SA's Road to Rio: James Thompson and John Smith

SA's Road to Rio: James Thompson and John Smith

South Africa was all abuzz back in 2012 when the lightweight coxless men's fours rowing team of Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson stunned favourites Great Britain and Denmark to capture gold against all expectations at the London Olympics.

While much of the focus was on the athletics track and in the swimming pool from a South African perspective, the awareness, popularity and profile of rowing was elevated to new heights and just four years later, the SA rowing squad has qualified a record five boats for the Rio Olympic Games.

The "Oarsome Foursome" is, however no more. Brittain struggled with back problems, but has since chosen to row in another category and will team up with Shaun Keeling in the men's lightweight pairs in Rio, while Ndlovu has had to call it quits after a succession of injury problems.

The remaining two, Tuks High Performance Centre (HPC) rowers Thompson and Smith, have since switched from single sweeping to two oars and teamed up in the lightweight men's double skulls, where they remain very strong Olympic medal contenders.

"The fact that James and I teamed up after the 2012 Olympic Games is sort of normal progression, but basically James and I just gel well in a boat," Smith pointed out.

They captured the gold medal in the lightweight men's double sculls at the World Rowing Championships in the Netherlands, in a new world best time of 6:05.36. It was listed as the best result in history at a global event by a South African crew.

Both rowers come from contrasting backgrounds and both have had to contend with their own fair share of challenges to reach the pinnacle of their sporting careers.

Beanpole Smith explained how he got injured playing water polo at St Alban's College in Pretoria and was forced to pick a new sport at the age of 16. 

He never looked back and now boasts gold medals at the Olympics (2012), Senior World Championships (2014) and Under-23 World Championships (2010).

"After making fun of the rowers for years, I decided to give rowing a try. Since day one the coach told me I am a natural and I really enjoyed how hard the training was," recalled Smith. 

"What attracted me to the sport was the fact that rowers claimed to train pretty hard. Because I just cannot resist any strenuous fitness challenge I decided to give it a 'bash," he added.

He mentioned how the St Alban's coach at the time, Tiago Loureiro, was the first person who told him that he had what it took to become a good rower. 

"He even predicted that I will compete at the Olympic Games. His confidence in me was a real eye opener even though I thought he was a bit crazy." 

Among his pastime activities, Smith loves to go bass fishing with his dad, just to relax and get away from the high intensity training.

The pint-sized Thompson, however, has risen above some far more daunting challenges in his youth as he honed his rowing skills.

"I was diagnosed at a very early stage with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, reading disorders, spelling disorders, as well as motor skills disorders. It was quite an impressive list of disorders," he relates.

Raised initially in Cape Town, he found a landing place eventually at St Andrews College in the Eastern Cape as a 14-year-old teenager.

According to Thompson, his participation in sports, especially rowing, has helped him to cope with his disabilities.

He made his international debut in 2003, when he won bronze at the World Rowing Junior Championships in the coxed four. He went on to win two silver medals at the under-23 level in the lightweight pair before launching his senior career. 

In between training Thompson also finds time to tour the country, giving motivational talks to headmasters, teachers and parents about the challenges he had to face at school.

"In my motivational talks, I talk about learning to learn and I highlight the challenges I had to face. I think my talks are enlightening for parents who battle to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When I speak to teachers, it is important to convince them to see that it is worth persevering with a child with learning disabilities.  If they do, it can eventually become a very positive experience for the teacher as well as for the child," explained Thompson.

Not only are the two good friends out of the boat, but they have also built up an exceptional rapport in the boat.

"John and I have a good relationship and understanding in the boat. We like to keep it very simple, John keeps the boat straight while I pull him down the course," said Thompson.

"My role is to steer the boat and to set up a really good tempo and rhythm in the boat. James who sits behind me in the boat is really strong so his role is all about pulling. He also does the calling in the boat telling where we are, and what position we are. And when he calls for me to sprint hard, that is what I do."

An obvious question to be asked is what the key differences were that they encountered when they switched from lightweight fours to double skulls, having done very little skulling together. 

Both concur that it took a bit of an adjustment holding onto two oars after some 10 years mastering the sweeping motion.

Smith is adamant that rowing is far worse than running. 

"It is too fast to get settled and, coming into that last 100 metres, rowing is much worse than running. 

Your legs start to burn so much that it becomes unbearable, but you have to battle on. After racing a final at a major championship you are totally wasted, emotionally as well as physically, and need at least one day to recover."

"Most people are under the misconception that rowers rely mostly on upper body strength, but this is not the case," added Smith.

