Imagine winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games and then being told by your coach that you won’t be acknowledged as a true rower in South Africa until you have won the ‘The Grand’.
John Smith just laughs when he recounts the friendly banter between him and coach, Roger Barrow, immediately after South Africa’s historic victory in the men’s lightweight coxless fours event at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Most South African sports fans won’t have a clue what ‘The Grand’ is all about, but speak to any seasoned rower and you will immediately realise that to them it is something like the ‘Holy Grail’ and they’ll recount the history of the event in awe.
The Buffalo Regatta (commonly known among rowers as ‘The Grand’) began in 1879 and has been held every year since, except for an interruption during the war years. This weekend East London will celebrate the 128th staging of the event which makes it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, sporting events in South Africa.
Partly because of the two magnificent trophies at stake, the Buffalo Regatta has been a major highlight on the South African rowing calendar. The trophies are awarded for the Buffalo Grand Challenge (Senior-A Coxless Fours) and the Silver Sculls (Senior-A Single Sculls).
These trophies are priceless and are commonly regarded to be of the most valuable trophies awarded for any sport in Southern Africa. They are made of pure silver and are insured for over a million rand. ‘The Grand’ trophy measures a height of 1.2m.
Smith, who is sponsored by the High Performance Centre (hpc), has taken Barrow’s advice to heart and has since managed to become a ‘proper rower’ by being a member of the four-men lightweight crew that won ‘The Grand’ in 2013 and 2014.
Over the past years, the regatta has become a titanic battle between the lightweight and heavyweight crews, both wanting to claim ownership of ‘The Grand’.
Smith is confident that he, together with his teammates, will be able to complete their hat trick. Except for Matthew Brittain, who has had to retire because of back problems, the team is still the same that won gold at the London Games. Shaun Keeling (bronze medallist at last year’s World Championships) is equally confident that they will be able to bring an end to the lightweight’s reign as champions.
‘It will be close but I would like to believe that the heavyweights will win,’ said Keeling, who is also sponsored by the hpc.
Keeling is quick to point out that, as far as rowing abilities are concerned, the heavyweights and the lightweights are basically on par.
‘If you look at the world record you’ll notice that the heavyweights are a bit faster. However, that is right at the top end of the sport. If you talk about consistency you will find that the lightweights come through a bit stronger towards the back end of a race.
‘Personally I think a good heavyweight should always be able to beat a good lightweight,’ said Keeling who was part of the teams that won in 2008, 2009 and 2012.
However, Smith reckons it is the time of the lightweights. ‘We are going to capitalsze on our current good form.’
According to Smith, the rowing conditions on the Buffalo River are quite different from what they are used to.
‘The Roodeplaat Dam, where we do most of our training, has fresh water. The Buffalo has salt water, which affects the buoyancy of the boats. The conditions can be rough because there is a current and also a bit of a tide. Sometimes there are waves which can make the water very choppy, so there are definitely favourite lanes.’
Smith has set himself a unique challenge. He is planning to compete in the Silver Sculls race as well. Because the two races are only two hours apart, very few rowers have been able to win both races.
‘Many rowers who have tried to double up by doing the Silver Sculls as well as the ‘Grand’ pay dearly. It is a gamble to do both and the rower who attempts this feat has to give a very special performance. Not many athletes are able to do it.
‘In the sculls you use two oars and in the foursome only one. It is like playing basketball and then netball immediately afterwards. Even though the two sports are similar, there are some significant differences.’
Picture by Reg Caldecott