Golden opportunities

2008-03-29 00:00

At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, four South Africans shocked the world in the men’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay as they raced to gold in a world record time — and the praise and glory definitely lies with the successful Arizona University coaching programme under Frank Busch.

Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling, in that order, brought home the honours for South Africa, despite their sacrifices in joining the U.S. scholarship programme.

They were still South Africans, with only Townsend at the time coming out of a successful local coaching programme right here in Pietermaritzburg.

Schoeman has already made it clear that he “would really like the same team in the final in Beijing, where the U.S.A. team that broke our record will be the ones to beat”.

The programme in Arizona is as strong as ever, with the likes of Townsend and Jean Basson still in the university system, while the others continue to train under the watchful eyes of Busch and Rick Demond.

Although Townsend and Basson are swimming well and certainly at international level, they have to fly back to South Africa tomorrow evening after the NCAA Championships. They arrive in Durban late on Monday afternoon and will be expected to race within 24 hours.

So, too, will double Midmar Mile winner Troyden Prinsloo, doing his duty for Georgia University. In fact, Townsend’s current form is sound as he bagged the 200-metre IM title at the NCAA division I men’s championships in Washington on Thursday.

The Seals star held off a hard-charging Ricky Berens of Texas with a sterling time of 1:42.72 — the 10th fastest performance of all time and the sixth best ever in the event.

Townsend will certainly be hoping that he can recover from his jet lag after this weekend to challenge the OQT of 2:01,40 for the long course version of the 200-metre IM.

Olympic trials have a habit of producing a very mixed bag of results — some swimmers prepare a little too much and just do not achieve that target time they have set themselves either by succumbing to the pressure or just working too hard and not resting enough to swim to their true potential.

Schoeman and Neethling know this too well from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But one thing is different this year at the SA trials — the depth among the men is certainly a lot higher than any other year.

And for Schoeman, the tumbling of world records — 16 within the last few weeks — and in two of his best events, could well lift his level as he heads calmly for Durban.

Schoeman has seen both the 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle records edge down between two relatively unknown swimmers just a year ago.

The 24-year-old Alain Bernard from France and Australian Eamon Sullivan have raised the bar in sprinting — Sullivan, in his new suit, yesterday setting a new world record of 21,28 seconds in the 50-metre and Bernard with a 47,50-sec record in the 100-metre event World champion Schoeman had clocked 21,69 sec when he won the world title in 2005 — on Tuesday he will put himself to his first real test against a talented sprint pool of South Africans.

Expect Ferns to be the main opposition ably supported by other U.S.-based sprinters in Neethling, Gideon Louw and Warren Grobbelaar, while the two locally-based stars in Gerhard Zandberg and Shaun Harris will also be in the mix.

The heats and semi-finals will give us a good indication who is in form for the final on Wednesday.

But one huge question is looming: Will Swimming South Africa follow the Canadians in banning the new swimsuits, just launched by both Speedo and Arena, that have apparently been the catalyst for the recent spate of world records?

The new Speedo suit is called the LZR Racer — a seamless suit that is said to give at least five percent less drag for the swimmer. The Arena suit is called the R-Evolution and features a futuristic matrix design on the chest and upper abdomen.

Whatever happens, it will never be the suit making the swimmer but the swimmer making the suit. These world-class swimmers put in hours of training unmatched by most sports for a world-class result that will take less than 22 seconds.

Another problem facing the swimming federations is that the new suits are not readily available to all the swimmers.

The top sponsored swimmers and well-connected coaches will be able to get their hands on these suits that can make up to 0,40-second difference over a 100-metre freestyle.

So will it be fair next week when Schoeman, Ferns, Neethling, Townsend, Zandberg, Harris, Grobbelaar, Louw and Basson all line up for the 100-metre freestyle and aiming at the top six places to make that famous relay team — some with the new suits and some without? Could the

0,40-sec difference a suit can make end some of these talented swimmers careers because they could not get their hands on the latest technology?

Time will tell and the depth of South African sprinters goes even further than those nine — there is still the youngest of them all lurking in their wake in Wesley Gilchrist at just 18 years of age.

The men’s depth does not end there as we look at the other events. Ferns will head the 100-metre butterfly where he will hope to take the Olympic QT of 52,86 sec; George du Rand will be hoping to get under the OQT of 1:59,72 again in the 200-metre backstroke; Zandberg will surely achieve the 55,14-sec mark in the 100-metre backstroke, while young Riaan Schoeman will be hoping to repeat his sub 4:18,40 OQT in the 400-metre IM.

Prinsloo has to aim at a 15:13,16 in the 1 500-metre freestyle — if he has someone to push him, this is an achievable target. Without some pressure, it could be a lonely 1 500 metres and hopefully not a disappointing result.

The breaststroke events will provide some excitement with Cameron van der Burgh, the favourite in the 100-metres, with William Diering and Thabang Moeketsane the danger men as they chase the OQT of 1:01,57.

Diering and Neil Versfeld have achieved the 200-metre time of 2:13,69 — and with Van der Burgh indicating he will have a go too, a three-way tussle is definite. For Versfeld, a knee injury shortly after his flight back from the U.S. has hampered his training. Having achieved a 2:13,20 at the U.S. nationals shortly before his return, he certainly was in good shape.

It has been said so often, Olympic trials get some strange results where some swimmers produce results when they least expect it.

So watch out for the likes of Graeme Moore in the 100-metre backstroke, Charl van Zyl in the 200-metre backstroke, Sebastien Roussouw in the 200-metre butterfly, Mark Randall in the 1 500-metre freestyle and finally Bryan Difford in the 200-metre IM.

The heats start at 9.30 am and the finals at 6 pm with the trials starting on Tuesday and ending on April 6.

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