Oarsome foursome freshen up
South Africa rowers, from left, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Sizwe Ndlovu (AP)
Johannesburg - Following the retirement of men’s lightweight fours Olympic gold medallist Matthew Brittain, the national rowing team have had to make contingency plans to ensure future glory at the global showpiece.
While a young Mike Voerman filled Brittain’s seat in the boat with aplomb, the crew’s depth was, nevertheless, tested this year.
At the World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea, the quartet finished eighth in the A-final in September.
“Matthew Brittain’s retirement was a hard one where we had to replace him with Mike Voerman, who really did us proud in the sense of a 19-year-old stepping into his shoes -- which were big shoes to fill,” national rowing coach Roger Barrow said at a high-altitude training camp in Lesotho.
“We’ve got to see how many quality athletes we have and the concern with the lightweight four is that there are only four with Mike, Sizwe (Ndlovu), Bean (John Smith) and James (Thompson). So the depth is a bit shallow.”
Barrow said they were not restricted to a lightweight fours crew as they would do anything to maximise South Africa’s chances of collecting more medals at the next Olympic Games.
If the lightweight crew did not possess the ability to challenge for a medal, they would look at qualifying a lightweight men’s double sculls boat to contest in Rio de Janeiro in three years’ time.
“The step off to the next guy is quite big, so I am looking at whether we should go the doubles (sculls) route and minimise the amount of guys, to make the competition better.
“My goal is not to get guys to the Olympics, my goal is to win medals at the Olympics and that is why, when we select the boat classes, it is really crucial that we have good depth.”
This would mean more rowers contesting for fewer seats and, subsequently, increase the competition among them to ensure the best possible crew.
Thompson said 2013 was not only a tough year because of Brittain’s retirement but also trying to cope with the expectations created following their Olympic success.
“Any other year it would have been a really successful year,” Thompson said.
“We dealt with the challenges of Matt retiring and we dealt with the challenges of bringing someone new into the system.
“We were down to three and we developed some new guys from scratch and we dealt with that well.”
He felt the crew’s performances this year ranked among the best in years despite the challenges they faced in terms of personnel and injuries.
“We got a fourth place at the world cup and a sixth place at the world championships -- those are good results in any other year. That would have been the best any South African lightweight fours had done for years.
“For us, it would have been spectacular but everyone’s expectations now are gold or nothing.”
Voerman was up for the challenge of taking Brittain’s seat in the boat, Thompson said and believed the new recruit handled the pressure well.
“For such a young guy, he probably handled the pressure better than I would have done.
“Matt's injury hit us at a time when we were particularly thin on the ground but, by the end of the year, Mike was more than capable of the task he was asked to do.”
Shaun Keeling, who finished fifth in the men’s rowing pairs at the 2008 Beijing Games with Ramon di Clemente, said he was confident the new crew would be able to challenge for a medal in 2016 if they worked hard enough.
He had partnered with Lawrence Brittain, Matthew's brother, before the London Olympics but missed out on qualification for last year’s showpiece.
At this year’s world championships, they finished second in the B-final to end the regatta in eighth place overall.
“Rowing with Lawrence has been a great pleasure for me because we just get on so well,” Keeling said.
“If we can put together a good season, we can have a good shot at medals and, if we add another two years on that for the Olympics, I am very comfortable about where the pair is going.”