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Triumphant swimmers ‘have done South Africa proud’

By Gary Lemke

There were a few bleary eyes that told a thousand stories, but most importantly they told the story of a united and dedicated swimming squad that said its goodbyes to Glasgow and headed back to South Africa, having again done the country proud.

Perhaps it was Cameron van der Burgh, the winner of the 100m breaststroke gold medal in the London Olympics and who got a full house of medals at the Commonwealth Games this past week – gold (50m breaststroke), silver (100m breaststroke) and bronze (400m medley relay) – who summed it up best.

‘The team spirit amongst these swimmers is the best I have ever experienced. We’ve become like a family. And like any big family, there is always one outstanding child. Chad is that child.

‘But before it used to only be Chad and I winning medals, now there are more. It’s very special to me. I’m only 26 but I’m getting a bit old. This past week I’ve had to take stock of things and reassess a lot of things, find the motivation again.

‘There was a time when I’d win a medal and hardly look at it. Now, this past week I’ve learned to appreciate these medals like I did when I was younger. Really have a long look at them and appreciate their value and significance. The 50m is the highlight of the Games for me,’ he told the gathering at the Ekhaya hospitality centre in the middle of the city.

The swimming squad were heading for Dubai and then a connection to Johannesburg where they are scheduled to land on Thursday morning. Walking through customs at OR Tambo they will declare 12 medals, and Chad le Clos himself will have seven.

‘To win seven at one Commonwealth Games is a dream come true,’ the poster boy said. ‘The highlights for me were those relays, with the 4x100m freestyle my favourite race of all. The relay is an event where everyone diving in is swimming their best. But I want to say a big thank you not only to my teammates but the support staff, the coaches, doctors and friends,’ he added.

The plaudits kept coming. Chef de mission, Patience Shikwambana, said the swimmers ‘has done a great job’. SASCOC chief executive Tubby Reddy said he was ‘extremely satisfied that the swimmers in Team South Africa had done us proud. Swimming SA is a flagship federation and they’ve come to the party’.

Deputy minister of sport, Gert Oosthuizen, concurred that the swimmers ‘had done us proud. They raked in the medals and broken Commonwealth Games records. It all augurs well for 2016 and, once again, government will be there for our teams and athletes and help where we can.’

Despite the obvious tiredness there was the glow of after action satisfaction. The swimmers had been away from home for much of the time since early May and head coach Graham Hill called it ‘a great achievement after a long, hard journey.

‘We’ve had to rebuild the team after London 2012, alter the relay squads. They’ve done a great job.

‘The relays are really important. If Chad is to win seven medals in Rio, then the relays will have to get medals. There are some youngsters here who we call domestiques, like the Tour de France. Their job will be to go to Rio and swim in the heats and get into the final and allow the really big guns, like Chad and Cameron, to fire. The supporting role cannot be underestimated.’

There is much to be said about this group of swimmers representing Team SA. They have been courteous and professional in front of the international media, popular – in terms of athletes star appeal only Usain Bolt is a bigger name than Le Clos at these Games – and fine ambassadors.

Even the veteran Roland Schoeman, who at 34 has swum in the last of his five Commonwealth Games’, admitted that the memories from Glasgow will remain forever.

A winner of two medals here that pushed his career Games tally to 12, he said, ‘we all come with hopes of glory, to win gold. But to share [podium and pool] with these youngsters was very special, it was fun. Swimming is a solitary sport in so many ways and it’s special to be able to share the memories. This was special, it will be an exciting journey to 2016.’

Photo by Wessel Oosthuizen