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Saturday, 28 May 2016


Yesterday evening we went to a celebratory party for Jonty Smith (@Jonty_Smith), a young man whose rowing crew qualified last week for the Mens Heavyweight Coxless Four at the #RioOlympics. His story is nothing short of inspirational.

Jonty has been in and out of our house for many years as one of our son's (Stefan) best friends from school and later house-mates at Cape Town University (UCT). He was a good water-polo and rugby player at school, but had never seen a rowing boat, far less rowed in one. However, he is 1.92m tall, lithe and strong and looks as if he could do any sport to which he sets his mind. Just over three years he joined us on a family holiday in Mozambique. Somewhere along the way I bent his ear and told him I thought he looked as if he would be a perfect candidate for a rowing boat, my old sport from years ago. Whilst I might have planted a small seed for him and didn't really expect him to do it, I suspect in reality that he was lured into the sport by meeting three very pretty girls from the UCT rowing club on that same holiday.

Be that as it may, he returned to UCT for the new academic year, signed up for the rowing club and promptly pulled one of the quickest ergometer times in the University. Now an ergo is not by any means a rowing boat, but it requires extraordinary physical ability to produce a good time, more so if you have never rowed before, and it gives a pretty good indication of a person's ability to move a boat. (It also gives new meaning to the word 'suffering'.)

Jonty's progression in the sport was meteoric, quickly making his way into the University first crew, breaking the National ergometer record, being selected for a South African U23 crew and finally being chosen for a Men's Four to race in the Grand Challenge Cup in 2015, an elite Men's race at the rowing mecca, Henley. Rowing does not come naturally to many people and it generally takes many years to achieve what Jonty did in that short space of time. However, Henley brought the crew down to earth with a bump, being well beaten by a world class crew in the first round. 

After a couple of crew changes, several good beatings in other international regattas, more tweaking of technique, endless hours of training both on and off the water over the past year, the crew finally hit their straps last week at their last opportunity to qualify for Rio, the Lucerne International Regatta in Switzerland. They needed to finish first or second to qualify. What they did was to cruise into the final and then win comfortably from the favourite French crewAny rower would take a gold medal from that regatta and feel grateful, but when it comes with a ticket to the Summer Olympics it is pretty special.

Not to take anything away from his other gifted team mates, David Hunt, Vince Breet and Jake Green, what Jonty has achieved in just over three years is almost unheard of in rowing. It is a bit like someone picking up a golf club for the first time and then being able to compete meaningfully with Ernie Els or Rory McIlroy after three years. He has been blessed with a perfect physique, an incredible physiology and a temperament which understands and almost revels in the suffering necessary to row at the top of the sport. What the crew has done in the space of one short year is also extraordinary, with most top rowing crews needing to train together for years before becoming this competitive. Emerging from a first round drubbing at Henley, picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and qualifying a year later for Rio is testament to the immense character of these young modern-day heroes, as well as their coaches, Roger Barrow and Paul Jackson, to say nothing of the many private funders and supporters (including parents and family) in the background.

What's the piece in this for all of us? Yes, good physical attributes help in sport, but the huge pieces for success are willingness to go for it, a readiness to pick yourself up when you take a tumble and go again, total focus and commitment to your path and a willingness to suffer for what you want. It also can't be done without significant support from others.

I want nothing more for this humble, wonderful young man and his crew to win a medal at Rio, but the mere fact of what he and they have achieved to date should be inspiration enough for all of us as to what might be possible with some application.

Watch the Mens Coxless Fours (M4-) at Rio to see how the story unfolds. 

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