CHAMPIONS

By admin
12 June 2008

They've experienced some of life's highest highs and deepest lows. For the Neethling family setbacks have been good reasons to fight back even harder.

At the age of 18 Ryk Neethling swopped his parents' home in Bloemfontein for a US university, his only guide on this journey a burning dream of Olympic gold.

At the time his younger sister, Elsje, was fighting brain cancer. Ryk now has his gold medal and after a second cancer scare Elsje's blood tests are negative. Meanwhile their youngest sibling, Jean-Marié, is a swimming champion in her own right . . .

By Betina Louw

ONCE there were Greek gods. Now there's Ryk Neethling. He may be a mortal human but his iron will and rigorous self-discipline have taken him to heights achieved by only a select few.

Now 30, Ryk has the kind of presence that commands attention; when he enters a room you know he has arrived. Today, though, as he hangs out with his sisters Elsje (27) and Jean-Marié (18) near his home in Pretoria he's just a brother. The love among the three is tangible.

''Look at Jean-Marié posing,'' Elsje and Ryk tease. They joke and laugh spontaneously as the camera clicks away. ''You're upstaging me again!'' Elsje says as Ryk positions himself for another shot.

It's hard to believe a few months ago vivacious Elsje was given just two months to live. Or that in 2006 Jean-Marié, sensitive and more withdrawn than her siblings, was at 15 the youngest member of the South African team taking part in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne – and smashed an SA swimming record there.

Their mom, San-Marié, keeps a watchful eye from the patio. Dad Ryk Snr is holding the fort at their Bloemfontein home. They're a close bunch, far removed from the world Ryk has had to become used to since he and his teammates Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend broke the world record for the 4 x 100 m relay and won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

But at today's shoot he's just ''Rykie'', as his family calls him. After finishing high school Rykie packed his bags and headed for the University of Arizona in America to focus on swimming.

It wasn't always easy for the young Afrikaans boy in a foreign country – but giving up wasn't an option.

His sister's efforts against cancer resonated in his own against the stopwatch. Elsje was 13 when she was diagnosed with cancer, a year before Ryk went to America. ''When things looked bleak I'd think of Elsje at home; how brave she was and about the pain she had to endure,'' Ryk says.

He completed his psychology degree, was voted the university's swimmer of the year nine times and won its athlete of the century award. Slowly but surely he carved a niche for himself in American swimming circles.

But there were no short cuts and it was hard work. Five hours a day, six days a week, he trained in the pool – even after hours when he was working full-time for a property developer. It's a regime he still follows today: testimony to the amazing drive and discipline that are characteristic of his approach to life in general.

Rykie was competitive even when he was little, his mom says. ''At his first primary school prize-giving he won awards for swimming and academic excellence. On the way home he was upset because no one had told him there was a prize for neatness – if he'd known he would have been much neater!''

She remembers his frustration when his friends didn't give 100 per cent during training. ''And when some of the boys grew faster than him when he was about 13 it was sometimes difficult to motivate him to keep swimming,'' San-Marié recalls.

But keep swimming he did. One lap after another, right up to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He was the favourite to win the 1 500 m but ended fifth. Many people wrote him off. ''I was depressed and stopped swimming altogether. Looking back I didn't handle the disappointment of my performance properly,'' Ryk explains.

But he started swimming again in the evenings just to relax. And he began to understand he would have to make changes. ''I realised if winning is all that matters you're going to be a really unhappy person. Suddenly competing started being about doing my best within my circumstances.

Now when I think back it's not the races I won that necessarily stand out,'' he says. His American accent sometimes slips through, the only obvious sign of his nine-year stay in the US. ''I just have to think about Elsje and that's enough to make me try harder. It gives me perspective.''

Elsje clearly remembers the day Ryk was told she had cancer. He was so sensitive to her pain he jumped into his Beetle, headed for the pool and just did lap after lap. Water is a symbol of renewal and for Ryk it's also the element that comforts him and clears his head.

''The day he touched that pool's wall in Athens it was as if all his years of hard work had come together,'' Elsje says with pride.

In 2007, 13 years after she was first diagnosed with cancer, Elsje was told she had a malignant tumour in her spine. Ryk sent her an SMS she still keeps on her phone. ''He asked me to not give up hope. He said he was where he was because of me. And that there were so many people praying for me,'' the bubbly extrovert says, a little tearfully.

Jean-Marié was just five when Ryk went to America. She admits she was shy about talking to the ''stranger'' on the phone when the Neethlings made their Sunday evening calls to him.

I never knew what to say to him. But I looked up to him and did everything he told me to,'' Jean-Marié says.

It was Ryk who encouraged her to start swimming and the two have developed a close bond. She's also inspired by Elsje's perseverance. Jean-Marié completed her first three grades of high school in two years, teaching herself at home, and finished matric last year.

That trademark Neethling determination should ensure her a bright future in swimming.

The Neethling fighting spirit displays itself in different ways in Ryk Snr and San-Marié. There were times, such as when Elsje had to undergo a 13-hour operation, that San-Marié just couldn't sit still. Ryk Snr, however, would read a newspaper from front to back – a lot like Rykie, San-Marié says. Both men are able to cut themselves off from their surroundings and focus on just one thing.

And while Ryk Snr is the family's rock San-Marié is the one who helps them deal with their emotions. Together they create a balance that keeps everyone going. ''When Elsje fell ill our days of travelling around for Ryk's races were suddenly over,'' San-Marié says. ''Rykie had to go on his own. So did Jean-Marié.'' Her eyes fill with tears. ''In an instant you're powerless. There was a time I didn't even want to pray anymore. Achievements became bonuses although we were all proud of Rykie's success.

''I still turn away from the TV when Rykie has a bad race so I don't have to see his disappointment. All a mother wants is for her children to be healthy and happy. That's something money can't buy.''

