Rowing: Smith's single-handed voyage towards 2012

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The Independent Online

Which leads to the immediate question when you meet Colin Smith, a 21-year-old who is Zimbabwean by birth but is now a British citizen, as he prepares to represent his adopted country in the "single" in the forthcoming world championships in Gifu, Japan: what makes a character, blessed with a physique which suggested he was more suited to the role of cox as a schoolboy, believe he can ultimately secure an Olympic gold for Britain in such a tough event?

Yet his achievements thus far confirm he possesses both technique and potential. That, allied to a desire to capitalise on the invitation that fate has offered him, suggest such an aspiration is not beyond him.

"It's true that I am the smallest guy in the heavyweight team, and much smaller than the people I am competing against," he concedes after training at Dorney Lake in Eton before departing for the championships, the start of which has been postponed from today to Tuesday because of the impending arrival of Typhoon Mawar.

"It's unusual. There's an ARA [Amateur Rowing Association] initiative which aims to identify and develop young kids up to a level where they could possibly compete in 2012. They begin that selection by looking at your physical attributes. I would not actually fulfil their criteria; I am weighing in at about 80 kilos; hopefully, come the [Beijing] Olympics, I will be 85kg."

He adds: "The single really appeals to me. It is great to be in total control of what is going on. My ambition is to win the Olympics. My sculling so far has been defined by very steady progression. There is no reason why that's going to stop any time soon. I hope to get in the top 10 at these world championships. At my age, that would be a really good result in the build-up to Beijing. In 2012 I'll be 28, and hopefully by that time I'll be at my peak."

Smith's presence here at all reveals much about his appetite. When his parents escaped the political turbulence of Zimbabwe, departing Harare for a new life in New Zealand, the then 16-year-old headed instead for the Home Counties and Henley-on-Thames, in the land of rowing opportunity.

"A British guy, Ray Ward, had come out to my school, the Prince Edward, to teach economics and coach rowing, and he believed I had potential," explains Smith, whose father was managing an import-export business in Harare. "But in 2000, my parents decided there was no alternative but to leave because of the fuel queues and the massive inflation, which made life very difficult."

Six years on, he is studying geography at Oxford University, for whom he stroked the Dark Blue boat in the 2004 Boat Race. Last year, he also won a silver medal in the Under-23 version of the world championships. What he lacks in physical stature, he compensates for in attitude. So much so that though he appreciates the support structure, on and off the water, of Britain's rowing set-up, he questions whether such an environment can, in some cases, take the edge off athletes' preparations. "I am just a little guy in a big man's sport, but I aim to shake things up a bit," he replies. "There's a little bit of complacency, a lack of hunger, and I don't understand that. My attitude is: 'If I can do it, why can't they?' "

If Smith requires a template, he only has to survey the career of Steve Williams, a gold medal-bearing member of the triumphant Athens four, who has benefited from eight years' continuous full-time training. "I have needed that," concedes Williams, the senior component of the latest incarnation of a discipline so famously successful for Britain in 2004 and Sydney 2000. "My main reason for wanting to go again is that I still didn't think I was the best I could be in Athens," says the Warwick-born son of a clergyman. "I felt I could be fitter and stronger, and that has been the case since then."

The new four - Williams, Andy Hodge, Peter Read and Alex Partridge (who would have rowed in Athens but for illness) - have won all three World Cup regattas this season, and are aiming for a first world championships gold together in next Saturday's final.

"Last year, everybody said we should enjoy the experience, but it was actually very intense, because we had six weeks to win an Olympic gold medal [following the injury to Partridge, who was replaced by Ed Coode] and we'd had a rubbish season.

"This year, with this new crew, there is a bit more chance to sit back and really enjoy it. We have started well, and I feel we can maintain this for another three- and-a-half years. We haven't shown all our cards yet."