A year later, the sport has taken him to competitions around southern Africa, pitted him against world class rowers in his age group, and now brought him a scholarship that will open doors to rowing teams and universities around the world.
Mark is one of a new generation of athletes. As a member of Kansanshi Rowing Club, he is coached with a philosophy quite different from that which has dominated sport in past decades. For a start, Mark has never heard a rowing coach shout. If he’s not on his game, his coaches are more likely to ask him if he slept well, or if everything is alright at home. This more mindful approach is part of a growing trend towards compassionate coaching, and away from harsher and more aggressive methods.
This differs quite starkly from the experience most athletes had ten or twenty years ago: the experience that triggered the formation of the True Athlete scholarship in the first place.
The stated vision of the True Athlete project is to create a more compassionate world through sport. Its founder, Sam Parfitt, earned a tennis scholarship to the USA, but endured a career of serious injuries and surgeries, and suffered from a number of mental health disorders by the time he retired. His story is hardly unique.
Mark’s first significant rowing competition was in Zimbabwe, only a few months after he discovered the sport. It didn’t go as planned.
“As I rowed out to the starting line, I felt that something wasn’t right with the boat,” he said. “I noticed a dent in one of the riggers.”
A rigger is a metal bar that holds an oar in place.
“I started the race, but struggled to keep the boat balanced. The dent continued to grow, and eventually the boat was unrowable. I stopped and put my hand up.”
Mark was pulled out of his boat, and taken back to shore by a race official. He was perhaps disappointed, but the mindful guidance he had received from Kansanshi Rowing Club’s head coach, James Stephenson, had prepared him well.
“I knew this was just one of my early experiences in the sport. I was happy that I had steadied my nerves and started the race. The rest was beyond my control.”
Today, like teenagers all over the world, Mark faces a challenge that he’d never have expected. As he sits at home in Lusaka, the COVID-19 pandemic prevents him from returning to school, and to Kansanshi Rowing Club.
“I know that everyone else faces the same challenge,” he says calmly. “I don’t have access to a rowing machine, but I go to the gym to preserve my conditioning. I know that when everything opens up again I’ll have to be on top of my game right away.”
Mark’s level headed approach and understanding of the bigger picture are a product of his own good character, but also of the mindful coaching he has received. In the future, Zambia’s rowing communities may look to him to uphold the sport.