Athlete of the Month - January 2017
The inspirational South African, Lawrence Brittain, won silver at the Rio Olympics in the men’s pair - an achievement even more impressive because he had overcome cancer less than two years earlier. Brittain is from a rowing family where the whole family is involved and he tells World Rowing about plans to race with his brothers in a four.
World Rowing: How did you get into rowing?
Lawrence Brittain: My family is rowing crazy and we are all heavily involved with the sport. My dad was in the national team when my brothers and I were little and I remember going out to the dam to watch him race. Now my whole family has South African colours for rowing - my dad, myself, all three of my brothers and my mum is the doctor for our Olympic team. So, you can say I was born into it.
WR: Did you ever do other sports and why did you choose rowing?
LB: I played a lot of sport at school, like rugby, but I my engine was better than my ball skills so rowing proved to be more enjoyable. I am also a big cycling fan and South Africa has amazing mountain biking so I really enjoy it when we have some cycling on the programme.
WR: How was your experience at Rio?
LB: I really loved Rio. It was my first Olympics and I wasn’t sure what to expect. They put on a great show and we had a great time there. Obviously winning the medal added a cherry on top. The rowing course was challenging and some of the days were incredibly tough, but we were expecting it and had prepared accordingly - we weren't going to let a bit of wind ruin the biggest week of our lives. In fact, our whole South African team had this attitude - things don’t need to be perfect for us to perform and no matter what struggles we faced we pushed on and it showed with our results.
WR: What did it mean to win silver?
LB: For me just making it to the Olympics was incredible, in 2014 just after the World Rowing Championships I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma- a type of cancer. So all dreams of the Olympics left me as I faced this new obstacle. I wasn’t sure if I would even row again let alone make it to the Olympics. So getting to the start line at the heat was for me one of the most awesome moments of my life. Then it just got better and better as the week went on and crossing the finish line knowing you are about to go stand on an Olympic podium was unreal and better than I ever imagined.
WR: What have you been doing since then?
LB: I thought I was going to have a quiet time after the Games but it has been chaotic. We started giving motivational talks to schools and corporates and they went really well so our schedule soon was full. I took a bit of time off rowing but now the season has got going and we are back at the grindstone.
WR: What are you doing for your training at the moment?
LB: The local racing season is pretty early in the year and there are a whole lot of young bucks that are trying to knock me off the top so it is straight to business. The biggest race in South Africa is the Grand Challenge (coxless four) on the Buffalo River and this year I am racing in a four with all my brothers. It is something quite unique and hasn’t been done in South Africa before and maybe not anywhere in the world. We have quite a formidable crew, even if it is 50 per cent lightweight. Between us we have a fair amount of international experience and Olympic medals.
WR: Has your experience with cancer changed you as a rower?
LB: Definitely. When I was training for the 2014 World Champs I was struggling. No matter how much harder, better or smarter I trained I still went slower. It was a really tough time. After I was diagnosed I realised why I was struggling so much and my performance over the last two years made a lot more sense. I only started thinking about rowing again towards the end of the treatment as there was a good chance I would not be able to row again. When I started training again that was when I could feel how sick I had been. As I turned the screws on the training, my body responded so much better. Not only was I so much stronger but I was also recovering faster. I knew that if I trained as hard as I had been when I was sick I would definitely get the results I was looking for.
WR: How has it changed you outside of rowing?
LB: Not a huge amount. I think the reason I dealt with the cancer and the treatment so well is because of the person I am. I am a really positive and determined person and as the cancer and the chemo (which is absolutely horrific) attacks your body you need your head to be strong and in the right place to fight back so you can keep on track. If anything, the cancer just shows you how strong you can be when you have to be.
Are you able to row full time or do you have a job/study as well?
LB: I am currently studying towards a marketing degree as I will need something one day when I retire from rowing. There is not a lot of money in rowing and even less in South Africa so it is tough in the team here, especially when the program must be full time to get the results that we want.
WR: Which rower or other sports person do you most admire?
LB: My older brother, Matthew Brittain, has been an awesome role model throughout my life. I was in the stands in London when he won the gold in the lightweight four. It was South Africa’s first rowing Olympic gold and, after a pretty tough year for my rowing (being in the stands and all), it gave me a huge amount of belief in our system and our team. I knew that Matt had not done anything life changing back home and yet he was now standing on the top of an Olympic podium. They trained ridiculously hard but I knew I could train like that so I took so much belief from what they achieved.
WR: What do you do for fun (apart from row, of course)?
LB: I brew beer with my brothers. Production usually takes a dive during the season - not because we can’t brew but because we usually end up drinking most of what we make and that isn’t so good in making the boat faster. I also love movies and video games so spend a huge amount of time killing zombies - especially during rowing camps.
WR: What’s your next big goal?
LB: With the season just starting, the first goal is to make it back into the top boat. Shaun Keeling has retired, so new crews and boats are on the table and just making sure I am in the fastest one is the goal for now. Then on to the international racing scene. I hope to take some medals home this year and would love a win at Henley after a few second places there. And, of course, World Champs will be the big one. The Tokyo Olympics are still a long way off so I will just take on this year first and see if I can do one better than silver.