Last Saturday, at the South African Swimming Championships in Durban, all eyes were on Roland Schoeman in the men’s 50m freestyle. The 35-year-old swimming legend was vying for a time that would see him qualifying for his fifth Olympic Games.
But it was not to be. The lesser known Brad Tandy, 11 years younger than Schoeman, finished well ahead of the pack, clocking 22.13 seconds for the second time in the competition (he swam the same time in the heats).
“He [Schoeman] said ‘well done’. He is glad I was able to make my Olympic dream come true. I replied, saying that he helped me get there and racing him was beyond a privilege,” says Tandy, a small-town boy from Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.
He isn’t the only one who “made his Olympic dream come true” at the championships. Of the 10 who swam qualifying times for Rio, only three – Chad le Clos, Cameron van der Burgh and Sebastien Rousseau – have featured at previous Olympic Games.
At 27, Van der Burgh (100m and 200m breaststroke) is the oldest of the 10, and Matthew Meyer, who swam to gold in the 1?500m in an Olympic qualification time of 15:09.58, is the youngest at 18. This translates to an average age of 22.8, says Anton Jordaan of Swimming South Africa, who will serve as the squad’s administrator until Rio.
“It’s good for the future,” he says. “Even if Chad and Myles [Brown] are 23 years old, they are still a young team and we can look at building for the next Olympics. Cameron was 19 at his first Olympics – look at how far he has come.”
Jordaan says all 10 swimmers are likely to go to Rio, pending formal selection as part of the South African Olympics team by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee.
Although some of them will head back to the United States, where they study, train and compete, the rest will participate in various training camps, including one in Qatar and another in Italy, he adds.
“It is still a little surreal that I have qualified, since it has been my dream as a child,” Tandy (24), who started swimming at nine, admits. “I think, after the recent years, seeing Chad and Cameron do as well as they have gave most of the swimmers the confidence to know that we too can be on the world stage. I know all of the qualifiers and know that they have been working for years to get to where they are now.”
For Brown, qualifying for the 400m freestyle was a huge relief. “I narrowly missed out in 2012 so I had to wait another four years to get another shot. But now, after the week has finished, I am very happy and it’s a pretty cool feeling.”
The years and years of hard work and sacrifice were all worth it, he says. “There are many things I have had to sacrifice in order to make my dream come true, needless to say the countless hours of training every day, twice a day, week in and out. But, after moments like these, it makes it all worth it. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Not that the hard work has ended. “We start travelling from the end of May. [There will be] training camps and racing for the next four months up until the Olympics in August. So we will be away from home for four months. We travel from the Middle East, all over Europe, until we head into America and then finally Rio.”
What is his goal for Rio? “To swim fast! I just want to go out there and enjoy myself and the whole Olympic experience but, for me, that includes swimming fast as well and improving on my best times.”
Christopher Reid (100m backstroke) has his mind set on a medal at Rio, if not the top spot. “That’s what I’m training for. Some people settle for being Olympians, but I want to do something great. I want to be a serious contender for a medal and a top spot.”
In Durban last week, Reid (20), who is also based in the US, toppled Gerhard Zandberg’s national 100m backstroke record with a time of 53.12 seconds, moving to fifth place in this year’s world rankings.
When he reached the finish line his first thought was not about the Olympics but about his father, Darryl. “It was his dying wish to see me going to the Olympics in Rio – he believed in me, and this has been a huge driving force for me.”
His performance also made a 4x100m medley relay a reality for South Africa, with Reid, Van der Burgh, Le Clos and Calvyn Justus qualifying as a foursome for Rio in 3:33:80.
Going into the South African Championships there was no talk of a relay due to the absence of a backstroker, Reid admits, and this has served as a driving force for him.
“It’s quite nice being considered with Cameron and Chad to do something great. I’m now on another level where I can bring something new [to assist them]. I’m quite excited about that.”