QUEENSLAND, Australia ● When Australian rower Duncan Free was lying on a Gold Coast road with a shattered femur after being hit by a car less than a year ago, it looked like his dreams of competing in a fifth Olympics were over.
Remarkably, the 38-year-old battled his way back from that injury, albeit without a 2.6cm chunk of his leg, and was looking set to compete for a second Olympic gold medal in London.
Misfortune struck again in February, however, when he sustained a rib fracture and that deprived him of a place in Australia’s “priority” coxless fours boat, relegating him to a fight for a seat in Australia’s pairs boat for London.
The gritty Queenslander clearly likes nothing better than a scrap and this week he will be taking that competitive attitude to the second leg of the World Cup in Switzerland, looking to prove that he is worthy of a place in London.
“That’s the plan, I like to upset people, I like to prove people wrong,” he told Reuters in an interview at Australia’s final team workout before they set off for Europe.
“You know, from the surgeon saying that ‘I don’t think you’ll make it next year’, it’s been quite a turnaround.”
Free, who won gold in the pairs with Drew Ginn in Beijing four years ago, ran his hand over his shaven head as he recalled the road accident that looked to have put an almost insuperable obstacle in his path to London.
“There were four of us out training on the bikes and this car with a trailer cut in front of us and I got cleaned up,” he recalled.
“Unfortunately for me I hit the trailer square on and flew three metres into the air and seven metres up and over it.
“I smashed all the top half of my femur, there were 15 to 20 breaks and fractures and they had to put pins in, rods in, bolts, screws and even a bit of titanium cable tie by the looks of things,” he laughed.
“I have 2.6 cm shorter leg which makes it quite challenging to walk but I was very, very determined to get back as quickly as I could.”
There were some “tough times” but he got through it with the help of his family, friends, the surgeon and other members of his support team.
“You can start to doubt yourself when you’re on crutches for so long, you can’t walk and you can’t lift your leg up when you’re lying on a bed and you are thinking to yourself, ‘Is this ever going to heal?’,” he said, raising the leg of his shorts to reveal the scar on his right leg.
He startled the doctors by getting back in the boat many months before they thought he would, however, and was soon “tracking along” pretty well.
“I thought this was going to be one of the best seasons ever even after the broken leg,” he said.
“And yes, I was pencilled in to be in the four, the priority boat, and when I got the rib fracture, it set things back so they didn’t and couldn’t name me in the four.
“It was very disappointing at the time so I thought ‘What’s the next option? get over it, get on with it’ and here I am back in the boat and not going too bad but knowing that I, again, have a long way to go.”
Free will race with either Fergus Pragnell or Tom Larkins at this week’s Lucerne World Cup with compatriots James Marburg and Brodie Buckland in another pair’s boat.
The results will be monitored and Rowing Australia will ultimately make a decision as to who will occupy the seats in London.
“Duncan has had a really tough ride for the last 12 months and I’ve got nothing but respect for what he’s done to this point,” Rowing Australia high performance director Andrew Matheson told Reuters.
“He’s in a really tough tussle for some seats now and the guys that he’s trying to push out are going particularly well. It’s going to be a really tough call for us (but) if gets a fairytale ending, that would be great too.”
For Free, that fairytale ending would not just be to get to London but to add to his Beijing gold and the bronze medal he won in quadruple sculls at his first Olympics in 1996.
“If that all goes ahead, that’ll be good because that’s the title I’m defending from Beijing,” he said.
“Realistically, get in there, get to the finals and get into the medals would be pretty good. The medals are wide open.”