James & Co go all out
By Mark Etheridge
Young James Thompson is enjoying a week outside the confines of the pencil-slim craft that is effectively his home from home… because he knows full well that from next week he’s back in the boat for six weeks of heads-down action.
Such is the life of an Olympic rower, and he’s one of our already-qualified lightweight men’s fours combination that will pull out all the stops for a medal at the Dorney Park (Eton College) venue at the Olympics.
Thompson and Co (Matthew Britain, John Smith and Lawrence Ndlovu are the other key components of the boat) wrapped up the international part of their build-up with a solid silver medal at the penultimate World Cup event in Lucerne, Switzerland last Sunday and he’s confident that the foursomes combination is in a good place right now.
“Yes, we’ve had a good season so far. A few weeks ago we got gold in a regatta in Italy and that was very good for the confidence and the trend looks to be continuing,” the 25-year-old told Road to London 2012 on Thursday. “We’re definitely right up there and last weekend’s result was good for us.”
Around 13 crews will contest the lightweight coxless fours in London (for lightweight, read maximum of 70 kilograms for each of the crew members) and of these crews 10 of them were in Lucerne which gives the South African boat a boost.
“There’s still one more World Cup in Munich, Germany to come but we won’t be going to row that one. We’re confident that we’ll get more benefit out of another big block of training heading into the Olympics,” says Thompson.
Rather like for a navy submarine crew, its vital that the four rowers in the confined atmosphere of this tiny craft have a harmonious chord about them. “It’s four guys consistently striving for perfection,” says Thompson, and since February we’ve really gelled.”
Much like a golfer constantly working on that perfect swing, the crew find themselves in a continuous learning curve. “Each and every moment spent in the boat is a learning experience. Every mile spent together is an exercise in moulding our movements together,” he says. “With four different people in the boat, the phrase of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ is very apt.
“Even during a race, you’re learning different things. For example, China got gold ahead of us in Lucerne and we were already working out how to make up that extra half-second and we reckoned that our starting section could have been better.”
Thompson grew up in Cape Town before heading off to Grahamstown where he attended St Andrews and first got his taste of competitive rowing. Since finishing school though he’s spent much of his time at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria where he and a handful of seniors spend their days perfecting their strokes… and that’s not their golf strokes! Thompson occupies the bow seat of the boat where he brings the big watts to the party.
Those seniors not at the HPC are mainly based in the Pretoria suburb of Hatfield where they commute to and from the HPC or to their other home from home, the Roodeplaat Dam outside Pretoria.
The lightweight men’s fours are coached by Dustin Butler and head coach Paul Jackson while national coach Roger Barrow pulls the strings from an overall perspective. Jackson is constantly helping with role definition, making sure that the combination is well rounded and that trust between the four is 100%. “There has to be huge trust on race day,” says Thompson. “You need to be able to concentrate on your own task in the boat and not worry about the other guys. It’s all about constantly earning and building trust.”
One thing they’ve been able to trust in totally is support from national Olympic governing body SASCOC. “They identified our crew as having medal potential some years ago and have given us full backing so a lot of the financial worry and costs of any medical treatment and physio, accommodation, has been taken off our shoulders,” says Thompson.
That leaves the crew free to exercise those powerful shoulders precisely where it counts, out in the competition and training arena. And the training arena is not an easy one. Just as road runners talk about how many kilometres they’ve accumulated during a day, so do the rowers.
“We talk about a 40km-day in terms of training, although we might not necessarily have actually rowed 40km. Generally we train three times a day – the morning will have us out on the water for 20km which would take between 90min to two hours. then we’re in the gym midday for an hour and half, three times a week and then in the evening we’ll probably do about 16km, either on the ergometer or out on the water.
“We also do a 10km running time trial at the HPC three times a week or so. Lawrence [Ndlovu] is comfortably the quickest of us, he does it in about 36 minutes, not bad going for quite a tough course with gravel and grass sections!”
In terms of other support, it helps that Thompson’s girlfriend, Carolyn Smith, is a former rower herself, having won the lightweight elite singles event at last year’s Henley Women’s Regatta although she’s since concentrated on her actuarial exams. “Carolyn will be a great help over in the UK as she knows the whole rowing set-up and location so well,” says Thompson.
The South Africans left Lucerne immediately after the World Cup and Thompson was in Cape Town less than 24 hours after climbing out of the boat in Switzerland. Now there’s little time to put his feet up. “Whatever the standard of racing in Lucerne it will be up by the Games, there’s progress all the time and we’re always, always working on something to improve, there has to be if you want to put your best on the table.”
As for the Games themselves, the South Africans face three tough races over the standard 2000-metre distance. First up are the heats, then the semi-final, then the final, followed hopefully by the medal ceremony.
“Of the teams that make it to the Olympics all will have a shot at a medal, it’s that close. Australia and Denmark are probably the established senior crews [Denmark have a 40-year-old guy in their crew], China will be tough and the Czech Republic and French crews are probably the youngest.”
Looking at the ages of the SA crew, ranging from 21-year-old Smith to 31-year-old Ndlovu, expert opinion is that this crew will hit the peak of their prowess two years down the line but for now the only finish line that matters is at Dorney Lake on the opening few days of the 2012 Games.