subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Murray Bales-Smith training on the Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria. Picture: BRUCE VIAENE
Murray Bales-Smith training on the Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria. Picture: BRUCE VIAENE

Raised in the northern KwaZulu-Natal village of Hluhluwe, rower Murray Bales-Smith isn’t one for histrionics and says straight out that his story “feels quite ordinary”.

But, figuratively, the 27-year-old has anything but an ordinary story to tell and has had a prickly rope climber (the isiZulu word for Hluhluwe) of a career.

After an idyllic primary school life in rural KwaZulu-Natal, his family moved to Gqeberha on the Eastern Cape coast.

After initially missing the cut-off to join the rowing squad at Grey High, Bales-Smith has methodically hurdled every obstacle in his path. Now he not only has a boatful of medals from the Rand Merchant Bank (Rowing SA’s principle funder) Buffalo Regatta in East London, but also has made finals at two World Championships and a World Cup event.

“I was a latecomer to rowing, only starting in grade 10, compared to the other children (grade 8) but when I heard that the school automatically goes to national championships I was playing catch-up very fast,” says Bales-Smith. Of course it helped that there was a seat available in the quad boat that year and the teenager took it with both hands.

“My final race at school was SA Schools champs and after matric in 2014 I told my mom, that was me done in rowing.”

Nice try — 10 years later and Bales-Smith is still at it, and still has an Olympic dream, a diverse dream at that.

“My school coach convinced me to go to Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha which I did, then the rowing coach at Rhodes University, Chris Holliday, saw my times on the ergo (indoor rowing trainer) and convinced me to switch to Rhodes. Chris was also rowing coach at St Andrews at the time and had a big influence on my career.”

Bales-Smith was on the move again, heading north to Gauteng, the mecca of SA rowing (Roodeplaat Dam in Tshwane being the hub), where he got a full sports bursary at the University of Johannesburg.

“That’s where I was exposed to a totally different level of training and at the end of 2022 finally made it into the RMB national squad. Of course it helped that I was the only men’s lightweight rower.”

SA’s finest Olympic rowing moment came in the same boat class in 2012 when the lightweight fours won gold in London. Coincidentally, this year is the last of lightweight rowing in the Olympics in Paris.

“The goal was to see how myself and Lebone Mokohseng could go in the lightweight doubles. We went to the world champs and quickly saw just how fast the rest of the world is but we made a D final and were keen for more.

Murray Bales-Smith with trophies at the Buffalo Regatta in East London. Picture: SUPPLIED
Murray Bales-Smith with trophies at the Buffalo Regatta in East London. Picture: SUPPLIED

“Sadly, Lebone had to leave paddling. He is the family’s main breadwinner and had to find full-time work to support them”

Moving on to last year and national coach Tiago Loureiro sat down with Bales-Smith in a Pretoria coffee shop and the latter thought it was going to be negative news. “But I was pleasantly surprised when he said he could see I’d been working hard and getting decent times and so was rewarding me by taking me along to World Cup 3 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

“My dream was coming true and I loved every minute and this time I made the C final and was just so grateful for the chance.”

It was at this stage that the young man’s life was going to change in more ways than he could imagine. “After the race my mom called me and said that my dad (Michael) had cancer and things weren’t looking good.

“My next goal for the year was the world champs and it was a real mental and physical struggle in the build-up. Thankfully RMB gives our national squad access to so many resources and our training camp at Tzaneen dam (known in rowing circles as the Land of Speed), though tough, was made easier by the support of the squad and our sports psychologist Lesley Pedlar.”

Bales-Smith got to the world championships and beyond his wildest expectations, made further improvements and reached the B final.

For every high there’s a low though, and just a month later he experienced the worst six weeks of his young life. On October 1 2023 he was mugged and stabbed while out cycling and on November 9 his father lost his battle against cancer at the age of 77.

“I was cycling at a farm in Pretoria, a place where you pay for the privilege and I had always felt safe there. But 40 minutes into my ride, two guys just stepped out of the bushes and swung at me, knocking me off my bike.

“The one guy grabbed my bike and the other guy stabbed me in the arm and just kept coming at me. They already had my bike and my watch (attached to the handlebars) but this guy just wouldn’t let up. I started sprinting and it felt like I was literally being hunted. I managed to get my phone out of a pocket and dropped it and he grabbed that and stopped. I ran about 2km to the highway where I found a farmworker who helped flag a car down.”

Bales-Smith was too weak and bleeding too profusely to scale the fence and the farmworker had difficulty in stopping passing traffic.

He was taken to hospital for treatment to stab wounds in his right arm, left elbow and leg. Fortunately, the only damage was to the ulnar nerve which extends from the elbow to the little finger and has since healed.

“I hear that authorities have arrested two suspects in connection with other incidents in the same area, so hopefully they’ve got the guys who attacked me.”

The injuries meant that for the first time in ages he had time to spend with friends in December while he couldn’t row, and ended up doing a trail race and mountain bike race, which proved to be welcome food for the soul.

“I’m coming out of the slump now and we’re preparing for SA senior champs. I’m also hoping to race the lightweight singles skull event at the world champs in Canada later this year and would love to make an A final or even push for a medal.

“Due to it being an Olympic year, obviously almost all available RMB funding will go towards that so I’ll have to be doing a bit of self-funding. But I’m working now as a financial adviser for Hyperios who have always been super-encouraging of my rowing and giving me flexibility. I’m also coaching at St Alban’s College which brings more funding and also allows me to put back into the sport I love.”

As for the Paris Olympics, unless he finds a lightweight partner, that dream seems to be drifting further away but already his eyes are on the horizon.

“Coastal rowing is a new sport for the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, not something I’ve tried but it’s most definitely an option,” Bales-Smith says.

He already has a possible Olympic link to build on though — “my cousin, Matt McGillivray, has achieved the qualifying standard in surfing for Paris this year”.

Don’t bet on that historic family achievement being equalled some time down the line — Bales-Smith is pulling out all the stops.

Someone who knows more than most about Bales-Smith is RMB national squad technical performance manager Grant Dodds.

Murray’s one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He is humble, softly spoken, dedicated, reliable and totally unassuming. He’s been in the rowing community for a long time and has waited so patiently to represent his country on the world stage,” says Dodds.

“I’m immensely proud of him for what he has achieved both internationally and locally at the RMB Buffalo Regatta this year in particular (winning the silver sculls trophy and the grand challenge trophy) and the role that he plays in the RMB national squad. He brings stability and maturity to our young team and leads by example.”

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.