Smith seals her seat | SASCOC - SASCOC

Smith seals her seat

By Mark Etheridge

Naydene Smith has got the nod to join Lee-Ann Persse in the women’s pairs rowing combination at the 2012 Olympic Games in London later this year.

Smith, 24, and Hayley Arthur were contesting the vacant spot in the boat and after a series of training camps, tests and competitions, national coach Roger Barrow opted for Smith to fill that seat.

“The selection of team boats comes down to crew compatibility and technical ability to move the boat the fastest under race conditions, and this was where Naydene had one step up on Hayley when the final decision came,” said Barrow.

For Smith’s part the relief was palpable: “Four months of intense training and trials ended with a favourable call on my behalf. It was gruelling but now the focus is on the games and all the selection procedures have made me stronger mentally and physically for the task ahead.”

South Africa have two boats qualified for London 2012, a lightweight men’s fours (LM4) and the women’s pair (W2).

The boats took part in an Italian competition recently to test their skills against international opposition and Barrow was happy with the progress. “The team performed well, the LM4 winning two golds as they competed in two regattas ÔÇô beating France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Argentina. The M2 combination of Shaun Keeling and Lawrence Brittain won bronze in the second regatta and the W2 were fourth in their A-final.”

The men’s four comprised James Thompson, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and Lawrence Ndlovu. This is the same combination that will travel to London for Team South Africa at the Olympics.

Barrow takes the M2 crew to Lucerne next week for another qualification regatta.

Back to Smith and the former Rand Park High School head girl says training has been insane. “It’s really sunk in now and our preparation is limited so instead of counting days now we’re making the days count.”

She’s an all-rounder when it comes to watersports and originally her Olympic dream centred on water polo. “That was my main sport although I rowed socially at the University of Johannesburg. In 2009 I went to the FINA World Championships for water polo.”

It was an important time in her sporting career. “I had to decide what I wanted and how I was going to achieve my lifelong goal of going to the Olympics. Eventually I chose to do rowing more seriously and stop playing water polo.”

Not an easy choice to make? “One of the hardest because to go from a sport that you’ve matured in to being a novice was very humbling.”

After trials for Student World Games in a women’s four she made the team for Hungary where they finished sixth overall. “It was an incredibly exciting fun tour and it grabbed me, hook, line and sinker. So in December 2010 I approached the national coach to see if I could join the squadÔǪ a big ask because I didn’t have much experience.”

The women’s pair hadn’t been to world championships due to injury. “Lee [Persse] was just training in a single and Hayley [Arthur] was recovering and starting rehab for an operation she was due to have. So Lee needed someone to pair with and somehow they put me in the pair with her. It was a daunting task because Lee was much faster, stronger and more experienced than me.”

Then there was a bit of a hiatus in her rowing career. “There was a world-leading coach [Italian Gianni Postiglione] in SA for a training camp and he noticed the huge difference in our experience and strength so one of the other girls filled in with Lee and went back to getting as fast and strong as I could to get back in that boat. In 2011 we were back for a while and we got to compete at the Essen regatta in Germany and won gold on both days!

“That was the start of a brilliant year for us. We went on to win silver at a World Cup and qualify the boat at world champs.”

On returning to SA it wasn’t quite that simple though as she realised the seat she had qualified was hotly contested for by Arthur. “This was an incredibly hard realisation that I might not go to the Games because its the boat that qualifies and not the person.”

But that’s all history now and her and Persse can find their feet again. “We’ve already clocked in some good times so its looking promising. Lee and I are very lucky to have some sort of a click so once we got back in the boat we started to feel like we were well set up from the get-go.”

On her latest Italian experience ÔÇô “It was a very important learning curve for me ÔÇô┬áI learnt how horrible loosing feels but most important it was a very good wake up call for preparation. Racing in a different combination makes you realise how important communication is and not just verbal communication. Rowing is a lot to do with feeling what each other is feeling and making each other comfortable. It was a beautiful regatta and we came fourth overall. So we didn’t loose I guess but I wanted to medal.”

Looking ahead and Smith is under no illusion as to how much work is needed. “How much hard work we put in now will determine where we come so we are trying our hardest to be as dedicated as we can especially with small things like posture, eating, psychology, stretching and many more aspects. These are the things that will give us centimetres in the end.”

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