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On Friday night, after South Africa’s swim meet had come to an end, Bob Bowman, the coach of Michael Phelps, turned to Graham Hill, the coach of Chad le Clos, and said: “It’s all yours now.”
It was a symbolic passing of the baton to the man who was described a few years ago by an American swimming journalist as the “next Michael Phelps”.
That is one hell of a weight to put on anyone’s shoulders. It is unlikely that there will be another Phelps in our lifetimes, but Le Clos will try to emulate some of the great man’s success.
He may be the dominant swimmer of the 2016 Games in Rio. The South African team may be one of the dominant teams at the 31st Olympics four years from now.
“It’s been a hell of a meet from winning the gold, to sharing the glory with another guy and the rowers and Chad’s in another final. It’s just been so phenomenal,” said Cameron van der Burgh, whose gold medal in the 100-metres breaststroke was the catalyst for South Africa’s most successful Olympics in the pool.
Two golds and a silver saw them finish one place above Australia in the swimming medal table in fifth.
The United States, China, France and the Netherlands were above them.
“We really surpassed everyone’s expectations,” said Van der Burgh. “Even people like Japan came to us and said, ‘we’ve got nine silver medals and you have two gold’. It’s awesome for us to beat these big countries, these huge nations that invest so much in their swimming.
“We have such potential for swimmers and so much talent that if we just refine it and work really hard for the next four years it’s proven that we can do well. I think we can definitely come back in 2016 and just clean up.”
The baseline goal for the team was to make as many finals and swim as many personal bests as possible. For some there was bitter disappointment, with Kathryn Meaklim almost in tears as she tried to explain her failure in the 400-metres individual medley. Wendy Trott, at the age of 22, was just two seconds off making the final of the 800-metres freestyle.
For others, there was personal success as Roland Schoeman finished sixth in the 50-metres freestyle, a place he felt was impressive given he had supported himself in his training.
For Suzaan van Biljon, the 2012 Olympics proved to be a vindication of her decision to return to international sport. She had retired for two years, saying the desire to compete had gone.
She finished seventh in the final of the 200m breaststroke, but broke Penny Heyns’ South African record, set in 1999. She is still just 24 years old. “I’m really happy,” said Van Biljon. “I exceeded my expectation with my time. It’s really put the desire and motivation back to work hard and achieve something in my swimming again.
“Watching Cameron and Chad win medals has made me want to keep on getting better. I want a medal.”
The team will be led in Rio by Van der Burgh who, at the age of 24, is at the peak of his powers. The 4x100m medley relay team just missed out the final, but he believes that Leith Shankland and Charl Crous, who swam the freestyle and backstroke legs respectively (Le Clos took the butterfly), will form a formidable team.
“It was awesome for us to race again as a team. We have had a lot of young guys come up. These two are really young, they call me the old man of the team. It’s great for me to be in a mentorship role and I remember in my first Olympics I didn’t do too well and look at me four years later. There’s a long way still to go for these guys and we’ll obviously work a lot in the next four years and then we can realistically adjust and say this is where we are at and this is what we can achieve,” said Van der Burgh, who hoped that their success would be an impetus for to lift the profile of swimming and make it, in his word, “huge”.
“I think we need a lot of corporate sponsors and more swimming on TV. If we can organise competitions on a regular basis, and let’s just say, twice a year, we can get Absa or SAB to put up big prize money and invite swimmers from around the world, and get us at our best. If we can make it like a show to get excitement in, bring some DJs. That kind of thing will really get a lot of the younger guys excited about it.”
Over to you, corporate South Africa. – The Star