“Shaun, point two, never again!” Lawrence Brittain shouted to his crew mate as the South African men’s pair hit the 500m mark in fourth place, sparking their surge towards an Olympic silver medal on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro yesterday.
Lying in fourth place brought back memories from their last regatta before the Olympic Games in Lucerne, where they missed out on a medal by the narrowest of margins. At the Lucerne World Cup in April they were edged out by the British and Dutch crews in second and third place by 0.20 seconds.
“At Lucerne we lost the silver medal by point two and we finished in fourth place, so at the 500 I said: ‘Shaun, point two, never again’ and that kicked him off and I was hanging off the back,” Brittain said.
“Suddenly we were on the money and we powered through, finding ourselves in second. Then we knew and had the belief.”
That resulted in the best race of their lives as they first reeled in the British boat before leaving the Italians behind, with only the New Zealand crew ahead.
The unbeatable Kiwi crew of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray held on to their lead to cross the finish line for their 69th consecutive victory, successfully defending their title.
The South African men’s coxless pair is a boat of second chances, and the epitome of dogged determination, with Shaun Keeling appearing at his second Games eight years after his first.
Brittain, younger brother of lightweight coxless fours crew member Matthew, could call himself an Olympic medallist two years after being diagnosed with life-threatening Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Celebrations near the finish were a combination of cheers and tears as the South African rowing fraternity celebrated.
A large group of friends, family, partners and rowing enthusiasts made the trip to Rio to support the rowers.
It was a special day for team doctor and Brittain’s mother Danielle Lincoln as she witnessed her second son step onto the podium to collect an Olympic medal.
“I am totally floating, this morning I knew they were strong, and I thought this is the day they will do something and it is just amazing,” Lincoln said.
“The Lawrence from March 2015 to now is chalk and cheese, and this morning I knew Shaun was going to fire.”
Watching from the stands was Brittain’s father David, who was chosen as the reserve to the fours boat at the Atlanta 1996 Games.
Watching his brother cross the line for an Olympic medal brought back memories for Matthew Brittain, who did the same four years ago.
Speaking of his brother’s battle with cancer, Matthew said thinking of how far Lawrence has come since then, “it almost makes you burst into tears”.
“Two years ago we thought he might not even make it, and when we got the news he was responding well to treatment, he just had this massive momentum all the time,” Matthew said.
Making it back to full fitness, he finally earned a spot in the boat with Keeling, who refused to give up on his dream of an Olympic medal after missing out on a spot in London 2012.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 13 years old,” he said.