/ 8 August 2008

SA look to the pool for Olympic medal hopes

China this week celebrated its own version of Valentine’s Day, based on a myth involving two lovers caught between Earth and heaven. But there will be no love lost between the teams lining up for the event in which South Africa won their sole gold medal of the previous Olympics — the 4x100m freestyle relay.

Michael Phelps, who had his previous campaign for eight Olympic golds in Athens cut short by the South African ”awesome foursome”, will most likely lead the United States team who go into the race as favourites. And this time he won’t want anyone springing any nasty surprises on him.

Phelps will most likely be joined by fellow world-record holder in the event Jason Lezak, as well as Garrett Weber-Gale, with the last spot being filled by any of about five sub-48 second swimmers.

Apart from Phelps’s personal mission to better Mark Spitz’s record haul of seven medals in 1972, the US are desperate to regain a title which they won on a consistent basis from 1964 to 1996, before the Australians wrested it from them in 2000, as did the South Africans in 2004.

Word is that the race for gold will be a battle between the US and the French, whose team will include 100m freestyle world-record holder Alain Bernard. But unlike four years ago, the South Africans are at least getting a passing mention in the pre-race previews.

The South African swimming team remain tight-lipped over which four swimmers will take to the blocks for the 4x100m freestyle relay heats on Sunday. The other countries in contention are, however, similarly silent in revealing their line-ups, which is normal practice at a major championship.

Rumour has it that it may just be the same four swimmers who won gold four years ago in Athens — Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling — who will swim in the final on Monday morning, but with the likes of Gerhard Zandberg and Gideon Louw also in the mix, South African coach Dirk Lange does have a few options available to him.

A swim-off to determine who will compete was conducted during the week and the result (or even information on who took part) remains in the same classified file.

If the squad is changed, the man most likely to lose his place in the quartet is Townsend, who struggled with his form directly after Athens but has been steadily improving since then and has qualified to swim in the individual 200m freestyle and the 200m individual medley.

‘I’m definitely a much better relay swimmer. You’re not swimming for yourself but for your country with three others. All my relay times this year were almost a second-and-a-half faster than my individual times,” he told ESPN recently.

All will be revealed on Sunday when the four selected South Africans don their caps and goggles at the famous ‘Water Cube” swimming venue.

It is being suggested that a world-record time in the region of three minutes and 10 seconds (two seconds off the current world record) will be needed to take the gold.

As for which swimsuits the South Africans will choose to use at the Games (either the world-record-breaking Speedo LZR suit or the newly developed Arena version) — that’s another tightly kept secret.