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Paige Badenhorst, left, and Katherine Williams give it their all on the water. Picture: MIMMO PERNA/ROWSA
Paige Badenhorst, left, and Katherine Williams give it their all on the water. Picture: MIMMO PERNA/ROWSA

Chasing dreams has seen her moving to Michigan University, and then herself being chased by Cambridge University — but home is where the heart is and champion rower Paige Badenhorst is now finally back in SA.

She has already achieved one of those dreams — being part of the world- famous annual Boat Race on the River Thames and, being part of the course record-setting Cambridge crew.

Next on her dream list is being part of Team SA at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Not bad for the 25-year-old rower, born and bred in Benoni, who by her admission “wasn’t a very active kid, was unfit and had absolutely no co-ordination”.

And apart from her boat-racing skills she’s also pretty good at the books, having graduated from Michigan University with a degree in organisational and environment studies and following that up with an MBA from Cambridge.

“My dad took me to an open day at the rowing club at St Andrews School for girls in Bedfordview. I absolutely loved it and through rowing I’ve learnt to love exercise and my day is not complete without it.”

Her rowing career took off pretty quickly and before she knew it she was part of an SA crew of eight at the Junior World Championships in Rotterdam.

“It was a special moment. We didn’t have a lot of experience and punched way above our weight, but I loved it and it helped me get faster.” It also punched open a few doors for her as she was approached by several US universities before deciding on Michigan.

“I took a while to take the plunge as I’m quite a homebody but I just couldn’t turn it down. It was crazy, there were about 60 top female rowers ... at just one university alone! I could study and row at the same time.

“I’m not going to lie — it was hard, damned hard. I was exposed to strong, competitive, driven women. I’d never been in a team that was so competitive yet worked so well together.”

It was critical for her rowing career and also opened another door for her. Originally her plan had been to come back to SA and join the senior national team system and try to make the 2024 Olympics but in her final year of studies in the US she was approached by Cambridge University and invited to trials for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race in 2022.

“I couldn’t believe the coach was reaching out and simply had to accept.”

She went on to make the final cut and was exposed to another level of her sport. “It was a most amazing group of women, we had three Olympians in the squad, the training was a completely different style and again, I learnt so much: there was a much bigger focus on technique and efficiency. I got even faster and made it into the blue boat, the boat that races for Cambridge.”

She also made history by being the first SA woman in a women’s Boat Race crew, let alone a winning crew

Describing the race through SA eyes, she says it’s simply “insane”.

“I think there’s around 150,000 people lining the banks of the river, it seems as the whole of London comes out to watch and millions of people watch it on TV.

“We launch from Putney Bridge and there’s absolute silence while you wait for the go. Then, as the flag drops, the amount of noise coming across the water just swallows you up. I was left shaking and covered with goosebumps at that moment.”

Now she’s back and totally part of the RMB Rowing SA senior squad set-up and chasing that dream of being part of the green and gold crew at 2024’s Paris Olympics.

She has had to adjust, on so many levels. “The dynamics are very different. Overseas I was part of very big squads, and almost unlimited funding for rowing, especially at Michigan.”

“In SA the national team is quite small. Katherine Williams is the only established heavyweight senior member, we have Courtney Westley in the U23 ranks and then two lightweight girls as well.”

Looking ahead to the Olympics and Westley has already qualified a single skulls slot at the African Championships in Tunisia. Badenhorst and Williams are now chasing one of two remaining slots in the doubles.

“In rowing terms we’re still newbies as a combo but we won bronze at World Cup 1 in Croatia this year, our first senior championships and gained a whole lot more insight.

“Then we made World Cup 3 in Lucerne, Switzerland which was a lot more challenging as we raced combos who had been together for years.”

They ended up 13th in Lucerne.

To make Paris they had to ensure they were 11th or higher. The rowing show then moved on to the World Championships in Serbia, the year’s main Olympic qualifying event — no pressure.

“But we had an amazing week and went through some massive learning curves with some of our best races,” she says. “We went through the repechage and made the B final by 0.6sec so we were very chuffed.

“It was probably the best race I’ve had. We were leading for 1,000m [of 2,000m] then all six boats were even for the next 500m or so. Unfortunately we ended up sixth but there were only 3sec covering all six boats and we missed out on qualifying by 0.6sec.

“It was crushing but this is the stuff you have to go through to realise how much hard work you have to put in.”

There’s one final crack at qualifying the SA double at the “Regatta of Death” in Lucerne in May and as this story was being written, Badenhorst and the national crew were hard at work at a training cramp in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.

Should the double not qualify for Paris, then Badenhorst, Williams and Westley will duke it out for the single sculls slot.

Badenhorst has more than Boat Race and Olympic dreams though. “I so badly want our other top SA female rowers to come back to SA.

“We have so many good girls at our own universities and lots more at US universities.

“My plea is for them to carry on rowing once their university years are over, we really need to keep them in the SA system so that our future stars can look at them, look up to them and learn from them.”

Badenhorst says Grant Dodds, technical director for the national squad, has put a lot of focus on the women’s squad, which hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I’m so passionate about our women’s squad. We are strong and we deserve to be there with the men. National coach Tiago Loureiro is also devoting so much time to the women’s squad — our men and women do all our training together, here in Dullstroom and back home, and my own dream is to have as many women as men in the squad and also qualifying for Paris.

“It just breaks my heart that so many of our girls don’t come back into the system after their overseas careers.”

Away from the hard labour of racing and training Badenhorst admits to being both a bookworm and baking fanatic, and draws creative relaxation from her newfound hobby of pottery.

Whether she makes it to Paris or not, one thing’s for sure, Badenhorst will always be pulling for the national cause and putting back into the water what she’s learnt from being on it.

Whatever happens she won’t be lost to rowing any time soon. “I’m extremely lucky that between the support from RMB and my parents I can fully commit myself to rowing. If it were up to me I’d row forever and can see myself going for the 2028 Olympics.”

And it’s not only in rowing that she wants to put back. “Based on my qualifications I’m extremely interested in the role of business in encouraging sustainable behaviour so I’d look to go into a related field. Or continue within the rowing sphere as I think that will be very hard for me to leave.” 

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