Team SA’s swimmers have left the building. They do so carrying a lot more baggage than they arrived with, thanks to their haul of 45 medals, writes GARY LEMKE in Casablanca.
This is nine medals shy of the total they picked up in Brazzaville last year but in every aspect the Class of 2019 outshone themselves and in terms of performance, if not medals, this can count as the most successful Games that Team SA has had in the pool. To put things into context: in 2015 Team SA could count on the services of their reigning Olympic champions Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh, while we now all know how good Tatjana Schoenmaker is, and she was part of the team then.
This time head coach Graham Hill had a largely inexperienced line-up, with Le Clos and Schoenmaker all missing the African showpiece and Van der Burgh retired, and when the star of the show here in Morocco, Erin Gallagher, calls herself the ‘mom’ of the team and she is still only 20, then you will see what we mean.
‘It’s weird to be considered a senior in this squad,’ she said. ‘I feel like a mom, I suppose I have been around a long time. I was in the national team at 15, but got injured for two years. It feels like a long career, but I’ve got more than enough time to still set my mind to it and achieve what I want to achieve.’
In Casablanca, Gallagher made up for her recent disappointment at the World Championships in Gwangju, China, to bounce back to her best. She picked up three individual gold medals – the 50 and 100m freestyle and 50m backstroke – along with five golds in the relays. That gave her an incredible haul of eight golds to go with two silvers in the butterfly.
Throw in two South African records, in the 50m butterfly (26.24) and the 50m freestyle where she went under 25 seconds for the first time (24.95), along with a Games record in the 100m freestyle (55.13) and this was a Games that Gallagher will remember and take plenty of positives from as she builds for the Tokyo Olympics next year?
Given the number of injuries and setbacks she has had, her career has been somewhat stop-start. In her earlier years she was touted as ‘the next Penny Heyns’ and has the newspaper clippings to prove it, but injuries and setbacks have prevented her from showing her true potential. Here in Morocco we got glimpses of it.
Hill, who has had a long association with Gallagher, is confident that the 2020 Olympics might just see the South African deliver on the highest stage of all. And she will only be 21 when Tokyo comes round.
‘Erin’s personal best times here and the two South African records are a massive stepping stone in the right direction for Tokyo,’ he said. ‘To be the first South African to ever go under 25 seconds for the freestyle is another major breakthrough. And she did so with a bit of breathing space, so hopefully she can continue operating in that area. I truly believe we have yet to see the best of her and the best is coming.
‘At the world champs in Gwangju, Erin was not at her best. We had a few problems in Europe leading up to the event and hit a bit of a stumbling block, but we have seen her bounce back to her best and perform at a high level.’
Another woman who made a big impression was Kaylene Corbett. Like Gallagher she is still only 20, but goes home with four gold medals, courtesy a clean sweep in the breaststroke (50, 100 and 200) and the women’s 4x100m medley relay gold.
Given that Schoenmaker is considered a strong favourite to medal in the 100 and 200m breaststroke in Tokyo, the strength of women’s breaststroking in the country is impressive. And before coming to Morocco, Corbett made her breakthrough in Gwangju where she reached the final of the 200m.
‘Coming here (to the African Games) the 200m was the event that I train for every day so that was the gold medal I was most expecting, without Tatjana here. And winning the 50 was the biggest surprise, while when it came to the 100m I just went out there and did my best. Us breaststroking girls are in a positive mental state. We are constantly motivating one another and training together with Rocco Meiring in Pretoria. Rocco is the heart and soul of all three of us and the three of us are representing the country.’
In all three breaststroke events Corbett found herself up on the podium with Christin Mundell, and on all three occasions she invited her teammate onto the No1 step. ‘It was such an amazing feeling hearing the national anthem here at the Games. That was my aim, to win and help TeamSA as much as I can with the medals tally, but sharing the moment with Christin was extra special,’ Corbett said.
Mundell went home with one gold medal – the women’s 4x200m freestyle where she swam the second leg – and five silver medals in the individual events. Guess what? She only turns 18 next month. Then there was Samantha Randle, with one gold and three silvers. She’s 20. And there was medals too for Emma Chelius (including four relay gold), and she’s 23, while what about the relay gold and individual silver for 16-year-old Kerryn Herbst?
‘The African Games come round every four years and they are important for us to be up there and showing our dominance as the leading swimming nation on the continent, We have managed to do that again, so I’m really happy with that,’ said Hill.
‘This is a good stone towards Tokyo, and the confidence that winning at this level brings will stand some of the younger swimmers in good stead going forward.
‘Kaylene showed a lot of promise and she made the 200m final at the world champs and together with Tatjana our breaststroke hopes are really big for Tokyo and that will be something to look out for. To have come here with a fairly newish team, with the junior world championships taking pace at the same time in Budapest while we are here in Casablanca, and perform like we did is impressive. We came here missing some of our top class women’s swimmers but those who were here have made the country proud,’ Hill said.