Coach adopts new strategy for Tokyo Olympic Games
● National rowing coach Roger Barrow has switched his Olympic strategy, deciding to load his top rowers into the men’s four-boat instead of the pair.
The pair has been the premier boat ever since Lawrence Brittain and now-retired Shaun Keeling took silver at the 2016 Rio Games, with no fewer than eight heavyweights battling it out for the two seats.
But the fierce rivalry over the past five years saw two pairs rising to the top in a breathtakingly tight duel, and recently both smashed the unofficial SA record during a racing set at Roodeplaat Dam.
The old mark of 6min 27sec was set in 2012. John Smith, a member of the lightweight four that won gold at London 2012, and Sandro Torrente went 6:19 and Brittain and Kyle Schoonbee trailed in 6:21.
“You have two good pairs, you put them in a four because you can’t separate them,” Barrow said this week from their training camp at Katse Dam in Lesotho, where they will remain until about a week before heading to the Olympic qualifying regatta in Switzerland in mid-May.
Brittain and Smith qualified the pairs boat at the 2019 world championships, but the men’s four and the lightweight women’s double sculls, having missed out then, will attempt to book their tickets to Tokyo in Lucerne from May 15-17. The top two boats in each class there will qualify.
This is not the first time Barrow has changed tack. In 2014 he scrapped the golden lightweight four and made a lightweight double scull that won world championship gold that year in a 6:05.36 world best that still stands.
“I’ve asked them how they feel about it and John Smith feels really good about it and he’s obviously had some amazing experience in the four so they’re very amped and motivated for the boat.”
Smith, who famously performed a bodybuilding pose to celebrate the lightweight four’s victory moments after crossing the line in London, was part of the groundbreaking double sculls that eventually finished a painful fourth at the Rio Games.
He has transitioned well into the heavyweight class since, positioning himself to become the first rower to win Olympic medals in both divisions.
Rowing has contributed three Olympic gongs to Team SA’s hauls over the years, their third being the men’s pair bronze at Athens 2004. No SA rower, however, has won more than one Games medal, but Smith and Brittain could change that in Japan.
First up however is the Olympic qualifier, where pressure is massive and failure marks the graveyard of Games dreams.
Winners, however, are elevated into Games medal contention.
“If we can win the qualifier we have a very good chance at the Olympics with the four,” said Barrow. “The standard will be high. Other countries have scrapped their eights, taken their best guys out of their eights, they’ve scrapped some pairs, taken the best guys out of their pairs and everyone’s going hard for the four.”
In 2016 the SA men’s four won the qualifying regatta and a few months later they ended fourth in Rio, having been in medal position for most of the race.
“I think this four has got quite a lot more experience [than the 2016 four] with John and Lawrence,” said the coach.
If the four don’t qualify, Barrow still has the pair boat to fall back on.
Kirsty McCann, a world champion in the non-Olympic lightweight women’s single sculls in 2017, and Nicole van Wyk have both struggled with back injuries recently, but are getting back to form.
“This camp they started to increase their intensity,” said Barrow. “Their event [at the qualifying regatta] is even more brutal [than the fours].
“So many good [lightweight women’s double scull] crews haven’t qualified through continental qualifiers and they’ll be there.”
I’ve asked them how they feel about it and John Smith feels good about it Roger Barrow
SA rowing coach