Four years ago, they had to sell their boat for their fellow rowers to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Four years later, they rowed in London to win an Olympic medal and they did it in a rented boat.
James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Sizwe Ndlovu have made history in bringing the first rowing gold to Africa and they did it on a budget amid struggle that could have deterred many others.
They’re a carefree bunch, full of laughter, usually after another random joke by the group’s comedian, Smith. They are at ease around each other, a reflection of the close relationship forged on the water. So they should, they’ve been together in the best and worst of times for countless hours on the water.
One moment they all cherish, is the instant they crossed the finish line in London.
“When I looked at the board and saw 1: RSA (Republic of South Africa). [It was the] best moment of my life,” says Ndlovu.
Ndlovu is the eldest of the four and the only one who’s ever had to work. Mixing training and working wasn’t easy, it meant early mornings and late nights. For Ndlovu it also meant being jobless and homeless.
“I used to start work at 10am after training and finished work at about two [in the afternoon] so I could get to training in Pretoria… I’d rather be in the water than that. The eight to five thing doesn’t work for me… In 2009 I had to [resign], because when I asked for leave they wouldn’t give it to me because I had already taken [leave twice] in one year to prepare for the world championships, so I had to leave and sleep on the streets. I’m serious,” says Ndlovu.
Money is short for athletes in most parts of the world. According to the golden rowers, athletes receive monthly grants from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) only if they fall within the top 12 (Olympic qualifying) athletes in the country.
For an example of how dire the lack of money is, go back to Beijing 2008. Then, the future rowing champions of London had to sell their boat to pay for their fellow rowers to travel to China.
“We are not sure how it happened [but] the money that came from whatever resources started to dry up and it was in the last stretch going into the Olympics. They were strapped for cash. It was also [during] that 2007 recession and stuff, so… without results you can’t attract money… And I think they took a risk to support the athletes that were [going] to go out and get a result in Beijing” says Brittain.
The team, which won bronze in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, came fifth in Beijing.
“They took the risk to get that result and I think that result has led to [SACOC] giving us more money for this cycle that’s gone past. We were able to buy a real top class fleet of boats and put some really good structures in place” says Brittain.
With 500 qualified rowers to choose from in South Africa, sponsorship deals go a long way to help Olympic athletes.
According to FORBES, American swimmer and Olympic legend, Michael Phelps has 11 endorsements to his name; deals that have helped him earn between $5 million and $7 million-a-year since Beijing. His endorsement portfolio is said to make the biggest stars in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) blush. Especially because swimming is seen as a sport that merely attracts the eyes of the world every four years.
“SASCOC after Beijing made much more stringent requirements, they didn’t want to just take a big team over there [to London], they only wanted to take people [who] were going to perform. You have to be good before they support you, they are backing fewer horses and they are trying to back them better,” says Brittain.
“I think a lot of the other guys who did well at the Olympics went into it with the expectations of doing so well. We didn’t have that, we didn’t plan so much for this.”
They didn’t even have their own boat. It was rented from one of the world’s best racing boat makers, Filippi, which very graciously gave the golden four their winning chariot, after their win.
They are now back at home and resting. Soon they will be back in the water to prepare for the next competition.
Age matters less than technique in rowing and all four want to keep going.
One of Thompson’s heroes is 40-year-old Danish rower, Eskild Balschmidt Ebbeson who has been on the Olympic podium since the age of 24 in 1996.
This year they beat Ebbeson and his team. They walked away with four gold medals and R400,000 ($48,511) in prize money.
They reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, through a dream nurtured on a dam in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city.
The four met at the University of Pretoria (also known as TUKS). TUKS has produced some of South Africa’s top athletes, including 800 meter silver medalist Caster Semenya and Bridgitte Hartley who won a bronze medal in the 500 meter canoe sprint.
The love for rowing began in high school.
“I started [rowing] at St. Andrews college in Grahamstown, [the school] rowed on the river which is [near] the same place as my family’s holiday house. So I thought, if I rowed I would go on holiday more, little did I know it would mean I would never go on a holiday,” says Thompson.
Smith also ended up rowing by chance.
“I got injured playing water polo so I had to pick a new sport, and after mocking the rowers for years, I decided to give it a bash, and I really enjoyed it so I continued with it. Then, after [high school] I joined TUKS and then went to my first international regatta at U/23 World Championships with Matthew, as a pair.”
“My dad had to sell one of his kidneys to pay for it,” jokes Smith, the comedian of the team.
Rowing is the third most expensive sport on SASCOC’s Olympic budget after athletics and swimming, which are first and second respectively.
From 2009 to 2012, leading up to the London Olympics SASCO spent R17.9 million ($2.1 million) on all sports and R2.6 million ($319.697) of that went to rowing.
A career as an athlete is no easy task and when it comes to these four, the love for rowing runs deeper than their pockets, but even a lack of cash wouldn’t force them from the water. Thompson, Brittain, Smith and Ndlovu’s names are engraved in the history books forever and all thanks to a rented boat.