Athlete of the Month – April 2015
South African James Thompson made his international debut in 2003, when he won bronze at the World Rowing Junior Championships in the coxed four. He went on to win two silver medals at the under-23 level in the lightweight pair before launching his senior career. After winning Olympic gold in the lightweight men’s four at London 2012, he switched to the lightweight double in 2014 and raced to claim his first ever World Championship title.
For these reasons, World Rowing has chosen to feature James Thompson as Athlete of the Month and share more about him with the world of rowing.
World Rowing: How did you become involved in rowing?
James Thompson: At age 14 I went to a school that offered rowing and they would go down to the river every day. This sounded a lot more fun than standing on a cricket field chasing a little red ball around.
WR: You medalled at both the junior and under-23 levels. What did you learn then that helped you later on?
JT: I have had mixed fortunes at all levels of international rowing. Definitely I have learnt more from the hard times than standing on a podium. Over the years we have learnt that less time in Europe is better for us: rather come back to Africa and train in the sun!
WR: Who were the most influential coaches in your career? How did each of them impact you?
JT: My junior years were spent under John Gearing. He was incredibly influential in teaching me the fundamentals of the sport and played a big role in developing my self-belief.
Roger Barrow has taken Rowing South Africa to the next level internationally and I’ve been privileged to have been part of this journey. Recently he has played a large part in guiding us through the transition into the double.
Paul Jackson was in charge of our lighty four going into the London Olympics and he brought the much needed leadership and experience.
WR: What were the most important factors leading to your Olympic success in London?
JT: The London success was built over a few years. Despite not having many great results in the four, we were learning a lot and getting our training environment right. We had a great support team with experience around us despite the four of us being relatively young. South Africa is sports-mad so the lack of big results before the Games actually played in our favour as we were able to stay low-profile and fly below the South African press radar.
WR: Do you have any pre-race rituals?
JT: Over the years my pre-race routine has become more relaxed. Generally I just listen to some music and laugh at all the funny and stupid stuff John says.
WR: How has your Olympic win influenced the status of rowing in South Africa?
JT: I think that it has resulted in a lot for our confidence in what is possible from South Africa. We have some of the best training waters and climate. Now there is a lot of belief within South Africa’s rowing community about what is possible.
South Africa is sports-mad but we are still very low profile as the media continue to almost exclusively cover the big three (rugby, cricket and soccer).
WR: We understand you are a full-time athlete. Where does your funding come from? How easy is it to raise that support as an athlete in South Africa?
JT: It has certainly not been easy and raising support for the athletes is one of the challenges ahead for the team. Since I achieved a top 11 finish in Poznan at the 2009 World Rowing Championships I have received some support from the South African Olympic Committee through what is called Operation Excellence. I do a lot of motivational talking often with teammates about performance and teamwork. Recently I have been doing some part-time work for a company called TUHF that specializes in Inner City Property Finance.
WR: What do you like most about racing?
JT: I love sitting in “the hurt” when the rhythm is good, watching it all unfold, then the charge to the line when it’s all about maximum speed. This is what motivates me to keep coming back.
WR: You are a keen mountain biker – tell us about it.
JT: I’ve always been passionate about bikes, after the London Olympics I was lucky enough to get an entry to race the ABSA Cape Epic, which is the toughest mountain bike race in the world. It was a very special week of racing for Matt Brittain and myself as we started well and got stronger every day. I would recommend this to any athlete who wants to experience Africa.
WR: What do you admire most about your main competitors in the lightweight men’s four?
JT: The ability the bigger nations have to continually being right up at the standard despite changing athletes over the years. Denmark is clearly the standout at this. Additionally the longevity of Eskild Ebbesen’s performance is very inspiring.
WR: What do you admire most about your main competitors in the lightweight men’s double sculls?
JT: The power that some of the European athletes have is incredible. To hear that Jeremy Azou has gone under 6 minutes on the ergo is very impressive. Additionally the young German double to have such good speed is very impressive - I wish I could have run with the pace of an Olympic Class A-Final at that age.
WR: What are the main differences you encountered between the lightweight four and double when you made the switch last year?
JT: Holding onto two oars is quite different after ten years of sweep. We have done very little sculling and together with an injury we only had eight weeks in the double last year, so we were learning in the deep end at the World Champs. We still have so much to learn about the double, but so far it seems to respond well to us throwing more watts at it.
WR: How would you say you and your former crewmates in the lightweight four complemented one another?
JT: We all had our different strengths and weaknesses. Paul Jackson was really good at working those strengths into each of our roles in the boat. There was also a lot of respect for each other’s abilities and this makes it easier to do your role under pressure.
WR: What is your role in the double? What is the role of your crewmate John Smith?
JT: John and I have a good relationship and understanding in the boat. We like to keep it very simple, John keeps the boat straight while I pull him down the course.
WR: What is a weakness you would prefer not having?
JT: My love of food is not a good thing as a lightweight.
WR: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whom would it be and why?
JT: A dinner with my whole family. Rowing in Pretoria is far from my family home in Cape Town, so we are seldom together.
WR: If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
JT: A lion – calm when relaxing but powerful, aggressive and fast when the hunt is on.
WR: What would your advice be to an aspiring athlete?
JT: Focus on learning to train properly, if you train right anything is possible.
WR: In ten years from now…
JT: After rowing I will spend a lot more time riding my bike and I would love to be involved in developing young athletes. As far a job goes? I’ll find something to throw my endless energy at.