispiriting, Solesbury says a year spent studying for an MSc in management research at the University of Oxford – and winning the Boat Race against Cambridge – was what revived his love of rowing.
However, things took a turn for the worse last year when a serious shoulder injury turned into a spinal problem that needed surgery. On returning to training in November 2010 Solesbury realised that sweep rowing with one oar was no longer an option. So he switched to sculling, the discipline involving two oars, and won himself a seat in the quad after finishing fourth at final trials.
Since then the boat has been improving in leaps and bounds. Solesbury and his crewmates Stephen Rowbotham, Sam Townsend and Bill Lucas beat the Croatian world champions at Henley in July and followed that up with the silver medal in Lucerne.
Solesbury now has his sights firmly fixed on the World Championships in Slovenia at the end of August and London 2012. But he thinks the law will beckon him back after the Olympics.
“Carrying on rowing isn’t an option; my shoulder’s not going to hold up for the next four years,” says Solesbury. “I definitely want to go back to being a solicitor.”
Solesbury believes employment law will tempt him back. He explains that he likes the client contact side of things and to feel that the work is making a difference.
Although he concedes that the years spent rowing will have dented his knowledge of the law, Solesbury hopes they will have brought him other valuable skills.
“There’s a unique pressure to being an elite sportsman,” he explains. “It has made me a lot more confident in my abilities. The stuff we have to go through in training, and pushing my body to the absolute limit, will give me something that others might not have.”
With any luck, Solesbury will also bring an Olympic medal to the firm he ends up working in when he finally lays down his blades next year.