Sport

GOLDEN TOUCH

Medal maestro — meet Rocco Meiring, the Tuks swimming coach behind SA’s top Olympic hopefuls

Medal maestro — meet Rocco Meiring, the Tuks swimming coach behind SA’s top Olympic hopefuls
Tuks coach Rocco Meiring. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Five of the eight South African swimmers who have already qualified for the Olympic Games in Paris train under Rocco Meiring.

South Africa’s best medal hopes at the Olympic Games have been in the swimming pool since its readmission to the global showpiece.

Of the 38 medals the country has won since the 1992 Games in Barcelona, 16 have been claimed in the pool, followed closely by athletics with 14.

With the next edition of the Olympic Games in Paris only three months away, South Africa’s best hopes of podium finishes are once again in the 50m pool.

Breaststroke star extraordinaire Tatjana Smith (née Schoenmaker) is back to swimming some of the best times of her career, and young bucks Pieter Coetzé and Matthew Sates are hoping to make a mark at their second Olympic Games.

Kaylene Corbett, who finished fifth in the 200m breaststroke final in Tokyo in which Smith broke the world record, will be aiming to push her time to a podium finish.

Erin Gallagher, who will also be at her second Games, has set her sights on reaching the final – and from there anything is possible.

Rocco Mairing Tatjana Smith

Tatjana Smith. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

What do all five these incredible swimmers have in common? They’re all coached by experienced instructor Rocco Meiring at the University of Pretoria (Tuks).

So, five of the eight South African swimmers – the other three are Aimee Canny, Rebecca Meder and Chad le Clos – who are on their way to Paris are in the capable hands of Meiring.

Canny studies and trains in America, and Meder does the same in New Zealand, so their options for coaches are limited to where they’re staying. Le Clos, meanwhile, has based his Olympic training programme in Germany.

Despite the clear evidence of success that follows the experienced coach at Tuks, Meiring quickly shifts the credit to his athletes.

“I am not good as a swimming coach,” Meiring told Daily Maverick. “I’m no better than anyone else.

“I have many swimmers who don’t perform with me. I’m lucky to have a few who are doing well. I’m lucky to be coaching very talented athletes.”

Pieter Coetzé. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Leading man

Meiring has been head swimming coach at Tuks permanently since 2006, although he has been involved in some capacity since studying there in 1988.

Multiple Olympic medallist Cameron van der Burgh started his career under Meiring, but he was not involved at the 2012 or 2016 Olympic Games.

An accomplishment Meiring singles out as the proudest of his career is Smith’s then world record 200m breaststroke swim in Tokyo, as well as the journey he walked with her to get there.

“Not many people can be involved and assist a swimmer in winning an Olympic gold medal,” Meiring said.

“By sheer stats, I was lucky. I happened to be the one.

“Also seeing her develop. When she started with me she was 14 and seeing her journey and all the hardships that she has gone through and walking the journey with her, all the way to the point where she wins a gold medal and breaks a world record.

“That makes it special because you have a bond with an athlete that only a coach and an athlete and their close-knit family really understand, and experience the highs and the lows.”

Smith is one example of a swimmer taking their ceiling of potential to a new level when working with Meiring, a push other athletes have chased.

Matthew Sates of South Africa celebrates after winning the 200m butterfly at the World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 in Berlin on 7 October 2023. (Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

Gallagher moved from Durban, where she was based during the previous Olympic Games, to Pretoria, in part to work with Meiring and also to study, whereas Sates and Coetzé aren’t studying at the university but have still chosen it as their training base because of Meiring.

“The setup that we have at the University of Pretoria is such that it’s a very good environment that would give an aspiring athlete the specialist services and the support that they need,” Meiring said.

“That’s most probably the biggest attraction. I’m lucky to be coaching here. It does give me an advantage.

“There’s also a big group of senior swimmers that support one another and that have become like a family. That’s important for the emotional side of swimmers.”

swimming

Kaylene Corbett of Team South Africa with her medal during the medal ceremony for the 200m breaststroke final at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. (Photo: Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)

Rising talent

Smith’s heroics at Tokyo were a culmination of a decade of hard work by both coach and athlete. It’s an outlook Meiring has for Coetzé, who has already given him another career highlight.

“[A highlight is] working with a swimmer like Pieter Coetzé, who comes to me as a 16-year-old, and he qualifies for the Olympics out of nowhere.”

Coetzé was a surprise last-minute qualifier for the Tokyo Games in the 100m backstroke. He finished last in his heat and 24th overall based on time.

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

This year, though, Coetzé is more experienced. He will compete in the 100m and 200m breaststroke events.

“Pieter has a lot of potential,” Meiring said about his prodigy. “It’s a long-term project; he’s definitely somebody for the future.

“Time will tell how far he can go, but he’s definitely a prospect and he’s working very hard at exploiting it as much as he can.”

With five of his athletes vying for Olympic glory in Paris, Meiring is not focused on the podium finishes but rather on each individual swimming the best they have ever swum.

“I don’t look at the medals,” the Tuks coach said. “I think it would be foolish to look at it like that.

“Very strange things happen at the Olympics. I would want [my] swimmers to swim personal bests, which is very difficult.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s swimming team not reading much into Aquatics Championships results

“Very few swimmers get that right because of the pressure [at the Olympics].

“It’s a completely different kind of pressure and environment, but that’s the mission – to get them to deliver their pinnacle performance,” said Meiring.

“That’s the only thing we really have control over. We don’t know what the other countries are doing, or how their swimmers are going to perform.”

Recently, he was nominated as coach of the year at the SA Sport Awards, losing out to Springbok World Cup-winning leading man Jacques Nienaber.

If all goes well in the pool for the rest of 2024 – particularly at the Olympic Games – the swimming coaching maestro will have a claim to that throne. DM

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

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