Ursula Grobler featured at her first Olympic Games at the age of 36, when she donned the green and gold in Rio in 2016, after packing up her life in America to pursue her African dream.
Up until 2012, Grobler, who is a dual-citizen, raced for USA, but after failing to qualify for the London Games, it dawned on her that she had to return to South Africa as the little girl in her longed to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on the biggest international stage.
Grobler together with partner Kirsten McCann, solidified their spot for the Olympics after winning bronze at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in France, becoming the first women’s crew for South Africa to medal at a World Championship.
Being part of the Olympics remains Grobler’s biggest highlight of her rowing career as she had ventured through muddy waters to pursue her passion.
Rowing has not been an easy financial journey for Grobler. In the beginning, while still in Seattle, she painted murals to pay for coaching, cleaned houses for petrol, ran up a big credit card balance and even lost friends along the way.
She believes that she was in it for everything but the money, stating: “I had a job, it was rowing. It just didn’t pay. And I was a reckless dream-chaser.”
Four years after competing in Rio, Grobler has experienced a turn of events in her career.
Now, officially retired, and armed with a BA degree in Information Design, she is volunteering with the marketing team for the World Rowing Masters Regatta coming to South Africa in 2023.
In further exciting news, Gorbler’s design chosen for the official logo of the prestigious rowing event in 2023.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Grobler chats about how her brother’s passing fuelled her passion to pursue her rowing career and her aspirations post-retirement.
Ursula, welcome to gsport! How has life been for you since retiring from rowing after 15 years?
I am a big fan of promoting girls in sport and have used your handle in posts to represent the girls’ side of rowing. Thank you for doing what you do!
Retiring from something you have done with every fibre of your being is very difficult. I wanted to just keep doing this forever, I guess… And even though I chose to retire, met with the coaches, and discussed my reasons, it still made it difficult to walk a new path away from your identity, which gives you purpose and success.
The first week, I felt free and enjoyed the change of pace, but thereafter I longed for the dream that makes you push for that win. The simplicity of one goal and feeling like a rockstar when you are going fast.
“While as hard as all the rowing training was and is, it is even harder to unlock my imperfection and without judgment, accept me, without rowing. I have always struggled to move on or let go.” – Former South African rower, Ursula Grobler.
So, I have been doing a lot of reflection. While as hard as all the rowing training was and is, it is even harder to unlock my imperfection and without judgment, accept me, without rowing. I have always struggled to move on or let go. On the flip side, I certainly suck the marrow out of the bone and use all my opportunities.
As I begin a life away from rowing, I am finding new rewards in supporting my husband in his races, I helped my dad in whatever he needed and could be present to family and friends. I still do basic training and continue to make kombucha with my husband. I can contribute to our household and spend more time with my dogs. Dunlop, my big black dog would circle me like crazy when packing for training, and then crawl into my suitcase when I returned from camps or racing not wanting to get out!
Please tell us about your decision to call it a day.
I had four distinctive reasons and then many small ones, but ultimately, I had very mixed feelings and I contemplated this deeply. In Afrikaans, they have a beautiful word for this: “Worstel”. It sounds like what is happening in your mind. A wrestling match…
When you are part of the national team, training for Olympic gold, your results are fundamental to everything. Your confidence, your security in the team, your drive to push, and continue, and it justifies what you do. My results were constantly under.
Being almost 40, even though I could keep up, I couldn’t get ahead. And when I pushed, the gains were too small, and the recovery I needed too large. This started taking away my confidence. Also, my body was sore and the pressure to keep near race weight was hard!
“These are all things I used to love! But I just didn’t anymore, not in the same ruthless way, and I guess you could say, I kinda didn’t want to fight for everything anymore.” – Grobler speaks on her decision to retire from rowing.
I had to fight for my seat as there are three of us competing for two spots and this battle was seething. These are all things I used to love! But I just didn’t anymore, not in the same ruthless way, and I guess you could say, I kinda didn’t want to fight for everything anymore.
