James Cracknell wasn't the hero of his marriage – his wife Beverley was

James Cracknell poses with his medal
Double Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell, who rowed Cambridge to victory on Sunday Credit:  ANDREW BOYERS/REUTERS

Behind every successful man, there’s a fed-up woman. When the double Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell was in the middle of one of his many heroic escapades – maybe it was rowing the Atlantic, all 2,937 miles of it, with Ben Fogle, or perhaps it was that race to the South Pole – his long-suffering wife Beverley commented drily on the lengths men would go to “to avoid Christmas shopping”.

My, how we laughed! Wives and mothers everywhere, even ones not married to real-life superheroes, tautened a piece of tinsel into a ligature and chuckled bitterly at Beverley’s deceptively light-hearted jibe.

We knew that the busy sports radio and TV presenter was seething. In that way women do seethe when the male of the species is out garnering plaudits while Her Indoors is left holding the baby.

There is no known instance of a mother who has been woken at 5am by a teething toddler, and who battles on through a blizzard of exhaustion to survive a purgatorial afternoon in a soft-play centre, making the BBC headlines for her remarkable feats of endurance. Or, for that matter, winning an OBE for “services to male selfishness”.

When her golden husband finally hung up his oars, Beverley Turner was hopeful that their life might become a bit more normal. There was even talk of James being a house-husband while Beverley pursued her career. Instead, he announced he was taking part in a transatlantic race.

James and his wife Beverley were together for 17 years, before announcing their separation a week before the race Credit:  Jon Furniss/ WireImage

While she knew better than to try and stop James (“pity the person who stands in his way”), Beverley did not support a decision that left her behind for 49 days “with a two-year-old he barely knew”.

When I met Beverley at a Telegraph party a few years later, she was every bit as fabulous, frank and funny as I’d imagined. Afterwards, I found myself musing on what it was really like to be her. “Long-suffering wife” – that tag we bolt on to any woman married to an impossible or unavailable man – has become drained of meaning, as clichés are.

And drained of any actual pain, or suffering, either, which is quite convenient because, when we are cheering on men like Cracknell for their extraordinary physical exploits, we don’t want really to think of the emotional toll they take on their families.

The tension between what Turner calls her “Adventurer/ Madman” and the wife who stuck by him, even after a personality altering brain injury nine years ago, eventually exploded into the headlines this week after 46-year-old James Cracknell became the oldest winner of the Cambridge vs Oxford Boat Race.

As a Light Blue supporter, I had been delighted to hear that we would have Cracknell’s experience and iron-clad determination adding lustre to our crew. As a woman, I found myself wondering how on earth Beverley was expected to cope with three kids under 15 while her husband became a student again, taking an MPhil degree at Cambridge and putting in crazy hours on the river.

The short answer is she wasn’t. A week before the race, the Cracknells issued a joint statement announcing that they had “quietly separated” last year, after 17 years of marriage. Beverley and the children watched the race at a friend’s house. “The kids needed to see that this enormous family sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain,” wrote Beverley pointedly in a brilliant, blazingly honest account of the marriage’s collapse.

James, she said, had spoken publicly about this latest achievement, “demonstrating to his children that you can do anything you set your mind to… He won’t mind me admitting I consider that b-------. I wouldn’t want my children to view such an exit from familial responsibilities as something to aspire to.” Oooff! Put that in your racing eight and smoke it!

Some critics have objected to Beverley stealing Cracknell’s thunder and taking the shine off his historic achievement. I see her reaction as a brave and refreshing counterpoint to the laudatory coverage he attracted.

Heroes are rarely in the best psychological health. Turner is a feminist who has had to contend with “the dark, internal restlessness” that drove her partner on when a lesser man – actually, make that a kinder, better father – would have stuck around to put the kids to bed.

News of the Cracknells’ separation broke as a welcome new divorce law was announced which will end the need to find a “guilty” party in a failing marriage. A couples counsellor I know was delighted and relieved.

“No longer will divorcing couples have to come up with a set of exaggerated or fictitious reasons why they cannot reasonably be expected to continue living with their spouse,” she said, “when the truth is they have simply come to the end of the road. How can couples co-parent effectively under a shroud of blame?”

We should count ourselves lucky that a civilised parting of the ways is now possible. For centuries, women married to men like James Cracknell were “long-suffering” because they didn’t have any choice but to suffer, usually in silence, which made them depressed and had a corrosive effect on family happiness.

Beverley Turner decided that she didn’t want to be “ground down” any longer by her husband’s unappeasable hunger for achievement.

Good for her. With great eloquence, she spoke for all those wives who live with other halves who are chained to the computer or the rowing machine. There are other achievements in life which, although less celebrated, are equally heroic, maybe even more so.

They also serve who only stand and wait.