By Gary Lemke in London
Suzaan van Biljon has been waiting years for this moment. Even though she is only 24 she has had to deal with the label of being ÔÇ£the next Penny HeynsÔÇØ. That in itself is a millstone around the neck to drag even the best down. But, she chose London 2012 to show exactly what all the fuss has been about.
In qualifying for the final of Thursday night’s Olympic women’s 200m breaststroke, Van Biljon touched the pad in 2min 23.21sec. It was a race in which the world record was broken by the American Rebecca Soni ÔÇô 2:20.00 ÔÇô and it was a race in which the South African finally removed Heyns’ name from Africa’s record books. Heyns is a breaststroke legend, the first woman to have won double gold at an Olympics and who retired with 14 world records and three Olympic medals, and had clocked that 2:23.64 during the purple patch she had at the 1999 Pan Pacs in Sydney.
Van Biljon was 11-years-old at the time, but the talent was there. On Wednesday night, at the biggest stage of all, she made history. Records are made to be broken but when they are one cannot give enough credit to the athletes who achieve them. She had returned to the sport after two years of retirement and her career looked done and dusted. It’s an inspirational comeback.
The South African had seemed irritated, rightly so, when asked after her elimination in the semi-finals of the 100m had been ÔÇ£disappointingÔÇØ. She replied to the interviewer by saying, ÔÇ£how can I be disappointed with a personal best (earlier in the morning’s heats)ÔÇØ. Van Biljon hasn’t always had a favourable press.
She was always here for the 200m and, while fifth overall, who knows how she will react to what she has done. Perhaps the efforts will have taken so much out of her. Perhaps she will be bouncing on water. We will only know when she walks out of the call room and on to the pool deck on Thursday night.
Just by getting to the Olympic final and breaking Heyns’ South African and African record along the way is a medal in itself. Anything from now is a bonus and let’s hope Van Biljon soaks up the atmosphere. She’s the latest line of swimmers to make the nation proud.
Chad le Clos, the man of the moment, also qualified for the final of the men’s 200m Individual Medley barely 24 hours after doing the unthinkable and beating Michael Phelps to gold in the great American’s signature event, the 200m butterfly.
Le Clos would have ┬ábeen making his third appearance in an Olympic final, but after considerable thought he withdrew to save his strength for the 100m butterfly and Saturday’s 4x100m medley relay.
When it comes to the prodigious talent that he is, it’s not even about headlining the personal bests; he’s developing before our very eyes. On Wednesday night he still managed to secure the last qualifying berth ÔÇô albeit in a joint seventh with 1:58.49 ÔÇô by finishing fifth in his semi that was won by Cseh.
Once Le Clos improves on the backstroke and breaststroke legs he will be right up there, ready to take hold of the gold medal, which many are predicting could happen at Rio 2016.┬á On Wednesday night he showed unbelievable resolve to fight his way into the final on the freestyle leg. Given his progression, he could be in line for three individual golds in four years time. And he’d still only be 24. Wow.