It’s September 2010 and I’m leaving the Banner Good Samaritan hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, after five weeks watching my husband, the double Olympic gold medallist oarsman James Cracknell, recover from a near-fatal brain injury. A kindly neurologist shakes my hand and looks me straight in the eye. “Don’t let him make any decisions,” he says. “He’ll live on Planet James for a while.”
I watch the desert heat rise from the car bonnet, wondering what the hell he means by “a while” and how can I stop a man with a preternaturally iron will from doing anything that he sets his mind to?
Fast-forward eight and a half years and that unabated determination propelled my 46-year-old, soon to be ex-husband into the Cambridge eight that was triumphant against Oxford yesterday. The significant interest around James’s inclusion as the oldest man to row in the event’s history coincided with news of our separation reaching the press.
Cracknell, right, with Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave after taking gold in Sydney
Cracknell, right, with Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave after taking gold in Sydney
As journalists and broadcasters in our own rights, we have always been open and honest over the past 20 years about the vicissitudes of a relationship between a sportsman and a talk-radio host and feminist. Ours was — and remains — a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration. Returning to university to study full-time at 46 and getting into a boat alongside blokes 25 years younger may have been an absolute dereliction of parenting and marital duty, but even I can admit that it’s nothing short of super-bloody-human.
James was already a national hero in 2000, when we met soon after he won his first Olympic gold alongside Steve Redgrave, who was bagging his fifth. On our first date the couple at the next table paid our bill as a thank-you to James. I was a fledgling TV presenter and we ended up as team-mates on the celebrity special of a Channel 5 game show, The Desert Forges, during which we were literally chained together under a Bedouin tent in the Jordanian desert and forced to make conversation. James was an enigma: shy and introverted, a handsome, privately educated middle-class boy. However, the dark internal restlessness that drives all overachievers to success was already evident.
I have since spent many evenings in the company of multiple Olympic medallists and it’s obvious to me that such ambitions rarely arise from a healthy psychological place. Having to endure physical and emotional torture to prove oneself on a global stage starts life as a blessing, but its inescapability is often a curse. How can these characters ever be truly happy when nothing but external validation drives them on? When the crowds stop cheering, what is left?
James was at the peak of his physical fitness when the accident occurred at dawn on July 20, 2010. He had recently finished 12th in the brutal Marathon des Sables extreme running event, the highest-placed Brit in its history. Life was good. Our son, Croyde, was 6, our daughter Kiki was 15 months old and we had hopes of another child.
As self-employed freelancers we were lucky to be financially stable and I had written a novel while retraining as a psychotherapist. In the run-up to the London Olympics, the Discovery Channel commissioned a TV series following James as he rowed, ran, cycled and swam from Los Angeles to the Statue of Liberty. Huge maps of the US were rolled out on our kitchen table and James was instrumental in designing the quickest route. He planned to go coast to coast under his own steam in under 20 days. He was the only man in the world who had the necessary sporting skills to achieve this feat.
I flew out to greet him on day five as he hobbled out of Death Valley in Nevada, having run a triple marathon in 125C heat on an already broken foot. The only reason I had agreed to him undertaking such a potentially perilous challenge on open roads was the promise from the TV channel that there would be “brightly lit safety vehicles in front and behind him at all times”. Without that, I would never have given my consent. Often, I’d be asked if I worried about him traversing ice fields or rowing oceans. “No,” I’d reply. “Bicycles versus cars worries me much, much more.”
Turner and Cracknell on their wedding day in 2002Turner and Cracknell on their wedding day in 2002
So my worst nightmare was actualised in a phone call received at 6am in a Las Vegas hotel room as I prepared to fly home. James had been “in a crash . . . with a truck . . . helicoptered to the hospital . . .” Alone — and without knowing if he’d be alive or dead by the time I landed — I flew to Phoenix where I arrived to find an accident and emergency waiting room full of TV executives shitting themselves about being sued.
Unable to keep pace in their vehicles, the crew were asleep when James had continued his quest along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway accompanied only by a physiotherapist in a nearby car. The wing mirror of a massive yellow petrol-tanker had swiped James’s bike helmet at 60mph, causing a “contrecoup” injury. Although the impact was from the rear, it had smashed his frontal lobes on to his skull or, as one doctor put it: “He rang his own bell.” It was a tribute to his immense skeletomuscular strength that James hadn’t sustained any other structural damage.
