Colin Smith was born in Zimbabwe in 1983 and didn’t begin rowing until into his teens, yet quickly becoming the top sculler in the country. From rowing in crocodile infested rivers, he moved Britain to take up a scholarship at Henly College, after an economics professor named Ray Ward had spotted his talent whilst teaching in Zimbabwe.
From there he went on to attend St Catherine’s College in Oxford and represented the Blue boat in 2004 and 2006. He won bronze at the 2007 World Championships in the pairs and has recently returned from competing in the Beijing Olympics, where he won a silver medal as part of the men’s eights.
Despite, at 6ft and 12 and a half stone, being smaller than almost all other professional rowers, he has been referred to as the “toughest man in British rowing”. Colin has returned to Oxford this year as President of Oxford University Boat Club to study for a Masters degree.
First of all Colin, can you give us an idea of what the Olympics were like as an experience?
It was a phenomenal spectacle. When you’re out there and taking part you really appreciate the sheer scale of the Olympics as a whole and the world wide attention it receives. On the other hand, although the show the Chinese put on was incredibly impressive, the rowing regatta itself was still just a regatta. It’s still 2000m, and it’s still eight men in a boat trying to go as fast as they can.
How did you feel about taking silver? Will it make you even more determined to win gold next time around?
Although we were disappointed not to take gold, silver is still a great achievement. In terms of London 2012, taking silver certainly makes you think. If we had come 6th or 7th then I might not believe I could go back and win gold in the future, but coming 2nd certainly changes your perspective.
Do you think taking gold would have affected your desire to compete in the future?
Perhaps winning gold would have affected me in some ways. It’s the pinnacle of achievement in the sport and I suppose it would be hard in the future to compare anything to that accolade. On the other hand, I think there are many other things which determine my desire to win, and I’d like to think I’d still be the competitor I am with or without a gold medal.
Why have you decided to return to Oxford after your success of the international stage?
I’ve wanted to do a Masters for a long time now, and in terms of the Olympic cycle, if I end up decided to compete in 2012, this is the best time to do it. Oxford has played a big part in my development, both academically and as a person. Also, the opportunity to serve as President of OUBC is a great honour and one which I did not want to pass up.
How would you contrast taking part in the Boat Race and competing in the Olympics?
In terms of comparing the two, they are both still just a boat race, except that with the Varsity Boat Race it’s winner takes all, whereas in the Olympics it’s winner takes all once every four years. I honestly think they aren’t too different with respect to the difficulty in their preparation. I found the rigours of combining my studies and training at Oxford just as hard as training with the national team, it’s just a different experience.
After winning the 2008 Boat Race, how do you fancy Oxford’s chances in 2009?
We’ve only just started the year, but we know what’s required of us and the standards we have to reach. Despite that, we’re still only three weeks into training. Ask me in a few months time.
In terms of size, you’re the smallest man in the British team. What do you think sets you apart from some of the large, physically stronger guys?
I think there are a lot of attributes other than sheer physical ability which make up a good athlete. Obviously I’m lucky enough to have a certain amount of natural talent, but when you look around the sport there are people with a lot more than me. I think in many ways my determination to succeed and, from a very early point in my career, my ability to sacrifice a lot of things to achieve my goals has helped me immensely.
The competition in China was surrounded by a lot of political and human rights debate. How did you perceive this while you were there and did it affect your performance?
Obviously there are a lot of things that China could do better, but I don’t believe sport has to be the way in which these political issues are bought to the fore. Despite this though, China has improved in some areas, and a lot of the credit for this has to go to the Olympics and the level of exposure which the event brings with it. Outside of the Olympics though, I think a lot of people are hypocritical when they talk about China. They condemn then, but don’t mind buying hundreds of products which are made in China.
Do you have any advice for aspiring athletes in Oxford who might be looking towards future Olympics?
If you’re going to be serious about you’re sport, then you have to make the decision to commit very early, and understand that if you want to make it you’ll have to put your training and preparation in from of everything else.
And what does the future hold for Colin Smith?
Well first I have to make a decision about 2012. I’m currently undecided about what I’m going to do, but we’ll see. In the longer term I’d like to set up a few businesses and use my experience of top level sport to help bring the competitive spirit which comes with it to organisations which want it. I also want to get back involved with Zimbabwe, the country of my birth, and see what I can do to help the situation there.