When Roland Schoeman touched the wall after the 50m freestyle at the Athens Olympics four years ago, he held three fingers up, with his thumb and index finger in the shape of a ”C”.
It wasn’t because he’d just won his third medal of the Games, though. While it was a sign probably unfamiliar to most South Africans, American college swimmers easily recognised it as the WC of the Arizona Wildcats.
Four years on, South Africa may not be experiencing quite the same level of success in the pool, but there’s another South African Wildcat, who four years from now may just be causing the same sort of waves his teammate did in Athens.
He’s only 20 years old, but Jean Basson has shown clear signs of greater things to come, finishing just outside of the medals at his first Olympic Games.
Johannesburg-born Basson powered his way through the heats and semifinals of the 200m freestyle to make it to his biggest race to date, lining up in the final next to the likes of Michael Phelps and Peter Vanderkaay.
And although many of his teammates have failed to produce the goods in the morning swims when it really counted, the former St Stithians star kept his cool to finish in fourth place in 1:45,97.
It’s said that fourth is the worst spot to finish at an Olympics, just missing out on a podium spot, but there was no sign of disappointment for Basson, who knows he’ll have another chance.
”That was a lot of fun,” he beamed after the race. ”Going into the final, I really just wanted to savour the moment and enjoy it and I definitely did that. I’m happy with the outcome. I gave it my all. I didn’t have anything left in the tank at the end so I’m happy that I gave it my best shot,” he added.
Basson said he was unaware of where exactly Phelps, who went on to shatter yet another world record in the race, was in the pool, as he simply tried to stick with Vanderkaay, whom he knew would be in the medals.
”It’s cool for me to see that in my first major international final, at the Olympics, I came fourth. It gives me a lot of motivation to go back to Arizona and train harder and improve on things like my starts and my turns and the next time hopefully I can grab a medal,” he said.
While Basson would be the first to give plenty of credit to his previous coach in South Africa, former Olympian Peter Williams, he points to the training environment in Arizona as a massive boost to his training. In Tucson, he trains alongside the likes of Schoeman as well as Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and a host of international stars from around the world.
In fact, the University of Arizona has 25 athletes competing at these Games in Beijing. They have had at least one athlete at every Olympics since 1960 and have notched up a collection of 62 Olympic medals over the years, 32 of them gold. (Another teammate, Ryk Neethling, has the distinction of being one of just three Wildcats to have competed at four Olympics.)
It’s little wonder Basson is inspired every time he goes to training. ”We have an amazing training environment, starting with the coaches we have there. Their whole goal in life is just to make us better in the pool and make us better people overall,” he explained.
”And just from that there’s developed an amazing tradition of people that go there and amazing people you train with and race against every day.”
With this kind of environment available, it seems a pity that the powers that be in South African swimming have sometimes made life difficult for the United States-based swimmers, particularly when it is so evident that this is where most of the country’s swimming success stories have been bred over the years.
Athens was testament to that and it seems Beijing will be too.
And once it’s time for the Schoemans and Neethlings of the world to hand over the baton to their younger counterparts, Basson has proved he is ready and more than capable of carrying on the Wildcat tradition.
Potential SA highlights still to come:
Roland Schoeman: 50m freestyle final — August 16, 4.39am
Medley relay final — SA women (pending qualification): August 17, 4.40am
Medley relay final — SA men (pending qualification): August 17, 4.58am
Natalie du Toit: 10km swim — August 20, 3am
Khotso Mokoena (pending qualification): August 18, 2.10pm
LJ van Zyl, Alwyn Myburgh, Ter de Villiers (pending qualification): 400m hurdles final — August 18, 4pm
Robert Oosthuizen (pending qualification): javelin — August 23, 1.10pm
Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (pending qualification): 800m final — August 23, 1.30pm
Hendrick Ramaala and Norman Dhlomo: marathon — August 24, 1.30am
Sifiso Nhlapo: BMX — August 21, 3.08am to 4.40am
Shaun Rubenstein (pending qualification): K1 1 000m final — August 22, 9.30am
Shaun Rubenstein (pending qualification): K1 500m final — August 23, 9.30am
Jen Hodson (pending qualification): K1 500m final — August 23, 10.20am
Ramon di Clemente and Shaun Keeling: men’s pair final — August 16, 10.30am