SA rowing pair on track for medal

2008-08-04 00:00

“Perhaps we go into the first round as underdogs, but we can emerge as contenders.” That’s the view of Athens silver medallist Ramon di Clemente, who combines with youngster Shaun Keeling in the men’s rowing pairs as one of South Africa’s strongest medal hopes.

Di Clemente and Donovan Cech won bronze in the men’s pair in Athens, giving South Africa their first medal in rowing, but if the 33-year-old has anything to do with it, that was only the start of a winning streak.

His initial partnering with Shaun Keeling produced a disappointing 15th place in Munich. However, since the more experienced Di Clemente moved to stroke during pre-competition training in Lucerne, they have gone from strength to strength as testified by their third place in the World Cup in Poznan, Poland.

“There are a six or seven crews that could easily medal, but we are firmly in that grouping,” said Di Clemente.

World and Olympic Champions Australia, Athens silver medallists New Zealand and Croatia top the list, along with the Canadian pairing, who will no doubt want to prove a point to the South Africa pair.

Canada were disqualified in the Athens semi-final for interfering with the South African boat. The subsequent arbitration went in favour of Cech and Di Clemente, allowing them to contest the final where they earned a bronze medal.

Keeling, at 21, has many years ahead of him, and the blend with the cast-iron Di Clemente is a double act that could go far.

“Nothing stops Ramon, he just keeps going,” said Christian Felkel, who flew out from Johannesburg on his last day as national coach, a post he resigned at the Polish competition. He has flown out to support the pair at his own expense.

“It’s all going according to plan. The venue is stunning — the best in the world — and our recent preparation has been unhampered.”

Attention to detail has been one of the keys to their preparation, and the somewhat controversial decision to be based in Beijing instead of Team SA’s camp in Daegu, South Korea, is paying dividends for the five rowers, who have been at the competition course over the past three days.

Setting up base in a local village a few kilometres from the Olympic venue has allowed twice-a-day training. Although virtually all contending countries also chose Beijing for their final build-up, those staying at the athletes’ village are restricted by the shuttle services, which take around an hour in each direction.

“This is awesome — it’s the best” said Kirsten McCann of the rowing facility. It boasts one of the biggest stands seen for the sport. “We’ve always wanted a big crowd, and now it’ll be like playing in a cup final.”

McCann competes in the lightweight double sculls with Alex White, and they are seen as a crew for the future.

“We’re targeting a B Final finish, which will put us on the next level,” said McCann, who turns 20 on the day after the Games close.

The pairing have faced their fair share of challenges, but are soaking up the experience as a foundation towards London in 2012.

Rika Geyser will be the first South African into the water on Saturday around 8.30 am (SA time), competing in the women’s single sculls. The Johannesburg-based rower, who turns 30 three days after the Games, has shown good form in the build-up.

“Making the final is a realistic target and my first objective —– from there anything can happen,” she said.

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