Also, rowing is a cinderella sport, meaning it is beautiful, passionate, historic, but there is no money in it. As I got older, you feel more responsibility, and I was putting a lot of financial pressure on my family. And without the results to clearly show why this sacrifice was worth it, it made it hard to continue.
What are you involved in now?
I jumped on board to volunteer with the marketing team for the World Rowing Masters Regatta coming to South Africa in 2023 (WRMR2023). I graduated from the University of Pretoria with a 4-year BA degree in Information Design and was very glad to be able to use those graphic design skills.
I am also involved in designing the rowing suits that the guys will race Tokyo in. I got to design the suits that we raced in at Rio and love this opportunity. I have enrolled in a health coach course with a look at functional medicine. My husband and I make and sell our own brand of kombucha called So Good, and I have also started to teach myself to play the piano. Being an older beginner is nothing new for me, as I also only started rowing at the age of 26 and ten years later competed in Rio.
How are you using your experience and knowledge to teach the next generation of rowers?
I didn’t want to coach necessarily. I’m not a good coach. I think coming to the sport so late resulted in my technical rowing not being my strong point. I have tried to reach out to the junior coaches to get involved, but there wasn’t the right fit for me at that time.
“I never rowed as a junior or at university and lack that experience. So, I wanted to be involved in any administrative, or supportive ways, or encourage, motivate the next generation.” – Grobler speaks on how she is passing on her knowledge and experience to the next generation.
Also, I relate to masters rowing, as that is where I started. I never rowed as a junior or at university and lack that experience. So, I wanted to be involved in any administrative, or supportive ways, or encourage, motivate the next generation. I love organising and admin. I’m crazy like that! So, I’ll keep reaching out and find a way, especially with the girls, to get them to keep going with rowing.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on your desire to be out there passing on your experience?
It has certainly made everything come indoors. We were entered into the Two-Oceans Marathon, so when it was cancelled, my husband and I decided to still do it on race day. I erged (rowed) on the rowing machine the new 2020 distance of 58km and he ran 70m circles around the garden to make the distance.
Also being involved in the WRMR2023, we think about how to encourage adults to row or be interested in rowing. At the moment we are doing that through indoor training sessions and posts about rowing. However, moving forward, social distancing will be interesting to think around. Luckily rowing is not rugby, there is little contact, and you are far out on the water at Roodeplaat Dam when restrictions allow.
Talking about 2023 World Rowing Masters Regatta, it is coming to Africa for the first time! How do you think this is going to change the face of rowing locally?
The mission statement for the event is to “Deliver a world-class regatta that is profoundly African in nature and leaves a legacy beyond our time.”
To leave a legacy as the mission outlined means helping to build boat fleets for rowing programs after the event. This means clubs will be able to build their fleets at a good price, so they can expand their programs and we can see an increase in participation numbers, especially with the masters’ rowing communities. The event also hopes to improve the physical infrastructure at Roodeplaat where the event will be held. And lastly, the event wants to promote local businesses and communities so that the WRMR2023 delivers a truly African event!
What does it mean for this event to be coming to SA?
As a first EVER for World Rowing to endorse an event in South Africa is a big one. Usually these events take place in Europe, but once every quadrennial the World Rowing Masters Regatta goes outside Europe. To date though, this has tended to mean North America or Australia.
“Further this shows the growing rowing awareness in South Africa through the National Team’s performance and the help from the RMB sponsorship.” – Grobler on South Africa given the hosting rights for the 2023 World Rowing Masters Regatta.
I think it is a huge confidence boost for us and an opportunity to showcase South Africa, and the large appeal for foreign participants will be to visit South Africa. Further this shows the growing rowing awareness in South Africa through the National Team’s performance and the help from the RMB sponsorship. From only a few boats competing in Athens and London Games to Rio, where I was one of those 5 boats that finished in A-Finals was a big increase.
