Medal surprised the nation, but race went exactly as rowers planned

2012-08-03 00:00

“GOLD! Gold! Gold!” South Africa’s lightweight rowing four chanted as they raced through the field over the final 250 metres to snatch an “oar­some” victory from the British favourites yesterday.

It was Mzansi’s third gold medal and for their Pietermaritzurg-educated coach, Paul Jackson, who successfully masterminded the race, it all went according to plan.

“The boys stuck to every exact detail of the race plan,” an ecstatic Jackson told The Witness yesterday. “I haven’t even processed it all, but we knew in the heats that we could challenge for a medal if we got it right.

“It is all just so incredible. What these boys have done here today — the greatest ever achievement in rowing — and to do it on such a big scale is phenomenal.”

And while the win surprised many, it was clear that Jackson’s confidence had been shared by his rowers.

“In the race we were just thinking of going harder and we just started shouting ‘gold!’,” Matthew Brittain said.

Team-mate James Thompson explained: “We said the whole season we only had one goal — when any one of us says that, then everyone has to say ‘gold’.”

They had believed they could finish on the podium.

“We had firm belief that we could certainly pull off a medal,” Thompson said.

“We’ve only lost to the Chinese before this, so for us we were in a good place the whole year.

“So it wasn’t such a surprise to us.”

Sizwe Ndlovu, the most experienced of the victorious crew at 31 years old, was equally thrilled with the result.

“I feel great, like I’m on top of the world,” he told The Witness by telephone while at a post-race function where screaming South African fans had gathered to congratulate their latest success story.

“It is the proudest moment of my life. At the medal ceremony I wanted to start jumping around, I’m just so happy to have done this for my country.”

A police reservist from Johannesburg, Ndlovu, like his coach, also has ties to the Zulu kingdom. He grew up in Newcastle before moving back to Gauteng when he was a 16-year-old.

“I remember it being tough in KZN. I remember walking 16 km there and back to primary school every day and having to carry 25 litres of water home on a wheelbarrow — that is what it was like,” said Ndlovu, whose parents have both died since his time in Newcastle.

The Associated Press quoted Ndlovu as saying: “I am the first black man in South African rowing [to win gold]. I feel very proud of that and for the people in Africa to see what I’ve been doing.”

Patience Shikwambana, Team SA’s chef de mission, was equally over the moon.

She urged Ndlovu to return home and inspire a generation of black people to take up the sport.

“He will be received as a prince or a king. He is from KwaZulu-Natal, and we call KwaZulu-Natal ‘The Kingdom’ so that means when he gets there the king is going to come and welcome him and say ‘Yes, boy, you’ve made us proud’,” she told reporters.

In the south of Johannesburg yesterday, Mondeor High School principal Vangelia Nicolaou remembered Ndlovu, who matriculated in 1999, as a “very quiet, well mannered and humble” schoolboy.

Tom Price, who was the principal for more than 25 years until his death in 2006, was Ndlovu’s coach.

Ndlovu has in previous interviews credited Price as the one who saw his potential.

Price would pick him up at 5 am to train daily, then go to school and return in the afternoon for more training.

And while the beloved English comic Mr Bean dreamt of winning a gold against all odds in the Olympic opening ceremony last week, his look-alike, John Smith, the fourth member of the South African crew, did just that.

He was nicknamed “Mr Bean” by his fellow pupils at St Albans in Pretoria. Smith told sister newspaper Beeld yesterday that he badly wanted to shake off the “Mr Bean” nickname after leaving school, but it stayed.

As for their win, Smith could only let out a primal yell to describe his feelings. “So many things go through your head at the same time. I cannot even remember what my first thought was when I realised we had won. All I know is that I yelled with joy,” he said.

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