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From Boat Club to Brazil

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Wits rowing star Colleen Orsmond (BCom 1995) was the Sport Manager for rowing at the Rio Olympic Games.

As the link between the Rio 2016 organising committee and the International Rowing Federation (FISA), she was responsible for ensuring the rowing competition ran according to the international federation rules and that the right facilities and services were in place for the athletes and officials. 

"I have now experienced the Olympics from three different angles: as an athlete; working for the international federation; and on the local organising committee,” says Colleen. “I think my role as rowing manager for Rio 2016 has been a lot more meaningful for me because I have been an athlete – I know how they feel, what is important and what is worth fighting for on behalf of the athletes."

Among the staff and volunteers helping to run the rowing events were Ruth Oldert (BSc 2011, BSc Eng 2012), who was president of Wits Boat Club in 2009 and 2010, and Shannon Mulder (BHSc 2007, MBBCh 2012), whom Colleen coached when she was rowing for Wits. 

A chance beginning

Colleen, who had been a swimmer in her school years, started rowing in her second year at Wits. “A friend of mine who was part of the Boat Club was training for the annual Boatrace in Port Alfred. They were short of rowers so I was roped in to help out. My predominant memory of my first rowing sessions was rowing in circles around Wemmer Pan in the cold and dark (it was July). Apart from the Boatrace trip being a lot of fun and the Boat Club having a really good vibe, we won the race, so it was a good introduction to the sport!”

By 1996 she was already representing South Africa in the Atlanta Olympic Games and then again in Sydney in 2000 (both times in women’s coxless pairs, with Helen Fleming).  

Pulling ahead in a career

Colleen originally thought her Wits BCom would take her into business. “I never thought that I would work in rowing. But my career as an athlete ultimately steered me to working in the sport.

“After the Sydney Games, I got a job with Ernst & Young through the Olympic Career Opportunities Programme (OCOP), working in corporate social responsibility. I continued working in this area when I moved to our team sponsor, arivia.kom, but eventually the opportunity arose to work on transformation and development for the national rowing federation, RowSA.” That led to a six-year posting to Switzerland with FISA.  

She feels that sport is excellent preparation for working life. “When I was working for Ernst & Young, promoting OCOP, we would speak to potential employers about the transferable skills of elite athletes, and the value they bring to organisations in terms of their ability to focus, manage their time, deal with stress and perform when under pressure. In the past three or four months, I have been aware of myself drawing on my experience as an athlete more than in any other job I have done.

“The correlations are there: months and years of training/preparation, and coming into the final straight where it is about delivery and performance. There is the nervousness you feel leading up to the race, sitting on the start line and wishing to be somewhere else, but knowing that the only way to get to the finish line is to start and to push yourself hard and through the pain, because at the end of the day you want the best result possible with no regrets. And there have definitely been times recently that felt similar to the lactic acid flooding and fatigue in the last quarter of the race!”

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