St Andrew's old boy wins Olympic gold

"If you could die of pride, we would have pegged," said a still-hoarse Alice Thompson describing her reaction after watching her brother James Thompson and three other rowers win a gold medal for South Africa.

The nation is enjoying more Olympic pride, but Thompson's family, friends and former school, St Andrew's College, are practically bursting with it.

Thompson said her sister and some friends had screamed at the tops of their voices all the way through the race and she was sure their screaming from Cape Town had been enough to push her brother's team to a win.

For the former Rhodes student, the feeling of pride was absolutely overwhelming and she said the phone hadn't stopped ringing for a moment. She recalled that when her brother was 14 he had told her about his 12-year plan, which envisioned him winning an Olympic Gold medal for rowing.

“This is one of the stories of the games” is a phrase shouted out for the second time during the London 2012 Olympic Games by commentators. Both times this phrase has been said about a South African performance.

First, it was swimmer Cameron van der Burgh who won the men’s 100m breaststroke final, followed by Chad de Clos who won gold in the 200m butterfly, beating the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps.

Then, yesterday, the SA men's lightweight fours team rowed into the second story of the Olympics when they came from fourth place after 1 200m to win the 2 000m race, also in the final metres.

Even the commentator was confused, saying Australia, in their green and gold were going for gold. However, it was the green and gold of South Africa which took Denmark and Great Britain by surprise to win SA's third gold medal.

Among the rowing four was former St Andrew's pupil James Thompson, together with Matthew Brittain, John Smith and Sizwe (Lawrence) Ndlovu. Someone who knows what the SA rowing crew went through at the Olympics is current St Andrew's master in charge of rowing Donovan Cech, who won bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

St Andrew’s pride
Cech has been the head rowing coach at St Andrew's since 2008. It was around the time when Cech won bronze and was at his peak, that Thompson was an up and coming junior.

Cech said the rowing circles in South Africa “knew they had a chance”, even though to the rest of the world they seemed to be the underdogs. Cech was in Tzaneen a few weeks earlier when he saw Thompson and his lightweight four in action. He said they looked sharp and ready for the Olympics, and it was then that Cech knew they had a chance to win a medal.

Although they came from fourth to win the race, Cech said some crews try to get a head start and stay in front, while others, like the SA team, are faster over the last 500m. Cech believed the SA four would have been going through an “absolute high”, after their win and during the medal ceremony, adding that this is what every athlete dreams of.

The team coach, Paul Jackson, and national head coach Roger Barrow, who are both in London with the team, are both former St Andrew's pupils.

In his Grade 12 rowing report for Thompson the then master in charge of rowing at St Andrew's, John Gearing, said “I have commented at length about James's excellent technique in past reports and I am pleased to see that this has come to the attention of the senior national coaches."

Aidan Smith, Deputy Headmaster of St Andrew’s College, said “The entire St Andrew’s College community is ecstatically proud of James Thompson and the South African Lightweight Men’s Four crew for the sensational way in which they clinched the Olympic Gold Medal today.”

“For all of these fine gentlemen, their dreams began as little boys at school with their first stroke of an oar. In the same way that James, while at St Andrew’s College, was inspired by the legendary rowing coach, Mr John Gearing, and encouraged by the whole school community,” Aidan Smith said.

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GOLDEN BOYS! St Andrew's College old boy (matric 2005) James Thompson (far right) and his Lightweight Men's Four rowing team mates John Smith, Sizwe Ndlovu and Matthew Brittain. They earned Team South Africa's third gold medal of the London Olympics at Eton Dorney on 2 August 2012 in Windsor, England. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
GOLDEN BOYS! St Andrew's College old boy (matric 2005) James Thompson (far right) and his Lightweight Men's Four rowing team mates John Smith, Sizwe Ndlovu and Matthew Brittain. They earned Team South Africa's third gold medal of the London Olympics at Eton Dorney on 2 August 2012 in Windsor, England. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images