Your design was chosen as the official logo for the event. What competition did you win and what has it meant to play your part for the new logo?
The WRMR2023 Organising Committee put out a logo competition for the event. Every World Rowing Event has its own unique logo within the World Rowing Brand Guidelines.
In 2002 I finished my 4-year BA degree in Information Design at the University of Pretoria. Since 2007 I have been rowing primarily full-time. So, it was awesome to come full circle and use my graphic design skills and compete in a logo competition that was for a rowing event. Coincidentally on that full circle, I started rowing as a master because I was 26 when I picked up an oar for the first time, so the fact that this is the World Rowing Masters Regatta was also special to me.
When it came to the design, what could I bring forward to represent South Africa, and the specific location in Tshwane where the event will be held? Having spent so much time at Roodeplaat Dam myself, training there with the National Team, I thought of what made it so special for me, and my favourite rowing course, compared to the beautiful lakes from all over the world that I have trained and raced on.
The first was the antelope…buck… bokkies… and more specially the impala and kudu that we see while driving in, or from the banks when we row. The next was the sunset or sunrises. There is no sunset or sunrise like ours anywhere else in the world. It is truly glorious! And, I wanted to represent that. Later adjustments to the logo, I brought in the stunning patterns of the Ndebele that could also be tied to the Shwe-Shwe patters.
When I worked for JLRacing, which is an America Rowing Clothing company I got to design a shwe-shwe range for them, because it’s so vibrant and unique. Lastly the landscape, the trees we see, and the Acacia tree is one of those that you see, and you think of Africa. Pierneef, who is perhaps South Africa’s most iconic landscape painter, painted the highveld extensively and the Acacia tree was prolific in his work. Now it was just a little tricky to make sure the sun and Acacia tree didn’t look too much like the FNB logo.
“The process was submitting our designs to World Rowing, and their designers would choose from the top 5 and stylised the logo according to their brand. And mine was the closet representation to what they used. Again, that collaborative process is kinda cool.” – Grobler’s design was chosen as the logo to represent the 2023 World Rowing Masters Regatta.
The process was submitting our designs to World Rowing, and their designers would choose from the top 5 and stylised the logo according to their brand. And mine was the closet representation to what they used. Again, that collaborative process is kinda cool.
Also, part of our core values for this event is Ubuntu. As we are familiar with it, Ubuntu, the African philosophy of humanity through community, I exist because you exist. It is best expressed through the Nguni/Zulu phrase “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. More than ever in this emerging social distancing world that Covid-19 has put us in, do we need reminding of Ubuntu.
What do you think needs to be done in the build-up to the event to ensure that there is coverage and support for the event to be a success?
Coverage and support is all in the marketing, so here are some of the needs the Organizing Committee will expand on:
- Our website goes live in June where we will regularly be adding articles about South Africa to generate excitement and interest, so people want to come here,
- We will be promoting our event and Africa as a destination on all our social media platforms to build our following,
- We have joined many rowing Facebook pages across the world where we are sharing our posts,
- Our quarterly newsletter is also focused on building awareness, excitement, and involvement,
- We will be going to the World Masters Events starting 2021 to promote our event,
- We will be starting an African Rowing Masters Championship in 2021,
- We are putting together an Ambassador Programme by country,
- We have a specific focus to double the number of rowers in SA and are working with the masters’ clubs and schools to achieve this, and lastly, the international governing body of World Rowing known as FISA is working with us to promote the event.
Where did your passion for rowing begin?
It began in Seattle, where I was au-pairing at the time. I took a learn to row class at Greenlake, and it was so hard and so fun at the same time. The technical aspects of moving these long skinny boats, balancing the oars, being out on the water, outdoors, and moving with other teammates was all-encompassing.
A few years later, I did my first all-out-effort 2km on the Concept 2 rowing machine. 2km is the gold standard for that machine. It’s what your performance-level is measured on. It was the hardest thing I ever did! Coming from a background of playing provincial netball, making the SA junior team as a triathlete, competing in track and field, cross country, swimming, won the Victrix Ludorum at high school… I was not a stranger to hard training. But this 2km on the erg was unreal, the pain you can feel, and have to endure to the end.
