Meet the Rio Olympian rowing his way to success

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In high school Josh Dunkley-Smith was a natural sports all-rounder, taking to athletics, fencing and rowing with ease. It wasn’t until he’d finished school and accepted an invitation from a friend to tag along to a rowing meet and greet that the potential to excel in the sport became apparent.

He’s since won two silver Olympic medals – one in London in 2012, the other at Rio this year. But the talented rower knows he can’t rely on rowing as a long-term career. Here he reflects on what he has learned on the water to guide his path forward.

Follow the leader

If you’re rowing your way to Olympic success, it helps to know someone who’s gone before you. Josh’s mum, Addy Bucek, who represented Australia in sailing at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, was his biggest supporter and constant inspiration. ‘Mum was really good because she had seen that elite competition and selection and had gone through all of those things’ he says.

Josh says he drew inspiration from the both the physical and mental strength of his mother. ‘I always thought she was tough, sailing out into rough, cold weather every day while I got to stay warm and dry on land,’ he recalls.

But a parent’s support can only carry an athlete so far. To maintain motivation, it has to come from within. ‘She had really good advice and would drive us everywhere and buy the things we needed but it was always off our own backs to get that sort of motivation to do all of the training,’ Josh explains.

Careers beyond the finish line

‘Athleticism can’t last forever,’ Josh says. Although the thrill of professional competition will always stay with him, he’s decided to pursue a Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering (Honours) via Deakin University’s online Cloud Campus to prepare for life off the river.

‘There have been times when athletes haven’t considered what happens after their sporting careers. If you get injured, it can sometimes be a very quick exit. Not having something to do for the next years of your life is a bit of a concern,’ Josh says.

But he’s chipping away at his subjects when he can and ensuring he gives his all to rowing in the meantime. ‘I had hoped I’d be able to study in Rio,’ he says, adding, ‘Going to the Olympics is pretty crazy. The training really ramps up. All of the capacity for learning and study that you have goes into trying to learn how to make a boat go faster.’

Now that he’s come home with silver, he can return his focus to study while continuing to train under calmer conditions. But Josh admits it can be hard to sit at his desk after hours of training. To anyone juggling study and significant commitments, he says, ‘Sometimes you have to force yourself to find energy and push on through, but also find times when you can catch up when you do have more energy.’

'There have been times when athletes haven’t considered what happens after their sporting careers. If you get injured, it can sometimes be a very quick exit. Not having something to do for the next years of your life is a bit of a concern.'

Josh Dunkley-Smith,
Deakin University student

Mental strength is essential on and off the water

When we think of challenges athletes face, we usually focus on the physical exhaustion. However, athletes everywhere experience extraordinary mental fatigue and uncertainty that threatens their careers just as much as any physical injury.

Josh says he uses techniques to manage where his head’s at before or during races and those skills can also be applied to his studies. He reminds himself, ‘It’s going to be fine. I have done the training and I know what to do.’

To relax before a race he reads, watches television and goes for a walk. ‘You have to trust yourself and know that in whatever situation comes up, you can deliver,’ he concludes.

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