Johannesburg: Two of South Africa’s top medal hopes for the Olympics lie with swimmers, a traditional backbone of the country’s performance at the global sporting event.
Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos are considered strong contenders to break the 2008 medal drought in the Beijing pool.
Despite a respected swimming tradition with the likes of multi-Olympians Penny Heyns and Ryk Neethling, the swimming team didn’t walk to the podium once and the country returned home with just one medal.
But Van der Burgh, 24, a current world record holder in breaststroke, is determined to bring back gold and fulfil a childhood dream.
“We want to nail it. We know we have the opportunity. Now we just have to make sure the hard work and effort we put in will pay off,” he said.
“I’m feeling really excited.”
Even a break-in at his home in Pretoria didn’t dampen his excitement. Burglars stole the medals he won at the world championships just before he left for Europe and his final preparations.
“But I gotta keep positive,” he said.
Touted as Africa’s only home-grown swimming world record-holder, Van der Burgh stayed on with South Africa’s former head coach Dirk Lange after the team’s dismal performance in Beijing.
Lange now coaches the German team and Van der Burgh sometimes trains with them.
The Commonwealth champion in India two years ago in both the 50m and 100m breaststroke, he swam the fourth fastest time this year in the 100m event.
In London he’ll face tough competition from Japanese Kosuke Kitajima, who holds the Olympic record.
And Van der Burgh is quite aware of expectations.
“It’s a great honour for me to be seen as one of SA’s biggest medal hopefuls. Yes, there’s pressure, but it’s encouraging to know that people are putting their faith in me,” he said.
He’ll certainly hope to improve on the last Olympics, where he exited in the semi-finals.
Younger teammate Le Clos has his sights set on the 200m butterfly.
One of South Africa’s brightest up-and-coming stars, the 20-year-old last year won the World Cup title, only the third South African to do so after Neethling and Van der Burgh.
A self-confessed bad loser and extremely competitive, he won five gold medals in the youth Olympics in Singapore two years ago and two in the last Commonwealth Games.
But he’s up against tough competition in renowned Olympian Michael Phelps from the United States, who won eight gold in Beijing.
Both Phelps and Takeshi Matsuda from Japan, will provide formidable challenges.
Born in Durban, he started swimming when a groin injury dashed his football dreams. Years later he put his university studies on hold to focus on his swimming training.
Le Clos does a lot to acknowledge his fans, like handing out some of his medals to avid supporters, and he says romantic films leave him teary-eyed.
He’ll compete in five other events, including the 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 100m butterfly.
Any medals in London will be a bonus because the youngster only plans to peak in four years’ time at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Former swimmer Neethling brings his experience as manager to both swimmers.
But before the big event, South Africa’s swimming team spent time in the French Riveira.
Princess Charlene of Monaco, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa, hosted a pre-Olympic training camp which will hopefully give the athletes a pre-Olympics boost.