Sasha's Reflection on Olympic Glory

RGS past student Sasha Belonogoff (2007) is one of a privileged few to understand the dedication and the excitement of representing your country at an Olympic Games. Sasha represented Australia in rowing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The Australian men’s quad scull won the silver medal. Sasha shares his reflections on that time.

When you were rowing at RGS, was representing Australia at an Olympic Games in the back of your mind?
It was certainly in the back of my mind ever since watching the Sydney Olympics as a kid. At that time, I wanted to go for swimming because the swimmers were a lot cooler than the rowers! After accepting that I wasn’t going to be the next Ian Thorpe, I was made aware of two RGS past students who’d gone to the World Junior Rowing Championships. Seeing that two guys from Grammar had made it to that level made me realise that such an achievement was also a possibility for me, and so representing Australia at the Junior World Champs became my ultimate goal while in School.

What training and sacrifices did you make to give yourself a chance at Australian team selection?
The training was full on! Up to 30 hours a week. Each day was three sessions, made up of a combination of rowing, cross-training or lifting weights. Our coach used to joke that we could have Sunday morning off, but we just needed to do an hour on the rowing machine before lunch time… My biggest sacrifice was time with my family. Training with the Australian Rowing Team meant that I had to relocate to Canberra, and between training, competitions and selection trials, I was only able to get home for about 2 weeks each year.

Do you remember that day when you found out you would be representing Australia at the Olympics?
The selection trials for the Olympic Rowing Team began in early February of 2016 and over the week, I had raced myself into the top boat which was the Quad scull. The team was announced immediately following the racing. I remember feeling satisfied with making the team, but knew that it was just a necessary step in the reaching my final goal – to win a medal at the Olympic Games.

Arriving in Rio for the 2016 Games, what was the atmosphere like?
Rio was buzzing. The city felt alive with excitement for the entire two weeks of the games. Everyone was smiling, dancing, partying on the beach and getting very patriotic about their home nations. We found that the Brazilians love Aussies, so while me and my team mates were getting around in Australian Kit, we were treated like rock stars.

Medal Race Day at the Olympics, how did that day unfold in terms of the steps leading into the race on that day?
On finals day, we woke up early and went to the regatta course for a pre-race “wake the body up” session. When we got there, the waves on the lake were surfable. Despite the conditions we decided to get on the water, and almost sank our boat doing so, but after the session we thought, “ok we’re ready to go!” We went back to the accommodation for some lunch and to prepare for what was going to be a wet and wild race. Our adrenaline was rising as we prepared for our Olympic final when we were informed that racing had been postponed by 1 day. The moment I’d been looking forward to since watching the Sydney Olympics 16 years earlier; our chance to show the world what us Aussies had been cooking up down under; the moment that had dictated our lives for the prior 4 years; the one date (August 10) that had been etched onto our brains since we got together as a combination; the day that would define the rest of our lives was postponed by 24 hours. Rather than let it rattle us, we went back to the village, sat on the couch and switched off our brains by watching Notting Hill, knowing we would repeat the process the next day. On finals day take 2, we again woke up early for a pre-row and this time we were able to take more than 3 strokes without being swamped by a wave. We felt good and the boat was moving fast – we were ready.
What do you remember of the Olympic final?
Sitting on the start line was a special experience. No spectators were allowed down that end of the course so it was dead quiet and we had 5 minutes before the scheduled start time. Christ the redeemer was in my peripheral vision, and I was able to reflect briefly on the journey up to that point, and how there was nothing more I could do now other than race to the best of my ability. I looked right towards the Germans and Pols, looked left towards the Estonians, Ukranians and Team GB and thought about how there’s nothing scary about these guys – I’ve raced them all year. I gave Cam a pat on the back, shook Karsten’s hand and when they called the six nations, I said “let’s do this!”

After 750m I had a look and Germany had gotten out to a good lead. We were in the pack with the rest of the crews, and our race plan was unfolding nicely. We got into our groove and slowly moved away from the pack, closing the gap on Germany. With 500m to go, I called our push for the line and we edged ever closer to Germany. With 250m to go, I could no longer hear myself making the calls over the noise of the crowd but the crew kept lifting. We crossed the line to the noise of the second beep, and knew we’d won the silver.
Post race, what’s going through your mind after you’ve crossed the finish line and then standing on the medal podium?
In those initial few minutes following the race, we were disappointed. We’d beaten the Germans only six weeks earlier at a World Cup Regatta in Poland, and felt that we were the better crew. When our heart rates and lactate levels had settled though, and we were back on solid ground, we discussed the race and asked each other, “could we have done anything more today?” The mutual answer was a solid “no”, and when we’d established that, we were able to appreciate the enormity of our achievement, and celebrate the moment as it should be celebrated.

You had family supporting you in Rio (which family members were there). What was it like catching up with your family after the race?
I had my four siblings, and three very good friends supporting me in Rio. Celebrating the moment with them all was so special, as they (in addition to my parents) had been my main supporters throughout my rowing journey. We explored the Rio nightlife together that night and discovered that an Olympic medal gets you into anywhere!

Life after the Olympic Games. What goes through your mind as to ‘what’s next’ after a big build up to the Olympic campaign?
The transition back into life following an Olympic campaign can be difficult at the best of times. Thankfully I had another goal that had been simmering away for 8 years that I wanted to resume as soon as the Rio Games ended. I began medical school just before my rowing career took off in 2008, and in 2017 I went back to uni to finish what I started. I’m now at the pointy end of that degree having reached 5th year, with my final exams in November this year.

Where is Sasha Belonogoff in 2021?
I’m living in Townsville with my Wife, Carolyn, our canine daughter, Dolly and our human son, George. Carolyn and I met through our mutual passion for Rural Health in my first year of study, and our goal is to work as Rural Generalists somewhere in Queensland in the not-too distant future. We hope to get back to Rocky for our post-graduate training so we can be closer to family, and so George can start training for the 2032 Brisbane Olympics. He’ll only be 11 years old, but we know not to underestimate the power of the mighty Fitzroy River.


I remember feeling satisfied with making the team, but knew that it was just a necessary step in the reaching my final goal – to win a medal at the Olympic Games.”