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Swimmers must dig deep

By Mark Etheridge

Team South Africa may have returned from the FINA World Championships in China with one less medal than the previous championships but with a year to go before the next Olympics there’s still time for our top swimmers to make a splash in London.

One person who knows that the difference between success and failure can be as thin as a banned swimsuit is Ryk Neethling.

Undoubtedly one of our most successful swimmers ever and an Olympic and Commonwealth gold medallist, Neethling said there is still work to do before London 2012.

The four-time Olympian is at pains though to point out that he does’t want to sound like a retired sportsman bashing the current crop of stars but says we must face facts.

“We undoubtedly have some work to do in the next 12 months to prepare physically. But for me the most important aspect is that we need to prepare mentally.

“Our swimmers must believe that we belong in finals and up on the podium. That is sometimes the difference between fourth place and a bronze medal and also the difference between ninth spot and swimming in the final,” were Neethling’s key observations on the Shanghai championships.

Looking back and comparing these championships to those of Rome two years ago, the facts speak for themselves. In Rome Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 50-metre breaststroke and bronze in the 100m breaststroke. Gerhard Zandberg took bronze in the 50m backstroke and Chad Ho bronze in the 5km open water swim.

In Shanghai the difference was no gold medal and two bronzes for Van der Burgh in his breaststroke events and bronze for Zandberg in the 50 backstroke.

If this had been the Olympics we would have won just one medal ÔÇô (Van der Burgh’s bronze in the 100m breast) and only made seven finals.

It’s clear that South Africans seem to fare better in the non-Olympic events and the mindset clearly has to shift if we are to achieve success.

Van der Burgh stands head and shoulders above the rest right now and is clearly our best chance for a medal in London, after his improvement in the 100m.

But where are the other medals going to come from? Youth Olympics and Commonwealth Games star Chad le Clos is one extremely talented athlete and improving at a fast rate. That aside, so are his competitors and at 19 he is not the youngest in the top eight. Fourth ranked Hungarian Benze Biczo is younger, aged 18 years. Throw in the Phelps factor and his medal chances decrease by 33% because you can’t realistically see Phelps not medalling at all in the butterfly in London. Still, Le Clos should be right on the edge of a medal in the 200m and should really come into his own from 2013.

In the 4×100 freestyle relay the team did well, although the inexperience possibly showed in the last leg swum by Leith Shankland and they slipped from second to sixth. The United States, France and Australia are going to be tough to beat in this event but as Neethling and Co showed by winning gold in Athens in 2004, anything is possible.

Sprinters Graeme Moore and Gideon Louw both made the finals in the freestyle events and will obviously improve going into next year but the gap to a medal is going to be difficult to cross.

Of the women, Wendy Trott did well to make the final of the 800m where she finished seventh and she too will need to make big strides if she’s to challenge for a medal. Young Pretoria swimmer Vaness Mohr definitely deserves watching in the 100m fly but she’ll need to avoid the temptation of specialising in the shorter version of the discipline which is again, not an Olympic event.

So there is undoubted promise and potential out there. Whether they get it all together before London next year, only time will tell 


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