Inside Rowing SA – After Gold in London, nation’s big medal hope at 2016 Olympics

Team South Africa has five crews at the 2016 Rio Olympics and after the surprise Gold Medal win in London 2012, the sport is excited to be part of the country’s diverse team of potential medal winners.Chairman of Rowing SA’s International Commission, former Hollard CEO Paolo Cavalieri, explains the science and discipline required to get the rowers into, and peaking, in six-boat finals – and highlights the similarities between the sport and business. He spoke to’s Alec Hogg.

Joining us now from Johannesburg is Paolo Cavalieri, the Chairman of Rowing SA’s International Commission. Paolo, it’s good to have you on our programme this morning. Just to go back a little, you’ve got a history in rowing – representing South Africa at the 1992 Olympics.

Alec, it’s great to be speaking to you. Yes, I started rowing when I was at school at King Edward VII here in Johannesburg. It’s a school with a strong rowing tradition and that’s where I started rowing when I was about six years old – quite a long time ago.

What attracted you to the sport? It’s not one of the Big Four in South Africa.

It’s not one of the Big Four but it’s quite an important summer sport. There are about 40 schools around the country that are involved in rowing. It’s a sport that requires a fair amount of financing from an equipment perspective. It is also a sport that involves water, so there’s always a trip somewhere on the weekend to a stretch of water. It’s also a sport that interestingly involves the whole family and the community. . Since our gold medal in 2012 in London, rowing has been growing across schools around the country, so we’re very pleased to see that development.

That must have given you a huge boost – that 2012 gold medal. How many schools around South Africa now do have rowing as a sport?

Around 40 schools. Gauteng has the biggest collection of rowing schools, then the Western Cape, followed by the Eastern Cape and KZN.

The leading schools? Who usually wins?

St. Benedict’s in Johannesburg is a consistent winner. They’ve placed a lot of emphasis on rowing as a summer sport and on the transformation of rowing at school level. St. John’s College is relatively new to rowing. They’ve been in rowing for about 10/12 years and have been extremely successful. St. Stithians College in northern Johannesburg is another school that has done extremely well over past couple of decades. Then we have some new schools like Bishops and Somerset College in the Western Cape, and some of the Natal schools like Hilton College. It’s quite a cross-section of public and private schools, which is good to see. Then there’s Germiston High School, which has a very rich history in rowing going back decades as well and we are focused on quite strongly on them from a transformation perspective.

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Going back some years, a colleague of mine was a South African rower – Gareth Costa. He came from Mondeor High where I remember the headmaster was Tom Price. Did Tom play much of a role later on, in other parts of rowing?

Tom was the rowing master at King Edwards and he’s the person who got me involved in rowing. Probably much more importantly, he’s the mentor behind Sizwe Ndlovu who was a Mondeor scholar and athlete. Tom took him under his wing and introduced him to rowing. Today Sizwe is probably one of the most famous rowers in the world – being the first black athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games in rowing worldwide. Sadly, Tom is no longer with us, but he was chairman of SA Schools for a very long time and had a big impact on many people’s lives in our sport.

You mentioned Sizwe. That was the very famous gold medal that rowing won in 2012, against all odds. Even the commentator called you Australians.

Yes, they called us Australians. In fact, the Australians are probably South Africa’s B team, but nevertheless, it was an amazing victory. We were very confident of getting a medal coming into the Olympics because we had a good lead-up in the World Cup regattas before the Games.

The particular lightweight event that we were competing in is extremely competitive and our coaches, the medical staff, and the athletes put it all together for the final. It was an amazing result – very richly deserved – maybe a flash in the pan, but since then we’ve reconfirmed the quality of SA Rowers internationally and we hope to be able to do so again in Rio in a few weeks’ time.

Looking at your website, your aim is to have three medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Considering that South Africa only won six medals in total and only three gold medals – one of them being yours – in 2012, that would be a huge haul for this country if it were to be achieved. How confident are you, going into it?

Alec, firstly; I don’t know who put that on our website.

It’s there.

