Pierre le Roux is a name that is unlikely to strike a chord with most.
Le Roux is a South African sports hero.
Ten years ago he was packed and ready to leave for the world water polo championships in Melbourne. A quick dash downtown to collect supplies was his final chore.
Cruising on his motorbike in the wet, he took a corner and skidded before smashing into a car. He had broken his back and his body was banged up.
He woke up in hospital a week later.
This week, Le Roux travels with the national water polo team to the world championships in Hungary. He’s the captain and the holder of a record 128 caps.
That makes him a meneer.
The bike is long gone, as are his student days, and now you’ll find him behind a desk most days. He’s a teacher and coach at a private school in Johannesburg, earning his dosh and trying to squeeze in as much time in the pool as he can either side of his day job.
It’s a humbling, proleterian existence. There are few handouts and top players must make do with whatever they can manage on their own portion.
FINA, the international swimming body, pays a small portion to each participant, but it’s a sport that relies heavily on the deep pockets of well-wishers and families.
Last week the team hosted a golf day. Before that, they put together a water polo clinic. Any profits went into a pot disbursed among the 13 blokes headed to Budapest (five others stay at home as non-travelling reserves). Anyone who spends his portion before time, perhaps for groceries or petrol or for gym, must make a plan.
There is no reliance on Sascoc, the local Olympic body, who sniffily refuse to underwrite overseas trips without a guaranteed medal. It’s sophistry SA-style: neither the Springboks nor Chad Le Clos could confidently guarantee a medal. Yet water polo, which functions on the margins, must make a case for doing so.
And of course it can’t. Powerhouse teams like Serbia, Croatia and Hungary have professional programmes, grand traditions and government support. It’s why they win medals.
Le Roux has had a small taste of this life himself. He played professionally in France before his accident in 2007 and got to experience life at the top table of water polo. The money was good and he had access to all the experts he ever needed.
All the South African team can hope for in the days ahead is to play well, be competitive and learn the lessons that come with thrashing about in the water with 120kg opponents who lob and jam for a living.
He is pragmatic about their situation. Now 31 and having played internationally since the age of 17, he has few illusions about SA water polo’s place in the firmament. The team operates resolutely with a can-do attitude and are encouraged to be open and positive, to help enable their sport to grow.
“We’re trying to build good gees,” says Le Roux, who accepts his lot with quiet equanimity.
That gees will need to be evident in their very first match. They play Serbia, the Olympic, world and European champions, next Monday. They’re a big, strong bunch who physically overwhelm others.
World number three Greece follow thereafter, with Spain rounding out the first week.
While not quite as physical as the East Europeans, South Africa tend to play a fast, fluid, attractive game. They don’t have too many giants of the pool, but goalkeeper Themba Mthembu is an exception. He’s built like a rugby number eight. He’s no shrinking violet and will rumble with the best.
Mthembu is one of a growing number of black South Africans making their way in water polo. This is an important point given the transformation imperatives that swirl around our sport. “As a sport we have to adapt and grow,” says Le Roux. “We need to create black heroes.”
The team probably won’t make many ripples, so to speak. That’s the lot of water polo, where any gains are marginal and so much occurs in a bubble.
But Le Roux and his teammates will still give it everything. They’ll be playing for their country, after all.