JOHANNESBURG - A year out from the Olympic qualifiers, national rowing coach Roger Barrow is testing combinations he hopes will produce the goods at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Barrow’s elite squad had their first outing at the Memorial Paolo d’Aloja International Regatta in Piediluco, Italy, last month when they made a promising start to the season.
The South African squad won eight medals in total as world single sculls champion Kirsten McCann and Nicole van Wyk partnered each other for the first time at a major regatta.
Barrow took a largely young group of rowers working towards the Tokyo Olympics, with McCann, Olympic gold medallist John Smith and David Hunt the only real seasoned campaigners making the trip.
But Barrow is optimistic about the future of his young group, using this year to test combinations and expose a few youngsters to the rigours of international rowing.
“I haven’t committed to anything, it was just a good test to go and see how fast we are currently,” Barrow said.
“The boats are moving in the right direction, so we are on track. Sometimes the boats aren’t going in the right direction where they are a bit slow.”
The promising start for the young group of heavyweight men’s rowers has seen Olympic silver medallist Lawrence Brittain and Jake Green cutting their breaks short to fight for seats.
“I still have Lawrence and Jake coming back which throws another curve ball to what boat they are going to start rowing,” Barrow said.
“That throws a curve ball to everyone and they are coming like a choo-choo train at the moment, very fast.
“He (Brittain) is petrified that he can’t beat all these young guys; he obviously has a lot of experience and he is a beast himself but he needs to come back.”
Barrow was looking to build some good depth among the heavyweights with an eye on sending a competitive four and pair boat to this year’s World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in September.
Smith, who has established himself as one of South Africa’s sporting greats, seems to have transitioned well from a lightweight to a heavyweight rower.
The world and Olympic champion formed a handy combination with Sandro Torrente in Italy, where they won gold in the pair boat but only had 0.05 seonds on second-placed Charles Brittain and James Mitchell.
“I want to make up a good pair and a four. The team is so young; the average age of our team is just 20 and that is with a few guys that are 28,” Barrow said.
“This is the third year out from the Olympics, next year is my crucial year of qualifying, this time I still want to see how guys are doing under pressure.
“If we look at 2014 before the Rio Olympics I also had very little; I didn’t have a heavy four by that stage, I only had the women’s pair and they were all average.”
Barrow will be testing more combinations at the Belgrade World Cup on the first weekend of June.
They will also compete at the third World Cup in Lucerne in July, while the core of the squad will be competing at the Under-23 World Championships before Barrow decides on his final crews for the global championships.