“That made me go back to a childhood dream when I first saw Zola Budd run, I wanted to go to the Olympic Games. But as I grew up, I thought that was silly like when you hear a four-year-old say I want to be an astronaut, and you think, ok, let’s see when you grow up. So, with my brother’s passing, my passion for rowing took flight and I went all in.” – Grobler speaks on her reason for pursuing her rowing career later in her life.
Three years later, I broke the world record on the rowing machine for Lightweight Women. The record stood for 10 years before me and was only broken 8 years later in 2018. But I think a pivotal point for my passion for rowing emerged from my brother. He died way too soon, and I realised all his dreams would never even be attempted…
That made me go back to a childhood dream when I first saw Zola Budd run, I wanted to go to the Olympic Games. But as I grew up, I thought that was silly like when you hear a four-year-old say I want to be an astronaut, and you think, ok, let’s see when you grow up. So, with my brother’s passing, my passion for rowing took flight and I went all in. With hardly any finances, little support, and still in Seattle, I rowed with only a dream.
From day one, did you believe that rowing could be a feasible career path, especially being a woman in sport?
From day one, it was very clear to me that I was in it for everything but the money. In the beginning, while still in Seattle, I had to paint murals to pay for coaching. I cleaned houses to pay for petrol to get to the boathouse. I ran up a terrible credit card balance! I did fund raising campaigns ‘till people asked me to just please get a job! And, I lost good relationships because of the stress of not paying bills.
But I had a job, it was rowing. It just didn’t pay. And I was a reckless dream-chaser. When I moved back to South Africa in 2013 to make the national team, the structure set up helped a lot with taking care of my rowing expenses. I still couldn’t build on it as a career, and I think that is why rowing is great when you are at university or a few years later.
But it was not a feasible career path, and that wasn’t based on male or female. You have to love rowing, nothing else. And most of us in South Africa do. That is why we are so deeply passionate about it. One of the things I have always enjoyed in my rowing career was that the training and racing were never set up as women being less than guys, and I never gave in to feeling that way either.
We did the same training; we did the same amount of intervals which we called pieces. The intensity was the same, and I felt the same opportunities. At the rowing competitions, women’s rowing was just as important and men’s rowing. And I thrived on that equality. I have a strong women-focused voice, and the team knows that about me. There was a stage when the talk in the boathouse was, … ‘this is man-hard’. Or ‘this is the man-session’. I would be quick to challenge that. Why can’t it be woman-hard… why can’t it be woman-real?
What would you say have been the most challenging aspects of your rowing career?
The confidence to value yourself without the backing of performance numbers…the getting up again after having a terrible final-race at the Rio Olympic Games, to find yourself worthy outside of rowing, to keep your integrity when you are being seat-raced, the judging of your body image and… retiring.
How did you manage to keep yourself motivated when the chips were down?
I had this flag of the Olympic rings above my bed. I would touch that flag on mornings that I was down and out, and say out loud, ‘every damn day baby, every damn day’. I deeply believed I could win that gold with my whole heart. I put up my hand for that title and was willing to do whatever it takes.
I was gritty and had tons of determination to motivate me. When in a race and everything was screaming at me to stop, I would count… Just ten more strokes. And, then ten more… Push for these ten. Now a little more…And so on, until the finish. These sweet lies and talking to myself together with another crew next to you gives you the momentum to push your limits and try to put your bow ball in front.
What would you say was your greatest sporting achievement?
The first was winning Head of the Charles in Boston. It’s a massive long-distance rowing regatta of about 5km long. And I won it in the heavyweight division, while I was currently a lightweight!
The second was that 2km world record on the erg. It was so unique because it was the only time where visualisation really worked for me. I saw myself doing the split necessary for the record over and over again. I felt like I had already done it! So, all I need to do was wait for the day to actually do what I saw myself doing so clearly.
