When photos of James Cracknell emerged last week of him kissing his new, blonde – and younger – girlfriend just weeks after his divorce from his wife of 17 years, critics were quick to claim he was displaying all the classic signs of a midlife crisis.
But today, in a searingly honest interview, the double Olympic gold medalist and star of the forthcoming series of Strictly Come Dancing insists the truth is much more complex.
The 47-year-old reveals how a devastating brain injury, which left him in a coma for five days, changed his personality and left him and his wife Beverley Turner struggling to cope.
Their marriage, he insists, had been broken for some time before the couple announced their split in March this year. Their divorce was finalised in July.
‘I would have left me a long time before we split,’ the father of three admits. ‘I don’t think I would have stuck it with me as long as she did.
‘Bev had it really hard. She had one husband for the first eight years we were married and a very, very different one for the rest.
James Cracknell has opened up on his split from wife Beverley Turner in a searingly honest interview
Cracknell insists that his marriage had been broken for some time before the couple announced their split in March this year
‘Maybe I didn’t take it them [the marital problems] seriously enough, and there were improvements that I should have made. I thought that riding out the storm would be OK.
‘The reality is that when I started to think, ‘OK, I really need to do something here,’ Bev had already put so much effort in that she was understandably done.
‘It’s difficult when you’ve got three children. It’s difficult to find the time to talk and if you don’t open up and show how you’re really feeling – which is what I was doing – then it’s hard to live in that situation.’
Responsibility for the split, he says, was down to them both: ‘If I am totally honest and were to ask if either of us were the best versions of ourselves, I would say no.
‘I think I was a better version of me in the last year of our marriage and Bev was the best version of herself in the two years before, which wasn’t ideal.
‘We put in the effort, nobody more than her, but unfortunately they didn’t coincide. That was bad planning on my part.’
The couple’s nightmare began in 2010 when James was struck from behind by a lorry while cycling in Arizona while making a documentary for the Discovery Channel.
He fractured his skull, causing a brain injury and epilepsy which both remain with him. His personality was also dramatically altered, affecting his temperament, memory and concentration.
Responsibility for the split, he says, was down to them both: ‘If I am totally honest and were to ask if either of us were the best versions of ourselves, I would say no’
The rower, who won gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games in Sydney and Athens, says 80 per cent of those who suffer a brain injury get divorced but adds that he and Beverley ‘were determined not to be a statistic’.
That was until James’s decision in 2018 to become a mature student and enrol for an MPhil in Human Evolution at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. He also decided to try out for the Boat Race, and in April, became the oldest winner in its history when he took his place in the Cambridge crew.
There is no argument from James that Beverley – the mother of his three children, Croyde, 15, Kiki, ten, and eight-year-old Trixie – had the patience of a saint.
Even after he announced that he would be leaving his family for periods to study, she fought hard to save their marriage.
James says he believed going to university was an opportunity to ‘press the reset button’. ‘I knew we were in trouble,’ he says. ‘It was our last roll of the dice, to have time away [from each other], show that the reasons we liked each other at the start were still there.
There is no argument from James that Beverley had the patience of a saint. Catherine Tyldesley with James on stage at the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ launch show
‘But that didn’t happen because we separated so soon after me going [to Cambridge]. In reality, [the marriage] was already broken. I think the reality is that I needed to do something different.
‘I didn’t want to go and do a repeat of what I had done before in terms of the physical thing. I wanted to challenge myself mentally, but I underestimated just how broken it was for both of us, deep down.
‘I don’t think I had enough time to speak about it. I underestimated the amount of work [the course] would take academically, and I underestimated how interesting it was. I knew it was going to be a hard year, but I believed when I came back I’d be different, more of the person that Bev wanted, and that we needed a break from one another.
‘I think Bev was feeling ignored by me just living my own life, a little bit like a lodger, being there but not being present.
‘That wasn’t fair on her or the kids so I wanted to hit the reset button. But once you get too far down the stream, it’s hard to get back up again.
‘Then suddenly she was at home with three kids and I had gone. The reality is that you don’t want the children to hear rows. They are old enough to remember that so if we can part ways amicably, then that is the best way to do it.’
His new love is American financier Jordan Connell, believed to be in her early 30s, whom he met at Cambridge.
Last Saturday afternoon Strictly star James Cracknell, 47, confirmed his relationship with new girlfriend Jordan Connell
Photographs of the couple – published by The Mail on Sunday last weekend – showed them strolling and kissing passionately in a London park near James’s home.
