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Olympian mates become rivals at ‘The Grand’

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For more than four years James Thompson and John Smith (Tuks/HPC) have been ‘brothers in arms’ and established themselves as one of the most respected rowing combinations in the world.
But all good things come to an end, even if only temporarily. On Saturday, in East London, Thompson and Smith (gold medallists at the 2012 Olympic Games and later the World Championships) will be fierce rivals when they compete at ‘The Grand’.
Both have made it clear that they are not going to give an inch while battling it out in their respective boats.
Most South African sports fans probably won’t have a clue what ‘The Grand’ is all about, but for any seasoned rower it is something akin to the ‘Holy Grail’ and they will recount the history of the event in awe.
The Buffalo Regatta, commonly known among rowers as ‘The Grand’, was founded in 1879 and, except for an interruption during the war years, has been held every year since. On Saturday the 129th staging of the event will be celebrated, which makes it one of the oldest sporting events in South Africa.
Partly because of the two magnificent trophies at stake, the Buffalo Regatta has been a major highlight on the South African rowing calendar. The trophies are awarded for the Buffalo Grand Challenge (Senior-A Coxless Fours) and the Silver Sculls (Senior-A Single Sculls).
These trophies are priceless and 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.
Thompson and Smith, along with most of the rowers who hope to represent South Africa at the Games, will battle it out for the Silver Sculls trophy.
Last year Smith made South African rowing history by becoming one of a select few rowers who have managed to win both trophies on the same day.
However, he makes it clear that there is no guarantee that he will be able to repeat this feat.
‘There is a very suitable quote about the Buffalo: ‘You are the best, which is nice. But this is the Buffalo. It means you can be the best and win every race but at the Buffalo you have to be prepared for an unexpected curveball. It is a regatta of upsets.
‘I guess that is why it is so special to win the Buffalo,’ said Smith.
‘It is the conditions that make it so hard to win. It can be rough because there is a current and also a bit of a tide.  Sometimes there are waves which can make the water very choppy. You know it will be windy, but you never know in which direction the wind will be blowing.’
As to what his race tactics will be, Smith just laughed and said: ‘There are no special tactics. You simply get into your boat and row as fast as you can from point A to point B, hoping that it will be good enough for a win.’

Picture of Smith and Thompson courtesy of Reg Caldecott


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