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Joachim Sutton won a bronze medal in rowing at the Tokyo Olympics. Now he is working on his master's thesis in anthropology. And thinking: should he put everything on hold again and go for gold in three years time? Or should he give up rowing altogether?
Students colourfully dressed up as tutors for intro week are in the courtyard of the old municipal hospital at the CSS campus. They are putting up banners in strategic locations, chucking strips of confetti up into the trees and drawing with chalk on the ground.
It is intro week at the University of Copenhagen, and the first-year students’ tutors are in the process of preparing the campus to welcome the freshmen.
In the middle of all of this is a medal winner from the Tokyo Olympics.
It is one of the first occasions that Joachim Sutton sees some kind of social life pop up at the University of Copenhagen. He started university with four years at Berkeley in California, and after returning to Denmark to take a master’s degree in anthropology, he has spent most of his time far away from campus.
He has only been to half the lectures. He dropped out of his study group. And he has never been to a Friday bar. He doesn’t even know where the bar is. In the last six months, he has been on leave from his study programme.
All to do one thing: To row. To leave everything out there on Bagsværd Lake north of Copenhagen, day after day, with one goal: Metal in Tokyo.
It is a tough, but also incredibly easy life to have one goal that is so specifically defined.
And on 29 July, under the Japanese morning sun and while Denmark slept, his dream became reality. Together with his rowing partner Frederic Vystavel, Joachim Sutton won the bronze in the coxless pair, and was able to see the Danish flag from the third highest step of the podium.
»It’s really weird to have this dream for as long as I have had, and then to see it come true. Especially over the last six years, this is something that I’ve been thinking about and working on every day. There are so many things that can go wrong, so many things you can screw up. When you succeed, it gives you incredible peace of mind. I can’t describe it any differently,« says Joachim Sutton.
It’s hard to recognise him outside the boat. The dark sunglasses and the red-white tricot are all packed away, and he hides his long, muscular, torso behind a plain black T-shirt. He looks younger than in the boat, and his gaze is more sensitive than I had imagined it would be behind the sunglasses.
He turned up at 7.30 am at the university, long before the shouting tutors, to go through the reading material as preparation for the thesis he has to hand in this upcoming winter.
This is something completely different from the ordeals of Tokyo. But it is much more than that. In the wake of the greatest triumph of his career, Joachim Sutton is at a crossroads: he has to decide what he wants to spend the next few years of his life on.
Should he go for the Olympic gold medal in Paris in 2024?
Or should he completely drop the rowing, and make a career for himself as an anthropology graduate?
He will first have to get a handle on the emotions that took over after he was awarded his medal.
Now, 8,600 kilometres away from Tokyo, it is not only the satisfaction his achievement that lives on in Joachim Sutton. But also the emptiness.
»It is a tough, but also an incredibly easy life, to just have one purpose in life that is so specifically defined. Your daily life is black and white. You quickly get a response when you do something that does not live up to your standards. So when you lose this, there is a void. You get a bit depressed. It’s like … yes, what the hell am I going to do now?«
No one can doubt that it is a gruelling ordeal to aim for an Olympic medal in such a physically demanding sport as rowing. You don’t just have to be good. You have to be the best in the world. And you have to leave every ounce of energy out there on the water every day.
»90 percent of the time, you want to stop and just get out of the boat,« says Joachim Sutton.
You think: What the hell am I doing here?
But he also loves being in this state. What he calls ‘kill mode’.
The day before he was to row the finals in Tokyo, he sat in his hotel room in the Olympic Village and listened to dark instrumental music as he looked out at the five iconic rings and the skyline of the Japanese metropolis. He thought about the finals, what was at stake, what he was supposed to do, and he mentally prepared to fight his competitors.
»I thought: I wish that the finals could be postponed, so that I could stay one more day in this mode.«
When he talks about it, the emotions, the adrenaline, comes back to him. He extends his right arm over the table and looks at his hand. He is visibly trembling.
»It’s like when your alarm goes off. Ding!,« he exclaims and clicks his fingers. »You are on.«
»It’s a really cool place to be, but when you don’t have this any more, you’re a bit like a dog with no scent to follow.«
When you commit to elite sport like Joachim Sutton has done, there is no time for much else. In the US, it was easier to immerse yourself in your studies in parallel with your career, because the training was integrated into the university, and social life came on its own because all students lived on campus.
At the University of Copenhagen, it has been harder for the rower to strike a balance between the two worlds. The two systems are completely separate. The university doesn’t care whether you have to row in the morning and in the afternoon out on Bagsværd lake, and the rowing club doesn’t care whether he has to attend lectures.
