Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, gold medal-winning backstroker ZANE WADDELL talks about his success in South Korea, why his pride in representing South Africa is undimmed and the Sun Yang controversy.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your exploits in South Korea?
Zane Waddell: Heading into the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, my coach from the US and I were like, “Let’s just try make the final of the 50m backstroke because the top eight in the world is nothing to laugh at.” But then I got through the heats and the semi-finals and my coach texted me ahead of the final and said, “You can win this!” I was confident in my training and the work that my coach and I had done and I had an inner-belief that I was going to get my hand on the wall first. When I finished the splash and dash – one lap of the pool – I looked up at the scoreboard and saw the number one next to my name. I was overcome with raw emotion when I won and all I could do was scream and splash the water. To be able to call myself a world champion is special and I thought of all the years of hard work that I had put in which culminated in me winning the race in 24 seconds… I watched the All Black-Springbok Test match just before my 50 metre backstroke final and I have to attribute some of my energy to the Springboks’ character-defining performance which earned them a draw against the world champions… I agree with the sentiment that the World Championships in South Korea represented the rise of the next generation of South African swimmers. I think this is the start of a new era for South African swimming, but we are still coming through and gaining experience. We are not yet at that Chad le Clos/Cameron van der Burgh level.
Sport24 asked: How did you end up being based in the United States?
Zane Waddell: It all started for me in swimming when I went to boarding school at Grey College in Bloemfontein. I swam under Simon Gray all the way through High School and we built a really good relationship. That was when Simon and my parents told me: “Listen, if you want to further your swimming career you’ve got to get out of South Africa.” I decided on America and we got talking with United States schools. Partly why I made the move to the US was because I had the opportunity to gain a scholarship and I ended up choosing the University of Alabama. It was agreed that they would pay for all my studies and I would also have free access to medical care, world-class training facilities and programmes. I have been really well supported and I have to say I was pretty fortunate to get that opportunity because in South Africa we don’t have the same facilities and the investment as they do in the US. I have been at the University of Alabama for three years now and am going into my fourth. I’m getting two bachelor’s degrees in four years. My first is in finance and second in management information systems. Heading over to the States was probably the best move I could have made for my swimming career because my times improved drastically. My times just kept dropping and the next thing I knew I was on the South African national swim team. Whether or not I decide to stay in the US for the long haul will ultimately be based on whatever is best for my career.
Sport24 asked: Your riposte to those who question your patriotism?
Zane Waddell: Something which I have learned in the US is that people are always going to have an opinion. They are entitled to freedom of speech, but I’m just going to carry on doing what’s best for my swimming and which way I can best serve my country on the international stage. I have to do whatever is right for my career. All four of the ‘awesome foursome’ from 2004 – Darian Townsend, Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman – were based in the US, but I have never seen a group of guys more passionate and fired up about flying the South African flag. I definitely took inspiration from them. I saw what they did at the Athens Olympics and I said to myself, “If I want to do what they did, I have to make a move.” For me, swimming for South Africa is everything. As a lightie growing up in the Free State, you see the national teams play and it’s such a privilege and honour to wear the green and gold in your respective sport… In terms of my tattoos, which are all symbolic, I have the word ‘Ubuntu’ inked on my ribs and just under my heart. Ubuntu symbolises my South African heritage and the philosophy that we have in South Africa. I have a King Protea on my left bicep and it exemplifies my South African strength. Being a King Protea, it can withstand fire and the concept of Protea fire, which the South African cricket team have used as their slogan, really resonates with me. I also have a tattoo on my left forearm which reads, ‘Familie’. It’s an ode to my family back home and I have replaced the A with the Alabama logo, which represents my US family.
Sport24 asked: Your opinion on the heated Sun Yang podium protest?
Zane Waddell: In terms of what Duncan Scott and Mack Horton did, (by refusing to share the podium with Sun and not shaking hands with him) I think it was more in protest of the doping system that could be improved. I fully support Duncan and Mack because in 2014, Sun was caught with a hard drug. He tested positive and he served a ban. (Sun received a three-month ban after testing positive for a banned substance and is facing renewed allegations of doping). I’m of the opinion that if you have been found guilty of doping and, even if you have served a ban, you should not be allowed to compete professionally in the sport of swimming anymore. I can understand Sun’s emotional outburst (TV cameras captured the Chinese gold medallist shouting at Scott post-race, “You loser, I am winning”) – there is plenty of emotion that comes into play at the World Championships and it’s such a high-pressure event – but I felt the way Scott reacted, by standing on the podium, looking forward and keeping his mouth shut, was the correct response. I believe Sun should not even have been competing at the World Championships in South Korea in the first place.
Sport24 asked: What events will you focus on at the 2020 Olympic Games?
Zane Waddell: I’m definitely going to focus on the 100m backstroke as well as the 50m and 100m freestyle events. (The 50m backstroke is not an Olympic discipline). I feel like Tokyo 2020 will be an amazing experience for me at the age of 22. It will be my first Olympic Games and, if I make it through to semi-finals or finals, I will just strive to do as well as I possibly can. At this moment in time, I think a medal is a little bit out of reach because of the level jump from the World Championships to the Olympic Games. However, I’m of the belief that anything can happen in one year, so we will see. As far as long-term objectives are concerned, in three to five years’ time, hopefully I’ll be an Olympian by then building my legacy as the best backstroker that has ever lived.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who would they be and why?
Zane Waddell: I would invite Michael Phelps because he is without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest Olympian of all time. What made him so good was the hard work and dedication that he put into the sport. He trained an insane amount of time. We’ll see if his sons get into swimming. Phelps himself has said he will let his kids choose the sports they enjoy. I would also love to have a sit down meal with Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. What inspires me about him is his leadership style, the way he captains his country and handles himself in public. He is just an all-round inspiration for everyone in South Africa right now and is also part of the new generation of Springboks who are coming up and showing their skills. I would also like to invite comedian Trevor Noah. I love all of his skits and watch the highlights of The Daily Show on YouTube. In terms of food, I would prepare a traditional South African braai for my guests and as far as beats for the evening are concerned, I listen to all types of musical genres - from death metal to dance - so it really depends on my mood.