Kirsten McCann has set the bar in South African women’s rowing. Photo: Reg Caldecott

JOHANNESBURG – The swan glides gracefully across the water meticulously, placing the oars back into the glimmering water in search of the perfect catch with each stroke.

Kirsten McCann makes it look effortless, but hidden beneath the water’s surface, she hides her ruthless nature, all in pursuit of executing the flawless race.

Still a year away from entering her 30s, McCann has already reached incredible heights in the sport, distinguishing herself as one of the great South African rowers.

Almost 10 years since making her debut at the Beijing Olympic Games, McCann is finally reaping the benefits of years of self-sacrifice and dedication.

McCann was the first South African woman to win a medal at the Under-23 World Championships, when she finished third in the lightweight single sculls in 2010.

Three years later, she became the World Student champion, before breaking new ground winning the 2015 world lightweight double sculls bronze medal with Ursula Grobler.

Blazing a trail for women’s rowing, McCann became the first South African female to win a gold medal at a World Cup regatta in Lucerne in July.

In just over a week, McCann could once again strike a blow for female sport in the country as she eyes a world title to add to her growing list of accolades.

But it is not titles or silverware that haunts McCann’s dreams – they are mere by-products in the search for perfection.

Content with an 18-kilometre set she had just finished at a pre-world championship camp on Tzaneen Dam – or ‘The Land of Speed’ as the rowers like to call it – McCann smiles with a twinkle in her piercing blue eyes.

“I think it is really cool to have something like that (a world title), but to be honest, I can’t say I’ve thought about it that much at all,” McCann said.

“The training is pretty hectic at the moment, that I think of getting through one session at a time and I have tried to master the stroke and every little bit of it.

“My goal this year is to be as fast as humanly possible in the single scull, and that to me is to be faster than I’ve ever been.”

McCann places a high premium on mastering her stroke and executing her race to the best of her ability.

That is what drives her, that is what has kept her in the sport for so many years, and what will keep her committed until at least the Tokyo Olympic Games, and hopefully beyond.

“The other day I was watching a video of me racing back as a student, and I thought okay, I’ve moved on from then,” McCann said from the banks of the Tzaneen Dam.

“But it has been progression. At that time I wanted to win and be the best at Student Games, then that happened, so I feel it is a natural progression.

“It is very cool to win, but my personal goal is just to be the best athlete. I would love to be one of the best lightweight women in the world, where people respect you.”

McCann and Olympic men’s pair silver medallist Shaun Keeling were one of national coach Roger Barrow’s first products from the rowing academy he started in Pretoria nearly 13 years ago. 

Barrow’s emphasis on excellence shines through in one of his best protégés, as she continues her single-minded pursuit for the perfect race heading into the world championships.

“Going into the world championships, it is about laying down my absolute best race and keeping the focus on my boat,” McCann said.

“I’ll be happy if I can get off a win and I raced it how I envisioned it, and how I’ve prepped it with Roger, but I would be disappointed if I get off the water when I didn’t execute a good race.”

McCann has been one of the shining lights in women’s sport in South Africa at a time that female role models are few and far between, in what is considered to be a male-dominated industry.

She hopes her success in the boat will not only inspire other female rowers to persist, but prove to women in general that they can make a career out of sport.

“I want girls in South Africa to see that you can achieve because a lot of them come from school rowing, and they do a bit of varsity rowing and give up and go on with their careers,” she said.

“I am also trying to promote rowing, so by maybe by achieving a good result, they will maybe be inspired to carry on.

“It goes beyond rowing. I was so disappointed that we didn’t have any female swimmers at the Games, for example.”


Saturday Star