By Mark Etheridge
Veteran swimming coach Alisdair Hatfield brings two athletes on the opposite ends of the spectrum to these Olympics.
On the one hand he has Chad Ho, an open-water swimmer who although only 26 years old, swam his first Olympics eight years ago already.
And then there’s Matthew Meyer who has just turned 18 and figuratively, soon to be literally, wet behind the ears as he goes off in the 1500-metre event.
And Hatfield, who has been coaching for one year less than a half-century, is brutal with his assessment of the youngster.
‘Matthew’s come here to learn… in four years time I’m confident of a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. While here in Rio he must just soak it all up and get as close to the final as he can.
‘This is the strongest group of swimmers for his event in more than 10 years and for him the No1 prize will be to go under sub-15, which will be what is needed to at least make the final.’
As for Meyer, a Grade 12 pupil at Clifton College in Durban, he knows what he’s here for. ‘This is all to get more experience and is part of my swimming path.
He admits to being ‘gob-smacked’ at the whole Athletes’ Village experience. ‘The size of the dining hall blew me away,’ he says, before adding: ‘I’ve been eating quite a lot but it’s all healthy stuff.
‘Racewise my main goal is to go sub-15 here and even if that means being 10th fastest I’d still be very happy. To make the final would be just unbelievable.’
At nationals in Durban where he qualified, Meyer went 15:09. His event will be contested on 12-13 August.
On to fellow KwaZulu-Natal athlete Ho and Hatfield is quietly confident. ‘If things go right on the day he’s going to be very close to a medal. Everything’s going to plan at the moment, he’s swum here twice already, the most recent in December so he knows the conditions.’
Hatfield has coached Ho since 2007 and Meyer for 11 years already.
As for Ho himself, he’s looking remarkably relaxed after booking his spot in the Olympic qualifier in Setubal, Portugal last month.
He said, after his 5km training swim on Tuesday: ’I had a bit of a setback last week when I picked up some urticaria (an allergic skin reaction) so I didn’t swim for three days and then missed another day travelling here but we’ve just re-adjusted things and by the end of the week we should start tapering.’
His 10km event will be raced on 16 August.
‘Compared to Portugal I’m in way better shape. My times are all quicker and I’m feeling stronger so it’s been a great build-up.’
He agrees that at this level of open water swimming it’s a lottery on the day. ‘Any one of the 25 swimmers can win here. But I’m definitely pushing for a medal and am certainly not here to make up the numbers.’
Ho who ended ninth in the Beijing Olympics, says he’s a changed man. ‘It’s just that I’ve gained so much more experience since then. Missing out on London four years ago devastated me but I’m just so grateful to be here now. I’ve stayed determined and motivated all along.’
Has he got another Games in him?
‘Well I’d like to think so. I’m 26 now and the guys seem to peak in the late 20’s and early 30’s so I’ll be 30 in Tokyo so let’s see how it goes.’