Rowing duo enjoying gold rush

A year ago, James Thompson contemplated retiring from the sport in which he had invested his blood, sweat and tears but instead persevered to realise his life-long dream of winning a gold medal at the World Rowing Championship.

“One of the main reasons I came back was for a world champs medal. It was the only medal I didn’t have between international level, world cups, juniors, under-23s and Olympics,” Thompson said reflecting on his season.

“It is special to get the final one but it is amazing because, as I got it, I wanted another one so that is why we are back here again.”

Two years after winning an Olympic gold medal as members of the lightweight men’s fours, Thompson and John Smith made history by claiming South Africa’s first title in the lightweight double sculls.

“It was a dream come true. It is something you hope and train for then suddenly it happens and it is the best feeling in the world,” Smith said.

“With regards to training and the season, it was probably the worst we’ve had with injuries and bad luck. So, to turn it around in six weeks shows you that anything is possible.”

While Thompson has made a habit of winning medals at major regattas, Smith was overlooked as a junior. He then made history in 2010, winning South Africa’s first ever gold medal at the World Under-23 Championships in Belarus, partnering Lawrence Brittain in the men’s pairs.

The demands of rowing — early mornings, blistered hands, absence from family engagements, little or no financial gain — often outstrip the benefits.

For Smith and Thompson, it has always been about the love of the sport and etching their names in the annals of rowing history.

Only months after making the transition from sweep-oar rowing to sculling, the duo surprised the world rowing fraternity by claiming the lightweight title in a world best time of 6:05.36.

Their performance capped a superb world champs where rowing stalwart Shaun Keeling also formed a successful partnership with Vincent Breet to claim bronze in the men’s heavyweight pair.

The South African team qualified four Olympic-class boats into A-finals, while the men’s coxed pair of David Hunt and Lawrence Brittain, with Willie Morgan as coxswain, also finished in the top six of their category.

These results seemed impossible a few years ago but Thompson said a change in thinking and goal-setting, within South African rowing, had been 10 years in the making.

“The culture within Rowing SA in my first Junior World Championships in 2003 was to get top-six, that’s what okes would get high-fives for when you got home,” he said.

“That was the standard. You wanted to get your green blazer and you wanted to get a top six but the culture has slowly changed.”

Smith and Thompson agreed the belief within the South African elite rowing squad was growing thanks to their recent successes.

“In the squad there is a limit, and if you see someone get to that limit, everyone believes they can do it,” Smith said.

“You breed the belief — the whole time we tell each other, ‘you mustn’t put a cap on it, you must keep on pushing the boundaries’, because that is what it is going to take.

“With us leading from the front, everyone starts to believe, because ‘if they can do it, I can do it because I get the same training’.”

Paramount to the South African rowing team’s success is the architect and drill sergeant, coach Roger Barrow, nominated for the 2014 World Rowing Coach-of-the-Year award.

Both rowers conceded that Barrow’s uncompromising nature, and ability to produce the goods despite limited resources, made him one of the best coaches in the country.

“I do think he is the best coach in the country of any sport because of the comparison between the amount of resources he has available to him and the number of successful results he is generating from them,” Thompson said.

“A lot of the results are coming off the support team he has around him, but he created that support team.

“That is what has made him so good because he’s been able to develop that team and a lot of them are volunteers and some of them have been his assistants over the last 10 years.”

While Thompson and Smith held two of the most coveted titles in world rowing, they were back in training hoping to earn a seat for next year’s championships.

Barrow had created a culture of excellence within the squad, where past accolades counted for nothing and current form and results meant everything.

“This sports humbles you like that — as soon as you think you are winning, it puts you right back down,” Smith said.

“It is not easy but you have to persevere all the time. You can never just come back strong, it is training that makes you strong and there is no getting away from that.

“You have to put in the miles to perform.”

– Sapa

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