Our chat continues after the shoot. There was the time Ryk came home from America on holiday and was in tears when he saw Jean-Marié hadn't included him in a drawing of the family.

''I had to think fast!'' Jean-Marié says with a laugh. ''I told him he was already in the plane and we were all waving him goodbye.''

When Ryk hangs up his swimming gear for good one day he wants to put his weight behind the swimming academy he and a few friends are starting in Pretoria.

He's back in his homeland and a loyal patriot. ''I'm afraid I'll miss the feeling swimming gives me too much but South Africa offers me other opportunities," he says.

Before our chat comes to an end it emerges the Neethlings banned the board game Thirty Seconds from their home ages ago. ''It caused too many fights," San-Marié reveals. ''Everyone ended up cross with everyone else."

How could it not, in a family with so much soul and such fighting spirit?

Ryk Facts

Lung capacity: 116 per cent of what it's supposed to be.

Diet: ''I don't follow a specific diet. I just try to eat healthy, balanced meals.''

Supplements: Ryk takes proteins, creatine, multivitamins and a zinc and magnesium complex to give his body that extra boost.

Self-discipline: He trains five hours a day, six days a week and does 300 to 500 sit-ups daily.

Focus: ''I've never had a problem with motivation. Every big gala gives me a new goal on which I refocus my energy. Then I work for those small daily steps that'll enable me to get there. I did that a lot when I was younger.''

That extra edge: Ryk uses thoughts about South Africa and Elsje's fighting spirit against cancer to give him the edge. ''Before a big race I'll also listen to music that's meaningful to me and watch movies that inspire me, such as Rocky and Cinderella Man.''

Heart: ''It's about how it feels. The day before a big gala it feels as though every vein in your body is dilating. Your heart beats faster and you can feel the adrenalin slowly building up. It's a feeling I'm going to miss a lot when I stop swimming.''

Did you know? Ryk is 3 kg overweight! But the weight is muscle, not fat.

RYK'S LIFE LESSONS

Live every day to the full – it's something Elsje taught me. Use your best china every day!

Use your talents and put everything into making the most of them. I can't see the sense in wasting my time drinking and smoking in some bar.

Live passionately and give your all in everything you tackle.

Be humble. There's never enough reason to be full of yourself.

Respect others. It doesn't matter if they're famous or the guys who clean the pool. I try to treat everyone the same.

Achievements aren't important. In the end it's the kind of person you are that people will remember, not the trophies you've won.

Every South African will be rooting for Ryk when the Olympic Games kick off in Beijing on 8 August. It will be the fourth time he competes in the Games. Following months of training at the University of Arizona in Tucson, US, Ryk will be going for gold in the men's 100 m freestyle and 4 x 100 m relay.

ELSJE'S STORY

THE THIRD CHAMPION

N othing about Elsje Neethling says ''cancer''. Her spontaneous laughter and flowing coppercoloured hair shout life and health and she soon puts you at ease. She doesn't mince her words and is self-assured and unpretentious – a what-you-see-is-what-you- get kind of person.

She too inherited the Neethling swimming talent and effortlessly made the Free State schools team every year, her mom San-Marié says. She played water polo and later started diving – which was when the slumbering brain tumour doctors think she was born with started bleeding.

She was just 13 when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. ''I remember the headaches,'' Elsje says. It seems they'd always been there. ''She was a difficult baby who cried a lot,'' San-Marié recalls. ''Doctors say it was because she was literally born with a headache.''

Elsje picks up the story. ''I was so young when I was told I had brain cancer. I remember how my parents cried. All I wanted to do was reassure them. At that age you're still a child. But while my friends were fretting about pimples and what to wear to the school dance I had to decide whether or not to have another brain operation.

''I don't think I really knew what was going on. After the initial diagnosis there was one emergency operation after another. There wasn't really time to think.''

She remembers the doctors would ask her family to say goodbye every time she went in for another procedure. ''Once I was told it could make me blind.''

She lost her hair as a result of radiation therapy and the cortisone treatment gave her a puffy face. With that came a lot of extra emotional pain. One schoolmate called her a ''fat pirate'' and others wouldn't sit close to her in class. Even older people were insensitive, she says without a trace of self-pity.

When the cancer came back last July, this time in her spine, it felt unreal. The tumour's tentacles were wrapped tightly around her spine and had metastasised to her kidneys and bladder. Removing it would have left her paralysed. She was given two months to live – and it was just two months before her wedding.

''The doctors said all they could do was make me comfortable.'' Elsje refused to accept this. ''I saw myself walking into the church on my wedding day.'' She kept working as a journalist for the Volksblad newspaper in Bloemfontein and opted for the operation.

''The tumour came free so easily the doctor said it was as if it had been prayed loose,'' she says. Nerves had to be snipped during the procedure which means she now has no feeling in the lower part of her right thigh.

On 1 September last year Elsje walked into church on her big day. ''When I came back from honeymoon in Thailand reality suddenly hit me again. The anxiety came back. I had to go for blood tests.''

But the tests were negative and her doctors believe the tumour won't return. Elsje remains afraid of cancer though. ''It's like a shadow that dogs your footsteps. It's not something that's just gone because the blood tests are negative. I worked so hard to lead a normal life after the brain cancer and suddenly everything was upside down all over again. And 13 years later at that. What are the chances?'' she asks tearfully.

''Sometimes I feel like just walking away from everything – the ups and downs of daily life, chores, traffic fines . . . it all seems so meaningless and life is so short. It's as though I want to do something more meaningful. I don't know how to describe the way I really feel. I've grown a lot emotionally and spiritually and become much richer.''

The ''eternal hippie'', as she refers to herself, has an old soul.

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