When his life was at its most hectic, he was training at 6 am, working in a consultancy company from 9 am to 5 pm, training again in the evening before being at home at 8 pm and then trying to find motivation to open a textbook.
»The sport comes before uni – always. So there are lectures you miss, group work and feedback from other students that you don’t get. In the long-term, it negatively affects your grades, the learning process, and the whole studying experience. It’s pure survival.«
»I want to do well in everything I do – in all aspects of my life – so it is, of course, difficult to accept this.«
I did the best I could, but I still think: Was this, it?
It also worried you while you were preparing for the Tokyo games?
»Yes it did. I think most athletes who get this far are extremely conscientious. Not so much towards their university or their sport, but towards themselves. I make high demands upon myself, and when I don’t meet them, I get frustrated.«
Despite this frustration, have you been able to take pleasure in your subject while you have been here?
»It has been difficult, I think.«
He hesitates a bit.
»University is not fun if you don’t make an effort, and it’s not fun to come to a lecture if you only come every other week and don’t understand what’s going on. Right now, I have to get back to it again. And this may not be the coolest thing in the world right now, but as soon as this happens, I’m convinced that it will get exciting again for me.«
He describes his relationship with the University of Copenhagen as a transactional one. He turns up at lectures, at least some of them, and submits his assignments. But this is where the commitment stops.
That’s why he doesn’t know what the culture is like at university, like he knew at Berkeley. And he probably won’t be able to find out in his last semester.
»It’s a shame, because I would like to have a large network in Denmark, also from my time at university. But I feel as if I have lost this race.«
This does not prevent him from looking for a good exit from his university however.
You get the feeling that he attacks his thesis-writing a bit like a rowing race. With iron-hard discipline and tough requirements upon his own effort. He turns up early and leaves late from the reading room, and he wants to give in a product that he can be proud of.
Or as he puts it: »I want to perform at the level that I want to perform on.«
He does not see himself as only, and primarily, an athlete. He has other interests outside the boat, he says, and he longs to cultivate them.
His father has a PhD In anthropology, but that was not why he chose this course of study. He was always fascinated by other worldviews and cultures, and when he did fieldwork in companies and was involved in projects as a consultant, his subject offered him pure delight.
This is the person he wants to refind while on a break from the rowing.
»I like to use my head,« he says.
»You can do many things in life, and I want to do many things. I have a lot of interests. And just like I would like to be at the top of my sport, I would also like to have a career where I have some kind of impact and be really good at what I do.«
Most people probably think that Joachim Sutton’s next goal must be obvious: He should exchange his bronze medal for a medal of higher value in three years time at the Paris Olympic Games.
But this is not the obvious choice for the rower himself:
»The Olympics and sports in general are something that come quickly and then quickly disappear again. There are not that many years where you can do it. And things are a bit ephemeral when you, the day after you have achieved the very best, feel a bit empty inside. I would also like to do something that is cool and fruitful for a long time, because with elite sport there is not much room for anything else. It is a really tough life if there is to be room for study and work.«
Are you considering whether you should be at the Olympic Games at all in three years’ time?
»Yes. I do consider it. Because we can, of course, win. But apart from this I’ve achieved the very best in the sport. I am young and have not peaked yet… but it’s a rather strange sensation. I did the best I could, but I still think: Was this, it?«
Joachim Sutton is in no hurry to make this decision about his future, he says. He will take it at some point within the next six months, while he is working on his thesis.
But he is sure that there is no middle ground. Either he goes for Olympic gold in 2024. Not silver, not bronze. Gold. Or he gives up rowing.
»If I go into it again in three years time without winning gold, it is almost… I will almost feel that it was a defeat, I think. But this means that I have to put my life on complete standby for three years,« says Joachim Sutton.
»If I decide to do this, I have to put everything aside: Friends, partner, job and university. And it would really be a tough life.«
On the other hand, it may prove impossible to tame the beast that hungers for getting back on the water and wiping out your opponents.
He may not be able to do without the kick he gets from the biggest competitions, he says.
»I simply love to race. This is a legal way of fighting. When you gone through a race and performed well and been true to yourself and have not taken any easy ways out… This is a huge drug. I would miss this. And I find it hard to see where I would otherwise get it.«
»So I also think about that. The experiences you get there, it’s crazy. It is something else.«
The final decision? It will come on its own, he says:
»I don’t have to think about it too much. I am doing my job right now. It is my thesis. And I might have to find a new job as well. Afterwards, what I need to do, this will be made clear to me.«