SA’s ‘Oarsome Foursome’ drop in at Etana
By Stuart Dickinson
Sizwe Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and James Thompson huddle around a whiteboard at the Etana head office in Joburg, laughing while they take turns writing on it.
I’ve just arrived for my interview with the four Etana sponsored rowing champions, who recently returned to South Africa from their triumphant gold-medal win in the men’s lightweight coxless four at the London Olympics.
I glance at the board and notice the headline, “Things we can do to make the four go faster”, followed by points like, “Lawrence can go for his driver’s so we can take our ‘learner’s sticker’ off the boat”; and, “Matt can go for safety lessons so he does not put us in danger, i.e. Aussie quad” – making light of their near collision with the Australian team in a pre-final race.
The four are in good spirits and look relaxed, clearly enjoying each other’s company after a brief time apart following their return to South Africa. They joke around and speak in a jargon you expect between close friends.
“You live together for 49 weeks, you’ll develop a language no one else understands,” says James, and they all laugh.
The four trained together nearly every day for almost a year leading up to the Games, with every third Sunday given as time off. And no one was around to babysit them during their intense training routine at Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria; they knew what they had to do in order to win, and they did it.
“We trusted our plan, our process and each other,” says Matthew. “The win was no accident. We trained hard for the sprint, and it became second nature. We all commit to the call. When I say I’m going to make that call to sprint at 400m, I do it.”
Matthew has made the call early only on two occasions. “I called early in the World Cup,” he says. “And also at the Olympics. I could see that the race was really close, so we had to push harder, for longer.” Their efforts paid off, and they shot past Denmark and favourites Great Britain during the final 500m sprint to take gold.
“When we crossed the line, I was already 90% sure we had won,” says James. “But when we looked at the results board, that’s when the excitement really kicked in.”
Interestingly, Matthew was competing against one of his all-time heroes – Danish rower Eskild Ebbesen. “He is an all-round athlete and winner. He retired a few years ago, but then came back and was still winning medals,” he says.
However, Matthew had to briefly take Ebbesen off the pedestal he had placed him on and focus on beating him. “It was surreal to turn around and look at him after we had won.”
All four became attached to the sport at school – Sizwe at Mondeor High, James at St Andrew’s, John at St Alban’s and Matthew at Crawford College.
“The headmaster of Mondeor, Mr [Tom] Price, was my hero,” explains Sizwe. “He was basically my dad. He would pick me up in the mornings, take me to Wemmer Pan to train, all of that. I gave everything to the sport, and I think he saw that.”
The guys have a packed schedule running into October, and are focussed on their next competition.
“We have to teach Johnny how to row for the next race,” quips James with a grin.
“Well, hopefully your coaching is better than your rowing,” he shoots back, and everyone is laughing again.
Here’s wishing the “oarsome foursome” all the best in their careers ahead.