South Africa's, from right, Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith, Mathew Brittain and James Thompson celebrate with their gold medals for the lightweight men's rowing four in Eton Dorney, near Windsor, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Tim Whitfield


The lightweight men’s four rowing team took a tiny bit more than six minutes to win South Africa’s third gold medal at the Olympics, but their journey to the stunning victory is one of 11 years of pain, suffering and commitment to a goal.

Along the way Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson have overcome injury and personal sacrifices, but suddenly in six minutes on Thursday it all became worthwhile.

“This just feels so great ... I am thrilled,” said stroke Ndlovu who gave up his job to be able to compete at the highest level. “It has been 11 years of hard work and you cannot be working and engaging in top-level sport. If you want to compete at this level you cannot work and be training at this level. It was sad to lose my job but I had to give up my life for rowing.”

Slowly the realisation as to the rewards for all the sacrifices is sinking in.

“It seems pretty overwhelming, the reaction from back home,” said Brittain at a press conference yesterday: “When we saw the paper and there was a photo of us on the front page it made me realise that maybe this was a bit bigger than I thought it would be.”

The crew may still be struggling to come to terms with just what they achieved on Thursday, but there was nothing lucky or chancy about the victory.

According to their coach, Paul Jackson, they rowed what can only be described as the perfect race and he was at pains yesterday to point out just how well they executed their come-from-behind win.

“We may have been down in fourth at the 1000, but if you look at our splits they were 1,30, 1,31, 1,30 and 1,29 and that is very even and exactly as we planned,” said the coach. “We race an even-pace strategy and we are very quick over the last 500. People who go up against us are going to pay for it ... and they did (on Thursday).

“Our race plan was exactly the same as we did in the semi – we just needed a second more in the second 500. The whole race was set up when we reached the 1000 and it was then that I knew we were going to medal, I did not know it was going to be gold, though.

“It is just a credit to these guys who were so committed. It was a brutal race and they held their composure ... but the race went according to plan throughout for us.”

But as much as the rowers on the water executed their plan to perfection, there were mixed reactions on the boat, while Smith was convinced “we had won by more”, Thompson refused to allow himself to believe.

“When we crossed the line the thought went through my head that we have a slightly different boat to everyone else,” he said. “Sometimes when the bodies are all in line, which is what we look at, the length of the bow is different and the position of the bow ball will be different.

“In 2007 at the junior champs that happened to us and for about three or four seconds I thought I was a champion, and then learned I wasn’t, so I would not allow myself until I had seen the scoreboard.

“But once I saw the scoreboard – I knew where it was so I am not sure why I was looking at the wrong side, but then again, that moment of realising it was incredible, it has to be the moment of my life.”

For Brittain the belief kicked in with about 500m to go when he felt the other boats starting to fade and come back to them.

“We were fourth and I was thinking, ‘Oh well, fourth is not that bad’ as we came through the halfway mark. After halfway we committed all we had and then I really had belief in the last 500. You cannot see what is happening up front because we face backwards but I could just feel the guys coming back and I could sense the boat next to me.”