We have seven crews at the Olympics this year: two at the Paralympics and five at the able-bodied Games. Our four athletes in the Paralympics are knocking on the door of a medal and with the able-bodied crews our first aim is to get all five (if possible) into the finals, which would be aiming for the top six. Potentially, three or four of those are knocking on the door of a medal, but it really depends on the lead-up between now and the Games, that is if we can be injury-free and illness-free and then of course, putting it all together on the day. We’re confident of producing a good result and hopefully, that will be the medal you referred to. We shall see. It’s looking good, so far.

How did you go in the World Cup, given that you had a good showing in the World Cup ahead of the 2012 Olympics where you won gold?

The last World Cup was a few weeks ago as was the case in 2012. Our Women’s Lightweight Double finished second (the silver medal). Our Men’s Lightweight Double finished third. Our men’s pair and Women’s pair were both fourth and we managed to qualify fourth there, which is a very young boat that will probably produce the goods as far as medals go (we hope) in Japan, in 2020. Having said that, it’s a really strong crew so they may pull something out. Those are the results at the last World Cup so between first and fourth, there’s a second or two in it so it’s very, very tight. That’s a second or two of on average, a six-minute or six-and-a-half-minute race. We think that all four of those crews (if they have their day) should really produce the goods. We hope so. We’ll see.

How does it work as far as peaking at the right time is concerned? Is there a programme that builds up the Olympics?

There definitely is. We start the year with a lot of distance training and foundation-building and then, as we get into the international season we start focusing on boat speed and consistently through the year, looking after our athletes from a conditioning and health perspective. We try and load as much as we possibly can (physically) on these athletes and then monitor their performance and their recoveries. We then design that around the regatta programme. The regatta is run for around five days. So if we qualify through the heats in the semi-finals. It’s a minimum and ideally, we should be doing just the minimum of three races over the five to six days with the aim being to peak in the final. We’ll probably have our last, really hard training session just before the heats and then recover through to the final as the week progresses.

For the Lightweights, it’s a bigger challenge, because in addition to what I’ve said to you, they also have to manage their weight, because the average weight of the crew is controlled and regulated. So for the Lightweights, there’s a weigh-in two hours before they race. We need to make sure that they come in under the weight limit. If they don’t, they put on three tracksuits and go and run it off. This means that when they get to the start of the race (potentially) they’ve already lost a bit of energy. It’s a tremendous balancing act. We can liken sport in so many ways to business and this is one of the examples.

It sounds like boxing almost, the way that the weight is managed – perhaps horseracing with the jockeys as well. Quite a lot of science that would go into it…

There’s a lot of science that goes into it and we have an amazing medical team that looks after our athletes. I think that is one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful. We are very close to each of the individuals on the team, and we monitor their health and their preparation very closely. There’s a lot of attention to detail. When people ask us, “What is it that makes you win?”, it’s the small things and the package of the small things that helps us to win consistently.

You’ve had a glittering business career: Chief Executive of Hollard Insurance between 1999 and 2008 and now, as Chairman of Etana Insurance. When you talk about there being similarities between business and rowing, can you elaborate on that a little?

Sure, I can, Alec. It starts with people, first and foremost. I think the most important thing is having the right people in the right roles and finding the best talent that we can. South Africa is so full of talent. The key is being able to bring that talent out and create the environment in which that talent can go out and perform. Our biggest focus – whether in business or in sport – is to know what we’re looking for, identify the talent, convince them, motivate them to come on board, and then create the environment within which they can express themselves. Guide them, assist them, and succeed together as a team. At the end of the day, it’s teamwork and collaboration. Rowing is as much an individualistic sport as it is a team sport. As in business, we have stars and we have the ordinary guys who do the job.

If you look at Leicester City for example, which many football fans will be familiar with as the winners of the Premier League in England. I think that the main reason why they were so successful this year, is harmony and collaboration among the team members and understanding of the individual role of the team members as individuals and as a team. When you can get that all together – albeit in business or in sport – the result is almost a foregone conclusion.

Dare we say it? The Irish who beat the Springboks over the weekend with 14 men have played 16 times together this year. I suppose the Springboks are still learning how to play as a team and maybe that’s another reflection of it. Your coach – Roger Barrow – is highly respected in the world of rowing. Was he a difficult guy to get on board and in fact, to keep there?

