Ockert de Villiers.
JOHANNESBURG – Barely keeping head above water, South African swimming is in desperate need of some sort of intervention to return it to its former glory.

It has traditionally been one of the country’s strong events at the Olympic Games and, like athletics, does not get a lot of attention from the public outside of the year of the global showpiece.

Even though it falls out of the mainstream sports like rugby, cricket and soccer, the sport manages to produce international superstars.

Penny Heyns remains one of the most celebrated figures of the sport with her double breaststroke gold medal from the 1996 Olympic Games and the bronze from Sydney 2000.

Then there is of course the “awesome foursome” from the 2004 Olympics, and modern-day heroes Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh, who still manage to keep the sport afloat.

The question is, what happens when these two superstars call it a day or lose the lustre that have made them iconic figures around the globe?

South Africa still have a talent pool at school level that is the envy of many of the great swimming nations, but without a long-term plan to see them fulfil their promise.

Many of South Africa’s top swimming talents have been lured to the United States where they are promised the sun, the moon, and the stars in its Collegiate system. The likes of Van der Burgh and Le Clos have shown that home-grown talent can stay at home and still be world-beaters.

We once again see some of the most talented swimmers gravitating to the States for various reasons, which include the possibility of earning a valuable green card or a great education.

While South African universities offer track-and-field athletes a future through scholarships, it seems to be limited for the country’s top swimmers.

The universities have been slow to develop quality programmes that cater specifically for swimmers, with only three tertiary institutions really making any kind of effort in this regard.

University resources are already stretched to offer affordable tuition to students, but deserving athletes are also benefiting from bursaries.

While Swimming South Africa (SSA) already have agreements with some of the universities, more should be done to keep swimmers in the sport after school.

The future looks bleak for SA swimming if Chad le Clos should retire. Photo: Patrick B Kraemer, EPA

Too many of the country’s promising youngsters are lost after finishing school, leaving South Africa’s hopes of winning medals at major championships resting only on the shoulders of Le Clos and Van der Burgh.

There should be some sort of incentive for swimmers to continue with the sport and, while money may be scarce at local level, the promise of a degree and a brighter future should go a long way in doing just that.

The responsibility should not only lie with the universities, but there is no reason why such institutions should not have a greater influence in the sport.

The idea of the South African security forces like the police and the military offering a home to athletes after school seems to have dissipated, leaving the universities as the only viable option.

There are private clubs, but they are kept afloat by committed parents and the odd swimmer who can afford to participate while holding down a job.

Swimming is not the only sport that faces these challenges, but we need to seriously consider the future of this code or else we might see it sink into the abyss.

Saturday Star