When the South African men's lightweight four crew of Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson won gold at the Olympic Games last week, it came as something of a surprise to British and SA supporters alike. Based on their form ahead of the Games, perhaps it shouldn’t have.
The SA quartet had won silver at the World Cup Regatta in Switzerland before the Olympics and were quietly backing themselves for glory in London. Choosing to keep a low profile paid off for the crew, which after a slow start, dug deep to pull in the other teams over the last 500m to snatch the gold medal.
Rob Peters caught up with Brittain this week to see if the victory had sunk in yet.
Rob Peters (RP): How were you feeling ahead of the Olympics?
Matthew Brittain (MB): We were pretty confident that we were faster than we were at Lucerne, but we knew that everyone else would be too. We wanted to keep a low profile and have our best race at the Games.
RP: This is your first Olympic Gold medal – has the win sunk in yet?
MB: I think it has. I still just want to stand up and scream with joy every now and then, but otherwise I'm just enjoying the heavy, comforting weight of the gold in my pocket.
RP: You guys didn’t have the best start, but that last 500 was quite incredible to pull in Australia and Great Britain for the win. At what point did you think it was your race to win considering that the pundits had tipped Team GB for victory?
MB: We thought the race was wide open to four crews after the semifinal, even though the times were much faster in the other semi, because the wind picked up between races, we believed.
RP: Do you think your team was underestimated going into the Final?
MB: Maybe, but I think that we sprinted in Lucerne to take silver and everyone racing us must've had a bit of fear of our sprint. We tried to keep a low profile going into the race.
RP: Did you go into the race with a strategy to start out slow and finish fast?
MB: Yes. We wanted to pace ourselves well. The goal of the first half is to put ourselves in the mix and then put in everything into the second half of the race. We try not to be too emotional too early on - just execute a good race.
RP: Team SA is now sitting on three gold medals – how do you think this will affect the rest of our athletes’ morale?
MB: I hope they are as excited as we were when we watched the swimmers crush! I hope things keep going well for the whole team.
RP: How long have you, Lawrence, John and James been rowing crew together and what do you think makes you guys such a great team?
MB: We have been together this whole year. Prior to this, some injuries kept us apart. We are really well balanced, bringing different skills to the crew. We are all very determined and hungry to be fast. Mostly, we were able to commit everything to the training to allow us to progress fastest.
RP: You guys did well at the Switzerland World championships, beating China and winning silver in the men’s lightweight four – how do you think that prepared you for London?
MB: It was good enough to give us enormous confidence, but not enough to make us think we were fast enough. We really attacked the training since then. But actually we got silver behind China at that race.
RP: Obviously your guys’ win will affect the image and stature of South African rowing, both at school/university and international level – how do you think this will help in exposing our young crews and helping them become more competitive at an international level?
MB: Of all the things this result does, the only one I want is for it to promote the sport of rowing. I hope that some of the young kids who are rowing around at schools can soak up some belief and train hard to race internationally. We need to keep the new blood coming and I would love to teach more new guys how to be fast.
RP: You and the women’s pair are the only rowers to represent Team SA this year. Do you feel that such a small and intimate number of athletes worked to your advantage - as you all train under coach Roger Barrow and Paul Jackson? Or would you have preferred more rowing crews to represent SA?
MB: More is better for sure. I just want South Africa to put out more quality crews and I hope that next year we have a big and strong team full of inspired and determined athletes. A small team can be an advantage as you learn to trust each other totally and realise how much each guy wants to perform.
RP: An Olympic gold is a rare achievement for any athlete – what does this mean for you personally and where to from here?
MB: I am just grateful to the rowing gods for smiling upon me on the day of the final and rewarding my crew and me for all the offerings we made on the training altar!