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Penny’s looking for gold in the pool

Penny Heyns will be first out of the starting blocks in the race for a South Arican medal at the Olympics

SWIMMING: Julian Drew

ON Sunday South African swimmer Penny Heyns will finally know whether all the sacrifices and hard work of the past four years have been worthwhile.

The last time she appeared at the Olympic Games, her presence as an up-and-coming 17-year-old was heavily criticised by the South African media because she failed to win the national trials. That pressure saw her perform disappointingly to finish 32nd in her favoured 100m breaststroke event and 33rd over 200m.

Now there is only adulation and a different kind of pressure as she goes into the most important race of her career as the clear favourite.

After Barcelona Heyns took stock of her situation and decided that if she was going to improve and make an impact in Atlanta, she would have to relocate to America. That led to her 1993 move to Nebraska University where several South Africans already in residence and the quiet small town life of Lincoln, made it easy to adjust.

She teamed up with former Czech swimmer Jan Bidrman who represented Sweden in the individual medley at Barcelona and a close bond quickly formed between them. “It is their relationship, even more so than Penny’s talent and Jan’s knowledge, which is probably the biggest factor in Penny’s success story. They have a very close working relationship and complete confidence in one another’s ability,” says Nebraska’s head swimming coach Cal Bentz.

“I was very lucky when I started coaching Penny because she was already a very accomplished swimmer,” says Bidrman. “My plan was to give her a little more training every year so that she progressed steadily. In South Africa she only swam once a day and did less than 3 000m. Now she swims about nine times a week and does around 6 000m a session,” reveals Bidrman.

Gym work too has played its role. As a top American football college —Nebraska has won the national title for the past two years — there are good weight room facilities and a team of experts to provide assistance.

“Every year I would do something different with my weight training and I didn’t really know what worked best for me. After nationals in Durban this year, I went onto a programme which was specially designed for me and it appears to have made a difference,” says Heyns, who has been swimming the fastest training times of her career since she started cutting back on her programme four weeks ago to be ready for the Games.

For technique, Bidrman subscribes to the methods of the Hungarian school of swimming, and in particular those of renowned former champion Josef Nagy who coached the men’s 200m breaststroke world record- holder Mike Barrowman.

“When I looked at her stroke there were certain things I tried to emphasise,” says Bidrman. He prefers a very narrow, quick kicking action and had her hold a buoy between her knees to practise the required style. He also made her look down in the water while swimming instead of forwards, and encouraged her to swim on top of the water rather than to be submerged. More strength from weight training has also meant a better push-off from the wall at the turns which, combined with improved streamlining after her push-off, has also contributed to her lower times.

Heyns’ form is such that she doesn’t need to worry too much about what her rivals are doing. “You can’t influence what others are doing. You must just focus on what you are doing yourself. I will just go out to swim my best and hopefully, if I do that, then things should go well,” says Heyns.

Although winning the gold medal is her primary aim, the world record could also topple once more. “As far as times are concerned a lot of it is mental. If you decide that you can no longer improve on your best then it’s time to give up, but right now I know I can break the record again,” says Heyns.

As reigning world record holder it might seem like a race between Heyns and the clock for the Olympic title, but she is not likely to have it so easy. Samantha Riley is still a formidable foe despite her setbacks of the last year and Heyns is unlikely to disregard her.

At last year’s major meeting, the Pan Pacifics in Atlanta, Riley was robbed of the chance of going head to head with Heyns in her favourite distance after being disqualified in her heat for what officials described as “a consistent use of a downward dolphin kick over the last 25m”. It was a strange pronouncement and Riley has refused to alter her style.

But although she bounced back to take the 200m in a time of 2:24.81 — five hundredths away from the world record — and record the fastest relay split ever with a 1:07.19 for the breaststroke leg of the medley relay, the worst was still to come. At the world short course championships in Rio de Janeiro last December, in a 25m pool — as opposed to a 50m pool — temporarily constructed on Copacabana, she won the 100m and 200m breaststroke events in world record times.

A few weeks later, however, it was announced that she had tested positive for an illegal substance at the meeting and she faced the very real prospect of being banned during the Olympic Games. The world governing body was lenient though and she escaped punishment. It believed she did not intend to cheat by taking a headache pill containing a stimulant, but her coach was banned for two years for giving the tablet to her.

The 23-year-old Riley, who is two years older than Heyns, seemed to be affected by these traumas at the Australian trials in April. She failed to win either event but made the team by finishing second in both with times that would not make Heyns lose any sleep.

The other main medal prospect is America’s Amanda Beard who finished third behind Heyns at last year’s Pan Pacifics as a 13-year-old, and was always going to be a handful as she got older. The Chinese, too, have a newcomer to their ranks after their doping scandal of 1994, but 15-year-old Han Xue — who broke the short course world record for 50m breaststroke twice earlier this year — is yet to prove herself in the 100m.

Heyns will be aiming for a split at the halfway stage of around 31.8 seconds compared with her time at the same stage in her world record swim of 32.19, but if she should go on to win, political naivety could spoil her big day. A springbok tattoo on her shoulder is sure to solicit a barrage of probing questions from the world’s media eager for an interesting angle on her story.

Although she may claim that she can’t see what all the fuss is about and repeat that age-old adage that sport and politics don’t mix, it was interesting to see the reactions from both sides of the fence. Nocsa played it diplomatically and refused to be drawn into the debate, while the white media reiterated Heyns’ feelings and seemed to support them.

The only black journalist covering the Games said Heyns had gone out of control, while a far from political black team member said, “You don’t do something like that if you want the respect of the whole nation. I believe that some people back home will be glad if she loses now.”

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