The third was taking bronze at the World Rowing Championships in 2015 in France. Together with partner Kirsten McCann, we solidified our spot in the Rio Olympic games and was the first women’s crew for South Africa to medal at a World Championship. I ran around Garreth, the physio’s room afterwards in exhilaration saying, ‘We have qualified for Rio!’ It was happening, the dream!
What is it like having to represent your country at one of the biggest sporting events – the Olympic Games?
South Africa is amazing. I am a dual-citizen and raced for the USA until 2012. But it was after failing to qualify for USA for the London Games that I realised, to me it is deeply important who you represent.
So, I packed up my life in Seattle and moved back to South Africa because that little girl in me wanted to be in green and gold. I wanted to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and that is where my heart always lay. Every time I saw our flag or put on our green and gold protea rowing outfits, I shone with pride. When the chips are down and you need to push beyond what your body can, all these little motivations come into play.
What are your thoughts on the investment in the development of female rowers in SA?
What rowing gives you, besides being outdoors, is braving the water and the elements, working together in a team… it’s powerful and you have to endure hard moments to get a medal. It’s a lifestyle and it’s a journey. It makes you so strong and requires grit and determination.
I chatted with Lebohang Mashigo who coaches at Germiston Rowing, what he saw in how his girls developed. He said they often think rowing is too tough for them. That the only sport for girls is netball or tennis. So, when they do get words of encouragement and come try it out, keep coming to sessions, start to get stronger, there are tears of joy as they do things, they thought they never could. They can’t believe they could go through the hardship of rowing training and achieve something. But when they do, it changes everything!
How they see themselves, even how their parents see them. One girl Lebohang said, lives far away from the dam and had to get up super early to make practice. As she got stronger and better, her dad started to recognise how she was pushing herself and started walking with her to get to practice. To feel physically and mentally strong, so that no gender discrimination can dampen your worth is inspiring and worth investing in.
What changes would you like to see taking place?
I would like to have the girls encourage each other more to keep training at the high level needed. We simply need more girls in the sport but the environment at the moment is quite hostile, simply because the competition is high and there are few seats because there are few girls.
What advice would you share with female rowers who are looking to achieve their dreams?
When I was looking for guidance right at the beginning of my rowing journey, I read something that stuck with me then and echoes my advice today. Although when I first read the advice, I could not understand the full magnitude of it… in rowing, you have to be in it for the long run.
For my fellow female rowers looking to achieve their dreams in the sport of rowing, you have to be in it for the long run. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a pursuit. Mastering the technique and the physical strength takes time to build in your mind and your muscles. Rowing gives you a deep sense of achievement that I have not found anywhere else.
What are you still hoping to achieve in your life post-retirement?
While reaching for the stars, I may not have gotten the gold, but I didn’t come down with a hand full of dust either. I have gained a lot of experience in performance, coaching, diet, pressure, stress, depression, and loss, but now, I would like to turn that around into helping others, putting the platform in place so they can jump as high as they can.
But I’m not exclusively drawn to high-performance athletes. I relate to underprivileged communities, who think they don’t even stand a chance to be better because it’s out of their league. I was like that coming from little money, and yet I made it to the Olympic Games. But coaches and other people believed in me and showed me the stars.
Photo 1 Caption: Ursula Grobler on her return to South Africa. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: Up until 2012, Grobler, who is a dual-citizen, raced for USA, but after failing to qualify for the London Games it donned on her that she had to return to South Africa as the little girl in her longed to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on the biggest international stage. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: Being part of the Olympics remains Grobler’s biggest highlight of her rowing career as she had ventured through muddy waters to pursue her passion. Rowing has not been an easy financial journey for Grobler. In the beginning, while still in Seattle, she painted murals to pay for coaching, cleaned houses for petrol, ran up a terrible credit card balance and even lost friends along the way. Photo: Supplied