He’s certainly difficult to keep now, as is the case with all our staff because of the results they’ve achieved internationally. Our coaching staff is a blend of youth and experience and when we get that blend right, I think it contributes to some excellent results. He was a very young national coach when he came out of the school system. It’s tough for our coaches in this country because we have so many variables that we have to deal with beyond the pure performance of the team. For example, transformation, finding funding and sponsors. It’s a big challenge and it takes a lot out of the people who are involved in ultimately making the boat move.

Roger is part of a very strong support team including

the technical and medical staff, people like Denel Briton the team doctor, Jimmy Clark, our physiologist and then all the support coaches such as Andrew Grant and Paul Jackson (who brings 20 years of experience in Olympic rowing in South Africa). That’s the blend of experience, commitment, hard work, and a bit of youth and energy.

As far as numbers are concerned, how does the size of the rowing community in South Africa compare with those in other countries that you’ll be competing against for medals?

I would say that it’s probably similar – proportionately. Rowing is not a big sport worldwide. It’s a big sport in the UK and in the USA though, but I guess, compared to other sports – proportionately around the world – it’s more or less similar. I think it’s countries like ourselves and New Zealand that rowing is perhaps performing beyond the statistics and that’s because we have a system that works really well. Having said that, we’ve got about 95 athletes in our national squad overall. That’s from under-16 through to the Olympic squad. We have about 20 coaches looking after these athletes and then about five medical and general management officials so it’s around one official to three athletes and that’s our national setup from a national team perspective. As far as the sport of rowing goes, I really wouldn’t know what the number is but it’s clearly in the thousands. The schools are the biggest contingent, then the universities, followed by private clubs around the country.

After winning the 2012 gold medal against everybody’s expectations, you would have anticipated that rowing would have gotten a nice boost and that you’d have sponsors breaking down your door but it’s taken a while to get that financial support with RMB only recently coming to the party. Why do you think that is?

I think that it’s probably a reflection of the economic situation in the country, to a degree. It’s also a factor that rowing is not a sport that is massively ‘out there’ from a media perspective. Rowing is not a sport that attracts a tremendous amount of participants, although as a school sport it’s becoming quite significant and that’s important for us from a growth perspective, going forward. Generally the sport has struggled to attract a lot of cash and sponsorship support. That’s why we are looking beyond pure media exposure to other ways the sport can add value to financial support such as to ‘experience’ rowing for example.

You say ‘experience’, the experience of the rowing?

The rowing ‘experience’ refers to creating network opportunities, bringing communities together to see how we can assist sponsors and those that are supporting us to do business together for example. Putting them in the boat, so they can see what it’s like to row and is where it becomes really difficult. In motor racing, for example, we all drive so whether you’re a racing driver or not, you can jump in a car and have a seriously exciting experience around a racetrack. That’s where experience or value really comes out shining.

In the case of rowing – if we literally put people in a boat it will take us probably a morning to teach them how to row, so it’s a sport that makes it quite difficult to be ‘appealing’ from an experiential perspective.

Nevertheless, there are many influential people and there’s a really strong network that revolves around rowing. It is about finding other ways to add value to sponsors, but competing at the same time with sports that have a much bigger presence in the population and a much stronger media attraction. Generally, I think for sport to find sponsors in South Africa today, as we’ve experienced since 2012, is really a tough ask.

Having RMB on board though, and particularly the way they’ve taken their sponsorship on board, almost focusing their whole advertising campaign around it. It does give you presumably quite a bit more muscle, a bit more resource to go out there and become world leaders.

Yes, this is the perfect example Alec of the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘what’, which is also so important in business. It’s how RMB, have engaged with us. It makes such a big difference for our sport. It is not the financial support that’s the major focus here. RMB has taken a very comprehensive look at our sport and have engaged with us on a variety of levels. It is not just with the national squad and our international achievements. It’s getting involved with the universities. It’s looking at transformation and, most of all, their aim was to try and link the values of rowing to the values that make businesses win and, in particular the winning business that is RMB.

