Athlete of the Month - November 2008
This month World Rowing heads to South Africa: three-time Olympian Ramon Di Clemente won the first Olympic rowing medal for his country with a bronze in the men’s pair in 2004 at Athens. Since he debuted on the international scene at age 16, he has won 12 South African titles, four World Championship medals, and holds the record of four prestigious Henley Regatta victories. In 2008, a back injury for his former partner Donovan Cech meant starting with a new internationally inexperienced partner Shaun Keeling. After a successful experience at the Beijing Olympics, the 33-year-old Johannesburg native continues to thrive on his passion to excel in the boat and manage urban renewal projects in his city’s Central Business District (CBD).
World Rowing: Right now you are heading into the South African summer season unlike many of the dominant rowing nations. How long did you take off after Beijing, and what is your training and racing looking like at the moment?
Ramon Di Clemente: I took a month off after the Olympics and then got back into training. I am going about my training with the end goal focused on the World Rowing Championships in Poland next year. Our local season forms an important part of that build up. Our season starts at the end of January and ends in May with the South African Championships being the last regatta of the local season.
WR: Can you describe where you are based for training? Do you travel to other locations in South Africa for training and regattas?
RDC: I am based at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria and do some of my land training in Johannesburg. We row on a dam called Roodeplaat which is +/- 1400m above sea level. We also spend time elsewhere on camps as there are a number of good venues within three hours drive of Johannesburg. They range in altitude from 1000m above sea level, up to just over 2000m above sea level. I have spent the bulk of my time in Belfast (1950m) and Bethlehem (1600m). Both have great climates taking into consideration the height above sea level.
WR: What are your 2009 goals looking like for the men’s pair given there is expected to be new line-ups of the three podium crews from Beijing (AUS, CAN, NZL)?
RDC: I am looking forward to a great local season with Shaun this year and then we will be in a position to build on the international season from 2008. We will continue to improve over the next few months and if we pick up from where we left off, I believe that we will be serious contenders in the 2009 international season.
My goal for next year is to continue to enjoy my rowing as much as I have been over the last few months, I know that my best is still to come.
WR: What are your goals for the next Olympic cycle (which would be your fourth Olympics)?
RDC: It is an amazing thing to be able to represent one’s country at the Olympics and I am enjoying my rowing more than ever, so right now my goal is to be the best I can be and continue with that attitude one day at a time.
WR: Can you comment about the 2007-2008 transition you made with new partner Shaun Keeling after eight years of success with Donovan Cech?
RDC: I returned from the 2007 World Championships [where he and Cech qualified for Beijing from 5th place] and put my head down knowing that it was the last quarter of the Olympic cycle. Politics seemed to be the name of the game in South African Rowing over the next six months and I made a point of excluding myself from anything that I believed to be of no value when it came to performing in Beijing. As much as rowing is a team sport one can only focus on what they can control and I did that to the best of my ability. I think Shaun was extremely professional to stay focused on what would make him the best he could be. That is why we represented South Africa at the Olympics in Beijing because of how focused we both were on delivering our very best.
WR: What was it like to start over in an Olympic year with a young rower (Shaun Keeling, 21), and how did you develop so quickly while handling the ups and downs?
RDC: Change is always stressful. The six months that we had to get up to speed were intense to say the least. I think we did extremely well to focus every day and make the best of every minute that we had on and off the water. We managed to keep building our confidence when times were good and stayed positive when times were bad. We are still building and will be trying to take that day to day intensity into the 2009 season.
WR: How did you feel about the outcome at the Beijing Games and being in the A Final for your third Olympics compared to 2000 and 2004?
RDC: All my Olympic experiences have been unique and special. I have walked away from all three knowing that I gave my all.
WR: What was it like for you to experience winning South Africa’s first Olympic rowing medal in Athens?
RDC: I have developed my rowing career over a long time and managed to climb the ladder one rung at a time. My Olympic medal is a product of the ultimate achievement in rowing and my dream since I was introduced to international rowing has been Olympic Gold. Still dreaming and enjoying every second.
WR: What do you think has been your formula for success- how have you mangaged to stay at the top level of sport internationally for over a decade?
RDC: I have always been passionate about rowing and more importantly racing rowing boats. I love racing and always have. My friends and family have been very supportive throughout my rowing career. Hollard Insurance has been a great employer and seen the value in supporting me as an Olympic athlete. One needs to have people believe in you for one to perform year in and year out.
WR: What is it about the sport that keeps you in it?
RDC: There is no better feeling than a boat accelerating over the surface of water. Water is such an abstract medium and it gripped me from day one. I have always done what I enjoy and don’t like the word sacrifice. I think you do things because you want to, not because you have to.
WR: Can you share a bit of history of how you started rowing and how your coaches or other rowing mentors have shaped your career or inspired you along the journey?
RDC: I started rowing in 1989 as a 13-year-old in Johannesburg and was mentored at school by a great coach and friend. I think that was important to cement my passion and love for the sport. Christian Felkel has coached me for the bulk of my senior career. He is a very philosophical guy and has over the years opened my eyes to how multi dimensional life is.
WR: You are well known in South Africa for your ability to balance your work life projects in urban renewal and building development. What drives that interest and how have you successfully integrated that with your rowing career?
RDC: I am passionate about the development of my country in general. I have just completed a project in the Central Business District (CBD) of Johannesburg. Prioritising tasks I think is the key for me.
WR: Before Beijing you went with the rest of the SA rowing team for a fun visit to a game park and got up close and personal with some large elephants – what was that like?
