Rachel Quarrell

Coaching on the Knife-edge: South Africa’s Roger Barrow

by Rachel Quarrell

Rowing in South Africa is constantly balancing near the financial precipice, but head coach Roger Barrow has somehow managed to form a squad capable of winning at the very highest level.

Hark back to 2012, when the stunning win of the South African lightweight four in London marked that country’s first ever Olympic rowing gold, and a grin of delight spread across the face of stroke Sizwe (Lawrence) Ndlovu, the world’s first black Olympic rowing champion. The four had conquered the globe, and their future looked bright.

A year later Matthew Brittain had been forced to retire with serious back problems, RSA funding was shredded, and national coach Roger Barrow was grappling with exchanging the lightweight four for a lightweight double since he had only three top oarsmen.

The job of a high-performance coach is never easy, but Barrow lives on more of a knife-edge than most. His is one of the smallest centralized training systems in rowing, and the loss of one athlete can change his entire season.

“Everyone’s rowing in old boats,” says Barrow, “but it’s not about the boat. We rig them up well and they go just fine.”

His 2014 selection culminated in a new lightweight double of Ndlovu with Olympic crew-mate John ‘Bean’ Smith, but Ndlovu’s own suddenly recurring medical issues resulted in the final member of the London quartet, John Thompson, taking over Ndlovu’s seat for Henley Royal Regatta, Lucerne and the world championships. They promptly won gold and shattered the world record, bearing out Barrow’s faith in them. Meanwhile the rapidly developing openweight pair of Vincent Breet and Shaun Keeling claimed bronze, making Amsterdam the first senior world championships at which South Africa had won two medals outside para-rowing.

The system is simple: rowers good and keen enough to join the national team move to Pretoria, where Barrow’s tiny squad is based on the Roodeplaat dam to the north-east of the town. They are coached and medically treated for free, but get no living expenses.

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  • Pictured: James Thompson (left) and John Smith celebrate winning South Africa’s first World Championship gold (and a world best time) in the LM2x.

“We’ve an unwritten rule that if you want to be in the senior team for the Olympics and worlds, you’ve got to be based in Pretoria at Tuks RC,” says Barrow, whose only other paid coach is assistant Andrew Grant. “After 2012 one of the criticisms I had was that all the members [of the LM4-] came from different clubs, but I have to just play it that I’m in Pretoria, and if you want to row fast you need to come to me. We don’t charge anybody to coach them. We’re paid by the federation and we’ll coach anybody we think is good. The philosophy is to have a system that can take them from being a top club rower to being an international rower.”

“We’ve got quite a small support team and try to provide services which don’t cost the athletes anything. There’s a volunteer doctor that’s pretty much full-time, a physiologist volunteer who’s full-time too, a physiotherapist and a strength trainer. We give them each a small stipend per month.”

Equipment is limited to only the top 12 rowers, so some athletes have had to borrow boats from local clubs. “Everyone’s rowing in old boats,” says Barrow, “but it’s not about the boat. We rig them up well and they go just fine.”

The team land-train in the city centre at the University of Pretoria, with whom Barrow has strong links, and are with the coaches full-time, apart from two weeks over Christmas each year when he releases them to train on their own. School and university rowing is club-based, but interacts with Barrow, who is heavily involved with the training of under-23s at their own club.

“We do lose some good rowers because we haven’t got enough for them,” he says. “I’d like to think with a few more resources we could grow at the under-23 and junior level, since we’re very top-heavy at the moment.”

Even with the recent successes at the top level, there is no official recruitment system in place. “There is a good and big junior system,” says Barrow, “but when you look at who wants to put the time in after school, very few rowers do. Our intake of rowers [into the senior team] is maybe three or four a year, and not all of them make it.” Funding is only available for the top few athletes, and even that is limited: the rest is, by necessity, self-funded.

Barrow does seek employment for the non-student rowers, but it doesn’t fit well with their training schedule. “James Thompson does have a job, but it’s really a couple of afternoons a week, more of a courtesy or sponsorship than a job. What we’re looking at now is companies picking up individual athletes who can do a bit of motivational speaking in the afternoons: that’s the only model I can see working at this stage.”

A centralised system does allow him to create a strong competitive environment, however tiny. From the start of November everyone in the team is in singles, constantly coached and judged on how fast they make the sculls go. “We’re looking at how people adapt to the training we prescribed over time and with consistency, and how they make rowing their priority,” he explains.
“Some struggle: the idea of rowing and being an international athlete sounds good, but then putting in the kilometres and the hours is too much for them. Rowing is a hard, ruthless game, so if they can’t maintain the training, we don’t think they will make it.”

“I never kick anyone out, I just don’t select them to the teams,” says Barrow. “But I encourage them to keep training with a club and if they beat faster people and get in, I’m always happy to be proved wrong.”

Do they often prove him wrong? “No!”

“I never kick anyone out, I just don’t select them to the teams,” says Barrow. “But I encourage them to keep training with a club and if they beat faster people and get in, I’m always happy to be proved wrong.”

Do they often prove him wrong? “No!” But Barrow does insist that it is possible to work back into the team if the rower puts in the work – and he is certainly open when it does.
In January the South African rowers returned from their solo training break to face the brutal ‘24-hour erg test’. “We do the 2km erg at 8am in the morning, a 5km erg that afternoon, and a 17km erg test at 7 o’clock the next morning,” explains Barrow.