The value for us as a sport is that we profile our sport at a national level through the advertising campaign that RMB has produced – very much a win-win situation – hopefully a sustainable one in the long term.

South Africans are now aware, with the Olympics coming that rowing has got a chance, even though you’re not wanting to put pressure on your guys. What do the public look out for? What are the landmarks or the barriers that you have to overcome to gauge your success in the Olympics?

If we look purely at performance, the biggest challenge is making sure that we have an injury free and a healthy lead up to the Games. With the support of SASCOC last September we went across to Rio with some of our potential Olympians, so we’ve done a bit of a recce. We’ve tested the waters there and we’ve seen what it’s like to travel from east to west and we’ve experience the impact of inoculations and all the rest of it on our athletes. From that point of view, the pure health angle is of number one importance when it comes to performing on the water on the day.

Aside from that, the biggest challenge for us has been finances, because all our money goes towards the athletes, equipment and travel. We’ve been very lucky that in addition to SASCOC and the support from sponsors such as RMB, to have had the backing from the rowing community in South Africa and worldwide. Former Olympians and internationals that are in business today who were involved at rowing at university or at school level have supported our sport tremendously.

In terms of performance – we have what it takes. We’ve got the athletes. We’ve got the equipment. We’ve got the preparation. We now need a smooth run into Rio. The talent is here and we have the people that have developed with Roger Barrow and his team a winning formula. We now need to continue to attract the talent and have the funds to be able to provide them with the environment that will make them successful.

Just to expand on that. For the average couch potato, who’s going to be watching the Olympics, what does he look out for? You said that you need three good races. Is that all you need to win the medals?

Excuse me, what was that last question?

Is that all you need to win a medal, do you need just three good races?

We have from our gold medal winning, four in London – we have a men’s double, so it’s a two-person boat. They have two oars each, so it’s called a double scull. They’re light weight, so they’re going to have to manage their weight. I expect that they’re going to manage their performance as well and preserve energy as much as possible. As long as they advance from the heats into the semi-finals, which means they have to finish in the first two or the first three in the heats. Then in the semi-finals in the first three, to advance to the finals that’s enough. We don’t need to win the heats. We don’t need to win the semi-finals. We need to win one race only and that’s the final. We have to do the minimum possible, ideally, to get into the final and the process is heats, semi-finals and finals. If we lose in the heats we have a second chance, it’s called a repechage, which is where all the losers from the heats go into one race and then the first two out of that qualify for the semi-finals. That would mean a fourth race. That would not be ideal for us because it would mean that if we get to the final that way we’ll have had an extra race in the body compared to our opposition and that’s not necessarily favourable.

The same applies with our lightweight double women, who are our best performing crew from the last World Cup who will be seeking to do exactly the same thing. The minimum required to get from the heats, through to the semis, and then into the final and then, on the day I’m sure that they’ll produce the goods.

For our two cox’ed pairs, the women’s cox’ed pair and the men’s cox’ed pair (the heavyweights) the same applies. The least number of races possible to get into the final and once we’re there the conditions are the same for everybody. The lanes are the same for everybody. The equipment is not something where one crew has an advantage over the other. It’s really down to the athletes and the team that’s prepared them at that point in time. Alec, if I may say, I would look out for our two double sculls, men and women, and our two cox’ed pairs, men and women. Those are the four boats in the able-bodied Olympics.

In the Para-Olympics we have a sculler Sandra Khumalo who’s going to her second Olympic Games and then a mixed four, which hopefully will be knocking on the door for medals. We want to get Sandra into the final again that’s a big aim for us, after that she’ll produce.

So the idea is to manage, almost like with the 800m or other athletics track events, yourself into the finals because that’s where it matters.

That’s where it matters. Obviously, ideally you should win everything because just psychologically that generally helps one to be in a better state of mind when you get to the finals. Like we did with the lightweight four in London it was a perfect week for us. I remember phoning Roger after the semi-final and saying, “Roger, do you realise we could be winning gold here?” He said, “Paolo, please go away we are going to win gold. Leave us alone, we know that.” It’s backing yourself when it matters I suppose.