"When rowing you mostly use your legs and the muscles in your back.  Because the seat in the boat keeps moving, you have to push with your legs all the time. Basically all your arms have to do is hold on to the oars."

James Thompson and John Smith_getty
File photo: Getty Images



Training should be the hardest thing you ever do because the harder you train the easier racing becomes.

What did you learn at U-23 level that helped you later on?

It gave me a belief in my abilities as well as the coaching system. I realized that if I train hard and be 100% committed, it is possible to become a successful international rower.

Most influential coaches in your career? 

Paul Jackson and Dustyn Butler. Dustan helped us to master the technical intricacies of rowing while Paul installed a lot of believe.

Any pre-race rituals?

In the lightweight men's double sculls you got to weigh less than 70kg. If weigh in at 70.1kg you are not allowed to compete. After the weigh we eat and drink. Then we would go for a warm-up jog. About 40 minutes before we race we will go onto the water where we do some specific exercises to get us ready.

How has your Olympic win influenced the status of rowing in South Africa?

Rowing in general in South Africa got a lot bigger and more popular after we won the gold medal in London. Our training squad is now a lot bigger. 

As a fulltime athlete, where does your funding come from? 

Our funding comes from Sascoc. They pay our expenses when we compete internationally and for our training camps. We also get a monthly allowance which sort of helps to cover basic monthly expenses. We as Olympic rowers definitely don't live the high life. Rowing is not the sport to do if you want to get rich.

What do you like most about racing?

I like winning and hate losing when I am racing.

What do you admire most about your main competitors in the lightweight men's double sculls?

I admire that everyone is friendly. No one is too arrogant. I respect everyone but I fear no-one. When I get on the line before the race it is with an attitude that no quarter will be given.

Weakness you would prefer not having?

Because I am quite tall for a lightweight rower it is very difficult for me to make the weight in our category each time we race. I got to slim down quite a bit. A lot of the lightweight rowers are smaller and more muscled. But there are certain advantages to being taller.

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whom would it be and why?

Sunday night dinner with the family and my girlfriend. There is no better place to be. It is the people I want to be around.

If you were an animal, what would you be and why?

Hopefully an Alpha male in a wolf pack or a lion. We like to think of our squad as wolf pack that hunt as a pack. And I would like to think I am the one who leads the charge.

What would your advice be to an aspiring athlete?

They got to work hard. Success does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of commitment and no compromises. In other words you got to give everything if you want to be the best in the world. 

Ten years from now?

Hopefully I will have a job, sitting behind a desk crunching some numbers earning some really good money.


Who were the most influential coaches in your career? 

My junior years were spent under John Gearing. He was incredibly influential in teaching me the fundamentals of the sport and developing my self-belief. Roger Barrow played a large part in guiding us through the transition into the doubles. Paul Jackson brought much needed leadership and experience in London.

What were the most important factors leading to your Olympic success in London?

The London success was built over a few years. We had a great support team with experience around us despite the four of us being relatively young. South Africa is sports-mad so the lack of big results before the Games actually played in our favour as we were able to stay low-profile and fly below the media radar.

Pre-race rituals?

Over the years my pre-race routine has become more relaxed. Generally I just listen to some music and laugh at all the funny and stupid stuff John says. 

How has your Olympic win influenced the status of rowing in South Africa?

We have some of the best training waters and climate. Now there is a lot of belief within South Africa's rowing community about what is possible. South Africa is sports-mad but we are still very low profile as the media continue to almost exclusively cover the big three (rugby, cricket and soccer).

As a fulltime athlete, how do you fund your career?

It has certainly not been easy. Since I achieved a top 11 finish in Poznan at the 2009 World Rowing Championships I have received some support from SASCOC via Operation Excellence. I do motivational talking and dabbled in property finance.

What do you like most about racing?

I love sitting in "the hurt" when the rhythm is good, watching it all unfold, then the charge to the line when it's all about maximum speed. This is what motivates me to keep coming back.


I've always been passionate about bikes. Enjoy mountain biking

What do you admire most about your main competitors in the lightweight men's double sculls?

The power that some of the European athletes have is incredible. 

Weakness you would prefer not having?

My love of food is not a good thing as a lightweight.

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whom would it be and why?

A dinner with my whole family. Rowing in Pretoria is far from my family home in Cape Town, so we are seldom together.

If you were an animal, what would you be and why?

A lion - calm when relaxing but powerful, aggressive and fast when the hunt is on.

What would your advice be to an aspiring athlete?

Focus on learning to train properly, if you train right anything is possible.

In ten years from now?

After rowing I will spend a lot more time riding my bike and I would love to be involved in developing young athletes. As far a job goes? I'll find something to throw my endless energy at.

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