President of Rowing South Africa (RowSA), Wimpie du Plessis, is a highly respected sports administrator, and it’s not hard to see why. Her no nonsense, focussed approach has seen the federation produce medal-winning athletes, resulting in a magical 2012.
Du Plessis is proud of what rowing has achieved, but she is straightforward about the impact of limited funding on the federation, which is affecting all areas of the sport.
“The biggest challenge for a small federation is to obtain sponsorships, and even with the excellent results we have achieved, we are unable to secure sponsorships.
“The way we managed it is to ensure that we spend every available sent on the athletes and coaches which has negative consequences, in that we do not spend money on advertising or any other form of promotion of our sport.”
Another burning issue is transformation, and du Plessis is facing the challenge head on. She believes they could be more effective in their identification and development of talent, if they had the necessary funding.
“Rowing is going through growing pains as we are focussing on enhancing transformation. We need to set up Junior Rowing Clubs in areas where Rowing is not a traditional sport.
“We are also promoting Indoor Rowing (ergometer rowing) as a Talent identification vehicle but also, as the mass participation facet of our sport, it is an exciting indoor sport to keep the nation fit and healthy.”
Du Plessis, who became ROWSA President after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, said: “Building the depth and breadth in rowing throughout the country culminated in the 2012 successes where SA won a medal at each of the world championship events.”
While it’s clear that she plays a major role behind the scenes in ensuring athletes are put first, du Plessis claims no credit for the successes that have come the way of her champion rowers in the last year.
“I did not put any effort into the success except creating the environment for the athletes and the coaches to focus on their preparation. My contribution was to create a “can do” environment, demonstrating my total belief in the Coaches and the crew, and be there to support.
“I was privileged that I was chosen to be an Umpire at the Olympic qualification regatta in Bled Slovenia, where the team qualified, and I could provide the moral support because I was there! In the words of Matt Brittain, after they won the Gold in London… “Wimpie how was that for BMT” (big match temperament) – the first words I heard from the team! I was overwhelmed and could only cry.”
Last year, RowSA also achieved its goal of having seven internationally qualified umpires, including du Plessis, who became Africa’s first woman to umpire at an Olympic regatta, after she officiated at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Du Plessis’ sterling all round efforts were recognised at a national level towards the end of last year when she scooped the prestigious Administrator of the Year award at the 2012 SA Sports Awards, beating off stiff competition from her mostly male peers.
She told gsport: “It was a great day because it was not the recognition of me as a person but rather the recognition of all the volunteers who are responsible for the administration of Rowing, from the Chairs of the various commissions to the Presidents of the Provinces and the Technical Officials who spend weekend after weekend to ensure that all rowers have safe and fair racing.”
This hard-nosed businesswoman has her grounding in the corporate world, as CEO of MediKredit Integrated Healthcare Solutions and also the President and CEO of XeoHealth Corporation, an American based sister company of MediKredit, and insists sports administration is a business.
“Sport Administrators need to endeavour to obtain a solid grounding in a corporate environment where they can be mentored for the task of management. There are currently only a few administrators who have the managerial skills to mentor budding administrators and unless we utilise the corporate sector as the development path, we will not be able to enhance the professionalism needed in Sport Administration.”
Du Plessis says the challenge for a woman in sports administration is no different from the challenges you face in business.
“You have to earn the respect of your constituency through clear communication of the Goals and Objectives, ensure that there is buy in and then deliver!”
But it was actually her role as mom to two fanatical rowers that saw her step into the hot seat of sports administration in rowing.
“I only became involved in Sports Administration through my children Ruda and Lourens, who rowed for St. Andrew’s School for girls and St. Johns College respectively. I became involved in Umpiring, did my International License, and then became the Chair of the SA Rowing Officials Commission.
“I continued to be involved because I believe that all Executives have an obligation to share their managerial skills with the sporting fraternity. If more executives would volunteer we would see the Governance in sport federations improving to the level that is necessary to support the athletes who they serve.”
Du Plessis has reason to be pleased with the state of women’s rowing, both at junior and senior level. Leading women rowers include Sandra Khumalo, South Africa’s top physically disabled rower, Olympians Naydene Smith and Lee Ann Persse, and Kate Christowitz and Kate Johnstone, who are in the elite squad.
Up and coming women rowers include Kirsten McCann, the lightweight women sculler, who won gold at the University Championship Regatta, and Jeanine Curr, who won Silver at the Junior Worlds in the JW1x event.
“Women’s rowing has been stable for many years. Our women rowers have qualified for the Olympics for many years and the Paralympic participant at the 2012 Paralympic Games was a woman, Sandra Khumalo. We had a number of women, who made the A-finals at the Olympics, but have not won a medal yet! Of the successes of 2012, women delivered Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at major championship events.”
Du Plessis says there are many opportunities for women rowers in South Africa, pointing to the sub-elite system and centres of excellence at university clubs. She urges women who are aspiring to be Olympic medallists to become active members of these clubs, where expert coaches are deployed.
“We are also keen to identify women with physical disabilities to contact us. The Paralympic events are with Mixed crews with an equal number of women and men in the boat. We are urgently looking for women to come forward and participate in this relatively new discipline of rowing.”
Rowing is a fully integrated sport and all events for women are incorporated into the RowSA Regatta Calendar posted on the www.rowsa.co.za web site. The federation is focusing on Women’s lightweight events and the women’s pairs.
When it comes to raising the profile of women in sport in South Africa, du Plessis points to established role models like Paralympic stars Natalie du Toit and Sandra Khumalo, but feels platforms need to be created for women athletes to become “known celebrities”.
“We have seen a number of articles on Sandra (Khumalo), the most famous one is where she said “Rowing gives you freedom”. Thus if you are in boat and row, there is no wheel chair and you are equal to the able bodied rowers. Since the Olympics and Paralympics, there have been no opportunities to continue with the message. The media should ensure that they continue to build the profile of our women athletes.”
Du Plessis has her hands full with her role as leading businesswoman and sports administrator, but family comes first, and admits that achieving balance is always a challenge.
“I have developed a structure where I ensure that we have family time. As a matter of fact, I became involved in the administration of rowing because I have spent Saturdays next to the dam at Roodeplaat and then became an Umpire. This enabled me to be at each regatta watching my children row and even attended the international regattas they participated in like the University World Championship Regatta.
“On the Administration side we have established an effective organisational structure of Commissions and the Chairs of the Commissions are responsible for deliverables. My role is overseeing and ensuring that the rowing fraternity is aligned to deliver on the Goals and Objectives as approved by the constituency and minimise the hours I have to spend managing the federation.”
Du Plessis says the best advice she received was to work through people and empowers them to make decisions and be accountable for delivery. She enjoys seeing the development and growth of individuals, whether they are athletes or administrators, knowing that the mentoring provided, resulted in the individual excelling.
Du Plessis, whose term as President of Rowing South Africa comes to an end in 2016, wants to demonstrate the value of stable, well-functioning structures that continue to operate effectively without being dependant on one person.
“I want to leave the legacy that Sports Administration is a business and all business principles should be adhered to. Here, I specifically refer to Governance, decision making at the appropriate levels, empowerment of individuals and alignment to goals and objectives.”