Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nerves of Neethling

Many of us, when we think of swimming, have sunny memories, touched with globs of icecream, smears of sunblock and watermelon smiles. Swimming and childhood are mixed together, like silver bubbles in chlorine clear water. But for professional swimmers, a swimming pool is quite different. It’s cold and hard. There are lines on the bottom of the pool that they see in their dreams. It’s living and breathing in the sterile light of a bathroom (especially in winter), silver surfaces everywhere, for hours on end. Above all it is about endurance. Enduring the cold and coming out smiling and strong. What are the rewards? Jean Marie Neethling provides some insight into what it takes to become a fish.

By Nick van der Leek

Jean Marie ushers me into a sunny room. There’s a lot of blue in the room, and Jean Marie herself is wearing blue jeans and a blue Billabong jersey. I’m surprised to see Ryk’s face flash at me through hers. I sit in a sunbeam and fumble in my bag for a tape recorder while a green parrot starts climbing up the white sleeve of my tracksuit.
I press RECORD and the red light illuminates.

“What was your idea of swimming, before Ryk came back?”
“I got used to swimming while I was younger. He (Ryk) would be at the pool (at a gala) every Saturday. I just watched him swim, and it seemed like a big deal because he was very serious. If he didn’t swim well he’d be in a bad mood, and he was tired most of the time. There was a lot of dedication. He didn’t really go out that much. But I was very young so I could understand that he was in America for swimming. That was my idea of swimming.”
“Was your perception of swimming negative then?”
“Well, I was six when he went to the states. And I realized he was taken away from us because of the swimming. But it was my brother that made me swim.”
“Was that before he’d had a breakthrough with his swimming? I mean, did he achieve some success and then say, ‘C’mon, you also need to start swimming.’”
“No, he just loves swimming. I can’t think that anyone loves swimming more than him. He loves everything about swimming. I think he just wanted me to love it as well.”
“Because I know he went through a–”
“A dip. In 2000. That was actually the time he told me. I was 9 or 10 years old. It was just after Sydney [Olympics]. He thought that was going to be his breakthrough but then he came 8th. So he stopped swimming for 9 months, and gave his gear away. But he always said, ‘I don’t want to grow old and say ‘what if? What if I could have made it to the next Olympics?’”
“So when did he speak to you about swimming. Was it after he made the internal shift?”
“No, before.”
“That’s quite significant. At that point he didn’t know what he was still going to achieve, and yet he was still motivating you to start.”
“He wasn’t even really known in South Africa at that time. No one really knew about him.”
“So, without all the glory – if I can put it that way – he said to you, ‘You should start swimming.”
“So in those first few days did you go swimming together or did he write a programme for you or–”
“He just took me swimming, and said I should get active. I went to Lizelle Markgraaf first, and then Lynette Wessels, and then I went to Simon [Gray]. And now I’m with [chuckles]no one actually. My brother writes programmes for me. My mom [who coaches swimming] also checks up on me.”

“How is it now, because now you’re training hard. Now you’re aware of the reality of swimming?”
“Very much. My brother is a big help. He wants to keep me from making the same mistakes he made. I appreciate that, but it’s hard to listen to him – him not wanting me to make mistakes as him – but I think the only way to learn is from my own mistakes.”
“I must say – because I swam – those mistakes can kill your spirit. Even if you’re willing to allow that-.”
“So, can you say you enjoy it?”
“ I shouldn’t hesitate answering that, but the part I enjoy is the galas. The training, at the moment, isn’t as fun at the moment as it could be, or should be. I don’t have anyone to race against.”
“What about those guys I’ve seen you training with?”
“No, they don’t do the same strokes I do. They don’t want to train as hard as I train, or according to my programme.”
“So what’s your routine?”
“In a perfect situation I’m allowed to go train in the mornings. In the holidays I swim 5 hours a day, and gym for an hour.”
“And yesterday? [she cancelled the interview yesterday]”
“Yesterday wasn’t a good day for me.

“When did you learn to swim?”
“I learned to swim when I was a baby. My mom taught me,” she pokes a thumb over her shoulder towards the pool, “and my brother always took me in the water.”
“Did you enjoy it when you were little?”
“I never liked swimming. The best part of swimming for me is, like, the galas. Your hard work pays off. I didn’t really like going to training that much. But I learnt you can only swim well at a gala if you’ve trained hard. I came first in my first gala when I was 10 years old.”

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