Two of South Africa’s top medal hopes for the Olympics lie with swimmers, the traditional backbone of the country’s performance at the global sporting event.
Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos are considered strong contenders to break the 2008 medal drought in the pool.
Despite a respected swimming tradition with the likes of multi-Olympians Penny Heyns and Ryk Neethling, the team didn’t walk to the podium once in Beijing
Van der Burgh, 24, a world record holder in breaststroke, is determined to bring back gold and fulfil a childhood dream.
“We want to nail it. We know we have the opportunity. Now we just have to make sure the hard work and effort we put in will pay off.”
“I’m feeling really excited,” the cheerful finance student from the University of Pretoria said of his prospects in the 100-metre breaststroke.
Even a break-in at his home in Pretoria couldn’t dampen his excitement. Burglars stole the medals he won at the world championships, before he left for Europe and his final preparations.
Touted as Africa’s only home-grown swimming world record-holder, Van der Burgh stayed on with South Africa’s former head coach, Dirk Lange, after the team’s dismal performance in Beijing.
Lange now coaches the German team and Van der Burgh sometimes trains with them.
The Commonwealth champion in India two years ago in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, Van der Burgh swam the fourth fastest time this year in the 100m event.
In London he’ll face tough competition from Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, who holds the Olympic record.
And Van der Burgh is quite aware of expectations.
“It’s a great honour for me to be seen as one of SA’s biggest medal hopefuls. Yes, there’s pressure, but it’s encouraging to know that people are putting their faith in me,” he said.
He’ll certainly hope to improve on the last Olympics, where he fell out in the semi- finals.
Younger teammate Le Clos has his sights set on the 200m butterfly.
One of South Africa’s brightest up-and-coming stars, the 20-year-old won the World Cup title last year – only the third South African to do so after Ryk Neethling and Van der Burgh.
A self-confessed bad loser and extremely competitive, Le Clos won five gold medals in the youth Olympics in Singapore two years ago and two in the last Commonwealth Games.
But he’s up against tough competition in renowned Olympian Michael Phelps from the US, who won eight golds in Beijing.
Both Phelps and Takeshi Matsuda from Japan will provide formidable challenges.
Born in Durban, Le Clos started swimming when a groin injury dashed his football dreams.
Years later he put his university studies on hold to focus on his swimming.
He’ll compete in five other events, including the 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 100m butterfly.
Any medals in London will be a bonus because the youngster plans to peak only in four years’ time at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Former swimmer Neethling brings his experience as manager to both swimmers.
But before the big event, South Africa’s swimming team spent time in the French Riveira.
Princess Charlene of Monaco, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa when she was plain Charlene Wittstock, hosted a pre-Olympic training camp which will hopefully give the athletes a boost. – Sapa-AFP