‘The moment of truth is upon us.’ This is how the World Rowing Championships, which begins on Sunday in Aiguebelette, France, is perceived by rowers all over the world, including the cream of South African rowers. Any rower with aspirations of representing his/her country at next year’s Olympic Games in Rio, will have to perform at his best.
For those who fail it will be “game over”. Their hard work and sacrifices will all have been in vain. To qualify for the Games, rowers have to finish in the top eleven of their respective racing categories. To medal will be even tougher.
In most of the categories the rowers will have to contest five races in eight days. Put into perspective: When John Smith, gold medallist at last year’s World Championships in Amsterdam, was asked how tough it was to row two kilometres (the distance of an international rowing race) flat-out, he compared racing a final to running a 400m final in athletics: ‘A rowing race is too fast to really get settled. Coming into that last 100 metres, rowing is much worse than running. There is a burning sensation in your legs that sometimes becomes unbearable, but you have to battle on. After racing in a final at a major championship you are totally wasted, emotionally as well as physically, and need at least one day to recover,’
At the World Championships in Amsterdam last year, the South African Olympic gold medallists, James Thompson and John Smith, posted a world-best time and were crowned champions. Shaun Keeling and Vincent Breet won the heavyweight pair bronze medal. It is interesting to note that Thompson and Smith had beaten Norway, the defending lightweight double sculls world champions, as well as France, the pre-race favourites, to take the spoils.
Ursula Grobler and Kirsten McCann just missed out on winning a medal. They finished fourth in the women’s lightweight double sculls final. Naydene Smith and Lee-Ann Persse were sixth in the final of the women’s pairs.
Judging by these results, it seems as if South Africa has a good chance of qualifying at least four boats for next year’s Games and to be in contention to win at least one medal. However Roger Barrow, South Africa’s head coach based at the High Performance Centre (HPC) in Pretoria, does not take anything for
granted: ‘In the build up to the World Championships we had a good training camp in Tzaneen where most of the teams were able to set fast times. But we still preferred not to talk about medals because it only puts extra pressure on the rowers. I know the teams will not be caught wanting if they are able to put on their best races. Even if they should perform at 99% of their abilities, they should do well.’
Asked whether Thompson and Smith would be able to defend their title, Barrow says: ‘They found more speed. I think at the moment they are the fastest they have been this whole season. However, to beat the French on their “home water” will be tough. Especially if one takes into account that the French crew, consisting of Jeremie Azou and Stany Delayre, has beaten them by two seconds at the World Cup in Lucerne. It will take four races to get to the final, which is a lot of racing. They will have to tick all the right boxes. Hopefully everything will go according to plan.’ Barrow is quietly confident that Grobler and McCann will be able to contest for a medal.
The other South African crews that will be in action on Sunday are: Smith and Persse; Shaun Keeling and David Hunt (men’s pairs); Sizwe Ndlovu, Lawrence Brittain, Vince Breet and Jonty Smith (men’s fours); Kate Johnstone (lightweight sculls).
Photo credit: Reg Caldecott