Games changer — Pieter Coetzé is the future star of South African men’s swimming

Games changer — Pieter Coetzé is the future star of South African men’s swimming
Pieter Coetzé competes in the 50m backstroke at the SA National Aquatic Championships held at Newton Park Swimming Pool in Gqeberha on 13 April 2023. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

The teen sensation, who turns 20 in May, is a clear medal hopeful in the pool at the Paris Games.

Pieter Coetzé is the future of men’s swimming in South Africa. Tatjana Smith may have won gold and silver medals at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021, but the last time a male swimmer stood on the podium at the Games was in 2016 when Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh both won silver medals.

Van der Burgh has since retired from the sport and 32-year-old Le Clos is in the twilight of his career. Their successor has arrived in the form of Coetzé, who, at 19 years old, has his best years in the pool ahead of him.

Unlike Van der Burgh (breaststroke) and Le Clos (butterfly), Coetzé is a backstroke specialist and will be looking to become the first South African men’s swimmer to win a medal in the event at the Olympics.

It was Le Clos’s heroics in the pool in London 2012, when he defeated Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly, that made Coetzé believe what is possible for South Africans at the quadrennial event.

“Watching him win the gold showed us that it’s possible to do it while training in South Africa,” Coetzé told Daily Maverick.

“That was the moment I also started to believe. He’s played a massive role. For me to compete with him and know him very well now and be friends with him is amazing. I’ve learnt a lot from him. He has a lot of wisdom because he’s been through so much in the sport. I’m very grateful for that opportunity.”

Coetzé proved his championship mettle at the SA National Aquatic Championships last weekend. He won every race he competed in: the three backstroke events – 50m, 100m and 200m – as well as the 50m and 100m freestyle events.

On the international stage, Coetzé claimed a bronze medal in the 200m backstroke in February at the World Aquatics Championships in Doha. It was South Africa’s only medal at the competition.

The teen sensation has qualified for the 100m and 200m backstroke events at the Paris Olympic Games. The 50m backstroke is not an Olympic event.

“The 100m backstroke is probably my favourite,” Coetzé said. “If I had to pick one event that’s the most fun, it’s the 50m freestyle,” he added, noting that one day he’d like to specialise in the short-distance freestyle swim.

Paris focus

July and August’s Olympics will be Coetzé’s second appearance at the Games, having swum a last-gasp qualification time for Tokyo in 2021. He was 17 then. He finished in the slowest time of all the heats in the 100m backstroke – 54.05 seconds.

“Tokyo was very important for me to experience,” he said. “I went there with big goals and big aspirations and I was humbled. I got last place in my prelim. I remember saying after the race that it felt like these guys aren’t human.

“That was a big lesson I had to learn. I learnt what I had to work on and I’ve grown a lot. That experience was super important – something money can’t buy.”

These lessons Coetzé will be carrying with him to the French capital. “Going into Paris, I’ve learnt not to have too many expectations,” he said. “To trust the process, to believe that whatever happens is the right thing to happen – that’s the mindset I’m trying to stay in.”

Although Coetzé’s time in Tokyo was way off the time he swam to book his ticket, he has continued to improve his times steadily in all the backstroke events. At the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, he took gold in the 100m backstroke while improving his time to 53.78. He also took silver in the 50m and bronze in the 200m.

And at the nationals in 2023 he swam a fabulous time of 52.78 in the 100m, breaking his own African record. Although his time – 52.89 – in this event last weekend was slower than before, he remains in the top 10 fastest speeds of the year.

So, how has the preparation for his second Olympic Games been? 

“It’s been very good,” said Coetzé, who will be 20 when the Paris Olympics roll around. “I don’t think there’s anything I’d change. I’m in a state of acceptance right now. Whatever happens, that’s the right thing to happen right now. I’m just trying to stay in the moment – do what I can do in the moment without thinking about the future or the past.”

An accidental swimmer

The 1.97m giant’s journey to scaling the summit of backstroke swimming at the Olympic Games initially started with him wanting to test his speed on land. “I really wanted to go far in athletics,” he said. “I did high jump, 100m sprints, [but as] I got older, I just got slower and slower as I started swimming more.”

Coetzé explained that he only started swimming because he found himself at the pool every weekend watching his older sister, Jana, compete.

“On weekends I’d watch her compete and my parents were like, ‘You’re here anyway, just enter a few events’. I didn’t really want anything to do with it, but I started enjoying it and I started winning, which is fun,” he explained.

“Then I started training once or twice a week, and picking up more and more. Then I started enjoying the up-and-down part of it in training, more than the winning part. It became my therapy.

“I continued doing the other sports until around 15 [years old]. That’s when I narrowed it down and stopped everything else just to focus on swimming and working in the gym, based on my swimming, just to improve in the water.”

Jana has since stopped swimming and taken up the artistic version of the sport.

From his initial reluctance to take up the sport, Coetzé now heads into the Paris Olympics, along with Smith, as South Africa’s best chance of winning a medal in the pool.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Five-star Pieter Coetzé shines brightest with golden haul at SA Swimming Championships

The important mental battle to deal with now for the Tuks swimmer is handling his own expectations. “The person who puts the most pressure on me is myself,” he explained.

“That’s the main thing I have to deal with: my own expectations. Sometimes I feel like I’m never happy and it shouldn’t be like that.

“I’m trying to get myself to a place where I think about a few years ago and what my goals were and how happy I would be to see where I am at now.

“The 13-, 14-year-old me would be in shock and wouldn’t even believe it. I try to think about who I was back then and the goals that I had and all the things that I accomplished.

“When I do that, I feel inner peace and gratitude for what I’ve been able to do and all the amazing blessings that I have.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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