Published: 05-Oct-2021

The Brittains have Olympic rowing in their genes

Meet Dr David Brittain, father of Matthew, Lawrence, James and Charles Brittain. Matthew won the unforgettable gold in the lightweight four in London 2012, and Lawrence won a silver in the pair in Rio de Janeiro 2016. The four brothers had a fairytail win in the Grand Challenge final at Buffalo in 2017.

Author: Ursula van Graan (née Grobler)
Interview done with Ursula at David Brittain's practice at Pretoria East Hospital on 23 September 2021

Waiting in Dr. Brittain's office, there is no doubt he is a man with rowing on the heart. Pictures of his sons' successes, as well as a photo of a Jeppe eight that he coached, fill the walls. The interview gets on swiftly. David is busy, and I get the feeling he is in high demand.

What do you think about South Africa getting the bid for the 2023 World Rowing Master's regatta... and will you row in it?

"I love it when we get these big events. When we have done them, we can hold our head up high. World Cup, Football, and Rugby were done very well. The Ironman African Championships were also hosted in South Africa. We've got great facilities, we've got great weather, we've got really great stuff. So I think it's very exciting. And I think it's a great place for people to visit. Within a few hours of Roodeplaat, there are big five, malaria-free game reserves. I mean, if I was looking at doing something like this, and included a little Safari... it's great. So I'm very excited that we've got it.

I'd love to participate. I think it's in the back of my mind... I'm not rowing very much at the moment. I can still row. I'm fit. "

Fit indeed. David is currently training for the Absa Cape Epic - an impressive 8-day mountain bike stage race covering a distance of 700km. It's a massive event... epic!

I shift to his beginnings asking David to tell us about how rowing came into his life. David started at General Smuts school. And what made him choose rowing?

"That story is quite funny. It's in Danielle's book. My dad said I should join the rowing team at my school because he used to row for Oxford. So I was like, wow, my dad rowed for Oxford, so I joined the team. It came out many years later, he actually rowed for the Oxford rugby team... and what rowing meant was that they would take a keg of beer and a set of trestles and go to the halfway mark at the Henley Regatta and then spend the next three days drinking and shouting at the crews. I don't think he ever stepped in a boat."

"It was great fun", David repeats a few times. They trained on the Vaal. You were selected by height. David was 9th tallest, so he got a scull, but eventually he moved into the lightweight four. His first race was at Florida Lake, a 450m race, in a Donoratico boat. It was pouring with rain and he fell out of the boat on the way to the start. He laughs - "Fell out in the race, but you get back in, I mean we learned to do that."

David started at Wits University in 1982. Friends encouraged him to join the rowing club and attend a camp in January. Wits was a very successful rowing club at that time with an eight that went to Henley. David recalls that he had never rowed so hard and so long at the time, and never in an eight, which he stroked. "It was magic. I loved rowing in the eight."

His crew went to Henley during the peak of sanctions on South Africa due to the apartheid policies. They could not tour as Springboks, the name of the National Team at that time, so they rowed under the name Canterbury and toured as Trident. They toured to Schweinfurth and Hamburg, and then went across to Henley in 1983. He really lights up as he remembers Henley. "I haven't talked about this in a long time...just rowing in this tunnel of noise and right next to the other crew in the drama, but it's just wonderful. It's such a wonderful race."

The South African 6.2km boat race started in 1980. It was first rowed on the Vaal, then later moved to the Kowie River in the Eastern Cape. These were the races they did.

David eventually got his Springbok colours in 1984. Initially in the lightweight four, but then moved into the spare of the four. In 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics it was announced that the lightweight four would be an Olympic Event in 1996. David trained hard to make that four, hoping to go to Atlanta, but - disappointedly - he was selected as the spare. " I wasn't good enough... One of those things about that level of sport, is that you cannot achieve unless you are very honest with yourself. And when you're very honest with yourself, you learn a lot about yourself. And it's a very important place to go to... to explore your soul and to make choices."

His choice was to finish his exams for his specialty in haematology and while his team mates raced in Atlanta, David wrote his exams. "So I never got to the Olympics", David sighs. "I think it had a big influence on the boys. Matthew from age five to nine watched his dad train, diet, go through selections. Then as Matthew started to row, it influenced Lawrence who was three years younger". James and Charles, making up the four Brittain son’s all row (ed). Matthew would go on to win an unforgettable Olympic gold in the lightweight four in London 2012 Thereafter, the event was removed from the Olympic programme.

What was your most memorable race?

"There are a few that stick out. I won the lightweight scull from Gareth Costa in the selection race. That was a good race. He then turned around and beat me in the heavyweight race later that day. Schweinfurth, we had very good racing."

What made it good?

"You get into that space where the boat just sings. It runs and is just flying along. The haul is crackling, it's magic. I just love that feeling. That whole experience...

I think there's something very special about rowing. How having a common goal melds a group of very disparate people into a crew. I think it's something that's actually helped me through my entire life - that ability to understand the crew dynamic, the team dynamic and recognise that you have to bring everyone along. The way I run my practice, the way business works... yes, you can leave people behind, but it's much better if you bring them along and everybody buys into it."

David tells me about making ends meet for his family who now included four boys while studying, working, doing military service. "It wasn't easy, but I think rowing teaches you there is always more."

What is your biggest strength in rowing?

"I have a very positive outlook - so I'm an optimist. I'm  also inherently fit and I've always had a lot of energy. I have a good VO2 max and high power output - in rowing, you need that. And I don't like to give up."

From this question, David dovetails into an insight he gained much later on. Instead of concentrating on your weak points and working so hard on them, he suggests playing into your strengths. "You can put a lot less effort in and get a lot more done. The media loves people who, despite the odds, still achieve, but I'm not sure that's right. So there are a lot of people that stop trying too easily. I think you need to push. But there are a lot of people who spend their life stuck in something that they probably are not very good at, instead of looking for something that they could be good at. If you don't have a wingspan of 10 feet you will never be a good basketball player, no matter how hard you try. There's a point at which you need to concentrate on your strengths and acknowledge that something isn't a strength. I don't know, maybe I could have gone through another Olympic cycle. I was young enough but what would the cost be, and would I have succeeded? It will always be a small regret, but if I look at what I did achieve, I don't regret it."

Coming close to the end of our time I ask David, what would others who trained with you say about you?

"That I was irritating," David says with no hesitation. "I'm always on the go and I always have a smarmy comment. And I like childish pranks and stuff like that. But I'm still friends with a lot of those people".

And something you would like to pass on?

"I think kids should probably row with macons. The one thing about macons - wooden blades - is that they are gentler on your back. And kids should scull until their backs are stronger. "

We say our thank you's and David says he feels like he had a counselling session. How so, I ask? "It's cathartic", he replies. I look that up for clarity: Providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions. As a fellow rower, I wholeheartedly agree, there is no doubt that rowing is an expression of strong emotions.


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