At the recent World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland there were at least five former lightweight rowers now competing in open-weight boat classes – three of them made the medals podium. One, James Hunter of New Zealand, took gold in the prestigious men’s pair. 

At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Hunter finished fifth in the lightweight men’s four. He is a two-time world silver medallist and won a collection of World Cup medals in that lightweight event.  Leading the Lucerne final from start to finish with crewmate Thomas Murray, Hunter added to his medal collection.

Thomas Murray (b), James Hunter (s), New Zealand, gold, Martin Sinkovic (b), Valent Sinkovic (s), Croatia, silver, Valentin Onfroy (b), Theophile Onfroy (s), France, bronze, Men’s Pair, 2017 World Rowing Cup III, Lucerne, Switzerland© Detlev Seyb/

In that same race, crossing the line in bronze were the Onfroy brothers from France, Theophile and Valentin. Until 2015, Theophile had raced internationally in the lightweight men’s pair. Realising that he would not be selected to line up in the lightweight four at the Olympics, he decided to switch weight categories in 2016. He successfully qualified for Rio in the heavyweight four and even won European bronze in that event along the way.

This season, Theophile and brother Valentin have represented France in the open men’s pair, medalling at each regatta that they entered: silver at the European Rowing Championships and gold and bronze at two World Rowing Cup regattas.

The 2012 Olympic Champion in the lightweight men’s four, John Smith from South Africa, is also a recent example of an athlete who made the switch. Smith spent the last quadrennial racing in the lightweight double and became a World Champion in that event in 2014. “But,” he says, “after several years of racing at lightweight, weighing in got harder and harder every year. The first couple of years, it was very easy to weigh in. The last two years it was really tough and I had to do a lot more work. It just makes the rowing unenjoyable if you have to diet all of the time – you’re not enjoying it because you have to constantly think about your weight. So that was the main reason – I wasn’t enjoying being a lightweight as much, the rowing as much, and the training as much because I was under pressure the whole time to keep the weight down.”

David Hunt (b), Lawrence Brittain, John Smith, Jake Green (s), South Africa, Men’s Four, Semifinal A/B 2, 2017 World Rowing Cup III, Lucerne, Switzerland© FISA Igor Meijer

Hunter indicates the same motivation as Smith for upping the weight: “It is a very tough event in terms of getting down to weight and I did struggle, probably like most of the guys. Looking at the longevity of my career it was a move I personally had to make to enjoy my rowing a bit more.” Hunter made his decision before the Rio Olympics and, knowing that his weigh-in at the Olympics would be his last, was “quite a cool thing.”

In terms of gaining weight, Hunter, Smith and Onfroy have found that around the 80kg mark is a natural weight for their bodies. “Within a week after the Olympics I was at 80kg and I haven’t moved since,” says Hunter. “I’m trying to put on more weight but it hasn’t happened as quickly as planned yet.”

Smith managed to gain weight quickly. “I was in the gym five times a week and was on a strict team diet of basically all I could eat,” he says.  He had three really hard gym sessions a week with big, heavy weights and high reps. “It was really tough on the body,” says Smith. “I put on 15kg in two months. From the scale in Rio, within two months I was at 85kg.” Smith’s weight gain went really well until he became ill. Since then, he has not recuperated all the weight he lost at that time.

Onfroy believes he was actually a “fake” lightweight. “In winter I was often at 78kg and dieting was always difficult for me. So when I started to eat normally, I would automatically put on weight. I hoped to reach 90kg, but I’m actually now at 84kg and even if I eat a lot, I don’t put on weight,” he says.

As their weight increased, so has their speed and power. “I put on muscles,” says Onfroy, “which helps in the gym. On the erg, I progressed a lot: I did 6:10 as a lightweight and now I do 5:59. I feel that I go much faster,” he says.

“On the ergo I’m a lot stronger,” says Smith. “It’s much easier to pull a bigger number.”

“My numbers on the erg have gone down,” says Hunter. “Not huge amounts, but they are definitely coming down. Because it happens over time, it’s quite progressive so you probably don’t realise how much of an effect it has had until you look at some of the ergs from last year.”

“You definitely find that you bounce back a lot easier after big training sessions,” adds Hunter. “That’s probably the main difference. As a lightweight if you do a big hard training session at the start of the week you often wouldn’t recover for the rest of the week, until the weekend. Now I find that day to day you can eat your way through it, making sure you’ve always got energy.”

Thomas Murray (b), James Hunter (s), New Zealand, Dirk Uittenbogaard (b), Bo Wullings (s), Netherlands, Men’s Pair, Semifinal A/B 1, 2017 World Rowing Cup III, Lucerne, Switzerland© FISA Igor Meijer

All three athletes also feel a difference in race preparations.

The day before racing, Onfroy would think a lot about weighing-in, stressing about his weight. “Now I’m much more focused on myself, my boat and my technique as before I was obsessed about my weight,” he says.

«Just the whole week leading into a regatta is a lot less stressful,” says Hunter. “I found at times that the weight issue would cloud my racing mindset. It’s nice to enjoy the rowing for the rowing and not having to worry about getting down in weight in the last few days before a race.”

Being selected for an open-weight crew was a stepping-stone for these athletes.

“Yeah, it was hard,” admits Hunter. “Especially the pair which in New Zealand is definitely the boat everyone wants to be in. So it was very hard to get selected in that boat. I had to come back from the Olympics and really put my a-game forward to get selected.”

Hunter, though admits that he had had excellent preparation in the years prior. “I think our lightweight four over the years had always been very competitive,” he says. “It was often split up into pairs and we would train against the heavyweight Kiwi pair (Hamish Bond and Eric Murray). So we got very good training rowing beside them and we knew where the standard was.”

Onfroy states that his transition into a open-weight crew went completely fine. “I’m lucky to row with guys who just want to have the quickest boat possible,” he says. “So, if I show them that I make move the boat fast, they don’t care about my past as a lightweight.”

For Smith, it was a bit more complicated. “I wasn’t initially going to come to Lucerne or the Henley Regatta,” he explains. “Roger Barrow [the coach] was just letting me train to get my fitness back so I could come for the World Champs. He wanted to keep me at home.” But at training one day, one of the athletes was out and Smith was placed in a pair with Jake Green. The two raced against the top South African pair of Lawrence Brittain and David Hunt. “We hurt them,” says Smith. “The coach said: ‘We’ve got two fast pairs, we’ve got to make a four.’ So I was very fortunate to get my shot.” At the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, the South African men’s four placed fourth.

And how do the open-weights look at the newcomers? “The joke in our team is that if I hit 79.9kg I need to go back to lightweight,” says Smith. “You cannot be a heavyweight if you see a seven in the number — it always has to be above 80kg.”

“I think they all find it quite funny,” says Hunter. “I can see the humour in that – a smaller guy trying to get big. They’ve had years of shoveling food in their mouths and we’re just getting started and getting into the practice of trying to shovel food into our mouths.”

And no doubt as the years go on, all three athletes will build up experience in food shoveling along with training and racing.