The boytjie from Bloem attains golden status, remembers home

The boytjie from Bloem attains golden status, remembers home
Zane Waddell of South Africa celebrates after winning in the men's 50m Backstroke Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 28 July 2019. EPA/PATRICK B. KRAEMER

Gold medallist, 21-year-old Zane Waddell, talks Ubuntu and winning SA’s only gold medal at the Swimming World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

To some he’s a newly crowned world champion, to others a University of Alabama senior. But if you asked Zane Waddell himself, he’d probably say he’s just a boy from Bloemfontein who’s all about Ubuntu.

The 21-year-old stunned his Russian rivals at the recently concluded Swimming World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, by claiming the 50m backstroke gold.

South Africans are used to podium-topping performances from the likes of Chad le Clos and the now-retired Cameron van der Burgh, but this was something of a surprise. And the nation’s only gold of the championships.

As Waddell let out a massive yowl of celebration, smacking his hands into the churned-up water before sitting on the lane rope and raising them in victory, fans could just make out a familiar-looking Nguni word tattooed onto his toned torso: Ubuntu.

Of the three tattoos the young South African has, it’s the one that elicits the most interest.

The other tattoos are a Protea, and the word family – incorporating the A logo of his university.

All my tattoos are symbolic. The Ubuntu tattoo for me is the ultimate symbol of my heritage and beliefs as a South African and that is why I have it on my ribs, close to my heart,” explained Waddell.

It symbolises South African culture for me. I am who I am because of who we are – and people have reacted really positively to it.”

The former Grey College student is one of many South African swimmers who have left the country on scholarships to American universities. The distance from home may have intensified his sense of patriotism.

He is following a well-worn path dating back to the 1950s when the first swimmers made the difficult decision to leave home for greener pastures in the US.

Penny Heyns was perhaps the most famous example of making the most of superior facilities and opportunities abroad at the University of Nebraska, winning double Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta and bronze in Sydney in 2000.

Silver medalist Evgeny Rylov of Russia (L) Gold medalist Zane Waddell of South Africa (C) and Bronze medalist Kliment Kolesnikov of Russia (R) pose for photographs during the award ceremony for the men’s Backstroke final at the FINA Swimming World Championships 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea, 28 July 2019. EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN

Then the Awesome Foursome stunned many, becoming Olympic champions in the 4x100m freestyle relay in Athens four years later – three of them (Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman, and Lyndon Ferns) were US-based at the time with Darian Townsend making the move later.

Asked whether he thought that his gold medal, in world record time, would have been possible had they been based in SA, Neethling was resolute: “Not a chance. And not because of facilities, but because of mindset. We learned to believe there.

Some of the South African coaches in Athens even said after our heats [where they were the quickest qualifiers] that we wouldn’t win. They won’t make those mistakes again.”

While much has changed since then, particularly after Le Clos and Van der Burgh’s Olympic golds provided a breakthrough for SA-based swimmers, Waddell agrees with Neethling: “I have been in the States for almost four years now and I have to say it has been the best move I could have ever made for my swimming.

I did what I had to do to further my swimming and academic career. I love where I am based now, and I love my country just as much.”

Neethling believes that patriotism is indeed enhanced by distance.

I think when you are away from home, you appreciate it much more and miss it, obviously.

I think one thing that really is uncalled for though, and used to annoy us, was this SA vs USA-based swimmers mentality. We are still South Africans. Always. But to have the opportunity to study overseas and swim is priceless, and to grow as a person away from home. It was also about the mentality of the Americans – they are so supportive and inclusive,” added Neethling, who has since returned to South Africa and is marketing director and shareholder at Val de Vie Estate in the Western Cape.

Waddell Zane, Prelims during the 2016 SA National Aquatic Championship Olympic at Kings Park Pool, Durban Kwa-Zulu Natal on 11 April 2016 ©Muzi Ntombela/Backpagepix

While the decision to move to Alabama has certainly improved his swimming performances, a few things America hasn’t offered Waddell is some braaivleis, a can of cream soda (two of the first things he consumes when he comes back to visit) and his unique fighting spirit.

One of the strongest qualities we have as South African people is our unwavering spirit and passion. It is a quality I see in myself. It is honestly a big contributing factor as to why I can push myself so far. We South Africans have proven to be a hard bunch of people.

South Africans make the country what it is. We are a nation of people who show qualities of perseverance and determination. Because of this, I am extremely patriotic and proud to be a South African.

Our swimmers are not offered top facilities as compared to our competitor nations such as USA and Australia, yet we still find a way to produce world-class athletes. That in and of itself is truly inspiring.”

Inspiring enough to see him earn the title of world champion last Sunday.

The focus now switches to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Waddell faces another mammoth task. The 50m backstroke, for which he won gold in Korea, is not on the Olympic programme, so if he’s to emulate the likes of Heyns and Neethling, he’ll have to do it in the longer 100m backstroke or the 50m freestyle.

I am confident in my swimming, but realistically an Olympic medal may still be out of reach. I will be focusing on the 100m backstroke and sprint free events. I just have to keep working hard and trust the process,” he explained.

For now though, there’s a gold medal-winning performance to celebrate with his family and friends.

It has always been a dream of mine to be a world champion and to finally reach that goal is something I cannot describe with words.

The race itself was a blur, it went by so quickly. I was confident going into the race that I would be able to win because a 50 is anyone’s race. I just executed what I have been training for, for most of my life,” he explained.

Zane Waddell of South Africa celebrates after winning in the men’s 50m Backstroke Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 28 July 2019. EPA/PATRICK B. KRAEMER

As for looking up and realising he’d bagged the gold, Waddell added: “I was full of raw emotion, it is definitely not something many people on this earth have experienced and to experience that was amazing.”

While he may be the toast of world swimming and the University of Alabama right now, deep down he’ll always be that boytjie from Bloemfontein who knows where his identity, spirit and fight come from. It’s from all of us. DM


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