WHEN Canada-born rowing coach Rachel Davis nee Fallows left her native country for Zimbabwe back in 1997, she was only meant to stay for just a year.
BY MUNYARADZI MADZOKERE
Her childhood dream was to go to the Olympics and after failing to qualify for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, she decided to take a year off from competitive rowing, instead focusing on coaching the sport in Africa before she went back to attempt for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
But then she got love-struck and within that year she had married a Zimbabwean man, Paul Davis, and thus the plans to go back home, were aborted. She met Davis, who is a headmaster at Ruzawi School in Marondera, and got engaged to him within four months of her arrival in Zimbabwe.
“You Zimbabwean men have got these dazzling eyes that put us into a trance. I got married nearly a year after I came here,” Davis teased and cracked with laughter during an interview with Standardsport.
Davies does not regret the decision to stay in Zimbabwe because it has allowed her to express herself fully as a rowing coach and she eventually made the Olympics, albeit as a coach.
She would go on to play a major role in the development of rowing in the country, let alone coaching two-time Olympian, Micheen Thornycroft at the London 2012 Olympics and last year’s Rio Olympic Games.
After scoring a first by putting together a rowing Paralympics team that represented the country for the first time at the Rio Games, she was voted the 2016 Annual National Sports Awards (Ansa) Coach of the Year, an accolade she won in 2012.
“I don’t think anyone prepares you for it [the Olympics experience], it was amazing. I have dreamt of going to the Olympics since I was 10. It didn’t matter what I wanted to do there which is why I did a lot of sports in school,” she revealed.
The reigning Ansa coach of the year also opened up for the first time on the incredible story they pulled out of the fairytale volume together with Thornycroft to make the London Olympics.
Davis first met young Thornycroft at Peterhouse Girls, then 16, and coached her in the girls rowing team.
Thornycroft left for Rhodes University but one particular day in 2011, Davis got an email from her former student.
“The email said, ‘hey coach, I have an idea about maybe trying for the 2012 Olympics, there is an African qualification regatta in Egypt.’ I said, ‘it’s a good idea have you been doing any rowing?’ And she said she rowed in a big boat.”
“And I said what about the single scull and she said, not so much. And I said, okay cool and I thought I was just encouraging her. The next thing she says, ‘will you go with me?’ an animated Davis revealed.
“So we actually met on the plane on her way to Egypt to the African Olympic trial and that was the start of our story. It’s going to be a movie one day. it’s a great story,” she added.
And so Davis took Thornycroft along with talented junior male rower Jamie Fraser Mackenzie who also qualified for the London Olympics, to Egypt.
They discovered at the African Olympic trial that Thornycroft had a stress fracture in her ribs.
“Two days before the actual final, she broke her ribs and she was in immense pain and I thought we were going to withdraw but she displayed incredible bravery,” Davis paused and took a deep breath.
“This story makes me emotional because we did so much that was incredible in a short period of time. We sat there in tears thinking that it was the end and I just said let’s just try. We won and qualified for the Olympics,” she exclaimed.
“Thornycroft, who lived in South Africa, had to quit her job and come to Zimbabwe. She moved into her coach’s Mt Pleasant house and slept on my couch for the next 10 months until they left for the Olympics.
When a local supermarket, The Bridge Spar, heard of Thornycroft’s story they allowed her to get a trolley full of groceries every week since she did not have a full-time job.
“It’s one of the moments where I leant how to live by faith. I learnt you just have to take that first step forward and that’s how it all started for us and that experience inspired me to come up with a Paralympics team for the Rio Paralympics in less than six months last year,” Davis said.
Thornycroft was eventually offered free training in Italy where she also got a brand new boat, new oars from USA and training kit from Canada.
Deservedly, Davis emerged coach of the year, a feat she repeated as she got the best coach for 2016 at a ceremony in January this year.
“I guess you don’t even think about it when you are coaching. But it’s always nice to be recognised, especially considering that rowing is a minor sport,” she said of her awards.
Having worked in the Rowing Association of Zimbabwe (RAZ)set up for 20 years, Davies is well placed to speak on the future of the sport which has seemingly been on the up for the past six years.
“It’s a numbers game really, so where I will take two athletes to World Championships, the Italians will bring 80, USA will bring 100 and Germans will bring 120. We have not more 300 athletes in the whole of Zimbabwe that’s equivalent to one club in England.
“To say one day we will get that Olympic gold it’s difficult although we want to. But what we have achieved compared the numbers and resources we have is amazing. In African context we are killing it on the world context we have a long wait,” she said.
Davies’s ultimate vision for Zimbabwe rowing is to ensure that there is more access to rowing than has been in the past and being able to have enough coaches and facilities in place to get to the grassroots.
With the help of RAZ she has just started coach workshops carried out once a month.