”Its about character” – Virginia Mabaso, SA Rowing’s unlikely star

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VIRGINIA MABASO, SA Rowing’s development officer, grew up in Nzhelele Mandala village in Venda, about as far from the epicentre of rowing in this country as it’s possible to be. Having no rowing background and little knowledge of the sport, Mabaso had to rely on her inner resources and courage to get things done. “It’s about character,” she says. “If you project a fearful character, people are going to take advantage of you.”

“No one in my village was exposed to rowing,” says the 2015 SA Sports Awards’ Sports Administrator of the Year with a chuckle. “When I went to my first regatta at Roodeplaat Dam in 2007, after landing an administrator job at RowSA, I was a little bit lost. I have never seen a rowing boat in my life before. When they first started shouting ‘heads, heads’ to try and alert innocent bystanders of the danger of being hit by a boat, I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Mabaso wasn’t lost for long. Although she struggled to explain to her parents what rowing is and how it functions, she rolled up her sleeves and started working. Her mandate was to bring rowing and indoor rowing to all nine provinces, with her first intervention happening at Phayizane High School in her home province Limpopo.

From small beginnings, the programme at Phayizane has blossomed, and they now have 72 rowers (35 boys and 37 girls) aged between 13-20 working on the indoor rowing machines. There are hubs of activity in all nine provinces. Mabaso says that there are currently 1154 development rowers countrywide, the programme having grown in leaps and bounds since she first started at Phayizane with 25 rowers in 2010.

“The work Virginia does is invaluable to RowSA. Virginia’s programmes make sure that Rowing is represented in all 9 provinces and in as many districts and municipalities as possible. RowSA understand the importance of this representation, even in the driest of provinces – that’s the beauty of indoor rowing,” adds RowSA President Sean Kerr.

While Mabaso is a dedicated and energetic development officer, whose tirelessness can’t be faulted, she’s also had a little luck. The men’s lightweight coxless fours’ victory at the London Olympics in 2012 has proved to be a real boost for the sport, particularly in the provinces. Kids in Venda, for example, have seen Sizwe Ndlovu, and now want to be like him. “We often have Sizwe at our development camps so that the youngsters can put a face to a name,” says Mabaso. “The kids always say: ‘I want to be like Sizwe,’ so he’s done an incredible amount for the sport just by doing what he’s done.”

“As a federation we have a responsibility to find our next Sizwe Ndlovu. Virginia’s programme’s end goal is to identify talent and grow the base from which our development, junior and U23 teams can be selected from,” says Kerr.

Sizwe or not, Mabaso still needs to get into her over-worked black Chery Tiggo (it’s three years old, with 107 000kms on the clock) and plough along the back roads. She travels extensively in the upcountry provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and the Northern Province, as well as the Eastern Cape, clocking up the miles and hoping that the school administrator she spoke to on the phone is there to greet her when she arrives. “For me, language is power,” she says. “I speak many of the African languages well, so that’s a real help to me. I just have to trust that everything is OK at the new place when I get there.”

For all this, her life can be lonely. She’s often away from home, often by herself, in surroundings that are daunting and unfamiliar. “But we have very quickly learnt that we provide more than just a competitive sport to many of the learners who take part. For many we are helping them be part of something, creating communities and a sense of belonging.”

So still she goes on, with a welcome boost happening in 2015 when she wore her best dress and found herself the winner of the ‘Administrator of the Year’ award at that year’s annual SA Sports Awards function. “I was so proud. The award came at such a good time because it encouraged me to do even more.”

As well as spreading at the bottom, rowing is clearly growing at the top. Mario Galeone, the national para-rowing coach, sees a shift in mindset. “There’s more of a culture of winning now – and it’s easy for me to see because I’m Italian, from the outside,” he says. “I see it in the young people. I don’t want to steal from Barack Obama but everyone is now saying: ‘Yes, I can’.”

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