The big day arrives and with great excitement and a fair measure of anticipation, we said our goodbyes to our parents and headed off to the airport terminals as one big green and gold unit.  We were amped and ready for the long flights (via Doha, via Bucharest, via Sofia) to Plovdiv to compete in the World Junior Rowing Championships.

At the Airport

The weather in Sofia was very different to the cold we experienced in Johannesburg and we were blasted with a very hot 36 degree heat.  This did not dampen our excitement as we piled into a bus and headed to our hotel in Plovdiv.  I was focusing on what the food was going to be like and I was totally caught off guard by the mob of American rowers that seemed gigantic as they towered above as at an average of 1.9m tall. Whilst I was intimidated, I could not wait to go out and compete against the best junior rowers in the world. On inspecting the course, my double sculls partner, Jordan Craig and I were confused and worried about how fast the other crews were moving on the water and debated if they were really fast or if we were just slow. Nonetheless, we set up the new Filippi double (transported directly from Italy) and headed to the water – ready to see what we were capable of.  Getting used to a different boat, in a different dam, in a heat wave, did come with a few wobbles.

Once we had gotten the hang of it on the next day, the boat felt like it was moving as if we were gliding over the water. The stories of the rowing canal having ‘fast water’ was true! Both Jordan and I were relieved that the crews we had seen earlier were not as out-of-reach as we had initially thought. In the final push before the races began, we trained on what seemed like a new level for us.

Day one of the championship arrived and coach Chris reminded us that we must not be distracted by everything around us as we could get lost and feel overwhelmed with pressure and lose our nerve. Initially we thought he was just being cautious, but we underestimated what the atmosphere of the world’s best junior rowers preparing to sell their souls for a win for their country would do to us.

At the start line I did not feel any pressure – it felt like another race at Roodeplaat Dam, but when the siren went off, I was slapped with a reawakening seeing the other doubles leap ahead of us and having to fight to stay with the pack. Only once we crossed the finish line, could I take in what had just happened and I realized the difference between national and international rowing. We did not make the direct progressing to the A/B semi-final and our next race was the repechage.  This was going to be a very important race for us, as we needed to finish top 3 to make the semi-final.

Day two of racing and we were more mentally ready for the race and prepared to sit in the hurt-locker and fight for the positions we needed. The competition was very strong and we were nervous. During our warm-up we felt that we understood what was needed to reach our goal. Off the block, firm and aggressive starting strokes put us into a second-place position and we found a new and comfortable rhythm at rate 37 and above. The boat lifted out of the water with every stroke and we actually felt like competitors in the race. At 1 500m mark, we had dropped into fourth place with the Americans half a boat-length ahead of us. With only 350m left of the race and needing to come 3rd, I looked to see where the American boat was and then saw Coach Chris in the background showing me a thumbs up that indicated us to take it up and ‘throw the kitchen sink’ and go-for-home. This gave us a new burst of energy that allowed us to step onto a new gear and move past the American boat with a rate of 40+ to take us to a third-place finish only 0.65 seconds off second place and setting a new personal best. This was by far the most important race for us, as it secured our spot in the A/B finals.  We were exhausted but had achieved what we had worked so hard for.

The A/B semi-final was very exciting and we raced against very strong and feared competitors like Germany and Italy.  We ended 5th in the race and therefore progressed to the B finals on Sunday.

For our final race in Bulgaria, our game plan was to enjoy the experience, push ourselves as hard as we could, and leave without any regrets. We came 5th in the final securing a 11th spot overall.

After the prize giving, it was finally time to have some fun with the squad and we travelled to old town Plovdiv and explored the architecture, little stores and ruins in the area.  The sun sets very late at night (about 21:45) so it was really great because it made our last evening feel a little longer and we had the opportunity to socialise with some of the other countries too. Seeing the squad relaxed and happy about their achievements during the past week was amazing.

We left Bulgaria at midday on Monday after some last-minute go-carting (I won) and returned to Johannesburg on Tuesday morning, to a crowd of happy supporters (moms and dads that missed us).

I am really proud of what I was able to achieve through this amazing experience and am so thankful to my coach and rowing partner for giving their everything to make it possible for us to compete against the best junior rowers in the world.  The organisation of the tour and the support from the rowing community, friends and family was exceptional and this is something that I will never forget. Only regret – having to come home so soon!

 Nic Bonthuys


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