This was the first and only time in 2012 that the world got an insight into the speed South Africa’s greatest rowers could produce before they raced on the London Olympic waters at Eton Dorney. Powerhouse in the bow seat, James Thompson looks back on one of the most poignant races of his career to date.

“Our season up to this point had been pretty good. We had sadly lost the biggest race in South Africa, the Grand Challenge to a South African heavyweight four. That was probably the turning point of our season and after that things started going really well for us. We went to the Memorial “Paolo d’Aloja” International Regatta in Piediluco (Italy) and raced some of the top crews. We won four out of the four races we entered and got to try out a lot of different race tactics. We came into Lucerne with a very clear idea of what we wanted to do and just focused on our own boat.”

2012 in perspective: We tried to live the whole Olympic year ‘in the moment’ and when we got to Lucerne we really focused on having a good regatta so getting to the final was about seeing what we could do. Lucerne has always been a great hunting ground for us. In 2013 it was our third A-final in a row there, so for us it’s somewhere we really enjoy going. Being in an A-final here in 2012 was obviously awesome for us. We had messed up the final there in 2011, coming last and so we wanted to rectify that year.

Thoughts from Lane 2: I think it’s very intimidating to sit there next to guys like Eskild Ebbesen (Denmark) on one side and then you have Olympic medallists down the other in the Great Britain boat. The start line of the lightweight men’s four is always intimidating but at the end of the day it’s really just about your lane and getting your boat going as fast as you can.

I try to be ready for the pain (of racing) and not try to avoid the thought; be happy to accept it and then when it comes it’s not a surprise, but I don’t think there is any real coping mechanism – you just have to do what you have to do.

First strokes: On this start line we had the French, Swiss and Chinese all of who are generally fast starters and the British don’t hang around off the start either so it’s about getting up to speed. It’s about being in our own boat and being efficient to get as high a speed as possible. For some reason the other guys from around the world can start much faster than we can so we just try to hang on to their coat tails for the first couple of hundred metres of the race and do what we can do.

First 500m: As we come to the first 500m, for us it’s about having the right rhythm and being efficient. We’ve got to be in the race. Being able to hang onto the fast French, Chinese and Danish means that you should have a chance.

How the crew responds: It’s awesome how in Lucerne there is just so much noise as you come to the 1000m. If there’s noise and you can take the energy and use it that is really good. Sometimes it can work the other way by distracting or making you feel tense but generally I think we are good at taking the noise and working with it.

Thompson's role at 1000m: Coming through the 1000m is normally where Matt (Brittain) and I play a role as the big engines, making sure the watts keep coming at the back of the boat. We’ve all got to be good in all roles, but that was our specialty. Both here and in London we were strong on the day and as we came through the middle thousand Matt always used to say “me and you.” And then it’s time to start moving because if you’re not moving through the second thousand then you’re in trouble, particularly if you race from the back like us.

Last 750m: This is where Sizwe (Lawrence Ndlovu) and John (Smith) are so good up front, bringing the big rhythm and tempo to get us home. Sizwe has an incredible turn of speed and when he decides to sprint it is incredible.

At this stage we were screaming “GOLD” at each other. It’s a call we have within the crew where we just chant at each other. It was incredible here in Lucerne – I think we executed this race better than we did London. The four of us often talk about it and how there was just something about how the boat felt. As we charged to the line we were moving all the time but it just came too soon (South Africa finished second).

What’s really interesting is the finishing order: if you take China out, second, third and fourth place results are identical to the order in London. So when we were on the line in London we were happy the Chinese weren’t there because they were the only crew we didn’t definitely know we could beat.

Finish and impact: Somehow we managed to fly underneath the press radar in South Africa so nobody in the country expected an Olympic medal out of us, which was awesome. I remember walking up the hill in Lucerne saying, “We must not think, we must keep turning, we must keep doing what we’re doing.” We had our goals for the Olympics but didn’t have outside pressure. Our race in Lucerne was about what we created for ourselves.

Reference race: I think we use not just this race but the 2012 season as a reference to judge where we are within a year and obviously this is just one snapshot of the season. We still haven’t worked it out though!