As he lay in a coma, doctors warned me that there would be personality changes: impulsiveness, a lack of inhibition, memory loss, and forward-planning and time-keeping difficulties. They talked of an inability to accurately read or show emotion; poor anger management; laughing or crying out of context; inappropriate or lewd behaviour; poor judgment; poor concentration; an inability to sit still; irascibility and arguing. He would, they said, “wear concrete shoes” and “perseverate” or “get hooked” on certain issues. They basically made it sound as if I would be married to a drunk teenager. And they were right.
Ten days later, as he emerged, groggy and disorientated from an induced coma, with 20 staples down the back of his skull, I discovered I was pregnant with our third child, but I couldn’t tell him for several weeks. When I did, a flash of his old humour emerged. “How long was I out for?” he asked. “Is it mine?”
The subsequent three years were the worst. The next three were, against all predictions, much better and the past two have been mainly exhausting and sad. Of course, James exceeded all expectations in terms of his recovery and to most people, most days, he is perfectly “normal”. Last October was our 16th wedding anniversary and in a rare moment of honest insight James pointed out that I’d had “one husband for the first eight years and a different one for the next”.
There is a process of bereavement that the family of acquired brain injury survivors must endure. Experts talk of our “ambiguous loss”. It’s the perfect phrase. Articulating what has gone (when the person is beside you) can be like catching snowflakes: they slip through your fingers or melt before you can see them clearly. And as with all grief, anger and sadness get too comfortable in your heart. All too often communication felt as though we were talking to each other through a Perspex box. A formerly quiet man, he couldn’t stop talking, but certainly stopped listening. I had my silent screams in the shower so the children wouldn’t hear. Life goes on. Kids need feeding and taking to swimming club. Motherhood bestows on us an immense resilience.
After a brain injury a couple’s dynamic typically becomes one of parent and child: complete with nagging, resistance, bickering, resentment and sulking. The “adult” wants to nurture and protect the “child” who they have almost lost once. Yet it’s crushing and stultifying for the survivor who just wants their independence.
When James packed up his car and drove off to Cambridge on September 1, having enrolled in an MPhil in human evolution, while I continued drying the pots, the appropriateness of this denouement was not lost on me. And like most teenagers he was probably glad to see the back of the woman who seemed to be constantly making demands on him that he wasn’t prepared to meet.
When I told a friend that James was off to Cambridge, he said: “You never know, you might miss him.” Without blinking, I replied, “But I’ve missed him for eight years,” and realised that I had.
I was sure he would fail. It was ludicrous to think he could regain the strength and stamina required to sit alongside 20-year-old rowers, but if there is one thing that has not changed since 2010 it’s James’s determination to prove people wrong.
I watched yesterday’s Boat Race on the TV at a friend’s house with the kids. Personally, I’d have preferred to be lying under a tree with a glass of rosé and a good book, but it was important to the children that we watched. This endeavour had taken their daddy away from home for eight solid months (with the preceding five spent in a distracted haze with his eyes on the prize). The kids needed to see that this enormous family sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain.
James has spoken publicly about this latest feat, demonstrating to his children that you can do anything you set your mind to. He won’t mind me admitting that I consider that to be bollocks — I wouldn’t want my children to view such an exit from familial responsibilities as something to aspire to.
By his own admission, James completely underestimated the commitment that going back to university to study a master’s degree and rowing full-time would involve. The family tried to tell him. We pressed for answers on teaching hours, rowing schedules and the possibility of weekends at home. But real-life commitments were too pesky — they risked getting in the way of his ambition. And beneath the insanity of taking on such a lifestyle change was certainly a desire to financially provide for his family in the longer term.
Twelve months ago, a little lost and rudderless, he agreed to a reality TV appearance on Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls. The calmness that descended on the house during those six weeks was illuminating for me. Yes, single-parenting is incredibly hard, but the house was oddly more oxygenated for all of us.
