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Olympian Smith pulls out all the stops in ‘Grand’ style
- Updated: February 17, 2015
By winning the Silver Sculls as well as the Grand Challenge (senior coxless fours) at the 128th running of the Buffalo Regatta in East London at the weekend, South Africa’s London Olympics gold medalist John Smith joined a small elite group of rowers.
Taking into account that the two races took place only two hours apart, the feat by the High Performance Centre (hpc) sponsored rower is even more remarkable.
Smith described his success as a big gamble that paid off. ‘Going down to East London I knew I had good form and I believed that I would be one of the best rowers in the competition. But this didn’t count for much. It was the Buffalo Regatta which every rower knows is one of the most unpredictable races. Experience has taught me that you don’t cross a ravine in 12 steps. What is needed is one big leap of faith, and that was exactly what I did.’
Smith (gold medallist at the 2012 Olympic Games as well as at the 2014 World Championships) won the single sculls race quite convincingly by beating Shaun Keeling (bronze medallist at last year’s World Championships) by four seconds.
According to Smith he cemented his victory by putting in a hard effort during the middle part of the race. ‘It enabled me to open a gap, which meant that there was no titanic sprint to the finish.’
Sizwe Ndlovu (Smith’s teammate at the 2012 Olympic Games) finished third in the sculls race. As expected, the coxless rour race turned out to be a humdinger of a battle between the lightweight and heavyweight crews, with the lightweights prevailing in the end. They won the coveted Grand Trophy for a third consecutive year by merely 0.31seconds.
‘We (Smith, Ndlovu, James Thompson and Gareth Maybery) had a good start. However, the heavyweights caught up with us and by the halfway mark they had a quite substantial lead of about a boat length. We decided that this was not acceptable and started to up our pace. Slowly but surely the gap became smaller and smaller and, with about 500 metres to go, the heavyweights were leading by only about half a boat length.’
It seems that ‘chirping’ is not restricted only to cricket. One of the heavyweight rowers felt so confident about winning that he ‘chirped’ that it was going to be their day. Hearing this, James Thompson immediately retorted that the heavyweights had it all wrong – the lightweights were going to win. This turned out to be no idle boast because, with only centimetres to go, the lightweights caught up with the heavyweights and narrowly beat them.
According to Smith they competed in quite windy conditions. ‘In a way we were lucky because I think the tailwind might have favoured our lightweight crew.’
Smith compares a 2km rowing race to running a 400 metres race on the track. ‘It is too fast to get settled and coming into those last 100 metres rowing becomes much worse than running. Although your legs start to burn so much that it becomes almost unbearable, you have to battle on. After racing a final at a major championship you are totally wasted, emotionally as well as physically, and you need at least one day to recover.’
‘Most people are under the misconception that rowers rely mostly on upper body strength, but this is not the case. When rowing you mostly use your legs and the muscles in your back. Because the seat in the boat keeps moving, you have to push with your legs all the time. Basically all your arms have to do is hold on to the oars.’
The trophies awarded for the Buffalo Grand Challenge (Senior-A Coxless Fours) and the Silver Sculls (Senior-A Single Sculls) are commonly regarded to be of the most valuable trophies awarded for any sport in Southern Africa. They are made of pure silver and are insured for over a million rand. ‘The Grand’ trophy itselfmeasures a height of 1.2 metres.