RDC: At the time it was a good way to get our mind off the rowing. It was very intense for us in training as I mentioned earlier. South Africa is a great country in that it is has a lot to offer in terms of breakaway time.
World Rowing checks in again with South Africa’s Ramon Di Clemente who talks more about racing, training, the state of South Africa rowing, and his warm friendship with Norway’s Olaf Tufte, as well as cold weather training plans with Tufte n December.
World Rowing: In the last interview you mentioned your key to success has been your constant passion for racing. What have been your most memorable races?
RDC: I think the race that stands out the most is the Final at the 2002 World Rowing Championships. It was a very fast race and the first four crews went under the previous World Best Time [GBR’s James Cracknell and Matthew Pinsent went 6:14.27 which still stands as the current World Best Time]. It also was a great race from a spectator’s point of view. Whoever did the filming that year did a great job.
WR: What are the things you look forward to most when travelling to international competitions compared to racing in South Africa?
RDC: It is always exciting to represent one’s country and to visit new countries. Once you have been chosen to represent your country you certainly do your utmost to put your nation on the rowing map. So it’s just a heightened form of competition which is awesome to be a part of.
WR: You have made many worldwide friendships since you began racing internationally as a junior in 1993. Norway’s Olaf Tufte, two-time Olympic men’s single champion, has also been on the international scene since 1994 and has visited South Africa for training camps. Can you tell us about how you and Olaf developed your friendship and training partnership over the years?
RDC: I first met the team from Norway back in 1998. They came to South Africa and I met Olaf soon after that. We have always seemed to get on and he is a great guy on and off the water. So over the years we have become good friends and spent time training together. I will be off to Norway this December to train with Olaf and try out a few winter sports which will all be new to me. Looking forward to it as we have spoken about it often but never made it happen, so let’s hope I don’t freeze to death.
WR: Olaf, who is also well known for his Farmers Challenge, says he is really looking forward to have you in Norway in Dec for some fun winter activities. What do you think of his comment: Ramon is a great friend, training friend, and personal friend to me. Always smiling, and honest. It’s always some fun going around Ramon. I am really looking forward to have him here over Christmas. Then we see if he is any good in farming as well…will send him off to Lillehammer for andaluchen (1x luge) if I manage to get everything in order.
RDC: I have always wanted to try the luge so Olaf has been trying to organise that for me. Earlier this year, when I was in Norway for Olaf’s wedding, a group of us did the four-man bobsled, which was great fun. Mahe [Drysdale], Iztok [Cop], Olaf and I were part of that group.
WR: What have you learned over the years with respect to the best training that has worked most effectively for you?
RDC: I think structured camps a number of times a year, and for three weeks at a time, have certainly helped. Since 1999 it became a big part of our calendar and helps us focus.
WR: Since your parents originate from Italy, what kind of influence or connections have you had with Italian rowing?
RDC: Not many! I am good friends with Gabi Bacelli [W1x] as she was born in South Africa. I have raced many times against Giuseppe De Vita who is a great guy and we get on well. Recently I met Raffaello Leonardo who too is a great guy. Giuseppe and Raffaello were the men’s pair for Italy in Beijing.
WR: What changes have you seen in rowing in South Africa since your country became part of the Games again in 1992?
RDC: Things have been tough as we have constantly been trying to build on the number of people that row in South Africa. International competition has certainly been a huge incentive for South Africans to pursue their rowing career as far as possible.
WR: How do you picture the future of rowing in South Africa?
RDC: Rowing at the High School level has grown in leaps and bounds since my school days. There is a problem in keeping people involved in the sport after that. The numbers drop at Universities and then quite dramatically at senior club level. I think for us to get the numbers up internationally we need to find ways to keep people involved in the sport way after their school careers are over.
WR: Given that you have been South Africa’s most successful male rower, and Africa’s for that matter, how do you see yourself using your position to impact younger rowers and leaving a legacy?
RDC: I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have had such a long rowing career and will continue to row for as long as I possibly can. The legacy that I would like to leave is that rowing is a sport that rewards you ten fold if you do it for the right reasons. It’s not about doing it just to make the national team or for a particular race; it’s more about trying to master the art of propelling a boat across the water’s surface, as fast as you can, for as long as you can, and that will keep you occupied for a life time.
WR: Your former South African team-mate Colleen Orsmond, a two-time Olympian in the women’s pair, said that your strong point is your attitude and being a real team player. Can you tell me about how you balance being a team player while also being a leading force for South African rowing?
RDC: I thrive on being a part of a team, especially a team that has common goals and values. I try to have a positive attitude at all times and that relates to my life outside of rowing too. Being a leading force in South African rowing does not really occupy my thoughts. I just try to be the best I can be within the team that I am in at the time.
WR: If your current teammates had to use one word to describe you, what would it be?
RDC: Who knows? You would have to ask them - maybe ‘Old Man’. I’ve heard that one thrown around a bit.
WR: What is your favorite food/menu that you find most satisfying after hard workouts or races?
RDC: Having grown up in an Italian home nothing beats a great big plate of pasta.
WR: Do you have a song on your pre-race playlist that we might be surprised with?
RDC: Not really. It changes all the time.
WR: Is there anything in particular you learned from your last Olympics that you are looking to change or experience again?
RDC: I went into this last Olympics having worked hard and with a great team. I will not settle for less in the years that are left in my rowing career. HARD WORK AND GREAT TEAM DYNAMICS.