By the end of January he can try some doubles combinations, and there is a small two-day National Selection Regatta around the 10th of May which allows him to test further combinations before selection to the summer team. “I don’t like to decide boats too early because athletes relax a bit too much,” he says. “I like pressure to stay on them, and I make sure the athletes are dictating the road ahead by their achievements.” This also allows him to develop back-up plans. “I have to be flexible because if I lose one or two athletes I can be in trouble.’

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“It’s so beautiful and so remote. It’s nice because I know the Europeans will never come there, it’s too risky for them. It’s the real Africa out there.”

Some of Barrow’s most productive time is spent away from Roodeplaat: the team train twice at altitude, in December and at the end of March, on the Katse Lake in Lesotho, the tiny independent and politically troubled kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa. “We go into the bush – there’s a little village with a few houses – and take a chef, staying in a little town called Ha Lejone. We climb a 3500m pass to get there, and we basically take all our rowing equipment: boats, 20 ergos, gym equipment, mountain bikes…. We do three to four sessions a day, just soaking it all up, about 220km a week.” Many athletes are still studying seriously, and lecturers send their exam papers to Barrow to administer on camp, by prior arrangement.

Barrow waxes lyrical about the isolation of Katse Dam. “The temperatures are quite cool, we’ve got a beautiful river where we row 10km out and 10km back in singles, and we spend three weeks there just training, eating and sleeping. I’d like to do that all the time. We love it because it’s so beautiful and so remote. It’s one of the best training venues in the world, but the scary thing up there is medical care, because if something goes wrong, we are really in a lot of trouble. It’s nice because I know the Europeans will never come there, it’s too risky for them. It’s the real Africa out there.”

The squad also runs low-altitude camps at Polokwane near Botswana, at Zanin “where there are hippos on the lake, another beautiful venue. We’ve got a good belief that our beautiful training venues make us go faster.”

In 2013 – “almost my worst year”, says Barrow – funding evaporated. “It was a blind spot – I think they thought corporate would pick us up.” The Henley Royal Regatta Stewards paid for them to travel to the UK, without which they wouldn’t have toured that year. “Then we managed to pick up some money right at the end to go to Korea,” says Barrow, “because we knew we needed good results from Lucerne and Korea to get funding for 2014.” The luck changed, and their overseas trips were covered last year. “Now I just focus on and worry about the bow-ball,” he says. “If the bow-ball goes fast I’m happy; if we’ve got no money that’s just fine.”

“All we can offer is national pride and watching the flag on the podium, that’s it.”

One of South Africa’s biggest logistical nightmares is the catch-22 position over Olympic qualification. Barrow’s rowers have to stay healthy and nail qualification at the pre-Olympic worlds first time. If not, it gets a little tricky.

Shortly after the Aiguebelette World Championships this year, the African Olympic Qualification Regatta (OQR) will be held in Tunisia, offering places in the M1x, W1x, LM2x and LW2x events to those who haven’t already qualified. South Africa, as an African IOC member nation, is invited, and thus can’t enter those boat classes at the Final OQR the next summer. But the South African Olympic Committee is aiming for medals, not merely to take part, and so refuses to allow its rowers to enter for the lower-standard continental regatta. As a result, the South African openweight singles, or lightweight doubles, can easily find themselves out in the cold if they can’t reach the top level at the world championships.

“It’s simple: our Olympic committee won’t let us qualify through the African QR, and FISA won’t let us do Lucerne,” says Barrow. “If we have a guy who is ill at the worlds I will plead with them to let us go to the African qualifiers, but I don’t know if they will let me. I’m trying to get exempt so we can do European qualification instead, and apparently there is a process which might work [for 2020]. But the Europeans won’t like that and I don’t blame them.”

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This double bind is one of the reasons sculler Peter Lambert, who has dual nationality, left South Africa for Britain in late 2012, and has now stroked the GB quad twice to a world medal.
“Watching Pete do well is awesome, I’m so chuffed for him,” says Barrow. “But it was a bitter, bitter pill that we lost him, I’m not going to hide it. We had very small resources at the time, we had quite a few athletes who went. That’s their choice.”

He admits he does find dual nationality parents – of which there are quite a few in South Africa – calling to ask what money he has to support their rower children if they stay with the team. “All we can offer is national pride and watching the flag on the podium, that’s it. But I can say we lost Pete but got Ursula.”

South Africa-born lightweight Ursula Grobler raced initially for Spain and between 2010-2012 for the USA, having taken US citizenship on marriage. Now she is back in her home country and blasting her way up the LW2x ranks with Kirsten McCann. “I know there have been a lot of difficulties in Ursula’s previous countries”, says Barrow, “but we just basically started afresh, and she had a really good world champs. Fourth was disappointing, but we got a lot more right than wrong and we know what we got wrong.”

“We’re trying to develop the idea that the spares make the boat go fast,” says Barrow. “We don’t get a lot of race experience since we don’t have the resources to go overseas much. Our potential senior team has a spare for each boat, and I don’t close the boat from a selection point of view until late, so we take our spares overseas. Then if someone is injured they’ve all had a lot of time together.”

With Ndlovu back to top form and Kate Johnstone pressuring Grobler and McCann, the rivalry for Barrow’s Olympic-class crews will keep everyone pushing hard. His men’s pair is coming along, there is a younger lightweight four with potential, the openweight women studying in America, and enough sub-elite men to consider a heavyweight four as well as the pair. The NOC aim of three medals in Rio is not impossibly unrealistic.

“Our team’s very young: the average age is about 23-24, so we’ve tried to put schemes in place to make sure those athletes go on until 2020. We want to keep them going for two Olympic cycles.”

This article was first published in Row360 Issue 4.

Lead photograph © Waldo Swiegers/Sunday Times (SA)

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