Talking about backing is there betting that goes onto the rowing? There seems to be betting in the UK on just about everything. Is there any of that kind of pressure?

Well there’s no pressure on us, as far as that’s concerned. In fact, we weren’t even aware that rowing was exposed to betting, but I think every Olympic event does have a betting option or opportunity through one of the betting companies around the world. I had a couple of friends phone me up and say, “Paolo, why didn’t you tell us we were going to win a medal?” I didn’t realise that betting was possible. That’s not something that enters our minds. Betting means you’re leaving it to chance and potentially to somebody else to win. We’d rather make sure that we bet on ourselves and come out the other side with the right result.

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I was just wondering what price the winning crew was, when they won gold in London in 2012.

I have no idea, from a betting perspective. What I can say to you is that they received some funding from SASCOC. I think this is where we need to congratulate SASCOC in landing Telkom as a sponsor because I understand that some of that sponsorship maybe, and subject to correction here, will go towards a pool of funding that will be made available to medal winning athletes. We’re not in it as rowers for the money. This is not a sport and the Olympics is not an event that makes us rich financially, but in every other way, and respect. We win and we’re extremely rich because of the experience and the learning I think the athletes, the community, the people involved with the crews – they take those expenses into all other facets of life and that is invaluable.

How professional or amateur are they, and sport being so competitive nowadays, and particularly the Olympics. Are the guys who are competing for South Africa at the 2016 Olympics, are they given time off from work for instance?

They are. You need a very supportive employer to be able to achieve that particularly in the year leading up to the games – it’s a full-time job. They train three times a day. We go on training camps. We’ve been going to Lesotho in the highlands for high altitude training. We go to Tzaneen in the next couple of weeks, where the climate is a little bit warmer to complete our preparations for the Olympic Games or, if it was a non-Olympic year, it would be for the World Championships. This is a sport like any other I believe at an Olympic level where you have to dedicate yourself 100% of the time to the sport. If you do get a gap or two or have an employer that’s prepared to accommodate you at work for a couple of hours a day, that’s actually first prize, because the preparation is so intense. To have the distraction of a job or a profession on the side, or maybe studies for that matter, is actually extremely useful and healthy.

In the race themselves, again from the couch potato’s perspective what can go wrong?

The only thing really that can go wrong is physical or, worst case scenario, a break in the boat but that’s highly unlikely (I’m touching wood as I’m saying that). That’s hardly ever happened and usually there are rules around where if there’s a technical accident in a boat, within a certain period of the duration of the race, then they would have a re-row. The only thing that can go wrong is if the athletes aren’t feeling well or if they get their tactics completely wrong in the race itself and in reading the race as it unfolds. They could perhaps have a really bad start and need to make up lost ground and therefore having to change tactics through the race. Generally speaking, from the couch potato’s point of view there’s not much that can go wrong.

So there’s not a Zola Budd/Mary Decker potential, if you recall that famous race?

I certainly do recall that. No, there isn’t because we’re all in lanes that are well separated. If there’s contact that means something is broken somewhere or something really bad and unusual has taken place. There are six lanes. They’re separated by a string of buoys and everybody stays in their lane, particularly at this level. There are usually no major steering issues or steering problems and that’s pretty straight forward. It’s really putting the performance on the water, on the day and that’s the big thing.

Well, Paolo there’s no doubt that you won’t just have the RMB people, who are now very involved from a sponsorship perspective in pulling for team South Africa or ‘Rowing South Africa’ in the Olympics. It will be the whole country because you are no longer an unknown entity. For you the best case scenario clearly would be for everyone to win gold, but what is a realistic ambition?

I think to comment on the colour of the medal would be really going too far but I think that if we came home with two medals that would be a very successful and satisfactory campaign for us in this Olympiad. If we can get the colours as close to gold as possible that would be the cherry on the cake. That’s the most objective answer that I can give you. You go to the Olympic Games and you could see the most obscure sports, but you’re seeing the top people in the world in that discipline and ours is rowing but, more importantly, we’re one team and one country.

Paolo Cavalieri is the Chairman of the international group for Rowing South Africa.