French fries on the fly — why the golden arches beckon SA swimming star Erin Gallagher in Paris

French fries on the fly — why the golden arches beckon SA swimming star Erin Gallagher in Paris
Erin Gallagher competes in the 100m butterfly at the Doha 2024 World Aquatics Championships in Qatar on 11 February 2024. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

Competing at her second Olympic Games, Erin Gallagher is heading to Paris with a newfound calmness – plus her unconventional fast-food weapon – that has seen her times decrease.

Erin Gallagher has a tattoo underneath her left foot featuring a carton box of McDonald’s French fries alongside the words “eyes on the fries” in permanent marker.

Gallagher is headed to the French capital in July to represent South Africa in the 100m butterfly at the Olympic Games. Her aim in the pool is to at least reach the final.

If she does, you’ll find her somewhere in Paris – a few hours before the biggest race of her career – under the golden arches of McDonald’s eating a Big Mac and fries.

It’s nowhere near a conventional method for elite athletes to prepare themselves for world-class performance, but for Gallagher it’s a foolproof method of success.

“It started when I was 15 and decided to have McDonald’s [before my race] and I ended up swimming one of the best times of my swimming career,” Gallagher told Daily Maverick.

“Since then it’s become a thing where before a 100m freestyle I have McDonald’s. I tried it out for the 100m butterfly and it seemed to work, so who knows, I might carry on doing it.

Swimming is so fleeting and we train for four years [to swim] for 57 seconds and I don’t want to take that for granted.

“It just became a thing where McDonald’s and chips is something I always use, so let me just get a tattoo of it.”

The takeaway food order combination used to contain a McFlurry dessert too, but since reaching her mid-twenties, she has excluded the item from her order.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Erin Gallagher breaks national record as big names make a splash at SA Swimming Championships

“It was 100m freestyle at SA short course,” she explained where her superstition has its origins. “It was around 2013 and it was the first time I’d swum 52 seconds for a 100m freestyle.

“I don’t think I’ve ever come close to that time again, but it was just the swim of a lifetime and it must have been the McDonald’s.”

Erin Gallagher

Erin Gallagher after winning gold in the 50 butterfly during the SA National Aquatic Championships at Newton Park Swimming Pool in Gqeberha on 8 April 2024. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

Olympic focus

Gallagher was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – held in 2021 – as a 22-year-old. She competed in the 100m freestyle, the 100m butterfly, the 4x200m freestyle relay and the 4x100m medley relay.

She failed to make the final of any of the events, but three years later she is headed to the Games with a single-minded focus on the 100m butterfly.

“The 100m freestyle always used to be my main event but I grew a mental block towards that race,” Gallagher said.

“The 100 fly has always been a race I’ve enjoyed and felt a little bit more comfortable in.”

She’s also entering these Olympics with a changed attitude compared with the attitude she had in Tokyo.

“Tokyo wasn’t my most favourite competition and that’s ironic seeing that it was the Olympics,” she said.

“I learnt that I didn’t really embrace the moment. I didn’t really take in as much as I should have.

“Going into Paris, I just want to experience every moment.

“Swimming is so fleeting and we train for four years [to swim] for 57 seconds and I don’t want to take that for granted.”

Gallagher’s new attitude has extended outside the swimming pool too.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Games changer — Pieter Coetzé is the future star of South African men’s swimming

Originally from Durban, the 25-year-old has relocated to Pretoria both to train with accomplished coach Rocco Meiring at the University of Pretoria and complete a bachelor of science degree in geography and environmental science.

“When I was training in Durban it was just swimming and my identity solely lay in swimming,” Gallagher said. “And that was a big downfall for me because when swimming wasn’t going well I didn’t have anything else to fall back on.

“I’m really grateful that I’m studying and engaging my brain, which is just a bunch of mush at the moment,” the second-year student said, although this year’s studies are divided in two to allow for enough time to focus on her training and Olympic ambitions.

“Swimming with Rocco has changed and revolutionised my swimming career,” she said. “He’s an incredible coach to work with and he’s challenged me in the best way possible.

This is where I’m at now and there are always lessons to be learnt. I’d rather swim slower here and faster in Paris.

“He’s slowed everything down. He’s calmed me mentally and emotionally. He’s a really good coach to work with. He’s not afraid to work with older swimmers. Tatjana [Smith], Kaylene [Corbett] and I are all 24 or older and he’s not afraid of that.”

Smith and Corbett have also secured their tickets to Tokyo.

“A lot of coaches don’t really know how to work with older women in sport, and Rocco – I don’t know if it’s by choice – but he seemed to land up with all of us,” Gallagher said.

“He’s the perfect combination of dad and coach. It’s a privilege to be able to work with him.”

The prize

In the pool, Gallagher’s times have improved too. Having already achieved an Olympic 100m butterfly qualifying time, she bettered it with a personal best and an African record time of 57.32 seconds at the nationals in Gqeberha in April.

This bettered her own African record of 57.59 seconds she set at the World Championships in Doha earlier this year.

“It’s so weird. I [wasn’t] nervous for one single race. I feel at peace,” Gallagher said about her mental state at the nationals, having taken gold in the 50m freestyle, 50m butterfly and 100m butterfly. 

Despite the exceptional feat, Gallagher believes there’s more in the tank as the season progresses.

“When I finished the race I thought I’d be more tired, but I feel like I can go [again],” she said. “I think that’s a good sign.

“[But] this is where I’m at now and there are always lessons to be learnt. I’d rather swim slower here and faster in Paris.”

Although Gallagher will potentially enter the heated waters of the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Paris with a belly filled with McDonald’s, she hasn’t lost sight of her ambitions for the quadrennial event.

“I’d love to make the final for the 100m butterfly,” she said. “That would be absolutely incredible. I know it’s going to be very fast and very tough, but whatever is going to happen is going to happen and I’m going to give it my all.”

By sticking to her mantra and keeping her eyes on the prize… or fries. DM

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


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