The romance is all the more refreshing, he says, because Jordan had no idea who he was, or about the brain injury – or ‘hidden illness’ as he puts it – that torpedoed his marriage. The relationship appears serious and stable, so much so that Jordan is looking to relocate from New York to London in the coming months when her new boyfriend begins filming for Strictly.
‘It’s a definite new chapter in my life,’ he says. ‘It’s great with Jordan. I was lucky at Cambridge to have met lots of people I wouldn’t usually have met but I didn’t think for one second one would end up becoming my girlfriend.
It was amazing I did meet her, because I was so busy. I was up at 6am to go rowing every morning and the rest of my time I was buried in books. I have never read so much in my life.
‘What I found really refreshing is that because Jordan is from New York, she had no perception of rowing. She knew nothing about it.
‘She treated me as I was. She had no knowledge of me or anything I had been through over the past eight years – though she quickly learned I am rubbish at answering my phone.
‘It is really fun being with Jordan and I feel very lucky.
James Cracknell smooches with American financier Jordan Connell, whom he met while studying philosophy at Cambridge
‘But I feel even luckier to have three amazing children who have an amazing mum.’
James’s remarks about his marriage are still tinged with sadness.
‘Nobody is the same person after 17 years of marriage as they were on the first day,’ he says.
‘But if you live with it long enough and if one or both of you lose the belief that it is going to get better, then it’s terminal.
‘In the end you think: Do you want to get old with this person? Do you like the same things when you go on holiday?
‘For me, it has always been about the destination, not the journey. For Bev it’s the opposite.’
James says the accident dealt him and his ex wife ‘a bad hand’, but accepts that most relationships experience ‘bad hands’. The couple remain on good terms, with Beverley yesterday defending her ex husband against claims he is having a midlife crisis appearing on Strictly. The TV and radio presenter, 45, tweeted: ‘Blimey this is really unfair. He’s a driven man. Olympians can’t just sit still! He’ll always set goal after goal. He’s just an athlete doing a reality show.’
James says the accident dealt him and his ex wife ‘a bad hand’, but accepts that most relationships experience ‘bad hands’
James, meanwhile, says he has yet to work out what the new family dynamic will be. Since the split, he has moved into his own flat a few miles from his former marital home in Chiswick, West London, which is ‘near enough to be able to really help out’.
‘The most important thing is the bond with my kids,’ he says. ‘Working out what works.
‘It is very tough waking up and not seeing your children first thing in the morning, so we need to find that new normal, that new dynamic between us. Ten months was a long time not to be living at home all of the time. Since the accident, I’ve spent so much time there with the kids and that is never going to be the default setting again.
‘That’s really hard, but then you make every day that much better when you are with them.
‘That is something I have to learn over the next few months – though they are going to be so embarrassed about me [on Strictly]. I’m not sure how much they’ll want to see.’
James admits that the accident has left him with major trauma. For three years afterwards, he lived in a world that doctors described to Beverley as ‘Planet James’. It was a place where he would often forget details of the previous day and felt ‘people were talking to me really loudly and really slowly, like I was French’.
‘I was like, ‘I can understand you, but I won’t remember the conversation tomorrow,’ ‘ he said. ‘I wouldn’t remember meeting them the next day. I have a very good memory up to the accident, but I have no memory of it happening or weeks and months afterwards.
Photographs of the couple – published by The Mail on Sunday last weekend – showed them strolling and kissing passionately in a London park near James’s home
‘I didn’t have much recollection of 2010, really, but I do know I became more stubborn, more selfish, more dedicated. The two areas of the brain that got really impacted were the right side and the front. I didn’t have much social filter or much ability to plan and organise – high executive function – and that was part of the problem.
‘I was misunderstood. It is a misunderstood illness, a hidden illness that really affects people around you, and Bev definitely bore the brunt of it.’
James is now vice-president of Headway, a charity that supports sufferers of brain injuries and to which he has asked The Mail on Sunday to make a donation.
However, the accident doesn’t entirely seem to have put him off speed – he was recently spotted on a Honda VFR800F motorbike while leaving the BBC studios after the Strictly launch party in White City.
Ex England goalkeeper David James, TV’s Anneka Rice and former Coronation Street star Catherine Tyldesley are also among the line-up for the show, which begins next weekend.
‘I am a good dancer at certain times of the night but the show isn’t on then, it’s a bit early,’ he jokes.
His reason for signing up, he says, is to mark a new chapter in his life. He wants to learn how to let himself go, not to have the drive to win at all costs and – most importantly – to learn not to worry about showing weakness or vulnerability.
He says Beverley has been supportive about his decision to go on Strictly although ‘the kids were like, ‘No!’
Only time will tell if this Dad Dancer would have been better listening to his children.