Living the dream

2008-06-20 16:10

London - Ryk Neethling, South Africa's super swimmer and gracious champion, is relishing his fourth opportunity to represent South Africa at the Olympics. Neethling spoke exclusively from Arizona to SA Sport's Jacqui Lund about his training, South African swimmers and the entirely understandable fear of the Kreepy Krauly.

Since Ryk Neethling started swimming at the age of six he's been pretty fast. Not scared of a bit of the old competition, he won 20 junior national records and 22 South African national titles. He showed the Americans what he was made of when he moved to the University of Arizona in 1996, where he's been one of their most successful swimmers ever. Having been honoured as the University of Arizona's Athlete of the Century, no-one can really refute the claim. Neethling holds the world record for the individual medley (51:52 at the FINA Short Course World Cup in New York, February 2005). To add to his list of achievements, he was also awarded the FINA World Cup Swimmer of the Year in both the 2004/5 and 2005/6 seasons. And the fun doesn't stop there.

With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing looming large on the horizon (August to be precise), Neethling must be starting to feel the pressure of repeating past successes. 'The first goal is to make the team at the trials in April. You can take nothing for granted,' he says rather modestly. SA Sport thinks that's a bit humble if his previous performances are anything to go by.

The South African swimming fraternity and his many fans have no doubt been chewing on their fingernails after they heard that Neethling was out injured with a shoulder injury, an injury that put him out of the 9th FINA World Swimming Championships in Manchester.

To South Africa's great relief Neethling says the shoulder is a lot better and well on the way to recovery. 'It put me out for a while but recovery has been progressing well. It hasn't been ideal, but I have a lot of experience and will just have to use that when I get back in the water.'

A day in the life

Neethling's average day, unsurprisingly, involves a lot of swimming. It's a bit like asking a tuna what it does all day ' when it's not in a can, of course. It takes dedication to be an athlete, a commodity South Africa's swimming idol has in abundance. A typical day in the life of Ryk Neethling starts bright and breezy at 5am. There are no sleep-ins for a professional swimmer. Much like Bilbo Baggins, respected member of the hobbit community of Hobbiton, Neethling has a 'first' breakfast before cycling his bike to the pool and swimming from 6am to 8.30am.

Then he has a second breakfast - to slake the hunger pangs that strike after 2.5 hours of swimming. It takes a lot of energy to power those shoulders. A relaxing massage follows second breakfast, followed by chill-out time and then lunch. The afternoon is crammed with dry-land exercises, another two hour swim and then dinner, by which time bed is calling loudly and Neethling's body is only too willing to oblige.

There is nothing particularly unique about his training techniques. He comes from a distance swimming background and so his training involves lots of miles, not to mention the odd kilometer. He also lifts some heavy weights - for that extra boost - in the weights room to build upper body strength on his 1.94m frame.

The competition at the Olympics, needless to say, is tough. That's why the training needs to be just that, tough. Neethling doesn't focus on the competition, though. 'If you start thinking about who might beat you, then you are in trouble,' he says. 'I am just focusing on getting the most out of my preparation.'

No chlorine please, we're swimmers

Neethling is confident that South Africa will perform in the water once again at the Olympics. Giving SA Sport the inside edge on his SA colleagues, he's sure we can look to the medals podium again come Beijing 2008. 'I think we have the makings of a very good, young team. The Olympics will be a good learning experience and hopefully we get some nice surprises. I think in South Africa we have some great young swimmers. Jessica Pengelly, Jean Basson and Lyndon Ferns will all do very well in Beijing.'

At the last Olympics in Athens, Neethling and the SA team of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend famously broke the world 4x100m relay record for gold in one of the giant upsets of Olympics swimming. So what's been happening in the world of Ryk Neethling since then?

At the moment he's in Tucson training with the University team there which includes his relay teammates and some other pros. In Neethling's terms, 'to put it simply, I have been living the dream. After we won in Athens my life changed forever.

Why He Wins

The fearless SA Sport editor interviewed Ryk Neethling's Arizona-based coach for Men's Health (SA) shortly after Neethling's success at the Athens Olympics. It was an insight into Neethling's success that puts all his hard work into perspective 'Ryk's work ethic is the standout feature of his swimming,' said Frank Busch, head coach of swimming at the University of Arizona and Ryk's coach at the time of his epic Olympic performance.

"I've never worked with anyone in my entire career who is as persistent and dedicated to winning as Ryk,' continued Busch. I've coached swimmers who are more naturally talented than Ryk, but his determination to win sets him apart from the rest. He doesn't take competing lightly.

When he I consider myself very fortunate." But when you've been living the dream, it can be difficult to come back down to reality. How does an Olympic gold winner who has broken multiple records inspire himself to keep up his high standards? "I still feel like I can improve," Neethling says. "I've won everything there is to win and have broken world records, but you always have to find those goals that will keep you going. For me I try to evolve as a swimmer every season."

Neethling is clearly a very driven man. During his swimming evolution he's achieved more than many athletes would dare dream about. The question is, which one stands out as the most special? (Perhaps this writer was asking the obvious)... (The only stupid questions are the ones you don't ask - Wise Ed.) 'Obviously the gold in Athens was the highlight, especially doing it with three other guys who have become good friends of mine. Breaking my first individual world record was awesome and having an opportunity to represent SA in four Olympics is something I treasure. Being consistent over 14 years is not easy.'

No place like home

Neethling is one of the few local sporting heroes who have managed to gain the benefits of international sports training while still remaining loyal to South Africa. He spends about half of his year away from South Africa. "I miss it a lot," he muses with a sigh. He misses his family, but also the sports-craziness of South African culture, the great South African food (he is in America, home of the biggest, oiliest pizzas and super-size, clog-your-arteries burgers, after all) and definitely the outstanding natural beauty. "There is so much potential in South Africa," he says. Neethling passed another milestone recently. Certainly in the slightly limited life of a professional sportsman, it was a big one. He hit 30 and celebrated in South Africa.

"It was certainly a milestone. But since I am surrounded by kids in their teens and early twenties all the time (at the University of Arizona), I definitely do not feel old. I had a big party in Joburg that lasted about 12 hours." There you have it - the big man has the stamina to party on dry land as much as he has to party in the pool.

Ryk's tips: SA swimmers to look out for

Jessica Pengelly

At 15-years-old, Jessica Pengelly is the youngest person to be included in the South African squad for the Beijing Olympics. She has broken the South African Open 400m medley record on two occasions, both of which were Olympic 'A' qualifying times. She is currently ranked 11th in the world for the women's 400m medley.

Jean Basson

Another University of Arizona swimmer, Jean Basson recently won silver in the 200m freestyle at the All Africa Games in Algiers. Still a student, he swims regularly for the Arizona team. In 2006 in Durban he managed to beat Ryk Neethling in 48.88 in the same freestyle event.

Lyndon Ferns

Not a new name in the world of South African swimming, Lyndon Ferns was a member of the Men's 4x100m freestyle relay team with Ryk Neethling that won gold and broke the world record at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. He is the South African and African 100m butterfly record holder at 51.90 seconds.

Two Questions

1. Would our legendary swimming superstar wear his Speedo to the beach?

"I've never worn a Speedo on the beach not even in Spain where they make a nasty habit of it."

2. Was there ever any problem that could have stood in the way of our hero's illustrious swimming career, back in the day when he was learning to swim?

"Oh yes, absolutely" he says, "I was scared of the Kreepy Krauly."

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