Sport

ROAD TO OLYMPICS

South Africa’s swimming team not reading much into Aquatics Championships results

South Africa’s swimming team not reading much into Aquatics Championships results
SA swimming superstar Tatjana Smith. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

South Africa has relied heavily historically on their swimming cohort for medals at Olympic Games. This year won’t be different. Despite the recent medal disappointment in the pool at the World Aquatics Championships.

South Africa’s swimmers will use the next few weeks in order to introspect, following the harsh wake-up call they encountered during the recently concluded World Aquatics Championships

The Championships (which took place in Doha, Qatar between 2 – 18 February) saw South Africa’s swimmers struggle and only claim one medal. That being a 200m bronze in the backstroke event, thanks to 19-year-old Pieter Coetzé.

Other than that, the South Africans produced a mixed bag of results. Including near-misses of the podium in finals, falling short in the semifinals or tripping at the heats hurdle.

Despite these struggles, there were some positives that the country can draw from with the 2024 Olympic Games, now just a few months away. The multi-sport quadrennial tournament is set to kick off on 26 July, then run until 11 August.

Other than Coetzé’s solitary medal, there were silver linings such as Erin Gallagher smashing her own 100m butterfly record to seal her first-ever spot in a World Champs final. Though she only ended in seventh spot during the crunch decider.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Swimming SA dashes water polo players’ Paris Olympics dreams despite teams qualifying

Then there was Tayla Jonker. The 19-year-old usurped Olivia Nel’s South African record in the 50m backstroke during her heats, finishing fourth after clocking 28.37 seconds. She could not build on qualifying for her maiden World Championships semifinal in style, as she finished eighth in her semifinal.

Other South African swimmers, such as the impressive Matt Sates and Lara van Niekerk, could not tap into their usual brilliance. As was the case with the ageing Chad le Clos.

Moreover, South Africa were unable to call on the talented Tatjana Schoenmaker. She was one of 16 defending champions that chose to forgo this year’s Championships.

During the 2023 Japan-hosted Championships, Schoenmaker won both of the country’s two medals. Including a 200m breaststroke gold medal that made her the first South African woman to be crowned world champion in the history of the biennial aquatic showcase.

Chad le Clos of South Africa competes in the heats of the Men’s 100m Butterfly at the Doha 2024 World Aquatics Championships on 16 February 2024 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

Olympic clash

One of the reasons for the world’s swimming stars choosing not to travel to Doha was the fact that the Championships took place in an Olympic year. Generally, the showpiece has always taken place in odd years, to avoid clashes with the Games held every four years, in even years. 

However, due to Covid-19, there was a backlog in the scheduling of the water-based championships. Hence, they have taken place in each of the last three years. Including early 2024. 

The events generally take place mid-year. Of course, it was impossible this year, with the Olympics scheduled for this period.    

“I feel like no matter how you race now, it’s no indication of how you’re going to perform in July [at the Olympics]. And there’s no blueprint to this… It’s never really been done before” said Gallagher about the Championships taking place just a few months before the Games.

Pieter Coetzee winning gold during the Men’s 100 LC Meter Backstroke Final at the SA National Aquatic Championships at Newton Park Swimming Pool on 12 April 2023 in Gqeberha. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

Whole different story

Coetzé echoed the words of his compatriot, hinting that the Olympics would be a whole different territory to what the South Africans experienced in Doha.

“These worlds were always going to be a preparation competition for the Paris Olympics. It’s very early in the year,” said Coetzé.

“Generally, at this time of year, I’m not racing, just training. So, it was something new for my body, that I wasn’t used to. The whole SA team is not used to that. So, we’re all very excited for the next few months, and hopefully we can peak at the right time.”

With other countries also missing some of their top stars, Van Niekerk said it was a major wake-up for South Africa to experience the level of competition in Doha.

“It was good to be able to compete there at that level to see where the competition is and how everyone is looking,” stated the 20-year-old, who holds the African record in the 50m breaststroke.

Now the swimmers will look to recharge, then turn their focus to the SA National Aquatics Championships. 

These are scheduled from 8 April, to conclude on 13 April in Gqeberha. The final places for Olympic qualification will be up for grabs for those who are yet to qualify. DM

 

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