A star is born: Lara van Niekerk is SA's new golden girl as Le Clos passes torch

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  • Led by Lara van Niekerk, South Africa had a magical night of swimming at the Commonwealth Games on Tuesday. 
  • Van Niekerk and Tatjana Schoenmaker claimed gold and silver in the 100m breaststroke. 
  • There was also another medal for 18-year-old sensation Pieter Coetze. 

Lara van Niekerk, at just 19 years old, solidified her status as South African swimming's latest superstar on Tuesday night with a stunning performance in the 100m breaststroke and another Commonwealth Games gold.

LIVE | Commonwealth Games

It was a magical moment for the Pretoria-based teenager who has won the hearts of South African sports fans over the last few days in Birmingham.

Van Niekerk won gold in the 50m breaststroke on Sunday and then backed it up with a masterclass in the 100m that saw her finish in 1:05.47, comfortably ahead of team-mate and South Africa's 2021 Tokyo Olympics hero Tatjana Schoenmaker (1:06.68) in second.

As Schoenmaker and Van Niekerk embraced in the pool, visibly overcome with emotion, South Africa celebrated one of its proudest moments in Commonwealth Games history.

When the two South African flags were hoisted towards the Sandwell Aquatics Centre ceiling as Nkosi sikelel' Afrika played for the world to hear, it all became too much for Schoenmaker, who broke down and allowed the tears to stream down her smiling face.

A year ago in Tokyo, it was just Schoenmaker, but, almost out of nowhere, there is a new kid on the block in Van Niekerk, and she means business.

With Schoenmaker having won the 200m breaststroke gold - Kaylene Corbett also won bronze in that event - South Africa's women are Commonwealth champions in all of the 50m, 100m, and 200m breaststroke distances.

"I'm still speechless. It doesn't feel like I'm a double Commonwealth Games champion. I don't think it's ever going to sink in," said Van Niekerk shortly after the race.

Van Niekerk's coach, Eugene da Ponte, told Sport24 immediately after the festival of South African medals that the feeling had also yet to sink in for them.

"I don't think everything has sunk in yet but I'm pretty proud and I suppose happy is a bit of an understatement. I'm still a little shellshocked, I think," he said from Birmingham.

Da Ponte said the biggest factors in Lara's success were the preparation ahead of the Games and being surrounded by familiar competitors in Schoenmaker, whom she's raced against since she was 12, and Corbett.

He said there was a team bond unlike nothing he's seen before, a floating spirit that spurred the swimmers onto success.

"The time we spent in Europe in the last two months and going to the World Championships and all of that, it contributed. She was pretty calm before the race," Da Ponte said.

"It helped to have Tatjana and Kaylene in the same race as her. It felt more like something she's used to doing.

"There's an incredible bond with the team this year. I've never been to the Commonwealth Games before but the bond that's grown between everyone on the team this last 10 days is amazing.

"They're cheering for each other every night. As emotional as Tatjana and Kaylene got when they shared the podium the other night, it was the same today (Tuesday).

"It's a point of pride for the squad to have such a strong breaststroke squad for the country and to do the country proud."

As one star was rising, another was fading.

It has been exactly 10 years since Chad le Clos stunned Michael Phelps at the 2012 London Olympics, and he is arguably the greatest swimmer this country has ever produced.

With 18 Commonwealth Games medals to his name - nobody has more - Le Clos was desperate to finish on the podium in the 100m butterfly and make history by becoming the first athlete to get to 19.

It was not to be.

Le Clos, so very clearly up for this race, simply didn't have enough in the tank and he came home in 4th place. He then had to face the disappointment of his team finishing fourth after failing to hang onto third place in the mixed 4x100m medley relay final soon after.

The Durbanite has always been a fighter, and he will be eyeing improvements all the time, but these Commonwealth Games have confirmed what was started in Tokyo last year.

The torch has been passed from butterfly to breaststroke. From Le Clos to Schoenmaker. And now Van Niekerk. 

Tatjana Schoenmaker and Lara van Niekerk (Gallo)
Tatjana Schoenmaker and Lara van Niekerk (Gallo)

"The whole of South Africa will celebrate this and it's just fantastic to see two of our swimmers on top," Penny Heyns, South African breaststroke legend and three-time Olympic medallist, told Sport24 on Tuesday night.

"I'm really excited for Lara, and I think the best for her is yet to come. She has been improving all the time and the more she competes at this level, the better she is going to get.

"It was also a fantastic swim from Tatjana, especially coming off the back of the 200m. Our whole team, in fact, has put up a really good performance and South African swimming is in a good place at the moment."

Former Olympic and Paralympic swimmer Natalie du Toit agreed with Heyns, saying that the moment made her feel "proudly South African".

"It’s a lot of being proudly South African," Du Toit told Sport24.

"All that hard work that has gone into it over the last few months, going through Covid, not being able to train properly and eventually having the Olympic Games and then the Commonwealth Games so soon after.

"To see Lara van Niekerk come up and win the gold, that’s just phenomenal for the young girl that she is.

"And to have number one and two on the podium, to have gold in the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke, all three … we haven’t really seen that since Penny’s days.

"The girls must keep it up, they have so much potential ahead of them."

Pieter Coetze (Gallo)
Pieter Coetze (Gallo)

Van Niekerk and Schoenmaker will rightly command headlines in the coming days, but an already special night for Team South Africa was made even more memorable when another teenage sensation swam his way to the podium.

For 18-year-old Pieter Coetze, Birmingham has been a blur, and Monday night was another epic showing from him.

Turning in sixth position going into the final 50m, Coetze was faster than anyone else on the last lap as he stormed to a bronze medal in the 200m backstroke.

It was Coetze's third medal of the Games after he won silver in the 50m and gold in the 100m.

Like Van Niekerk, he has blown up on the international arena and, like Van Niekerk, he provides the most promising signs that the future of South African swimming is bright.

"We're here to represent South Africa and we want South Africa to be at the top. It doesn't really matter who it is, but we just try and keep our country's name high," Schoenmaker said.

"Hopefully, there is still a lot more to come."

Du Toit beamed about South Africa's future swimming medal hopes, especially at Paris 2024, adding that retaining gold medal performances was tougher than winning the first time around.

"We have a number of girls that are there: Kaylene Corbett, Emma Chelius, Olivia Nel and Erin Gallagher and that's what's really exciting," Du Toit said.

"It's two years to Paris 2024 and anything can happen in those two years. When you're the top achiever, the gold medallist, when you come back home, you have to find something else you want to achieve.

"It's about who wants it and who works hardest. But I take my hat off to Tatjana and the rest of the girls for coming out of Tokyo, getting up on that stage and finding it in themselves to still want to achieve.

"It's not easy after having won Olympic gold because that's the ultimate, right? It's always tougher coming back than achieving it the first time.

"I think she (Schoenmaker) has a bright future and a great coach in Rocco Meiring."

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