My Olympic Experience: In conversation with South African rower Jake Green

by Daniel Roodt

Jake Green is a rower who competed for team South Africa at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. Green rowed for the men’s coxless four and narrowly missed out on the podium, coming 4th in the final. Green began his rowing career while he was at St Andrew’s College in Makhanda. He continued his career on the water at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) and was later selected to row for South Africa in his 2nd year. He is currently in the process of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics next year.

At St Andrew’s College, the summer sports options are quite broad, so when did you start rowing, and what inspired it?

I started with rowing in grade eight. At Prep (St Andrew’s Preparatory School) I was pretty terrible at most summer sports. I was terrible at cricket, terrible at tennis and I tried my hand at squash, all those things I wasn’t very good. Swimming, I was trash, so when I got to College (St Andrew’s College) I was sick and tired of firstly playing cricket, and also not being good at anything.

It was a short list, I knew I couldn’t swim, so water polo wasn’t an option. Basketball didn’t really strike me as a game I would enjoy playing. So, I took up rowing, but also rowing camp was in the week before school started, so I thought it would be a fun experience to meet a couple of guys before my first year at College.

At what stage when you were rowing at school, did you realise that you wanted to continue rowing at a high level after school?

It was in matric because my coach at the time, Donovan Cech had rowed for South Africa at

2004 Olympics in Athens and won a bronze medal. He was quite clued up with rowing in South Africa and the kind of standards athletes need to set in order to compete.

In my final year, he said to me, just based on my ergo performances, that I’ve got what it takes athletically to compete against the guys in South Africa.

He also encouraged me to try out for the juniors (the junior South African Rowing Team). Every year we (South Africa) select to compete at the World Championships. It’s quite a thorough selection process, you have to compete at all the regattas and based on your performances they’ll select you straight into the team.

But, I had terrible performances, so I was selected as a wild card option based on my fast ergo time. I didn’t get selected for juniors, which was really disappointing, but I could tell from the rest of the team that I could easily be better than most of the guys.

I saw how they trained and their mental attitudes to racing and performing that I could pass them if I took it a bit more seriously.

Obviously, you carried on rowing at University. Take me through your university rowing career.

At varsity, I joined the rowing club and I had a blast and over time I got quite a lot better. I realised in my first year that I was good at this and that’s when I started taking it seriously.

I started off for the university club and in my first year I trained with the national team for a while, but I was quickly cut because I wasn’t fast enough on the water. But, I was fast on the ergo and the national coach encouraged me to carry on rowing for the club and to try out for the team next season.

In my second year, I tried out for the national team again and I managed to get selected for a boat.

When I look back now, I think I had the right mindset. I handled the heavy loads quite well and naturally because I had a decent-sized engine, I excelled at a lot of the training.

Getting very good coaching helped me develop technically and I was ruthless at developing myself technically.

You qualified for the Olympics at a regatta in Lucerne in Switzerland in 2016. Can you describe what it felt like when you realised you had qualified for the Olympics?

The feeling was amazing, a feeling of vindication and that you were doing the right thing. It was also a bit of an overwhelming feeling because I hadn’t been in the sport for a long time.

It was an incredible feeling knowing that you were going to the Olympics, although I hadn’t really thought about it. It was also a huge milestone and a shift in my mindset that I can compete against the best in the world.

Jake Green and the rest of the men’s coxless four celebrate qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games at a regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland. (Image via Zimbio)

I’m sure the Olympics was an amazing experience. What was your standout moment at the 2016 games, and why?

Maybe when we qualified in our semi-final to make it into the A-final at the Olympics. That was definitely a standout moment because we had to beat two world world-champions and a silver medalist.

We weren’t expecting to get through, so we kind of just threw the kitchen sink at it and we made it through.

Outside of that, was the scope of everything when I woke up at the Olympic Village, we got there at about 2am, so most people were sleeping. When I woke up, the scope of everything, it blew my mind.

There were so many people around us, obviously athletes from different countries. I kind of think about it as if the whole world had one high school, where all the countries sent their kids to.

Everyone was walking around in their country's tracksuits, so it was crazy because it made me think of those athletics meetings I went to when I was at school because everyone was in their tracksuits. Only this time, it was every country you could think of and they were all wearing their national colours. That was one moment that stood out and it blew my mind, the sheer size, logistically and everything.

How have you dealt with the setback of the Olympics being postponed and how are you training during the lockdown?

Obviously, it’s been a huge knock in terms of our plans. We were on a pre-competition camp in Lesotho training at maximum intensity. In a space of five days, we went from maximum intensity training to qualify for the Olympics, going back home and then being told that there is a lockdown and that the Olympics have been postponed.

We were aware of what was going on in the world, and we were aware that the Olympics were probably going to get postponed. But, as an athlete, you don’t want to think about that because that introduces some things psychologically that will hinder your performance.

I’ve been training remotely. Everyone is based in their homes and it has actually been going pretty well. We all train in the morning together on the ergo machine, where we do a Zoom meeting and the coaches will watch us and coach us on the ergo.

Personally, I have been in a very good space. I’m lucky to have a very supportive family when it comes to these things. Not just that, but a family that understands the needs and lifestyle and what I need to do.

I’ve got all the equipment I need here, so it has been a good time for me personally, and the training has been tough, but it’s been a good change. The stress of that high competitive pressure has kind of gone away and it’s more about staying fit and trying to get a leg up on your opposition.

Jake Green and Lawrence Brittain rowing in the men’s pair at a regatta in 2017 (image via SportPhysio)

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