Next Stop Tokyo: John Smith

Tokyo 2020 Athlete Interviews

2 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 05.07.21

John Smith, 31, from Johannesburg, South Africa, helped his country to win its first ever Olympic gold medal in rowing. The Olympic and World Champion sculler still holds the current World Best Time in the men’s lightweight double sculls. At his debut Olympic Games in London 2012, Smith won the men’s lightweight fours. At Tokyo 2020 John will compete as a heavyweight rower. John has qualified two South African boats for the Tokyo Olympics, the men’s pair at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz and two years later the men’s four at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucern. He will compete in the men’s four and shares his thoughts while on training camp in Toyama, Japan.

How has your season been? The obvious high is qualifying for the Olympics. The pressure to qualify in that race* was immense. Even when we were winning it was never about the joy of being ahead but more that we were not in the non-qualifying third spot. As for the lows, my wife getting Covid-19, was bad. Thankfully she has recovered. It was near the end of our home training and the team doctor told me to keep training until we know if I’d contracted it or not. They were dark days; just going down to the ergo and pulling on the handle – hoping you don’t start coughing or feeling any symptoms. Mentally it was tough to keep pushing through while thinking this could be a season ender. After six days without symptoms I took a test and it was negative. That’s when the stress left me.

When do you leave for Tokyo?  We have arrived in Japan following a very long journey. First, we did a 10-hour flight from South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport to Singapore, after landing we were escorted from our plane to the gate in single file – we waited at the gate for eight hours. Our next flight took us to Tokyo, it was seven hours long. When we arrived, we each had to do a Covid-test and then nearly three hours of processing. In the early hours of the morning got to an airport hotel for a shower and a short sleep before flying short haul to Toyama. It has been a massive two days of traveling but we’re here now and we’re ready to get back to work.

When will you arrive at Tokyo We are currently in Japan, on training camp in Toyama. We will be here for two weeks before heading to the Olympic Village five days out from the Games. We expected hot temperatures and high humidity, but so far that’s not been the case – it has mostly rained!

When is your first row on the course? The first time ever was in 2019 during an Olympic training camp; it was very windy and bumpy. This time around the next row on the course will be five days out from the Games. We’ll be expecting the Wild West out on the water.

So, you’ve been before? Yes, during the Olympic venue tour in 2019. We did a week of training and sightseeing in this amazing country. For three days we rowed on the Olympic course and then another three training at a different venue. It helped us get to grips with the time change and how that impacts the body.

What have you been doing since World Cup II? We spent many weeks up in the mountains of Lesotho. We’ve been there three times this year, each one was a three-week camp to build our fitness. On the last trip we were greeted with snow. A lot of us had never experienced snow before. For the first time in my rowing career I had to row in leggings and second skins every day of camp. In the middle of a South African winter it generally doesn’t get lower than 10°C. So, the mountain weather of Lesotho was a big change.

Photo M4- RSA
Credit Benedict Tufnell

How are you all feeling? Currently the team is under massive strain due to the burden of travel and just adapting to Japan and its climate. Hopefully we will find our feet in the next few days and push on with training. Then we’ll be ready to dish up the big performances!

What do you hope for? A race worthy of the training we’ve endured for the last five years.

What’s your motivation? Progression and winning motivate me more than anything else. Day-in, day-out I strive to be the best. I always have to be the hardest worker.

Who are the big players in your event? The men’s four is loaded. Great Britain currently sit at the top of the pile. Australia have only lost one race this Olympic cycle. And you can never write off the Italians or the Romanians. Plus, obviously, the South Africans; You’ve always got to back yourself in order to put yourself in the fight.

Since leaving South Africa what type of training are you doing? The training program stays the same but at home we are at altitude whereas here we train much closer to sea level so want to start producing more power and more speed – especially as we close in on the racing.

Have you started to taper yet? We will start the taper as we get to Tokyo. Somewhere around that time, and I can’t wait to feel good! All year we live in a state of massive fatigue. So, coming into the taper always makes me feel good.

How will you feel when you leave camp? I expect to feel battered but then hopefully we will start the taper and feel ready to race.

Did you ever doubt these Olympics would go ahead? It is big relief to be here and know the Games are on. I thought my dream was over in 2020 so to get this shot, feels unbelievable!

How’s the local reaction? The Japanese people have been nothing but receiving, kind and helpful. They are incredible people – and I thank them for allowing us into their country.

How’s the Covid-security? The rules are very strict with regards to Covid-19. For example, there’s no leaving the hotel unless we are going to the course and that is only via the bus which picks us up at the front door. Also, there are strict paths you must walk at the training centre. It all makes sense – and we will follow their rules so that we can all be safe. It’s basically a full lockdown but being here is privilege enough; we must, and we will, tow the line. We owe it to Japan to do our part.

How big is your team? We have the men’s pair and the men’s four and travelling with us are two coaches and the team doctor.

Beyond your own event, which races are you most looking forward to? As a former lightweight rower, I’m obviously keen to see what happens in the lightweight men’s double. And in terms of the openweight racing I can’t wait to see the men’s eights.

What Olympic sports will you follow? The men’s high jump is my favourite event to watch at the Games. I’m hoping for something special from Mutaz Barshim – the double Olympic medallist and World Champion from Qatar.

Photo RSA M4-
Credit Benedict Tufnell

*Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, Lucerne