/ 11 April 2008

Getting ready for gold

It took less than a week for South African swimmers to appreciate how tough international competition will be at the Olympics in August.

Last Sunday Swimming South Africa announced a record 21 swimmers had posted Olympic qualifying times. But by Wednesday many of the stars who sparkled at the national championships and Olympic trials in Durban had bombed out of the World Short-Course Championships in Manchester.

William Diering (100m breaststroke), Sebastien Rousseau (100m butterfly), Mandy Loots (200m butterfly), Wesley Gilchrist (200m freestyle), George du Rand (200m freestyle and 100m backstroke), Chanelle van Wyk (100m backstroke), Melissa Corfe (100m backstroke) and Garth Tune (100m butterfly) all failed to make it past the heats, though many of them performed sensationally in Durban and raised the hope that South Africa could again be in for a swimming medals haul as it did in Athens four years ago.

Team captain Gerhard Zandberg led from the front, beating his 100m Africa record by 0,48 of a second and in the process booked a place in the semifinals.

Ordinarily, the short-course championships are to swimming connoisseurs what limited-overs cricket is to purists, something of an abomination. South African star swimmer and South African record holder Cameron van der Burgh described it as ”the Pro20 of swimming”, because it is a 25m pool instead of the ”long-course” 50m version.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the event, with the Olympics around the corner there will be interest in South African swimmers. Swimming is still the country’s best and most realistic chance of an Olympic medal or three.

At the last games in Athens four years ago South Africa took seven swimmers and returned with three medals, but now 21 have met Olympic qualifying standards, raising hope for more medals.

In Manchester South Africa were minus Olympic gold medallists Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and Lyndon Ferns. They opted out of the Manchester meeting on accounts varying from the fact that the British event followed too closely to the national championships and Olympic qualifiers that ended in Durban last Sunday, injury and assumption that their contracts excused them from taking part in a short-course event.

This development has not gone down well with Swimming South Africa management, who saw the Manchester meeting as more of a team-bonding exercise before going to the Olympics rather than just another meeting.

Although they might be unhappy with the swimmers’ conduct, Swimming South Africa is unlikely to come down too hard on the crown jewels. Schoeman, Neethling and Ferns are all United States-based swimmers and part of the 4x100m freestyle relay squad that won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

After the swimmers spent more time in transit than in the pool — they could not leave their flight because there was no staircase when the plane landed at Heathrow, causing them to miss their connecting flight to Manchester — the trio could very well use this as evidence of the folly of diving into a tough international competition so soon after the make-or-break meeting in Durban.

Then again, as South African team head coach Dirk Lange said before they flew out, the championships would be useful as a team-building exercise. He predicted that those who had or had not qualified for the Olympics would use the games to gather experience for future Games. Highly promising Jessica Liss (12), who missed the cut and was not in Manchester, should be a big part of that future.

But South African swimming fans know that the Olympic medals are not won in April and, certainly, not in Durban.