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Chris Baxter, right, and John Smith secured their Olympic qualification at the World Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland earlier in 2024. Picture: JEAN-MICHEL PHOTOGRAPHY
Chris Baxter, right, and John Smith secured their Olympic qualification at the World Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland earlier in 2024.  Picture: JEAN-MICHEL PHOTOGRAPHY

For a youngster who had to hang up his hockey boots due to a bad back, it’s somewhat ironic that Christopher Baxter has spent the rest of his burgeoning sports career bending over backwards to pursue his Paris Olympics dream.

Having swapped boots for a boat, the KES product now teams up with three-time Olympian and 2012 gold medallist rower John Smith, now 34, in the men’s pair in Paris.

It’s a classic case of “old” and new generation pairing for the greater good. Ten years separates the two oarsmen and what Smith brings to the boat in terms of experience, 24-year-old Baxter backs with the hunger of youth and the willingness to learn from the best.

“I played all sports early on,” says Baxter and at first I really wanted to be the next big thing in SA football.

“I played a bit of rugby at high school and was also keen on water polo after holiday games with my cousin in Durban. But after my dad suggested I try it at school, it took less than half of a preseason practice for me to realise it wasn’t for me.”

Grade Seven saw him accompanying stepbrother Phillip to a KES rowing camp and that’s where he first fell in love with the gruelling sport.

There were growing pains though as he felt he was being unfairly treated by the coach at the time. But he stuck it out and results started coming.

A turning point, or rather a tearing point, came when his crew came second in a national U15 level champs. “We turned to congratulate the crew that had won... and they just laughed at us! I cried on my dad’s shoulder that day and swore they’d never laugh at me again”.

And so it proved to be as that same KES crew went unbeaten in the U16 season.

A taste of international action with Damien Bonhage-Koen opened his eyes to what the future may hold and he was soon part of the U23 national set-up as he finished school.

But he took a step back to sort out his back problem — at 1.97m tall and about 91kg it’s not exactly surprising — and was back with a bang in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic then struck while he and the crew were training in Lesotho.

Late that year, just after thinking he had avoided the virus, he was struck down.

“I recorded a personal best time on the ergometer on the Monday′ Tuesday I was man-down and by Wednesday I honestly thought I was on the way out,” he recalls. “Two and a half weeks later I could still barely walk around my apartment.”

Of course, Baxter’s cause was helped by the fact that both his parents are medical doctors, and his dad Peter is a sports physician.

“My mom [Alison] took me for a lung scan which thankfully came back negative and we were sitting in her office when she got a call from the radiologist and I knew from the tone of her voice that something bad was coming,” he remembers.

That bad news turned out to be a blood clot in his pulmonary vein. “I struggled to deal with everything. I mean, I was 20, in the best shape of my career and the next thing I’m on blood thinners and was told I couldn’t do any exercise in case the clot dislodged and caused a stroke or something.”

A variety of specialists were in the dark as to the cause of the clot and it was understandably the beginning of a dark time personally for Baxter.

“In February I went for a scan which showed the clot had cleared but was told I’d feel the effects for 6-8 months. I went into a dark space, drank every night at home alone, everything seemed hopeless, I was so depressed... without a doubt the worst few months of my life.”

Slowly does it though and SA rowing got a new head coach in Tiago Loureiro who Baxter had worked with at many levels before.

Despite another bout of Covid which took away his December training, in 2022 Baxter was back in the boat with Bonhage-Koen and the pair went on to win the gold medal in a new world record at the U23 World Champs in Italy.

“It was the icing on the cake after our journey from U16 level... and when we came home and jumped into the senior men’s four and came 12th or so at worlds it meant that overall it was a pretty good year.”

There was still some family “business” to attend to. “My aunt Colleen Orsmond went to two Olympics for rowing so I really wanted to follow in her footsteps and get to Paris.”

Talk about keeping “oarsome” in the family.

Says a proud aunt: “Firstly, I’m really glad that someone else in the family is rowing... and keeping that interest alive. Chris is an amazing athlete. He’s obviously really talented but talent alone doesn’t get you to the top. What I really admire about him is that he’s shown so much grit and determination.

“Bouncing back to get that world best time in U23 world champs, he’s gone from strength to strength. I‘m really excited for him to be going to the Games, but I think he and John are going to do some good things and I really can’t wait to see what they do and what they deliver.

“And I hope this is going to be the first of many, or at least a few, Games that Chris goes to because I really think he’s going to do big things.”

After a bit of boat-hopping, Baxter and Smith’s paths finally aligned, with the latter opting for a comeback to the biggest stage after having become a dad twice.

“He wasn’t properly race ready but from the very first time we got into the boat there was that connection that was something special.”

Something special indeed because at last year’s world championships they secured a spot in the A-Final and a coveted Olympic slot for the pair. “I had always told [coach] Tiago that my U23 gold medal was the best feeling in my life but when our Olympic spot was confirmed just before the World Cup in Lucerne this year that was a dream come true.”

Baxter can’t sing Smith’s praises highly enough. “Just to row with John has been one of the best experiences ever... he knows so much about the stroke, and the way he feeds it across is so easy to understand and interpret and change. I’ve learnt so much from him!

“I’m really looking forward to taking that knowledge and teaching the younger guys in the team in the next few cycles and trying to keep John’s legacy within the team!”

Ranked as one of the hardest sports, Baxter knows all about it. “You’re always exhausted after a race and totally out of breath and aching all over but for me the most painful part of my body ever in rowing was my jaw and I have no explanation as to why!”

Talk focuses on France and winning gold is obviously No 1 ambition. “Every athlete dreams of it and John and I have often spoken about it. We want it, and especially after our race in Lucerne and seeing how close everything was. If we don’t win gold, at least standing on the podium is something I’d be happy with.”

Off the water he cherishes time with his girlfriend Michaela and both of their families. “It doesn’t happen that often, so I truly cherish quality time with them all.”

Relaxing time finds him watching Netflix, while he also has a musical side to him, and picks up lyrics very quickly. “I’m trying to get into reading books, but I’m always tired and reading makes me even more tired.”

If he and Smith manage to pull out all the stops in perfect fashion in Paris, they will be writing yet another glorious chapter in SA rowing history.

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