By Mark Etheridge
Americans Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky were the Superman and Wonder Woman of last month’s FINA Swimming World Championships, but South Africa at least had their own Spiderman in the shape of Ayrton Sweeney.
The Cape Town swimmer was bitten by a spider shortly before competition began, something that nearly sucked the life out of his performances in the pool.
‘It just wasn’t the greatest experience for me,’ the 24-year-old told Team SA, although he bounced back with two World Cup medals just after worlds.
‘I got a spider bite on my thigh, so it was really almost impossible to swim. When I did the 200 IM (Individual Medley) I was in a lot of pain, actually agony, and the doctor said I shouldn’t swim because there was still a bit of poison in the leg.
‘So that’s why I pulled out of the 200m breaststroke. I had really hoped to get better by the 400 IM, but never got properly better – it was more about getting as right as I could.’
‘The bite was much better though, and I really wanted to swim the 400m IM and represent SA. I was on antibiotics and it had been a rough week – in and out of hospitals in Budapest – and not sleeping so well, but I ended up 20th in the world… so was really thrilled.’
Moving on to the World Cups, and Sweeney says the bite was much better. ‘At first I didn’t want to go to the World Cups with a damaged leg and tired body and not really race-fit, but the trip was already paid for.’
Patience paid off in the long run for Sweeney.
‘I just gave it my best shot. On my first day at the Moscow World Cup I swam the 200m breast in a time of 2:08.00, a personal best, and was really stoked. In the end I was ninth and just missed finals, but it was a great swim for me.
‘Then it was the 400m IM, also in the morning, but I’d messed up my entry time so had to give it my best swim. In the heats I swam a 4:09, and then got a third in the evening.’
That was Sweeney’s first World Cup bronze. ‘I was super happy, absolutely excited and it gave me good momentum for the event.
‘It was the 400m free next day, which is not my best event. I swam in the morning, a 3:50 that saw me make the final, which I didn’t expect, but in the final I was a bit tired. Still, that was alright.’
Moving on from Moscow, and Sweeney found himself in the Berlin World Cup, where he raced the 400 and 200m IM events, as well as the 100m breaststroke.
First, was a 1:00.1 in the 100m breaststroke. ‘Then I got another PB of 1:58 in the 200IM where I came ninth in a super competitive field.’
He then looked forward to the 400IM ‘because that’s my thing, I really wanted another PB.’
His wish came true, as he swam a 4:06. ‘That was another three seconds inside my PB and a time that would have been good enough to get me into the final of last year’s World Short Course Championships in Canada.’
It was also another bronze medal to brag about.
Sweeney went on to thank South Africa for the support. ‘It was insane, the backing from home, the coach was happy and I was just as happy to do it for my country.
‘It was great to be with Chad [Le Clos] and Cameron (Van der Burgh] and I was just thrilled with my performance, a lot of PB’s, a final or two, it was the best I could have expected after that week in Budapest.’
Now it’s on to the Hong Kong, Doha legs of the World Cup and then a training camp in Doha.
After that depends on extra funding, ‘The last cluster in Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo is a bit more expensive, so we’ll have to see about that. But maybe another medal in the Hong Kong/Doha legs puts us up higher in the World Cup medals table.
‘Then it’s back to Durban for a month or so of training and race preps, remember we have trials coming up in December, and I know there are still lots of things to work on, which means there’s room for improvement.’
Sweeney signed off by paying tribute to his family. ‘Getting those two medals overseas was the most incredible feeling, and what made it even better was that I could bring them home to my incredible family. My mom Nicola, dad Gavin and brother Stallone have been supporting me from day one, and I honestly couldn’t have done it without them.
‘So I just wanted to send some love their way, as they’ve always been there through the ups and downs. Sharing this victory with them was truly special.’
Main picture of Sweeney in World Championships action courtesy of Roger Sedres/ImageSA