Thursday is D-Day Down Under as Team South Africa’s medal quest kicks off at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, writes MARK ETHERIDGE in the Gold Coast.
The three-phase code of triathlon offers the rainbow nation an opening opportunity to bank their first medal of the games as they chase their tally of 40 from the last games in Glasgow, Scotland four years ago.
The women’s final-only race is the first event and features SA’s two foreign-based competitors, Gillian Sanders (England) and Simone Ackermann (New Zealand).
That starts at 1:30am SA time and the men’s final will be raced at the more ‘respectable’ hour of 5:00am.
Sanders is an athlete who thrives in the hot and humid conditions expected for the final and has good memories of the Gold Coast, while Ackermann has shown some good early season form with a fourth spot at the ITU World Cup in Cape Town just under two months ago.
But it’s in the men’s race that the true medal chance presents itself.
How’s this for an impressive team CV? In Wian Sullwald they have a former world junior champion, in Richard Murray they have the 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist and finally, in Henri Schoeman they have the Rio Olympics bronze medallist.
Coach Lindsey Parry is upbeat. ‘The girls should both be competitive. It’s a small field and being a sprint distance means Gill’s weakest leg, the swim, won’t be exposed nearly as much and her good bike and running skills will put her in the mix.
‘Simone’s fourth place in Cape Town showed she’s competitive in the swim and bike and she put in a good run in Cape Town so there’s definitely a chance.’
When it comes to the men, the two-time Olympic and Commonwealth coach is even more upbeat. ‘We have three highly capable athletes here. Henri’s in really good form right now, Richard has two World Cup wins under his belt this season and Wian has had a great off-season, although he hasn’t raced much.
‘Henri and Richard are strong favourites to a medal but one never knows. With these three guys, and in this field, you could get three medals or you could end up with none!’
For his part, Schoeman is in excellent frame of mind, coming off second at the Cape Town World Cup and then powering to a solo win in the WTS Abu Dhabi event.
On top of that he had to claw his way back up from rock-bottom, psychologically speaking, after the fake news story of his ‘positive’ test for doping at the Rio Olympics broke in January.
‘Yeah, right now I’ve got a good feeling, to be honest,’ said Schoeman. I’m really relaxed and confident and my last two races have been great. I’m kinda feeling bulletproof right now.
‘My training has gone well, I’ve raced here before so the only factor that could play a part on the day are the heat and wind.’
Schoeman foresees a tactical race.
‘Especially over a sprint distance, you’ll have to have a strong swim and the bike will be crucial as well. I’ll want to be first out of the water or at least in the top five and then there’ll be a mad rush on the bike. They’ve changed the course a bit this year so there’s quite a technical section on each of the four laps.’
And Murray is just as upbeat despite the fact that this was the venue where he smashed his shoulder into the tar and broke his collarbone in his build-up to the Rio Olympics.
‘Our medal chances are pretty good. Maybe there’s a breakaway where Henri manages to beat England’s Brownlee brothers [Jonny and Alistair] or he gets third or second or maybe we both get on the podium which would be awesome. There’s definitely a good chance of one or two medals.’
On bettering his bronze from Glasgow: ‘Hey, you always want to better what you’ve done in the past and always want to improve… so let’s hope I get second or first, obviously first being the best.
‘My swimming has improved a bit so I think I’ll definitely be right in there when we start the main part of the event.’
Sullwald is still racing against time after a life-threatening farm attack late last year which, apart from the mental trauma, meant he had to have two hand operations which hampered his swimming preparations.
‘Ideally I would have liked some more time in the pool, but I think I should be quite all right in the water,’ said Sullwald.
He started the recent World Cup event in New Plymouth, New Zealand but pulled out midway due to health issues. ‘The last two weeks have been far from ideal for me, dealing with some health issues. I’m definitely the dark horse going into the event but I have nothing to lose, and it’s quite nice sometimes being underneath the radar,’ he said.
Back to the women, and Sanders is quietly confident. ‘I was ninth here last year and the fourth Commonwealth athlete. I like the course, the conditions and if we have a headwind on the bike, that could actually suit the chasing group in terms of protection.
‘When it comes to the run, I can keep up with the best here.’
Sanders took a painful tumble in Abu Dhabi, cracking a rib and picking up a fair share of ‘roasties’ but she’s bounced back. ‘My recovery has truly been miraculous. Now I’m happy to be here, excited to race and get out there in the heat.’
Ackermann, based in neighbouring New Zealand, is also positive. ‘I’m looking for a good swim and bike to put myself in the race for the run leg. The course is going to be challenging with the wind but I’m looking to give myself an advantage going into the run.
‘So I’m just focusing on how I need to race and the training has gone well, with no real hiccups. It’s very rare that someone has a perfect training regime but I’m happy.’
Last word to Murray and how he and his teammates hope to be an example.
‘It’s cool to be the first medal event of the Games. To start off on a good note is always positive for the other athletes in the team so hopefully between myself, Henri and Wian, we can do that for the team.’
A field of 26 elite women will get the Games under way followed by 38 elite men.