Defying swimming stars like Michael Phelps sand Pieter van den Hoogenband, the South African freestyle relay four blazed to Olympic glory.
Last Friday was the 10th anniversary of the 4x100m freestyle relay team’s win in the Athens Olympic pool, one of the more remarkable achievements in the history of South African sport. For Ryk Neethling, the day passed largely uneventfully but, at about 8pm, finding himself alone in his Franschoek home, memories began to flood the room.
After an hour of meditation and goose bumps, reliving that balmy Sunday night in Greece, he texted Roland Schoeman. It was at exactly this time 10 years ago that the men had stormed not only to the gold medal but also the world record, beating the Netherlands and the United States into second and third place respectively. His text said simply: “Jy’s ‘n yster nou en was een in die verlede – Ryk,” which, roughly translated, means: “You’re the man now and you were the man back then.”
It is one of the open secrets of South African sport that Neethling and Schoeman were never bosom buddies. They didn’t see eye to eye on Dirk Lange, the martinet German swimming coach and Schoeman’s mentor, and, if there was a disagreement to be had, Neethling and Schoeman would unerringly find it.
With time there has been a general softening. Neethling sought out Schoeman in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games recently and the cold war has transformed itself into something closer to a careful truce. There are moments of unease for both parties but listening to Neethling, a man who is far more emotional than one suspects he likes to appear, suggests he’s happy just to be heard.
It says much for the two that they were able to put aside their itch all those years ago and hunt for gold. At the World Championships in Barcelona in 2003, the same South African team finished eighth in the same event. They swam then in a different order but the experience in Catalonia confirmed that the team had reached the proverbial bend in the river.
‘No more complaining’
“We were the only team other than the winners to go into a huddle after that race,” said Neethling this week. “We said after that that there was to be no more complaining. No complaining about Swimming SA, about our swimsuits, about whatever we could find to complain about. And there were to be no excuses, no excuses about anything.”
In the months preceding Athens, Neethling was kept afloat by $250 a month from four generous Tucson benefactors. He was studying at the University of Arizona and to say that there was no small change in his wallet is an understatement. His teammates were in similar positions of hardship, but they continued to train, to plot, to scheme; they would wake each other up with middle-of-the-night text messages from halfway across the world. There was a feeling of camaraderie, brotherhood and the tightening of expectation.
They were inadvertently helped three days before the final when the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee threatened to send the uppity four home. If their collective anger towards the authorities had blunted since Barcelona, it was now as sharp as ever. “We sort of said, ‘Let’s use this to fuel us’; we talked about it. That kind of mind-set isn’t sustainable, we knew that. In the short term, it powered us,” said Neethling.
When it came to the final, Schoeman swam the first leg in the fourth fastest time ever recorded. Despite Michael Phelps swimming for the USA and Pieter van den Hoogenband swimming for the Netherlands, Schoeman’s trailblazing opening set the South Africans up nicely. They led from start to finish and the victory defined their lives.
Best of all, after going their respective ways, there are signs afoot that the “Awesome Foursome” are coming back together, quietly testing the water in ways that would have been inconceivable five years ago.