Dreams can come true

2008-11-17 00:00

It was unsurprising to find the gold medallist and four-time Olympic swimmer Ryk Neethling, being swamped by beautifully painted professionals at the launch of his autobiography Chasing the Dream, co-written by Sunday Times sports editor Clinton van der Berg, in Durban recently.

Neethling popularly became known as “Mr. Nice Guy” after doing a Lays commercial in which the toned and tanned swimmer — whose five-hour daily training schedule includes swimming 10 kilometres, an hour of pilates and weight training — emerges dripping from a lake and hands a packet of the Lays crisps to former Springbok rugby captain Francois

Pienaar’s wife.

But Neethling is far from just “nice”. In fact, he has been described as being “cold-minded”. and in his book, on radio and on television has lambasted Swimming SA for its lack of professionalism and conduct towards professional swimmers.

It was refreshing, however, to discover that this hero, who has become an iconic South African figure, is far from arrogant or dramatic. In fact, he was a real sport answering probing question after question with a warm smile and relaxed disposition despite being under huge time constraints — he had to fly out to Cape Town straight after the interviews.

“I did not write this book because I wanted fame or fortune. I was determined to tell my real story and not a sanitised fairy tale. I wanted to put the real me out there, warts and all,” he says.

And that is exactly what the book is about: an Afrikaner boy from Bloemfontein who started swimming as a result of a near-drowning experience at the age of six, when he fell into a neighbour’s pool. Neethling describes his character as “very intense”, and attributes his success to “hard work and sheer determination”.

It is about a man who struggled with his Afrikaner identity in the apartheid era knowing that he was more privileged than most. He admits that as a swimmer it was a frustrating time due to the international sanctions against the country which meant that South African athletes could not compete at an international level.

As a result, he, along with other South African swimmers, enrolled at the University of Arizona in the United States to continue their training. He participated in his first international tournament in 1993 and since then has been ranked one of the top 10 swimmers in the world in the 50 metres, 100 metres, 200 metres freestyle and individual medleys, and holds South African records in five different events.

Coming from a close-knit family, Neethling talks about his feelings of guilt and helplessness about not being able to be there or do more for his sister who, at the age of 12, was diagnosed with brain tumours and had to undergo at least three surgeries before recovering. Despite her illness, she continued to swim and her determination encouraged him to persevere and attain his goals even when he was separated from his family while working for many years in Arizona in the U.S.

His book also reveals the challenges facing South African athletes competing on an international level, the gloomy world of steroids and other stimulants in sport.

“I am pleased that doping isn’t a route that I’ve followed. If I took an illegal substance and was caught, it would undo all the races that I had swum, back to when I was a little boy; the races I had won when I’d come from behind — everything … Everything good that I had done would be gone. It wouldn’t be worth it.

“The journey has never been about the medals or the records for me — it’s been about becoming a better person. I hope I have succeeded.”

The book reveals a man who is smart enough to use his fame and fortune as a way to enhance and represent the country and develop its future talent.

“I understand why I have to pose bare-chested for magazine covers, but that’s not really me. I want to make a difference beyond the superficial.

“If you look around, it’s obvious that South Africa needs huge social upliftment. My passion is children, and that’s why I am involved in the Dream Big project with Jenna Clifford. Dream Big is a social upliftment programme designed to raise money to help young children chase their dreams. I’m essentially the face of Dream Big and I help where I can to raise funds. It’s a terrific project and I am happy to lend my name to it.”

One of his biggest projects for 2009 will be as swimming director at the Centurus Sports Academies in Pretoria. The elite academy will offer pupils “state-of-the-art” expertise and training. The academy will also offer coaching in tennis, cycling, golf, soccer, music, drama and dance.

“I love being around children and the opportunity to give something back to the sport motivates me.”

Neethling makes no bones about the fact that he is still single. He even discloses information on a previous relationship with Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard.

“One of the reasons I am still single is because if I go out on a date, the next thing I’m reading about is a ‘hot new romance’. I’m constantly judged on who I’m with and that makes trying to have a relationship harder.”

The hunky hero, who in his spare time enjoys reading books, watching sport like rugby and spending time with friends and family, says he is looking for someone to “complete” him, someone “strong and independent and able to bring her own to the relationship table”.

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