23 June 2020 is International Olympics Day – exactly one month before this year’s Olympic Games were scheduled to start in Tokyo. And while we might not have the games to look forward to this year, the show is still set to go on in 2021.

Despite the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games due to the coronavirus, along with all the disruption of the resultant lockdowns, South Africa’s national rowing team – the RMB National Squad – hasn’t slowed down its training regimen.

“Every day missed is a day wasted,” says national squad coach, Roger Barrow. “Our squad members haven’t missed a day of training through all the ups and downs of postponement and Covid-19.”

South Africa’s national rowing squad has an excellent track record when it comes to competing at the Olympic Games. Our first team to participate after the end of apartheid took part in the 1992 games in Barcelona. The eight-man team finished eighth overall in the final standings.

South Africa fielded three boats in both the Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) games – a men’s pair, a men’s lightweight four and a women’s pair. In Atlanta, our highest overall result was ninth in the men’s four event. All teams made it to the finals in Sydney, barely missing podium finishes in each race.

We put on a strong showing in Athens in 2004 when the men’s heavyweight pair of Donovan Cech and Ramon di Clemente brought home the bronze medal.

Beijing 2008 saw three South African boats take to the course – a men’s heavyweight pair, a women’s single scull and a women’s lightweight double scull. Our best result here was a fifth position by the men’s pair, comprising Ramon di Clemente and Shaun Keeling.

London 2012 was a momentous Olympics for South African rowing, with the men’s lightweight four (Matthew Brittain, Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson) bringing home the gold. Our second boat, the women’s lightweight pair, came seventh in their event.

2016 saw five South African boats take to the water at the Rio Olympics. Our men’s heavyweight pair (Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling) came second in their final, earning themselves a silver medal. The other two men’s boats, a lightweight double scull and a heavyweight four, came fourth in their finals. The 2016 women’s boats, a pair and a lightweight scull, both finished fifth in their respective categories.

The same year saw Roger Barrow being named international rowing coach of the year by World Rowing.

“2016 was definitely a signature year for South African Olympic rowing,” says Barrow. “We qualified our highest number of boats ever at and Olympic Games, all of whom made it into their respective finals, and brought home a medal.”

The team’s performance was soon noticed by Rand Merchant Bank, who stepped on board as a sponsor in 2017.

“One of the main objectives of the RMB sponsorship was to provide financial backing to the national squad in its bid to win more medals at the Tokyo Olympics,” says Barrow. “Having a sponsor such as RMB on board allows us to ‘focus on the boat’ without having worry about where our next regatta entry fees are going to come from.”

Alison Badenhorst, Chief Marketing Officer at RMB, says the sponsorship has been mutually beneficial.

“At RMB we believe in investing in talent. The RMB National Squad demonstrate what it means to amplify individual talent by working as a team with a common purpose,” she says. “They remain committed to their goals and put resilience into practice. We are continually inspired by their optimism, dedication and courage. The recently released documentary A Story of Courage brings these raw and authentic stories to life.“

RMB is also involved in development rowing, which has seen some incredible successes over the past three years.

“Our main focus at the moment as the RMB National Squad is qualifying as many boats as possible to participate in the Tokyo Olympics… and then bringing home some more hardware!” says Barrow.

During lockdown the team trained at home under the remote supervision of Barrow and his assistant coaches. As things start to open up, senior members of the squad will start training on the water again.

“We have received special permission for the squad to train on Roodeplaat Dam in Tshwane under strict social distancing conditions,” says Barrow. “We hope to be fully functional again soon, in time for the remaining qualifying regattas for the Olympic Games, and to field a strong team in Tokyo that will make our fellow South Africans proud.”

More on A Story of Courage
RMB has released a stirring documentary that lays bare the courage and commitment required to be a member of South Africa’s world-class national rowing team.

The documentary, titled A Story of Courage, gives viewers a glimpse into the minds of the people who underscore the success of the team, unpacking the philosophy of winning, and revealing what happens behind the scenes when the team is in training for major events such as the Olympic Games.

“It’s about overcoming hardship, rising above difficult circumstances and embracing the will to succeed,” says Barrow. “It’s about beating cancer and going on to win an Olympic medal, as Lawrence Brittain did in 2016. Or about being the first black medallist at the World Junior Rowing Championships, despite having a heart irregularity – a claim held by SA’s Thabelo Masutha.”

A Story of Courage can be viewed on the RMB website and on Showmax. It will also be screened on a number of SuperSport channels until 31 August 2020.