/ 1 August 2008

Swimming to Beijing

Four years ago, South Africans once again started speaking about swimming. In fact, Roland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling, Darian Townsend and Lyndon Ferns had them shouting at their TV screens for just more than three minutes as the awesome foursome, as they were soon dubbed, powered their way to what turned out to be the country’s only gold medal of the Athens Olympics.

Not since Penny Heyns’s double gold in Atlanta had there been such a splash made by South African swimmers. And with the start of the Olympic swimming events now just weeks away, attention is once again being turned to the pool to see if we might witness another little piece of history in the making.

Even if the country’s swimmers don’t manage to bag a gold this time round, however, there will be a historical element to their participation, as Paralympic sensation Natalie du Toit competes in the open-water 10km marathon swim.

Du Toit, who lost her lower leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001, has been dreaming of competing against able-bodied swimmers in the Olympic waters and this became a reality when she qualified for the newly introduced 10km open-water swim, which will take place at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park on August 21.

Roland Schoeman will probably be the South African swimmer most in the limelight, having returned from Athens with three medals.

Those who have followed their fair bit of swimming over the years know better than to make any kind of predictions in an event as unpredictable as the 50m freestyle, however, and, like four years ago, it will simply be a case of switching on the TV, waving the South African flag and hoping for the best.

Back for more: Roland Schoeman
Athens was shocked in 2000 when four South African swimmers produced one of the performances of the Games, winning what many believed to be an unexpected gold in world-record time.

Suddenly the international sports media scrambled to find out who these unheralded swimmers were and what their story was.

Four years on, however, they may be in a similar position when they take to their blocks in Beijing.

Their world record has since been eclipsed, the Americans are looking good and, once again, not too much notice is being taken of the South African quartet. But that’s how they like it.

”Once again we are in the exact same position that we were before Athens,” said Schoeman. ”No one really believes we can win a medal and once again we are going in there wanting to win a medal. The competition this year is going to be far harder than before but, once again, anything can happen on any given day. At this point in time if we win a medal we don’t care what the colour is.”

Schoeman has always relished the tag of underdog and made the most of the situation in Athens when he powered his way to 100m freestyle silver and 50m freestyle bronze.

Once again he is not making any grand predictions and, having lost out on a qualification spot in the 100m freestyle to teammates Ryk Neethling and Lyndon Ferns at the South African trials earlier this year, he is also not taking anything for granted.

”I’m really happy with the way in which training has been going. I’ve tried a couple of things differently since Olympic trials and I must admit I am pretty happy with the results so far,” he said from his training base in Arizona.

”The important thing is that things come together at the Games. It’s what we spent four years working for,” said Schoeman, who has qualified for the 50m freestyle and the freestyle and medley relays.

”Right now I am firmly focused on swimming a great lead-off leg in the relay. I have a point to prove there. And I’m focused on swimming a great 50m freestyle.

”Aside from that I’m just looking forward to enjoying the experience. I’m going to take more time to enjoy the Olympic experience. It’s a different country and city and the experience will be completely different.”

Melissa Corfe’s first Olympics
Some of South Africa’s swimmers will be competing in their third Games, but for KwaZulu-Natal-based Melissa Corfe, Beijing will be her first Olympic experience after she missed out on qualifying for Athens by the narrowest of margins four years ago.

With just a few weeks to go, Corfe took a break from training to answer a few questions.

How do you feel about competing at your first Olympic Games?
I am extremely excited and nervous at the same time, as I am not too sure of what to expect.
It’s always been a dream and goal of mine to go to the Olympics.

How is your preparation and training going?
My preparations have been going well. I have been training twice daily and I go to gym four times a week.

What exactly does your training involve?
I train every day. In the mornings I train for about one-and-a-half to two hours and in the afternoons I train for two hours. I go to gym four times a week and I cross-train with running.

What goals have you set for yourself in Beijing?
I am going to Beijing to swim all my personal best times. By doing this I have a very good chance of making a final. In the final anything is possible.

How much of a boost was your excellent performance at the national championships earlier this year?
I was left speechless with many of my performances at nationals. I definitely ended the South African season on a high and feeling very positive. I also knew what work had to be done and where my strengths and weaknesses were.

In which events will you be swimming and what will you be most focused on in Beijing?
I qualified for the 100m and 200m backstroke and the 400m freestyle. So I will most likely be swimming all of these events unless two are on the same day. Then, most importantly, the women’s 4x100m medley relay.

How does it feel being part of quite a big group of South African women swimmers at the Games, considering there weren’t any women in the South African team four years ago in Athens?
I feel proud to be part of the team as it was extremely hard to not forget what happened in 2004. By just missing in 2004, I came back to the next trials even more determined than before.

How many medals do you think South African swimmers can bring back from Beijing?
I don’t know exactly how many medals, but I think that there will be a lot of surprises from the South African swimmers as our level in world swimming has increased drastically.

SA’s Olympic swimming medals
Swimming events have been held at every modern Olympic Games since 1896, with women competing in the pool for the first time in 1912. South African swimmers have won 12 medals:

  • 1928: Women’s 4x100m freestyle (Marie Bedford, Rhoda Rennie, Kathleen Russell, Frederica van der Goes), bronze
  • 1932: Jenny Maakal, 400m freestyle, bronze
  • 1952: Joan Harrison, 100m backstroke, gold
  • 1956: Women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team (Moira Abernethy, Jeanette Myburgh, Nathalie Myburgh, Susan Roberts), bronze
  • 1996: Penny Heyns, 100m and 200m breaststroke, gold; Marianne Kriel, 100m backstroke, bronze
  • 2000: Penny Heyns, 100m breaststroke, bronze; Terence Parkin, 200m breaststroke, silver
  • 2004: Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team (Roland Schoeman, Darian Townsend, Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling), gold; Roland Schoeman, 100m freestyle, silver & 50m freestyle, bronze