Natural born swimmer

2008-04-24 00:00

American-based South African Olympic gold medallist Darian Townsend is at a crossroads in his swimming career. His second Olympic Games are a few months away and he has to prove to the world that he is a professional swimmer. It isn’t an easy job. “Unless you’re Michael Phelps, who is the best swimmer in the world, you don’t get publicity,” says Townsend (23). Getting publicity means sponsorship deals, which a professional sportsperson depends on to turn a passion into a career.

We are sitting beside the pool at Townsend’s parents’ house in Montrose in which he took his first strokes as a natural born swimmer. “Coming from a swimming family, I took to the water at 18 months,” he says, smiling at his parents Ted and Rita. They both finished first in their age groups in this year’s Midmar Mile and their daughter Cheryl is on a scholarship swimming in the United States.

Townsend was born on August 28, 1984, in Pinetown and moved with his family to Pietermaritzburg shortly afterwards. He went to Northern Park Primary, Merchiston and then Maritzburg College, getting his matric certificate in 2002. Throughout his school days, though, the one thing that kept him motivated and in high spirits was swimming.

“I joined my mum’s swimming classes in this very pool,” he says. “But my parents soon realised that I needed to start training professionally and so when I was seven I joined the Pietermaritzburg Seals Swimming Club as a club night swimmer.” He then moved on to Wayne Riddin’s swim squad, beginning his career for the Seals.

In 2003, Townsend decided to take a gap year and trained with French coach Fred Vernoux. “I went to France to do further training and then swam for South Africa at the 2003 Barcelona World Championships. It was the first time that the four swimmers who won gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004 [Townsend, Roeland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling and Lyndon Ferns] swam together, which was a great experience.”

He returned to South Africa, where he trained under Graham Hill in Pinetown. “It was a very good experience because I was able to cross train with cycling, which I really enjoyed.” Hill, the coach of Terrence Parkin who won silver at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, encouraged cross training with cycling and so Townsend went about on a bicycle for 60 kilometres a day at the height of his training for Athens 2004. That’s how he found himself tackling the gruelling Amashovashova cycle race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

It only hit Townsend when he reached the final of the men’s 4x100 metre freestyle relay with Schoeman, Neethling and Ferns at the Athens Olympics in August 2004 that he was about to be part of something special. “It was such a happy moment for all of us,” he said, his Olympic gold medal slightly worn from all the people who have oozed over it.

“The Olympics came when I was 19, which is very young,” he says. “This had good and bad repercussions.

“The good would be that you can never lose your Olympic gold from your name,” he says. “The bad part of it, however, is that I was still growing and having this medal puts a lot of pressure on you. Everyone who competes against you says, ‘show me what you’ve got that makes you so special’.”

After breaking the world record and getting gold, Townsend began making a name for himself in American waters, but it didn’t start off very easily.

In 2005, Townsend got a full scholarship to Florida University where he began studying sociology. Being away from his family for such a long period was not an easy transition and the first two years were tough. “I didn’t get on with the head coach and I didn’t find his programme very helpful, which showed in races,” he says. “But it took me a while to realise this. At first I thought I wasn’t good enough.”

The coach believed in long-distance swimming training and pushed his swimmers throughout the year without a break. “He used fear as a tactic, which for me just didn’t work.”

But although he was struggling, Townsend wasn’t out of the equation yet. In March 2005 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), his Florida team won gold and broke the record in their 4x200 metre freestyle relay. “That competition is actually much more difficult than the Olympics,” Townsend says. “One thousand two hundred universities take part and it is hard just qualifying.”

But Townsend was fed up at Florida and when Arizona University head coach Frank Busch offered him a place there in 2006, he was on the first plane out of Florida. “All the four relay guys from Athens were at Arizona, so you can imagine the feeling of being there,” he says. “We could talk and hang out with each other, which I really enjoyed.”

The coaching was also a relief. “They are so much more relaxed there and develop you as a person rather than a swimming machine.”

Townsend said he had never really taken much interest in his diet, but Schoeman influenced him a lot. “He taught me how to cook and, more importantly, how to cook leaving fatty foods out. We eat a lot of pasta and low-fat meats,” he says.

In 2006 Townsend was selected for the South African team to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, but it was the following year in which he truly came into his own as a swimmer. At 22, he got gold in the 200 yard freestyle finals at the NCAA and his relay team broke the record his team at Florida had set the year before, also winning gold. This year he again got gold at the NCAA in the 200 yard individual medley race.

“I have really enjoyed swimming for Arizona,” he says. “I have been able to travel all over the country and see the different cultures in the United States. But, as one of the conditions of my scholarship, I can’t be part of the team next year and have to focus on completing my degree, so I will have to find another team to swim for.”

In his time off, Townsend spends time with his girlfriend Ashley, who is a cheerleader for the Arizona University football team. “We enjoy relaxing together, watching movies, playing pool — you know, the normal stuff,” he says. “But I can’t sit in the house doing nothing all day. I have to get out and do something active at least once a day.”

Townsend has just finished a successful competition in Durban at the South African National Championships, which were also Olympic qualifiers. Townsend qualified in the 200 metre individual medley and in so doing broke the South African record in a time of 2:01,05.

Back in the U.S., Townsend will be returning to a stringent training schedule ahead of the Chinese Olympic Games. He trains four to five hours a day, with a one-and-a-half hour workout in the pool, a dry land workout and another two hours in the pool in the afternoon. “I have a couple of meets in California and Arizona before the Olympics, which will help to improve my times,” he says. “I am currently fifth in the six-man squad for the South African relay team and so need to up my time to make it into the four-man team — we will have a time trial just before the finals in China. Luckily, I’ll be peaking at the right time again.”

Townsend says he can’t wait to be back at the Olympic Village set-up. “Having all the great athletes from around the world in one place at one time is amazing,” he says, “Just walking around the food court is awesome, because you bump into people you once idolised.”

But the Olympics are about more than just doing well for South Africa. Townsend needs to win gold to be recognised by sponsors. “I am expecting to drop a few seconds off my time,” he says. “Swimming is not seen as a glamorous sport and sponsorships don’t come easy.”

Townsend says he will peak as a swimmer in a few years’ time. “Give me a few years and I will be swimming the times,” he says. “Luckily, I have my parents in the background, who are always helping me out financially, because at the moment there is no one else.”

For Townsend, the 2008 Olympics could not have come at a better time. “I love being a swimmer. Some people work hard in the office and I work hard in the pool,” he says. “I love testing my body as a swimmer – it just makes me feel special.”

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