On James’s return, he instantly started to apply for university courses, but his behaviour had oddly deteriorated and I marched him back to the neuropsychologist. We have had countless therapy sessions over the years, but I needed to understand what the heck was going on this time. “Tunnel vision,” the doctor told us. “Frontal-lobe injury makes you more of yourself.”
It was vindicating to hear. I wasn’t going mad: this behaviour was “unusual”. Yet it wasn’t entirely unprecedented. He had a little form in this area. When James spent 50 days rowing across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle in 2005, he failed to discuss his plans with me in any detail despite us having a two-year-old son.
The difference in 2018 was whether I could reasonably live with these exhausting, self-centred pursuits for the rest of my life. I prefer the journey to the destination: good wine and food; lively conversations with friends beside a beautiful view. James is all about the target: sod the picnic, where are we going next and how quickly can we get there?
Was it fair on the children to be in a household where horns were constantly locked in a battle of wills? We were setting a dreadful example of married life. Of course, children can witness disagreement, but they must also see compromise, clear communication, conflict resolution, forgiveness, kindness, love, affection and a lot of laughter. We were displaying none of the above. Acquired brain injury is contagious — the whole family catches it and soon everyone is snapping, sighing, arguing and slamming doors.
Perhaps this sounds like any long-term relationship in which couples grow tired of each other, but the problem with brain injury is that the supporting partner is never entirely sure what can be attributed to the condition and what is just your partner being a dick. We are all dicks from time to time and marriage is the toughest challenge any of us face.
For good or bad, my generation of women aren’t quite so keen to self-abnegate in the manner of our forebears. My father talked to me recently about “pebbles on the beach that rub together over the years until the corners are knocked off and they sit smoothly together”. It’s an image with some value. “But, Dad,” I said, “that literally means being ground down. And I can’t do that.”
My dark and occasionally inappropriate humour has helped, but it also gave me an armour to hide behind that I probably should have cast off sooner, especially with family. Wishing to protect them from the reality behind closed doors — and genuinely optimistic that things would improve — I’d bat away concern with an eye-roll and a wise-cracking one-liner.
My outlook was underpinned with a positivity and very northern get-up-and-get-on attitude that my parents instilled within me. However, my advice to others in this situation would be to drop your guard. Be vulnerable. Don’t try to do it all. It’s too lonely. Make others listen, even when they’re telling you the injured person seems A-OK to them. Shout more loudly if nobody is hearing you. Bang your fists at medics and demand to get the best support. The aftercare the NHS provides for the brain-injured is disgraceful. And even if the situation is ultimately hopeless, it helps if you aren’t carrying the load alone. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well it takes a whole city to support a brain-injury survivor and their family.
Of course, I would go insane with anger if I attributed the end of our marriage solely to the personality changes that occurred after the accident. That’s too simplistic. It wasn’t perfect before. Being married to an extremely driven man can be exciting and interesting (and certainly pays the bills), but as any woman will admit, there comes a time when you are sick of waking up alone on holiday because these alpha males are already at the laptop or on the rowing machine.
Twice we went to Barbados and James spent three hours a day on the running machine inside the hotel gym. Most women want a partner to drink buck’s fizz with on the beach while the kids are being taught to surf. We don’t want a man who’s fitting in gym sessions around kids’ club hours. We want somebody to have fun with. James’s GB coach, Jürgen Grobler, had a mantra, “rest is rust”, which Crackers seemingly bought into completely.
It wasn’t all bad. Even on his worst days James was funny and he would always be up early, bringing me tea. We’d joke that I loved him more between 7am and 7.10am than at any other time in the day. When he went away for Celebrity Island I bought a 1970s-style, bedside teasmade. He laughed and said: “If that’s got better conversation than me, I’m f***ed.” Its conversation isn’t better, but its tea isn’t bad and it certainly doesn’t get as irritated with me.
Unusually, there is no animosity. James is still welcome at our home any time and our families remain as close as ever. We even spent Christmas together even though we were officially separated. Almost nothing has changed for the children and we will work hard to keep it that way. Yet there will always be another challenge, another reason to be away from family life. That American neurologist was right about the existence of Planet James. It’s an exhilarating, dizzying place to be. And it’s been one hell of a ride. But I’m ready to get off. And I wish JC all the luck in the universe as he jets off into the unknown.