|Blazing paddles: Ndlovu celebrates gold|
South Africa’s lightweight rowing four showed their golden touch in the water yesterday as they clinched a record-equalling THIRD Olympic title at London 2012.
In a dramatic last-gasp victory which pushes Team South Africa up to an unprecedented eighth in the medals table, Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson left the commentators spluttering with a sensational finishing burst to match team-mate Chad Le Clos’s golden 200m butterfly win over Olympic great Michael Phelps on Tuesday evening in the pool.
Former Pretoria policeman Ndlovu, 32, said afterwards: "This is so exciting, amazing...I took rowing up at school in 1997, and now I'm standing here. My brothers and sisters are supporting me back home.
"We stuck to our game plan. We knew Denmark would start strongly, and we had one call - to go for it in the last 500m. It worked.
"Rowing is big in schools but otherwise financially it's an expensive sport, this gold will be good for South Africa's rowing community and help give it a better image."
While the international feed warned us about Australia closing on the highly-fancied Denmark in the closing 200m, it was in fact the other side in gold and green who were sniffing a late surge to gold. South Africa were third at halfway and fourth at 1,500m but it was over the fateful last 500m that the oarsome foursome produced the blazing paddles.
Coached at Pretoria University’s High Performance Centre which also produced South Africa’s first gold medallist of London 2012 Cameron van der Burgh, they left first Australia, then the not-so-great Danes and hosts Great Britain in their wake.
As the lakeside erupted, South Africa finished in 6min 02.84secs, just 0.25secs ahead of Britain with Denmark taking bronze a further 0.07 seconds behind.
All the talk will now be of Ndlovu, also known as Lawrence, who became the first black African medallist in an boat Olympic boat. The oldest member of the crew at 32, he’s a former police reservist who worked, appropriately, for the Pretoria flying squad.
Born in Johannesburg, Ndlovu grew up in Newcastle, Natal but went to Mondeor High School south of Johannesburg, where he was introduced to rowing by the late headmaster Tom Price. He recalls: “Tom was actually the one who saw the potential in me and encouraged me to row. He used to pick me up in the mornings at 5am, make me train before classes, then go to school and also train in the afternoons. That was Tom Price, what a great man. He passed away in 2006.”
After over a decade of dedicated paddling at Roodeplaat Dam, he told Graeme Joffe before the Olympics: “Yes it took me 11 years to qualify for Olympics. The past two have been difficult. It is a tough event, but we are all equal, the boats are the same and it is just whoever is ready, whoever is more hungry.
“To qualify as a lightweight crew, we need to be 70kg, so we’ve had quite a bit to lose! Maybe one can weigh 72kg and we can donate amongst each other. So, if anyone is having a tough day, we share the weight and we work together to that.
“I don’t just row in a four. I came ninth in the World Cup in the single sculls in 2009. But I love the lightweight four. When things are going well, you are always going to love it and obviously if things aren’t going well, you aren’t going to love it. You are always going to blame three people but it has been good. I am enjoying it, I am loving it.”
Behind Ndlovu in the boat, Brittain, 25 from Johannesburg, lists his hobbies as cycling, swimming and rock climbing. His brother Lawrence Brittain who is also a rower and has represented South Africa at international level. Brittain won a gold medal with fellow golden boy Smith at the 2011 World U23 Championships in Brest, Belarus.
After finishing second to the Danes in Wednesday semi-final, Brittain said: "We don't chase the medal. We chase the good race and that's what gives us the good result."
Smith, 22, cut his hand in the semi, smearing his blood all over the boat. A Germiston lad, he also does a bit of male modelling.
Capetonian James Thompson, 25, learned to row at St Andrews College in Grahamstown where he also played rugby.
Nobody really expected a win for a four who came 11th at the past two World Championships – before they came in second in the World Cup regatta at Lucerne earlier this year.
Only one rowing expert really believed in their potential - Don Cech, now coaching rowing on the lake just outside Grahamstown where Thompson learned the trade - won South Africa’s only other rowing medal when he team up with Ramon Di Clemente for the men's pairs bronze at Athens 2004.