By Mark Etheridge
Every Olympic gold medallist will tell you there’s no short cut on the road to ultimate sporting glory – and yet some of them have faced just as tough a challenge a long way out from the blood, sweat, tears and ultimate victory of the battlefield.
South African Olympic rowing gold medallist James Thompson is just one of those athletes who had it equally as hard in the classroom as out on the water.
And to his credit, the 28-year-old has opted to lean on his own experiences to help others affected by his particular challenges.
‘I really battled at school from the beginning at Western Province Preparatory. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, poor reading, spelling, speech… you name it, I had it,’ he told Road to Rio 2016. ‘I battled academically and socially in the beginning.
‘Then in Grade Four I went to a place of learning called Pro Ed House in Cape Town and that helped a lot, it was the turning point and I was able to, as I put it “learn to learn”.
‘I developed lots more confidence and it was where I turned the corner in terms of coping mechanisms, and how to deal with the challenges. I still battle a bit with concentration and dyslexia issues and I always say that my wife [he got married in 2013] has got two jobs, her own job and then to help me with any stuff that I need looking at,’ he joked.
After adding more medalware to his war cabinet with gold at the World Rowing Championships in the Netherlands last year, Thompson decided to take things one step further after gaining some valuable public talking experience at the many corporate talks since the London Olympics experience with the lightweight fours.
‘After we came back from world championships I started doing talks on my academic experiences and the first one was to 200 private school headmasters in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape and since then I’ve done between 15 and 20 around the country. I even went back to my old school, WP Prep where I was welcomed back.
‘What I do is talk them through my journey, share the various coping mechanisms and help people who face challenges. It’s aimed at people who battle with their kids and to show them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that people must perservere with kids that are battling. I also talk them through the lessons that I’ve learnt through sport. One amazing experience was at the Bella Vista Remedial Centre in Johannesburg and where everyone in the room was facing the same problem.
‘My biggest challenge is finding time so the vast majority of the talks are in Johannesburg… unfortunately I’ve had to turn down a few due to time restraints caused by training but I can’t begin to emphasise what an interesting experience it is. Every school is different but the response and feedback has been amazing and it’s great to see that the parents have got renewed hope.’
Thompson’s early academic experiences resulted in him having to leave Cape Town to complete his schooling. ‘None of the regular southern suburbs schools accepted me so I went off to St Andrew’s College in Graham’s Town where I matriculated. The plus side is that is where I was introduced to rowing!’
Moving on to this year and and then next year’s Olympic Games in Rio, Thompson is quietly confident.
‘Last year was good in that we won gold at world champs but it was also a very tough year. This year we are looking for consistency and Olympic qualification, obviously more fast times and medals, and we want to consolidate ourselves at the top of the lightweight pile.
‘This year is make-or-break qualifying year for Olympics. No-one wants to qualify through the African continent route, we want to go to Europe and get the top slots. The top 11 in each category at world championships in France get the Olympic slots. First up though is the Grand Challenge in Port Elizabeth which all the rowers love and there’s so much history around the event.
‘Then we’ll have a training camp at our high-altitude base in Lesotho and our first international regatta is in Italy and, like we usually, do we’ll race the third World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland before coming home for another six weeks.’