Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jean-Marie Neethling [INTERVIEW + PICTURES]

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 is 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). The body crushes through the water time-carving a spinal understanding about hydrodynamics. Each session ends with a coarse towel on skin. Above all swimming is about endurance: enduring the cold and coming out smiling and strong. What, I wonder, 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. She has the lithe frame of a swimmer, slim but strong. I’ve seen her on TV, and swimming at the Virgin Active pool, and a few times I found myself swimming while a pink and white swordfish (that I took to be her) went flashing by in the lane beside me.
“Is that Jean Marie Neethling?” I asked a few times.
I’ve heard that she is already training 6 hours a day (in the holidays especially). She is just 16, but she is building up the necessary momentum now to be a world champion.

I suppose I already admire what she has achieved, and what she is doing. Her mom peeks in the door, greets me, and then closes the door to give us some privacy.

There’s a lot of blue in the room, and Jean Marie herself is wearing blue jeans and a blue Billabong jersey. These colors bring out the blue in her eyes, but when I look closer, her eyes aren’t blue. They have a cool grey steeliness that is in parts attractive and perhaps a little intimidating. I used to train with Ryk when he swam in Bloemfontein, and 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.

JM: 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.”
NV: Did you enjoy it when you were little?
JM: I never liked swimming. The best part of swimming for me now 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.

NV: How is it now, because now you’re training hard? Now you’re aware of the reality of swimming.
JM: 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 the same mistakes as him – but I think the only way to learn is from my own mistakes.
NV: I must say – because I swam – those mistakes can kill your spirit. Even if you’re willing to allow that. Do you often get sick?
JM: Yes. I do. Very often. I’m in hospital at least 3 times a year. This year I was lucky, I was in hospital only once.
NV: How come?
JM: It starts off as a cold, which turns into bronchitis, and then a lung infection.
NV: So how do you counter that?
JM: It’s very hard. I get mediglobin injections. It doesn’t really help. I drink so many vitamins, minerals…I can’t even count them all. I just have to keep myself from overtraining.
NV: I think – and it’s like that with the Ironman as well – in the end you’re training against yourself. You’re training against your limits.
JM: You want to get fit but then the harder you train, the weaker you seem to get [after a certain point].
NV: So the trick is-
JM: Knowing your limits.
NV: I think Ryk can help you a lot with that. In terms of knowing how to not make that mistake more often than you absolutely need to.
JM: Well, he’s made a lot of mistakes in overtraining [Ryk and Roland both took part in Melbourne with colds], and he just thinks, ‘the harder you work the better’. One of his biggest mistakes is overtraining. He pushes himself until he almost dies [laughs].
At Commonwealth he was very, very weak, and over trained, and he admitted that. And two weeks later he swam in the World Champs in Shanghai and he won three gold medals, and swam his best times.

NV: So, can you say you enjoy it?
JM: 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.
NV: What about those guys I’ve seen you training with?
JM: 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.
NV: So what’s your routine?
JM: 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.
NV: And yesterday? [she cancelled the interview yesterday]
JM: Yesterday wasn’t a good day for me.

NV: Why do so many asthma sufferers swim?
JM: Swimming forces you to control your breathing, and asthma sufferers especially need to strengthen that aspect of their physiology.
NV: There seem to be a large amount of asthma suffers who are some of the world’s top swimmers…
JM: Some of them started swimming at a young age because of the asthma.
NV: Could there be a physiological benefit to having asthma and swimming?
JM: No, you have a handicap because you can’t stay underwater as long [as other swimmers] and you have to use a[n asthma] pump.
NV: [I smile] Maybe that’s what makes you swim faster!

NV: So tell me about this year.
JM: In January I was at a training camp in Germany, training for the Commonwealth Games. We had a gala in Berlin. And then in March I was in Melbourne.
NV: Do you feel you were…uh [I see something tugging the curtains] is that a monkey?
JM: [Giggles] Oh ja. We have a whole zoo here. It’s actually a marmoset.
NV: Oh. [Pause] Okay so the traveling: do you enjoy that aspect? Going overseas-
JM: [Emphatically] Yes! That’s the best part. Seeing the world, seeing people from different countries. The athletes village, the passion of the people…I loved the Commonwealth and the whole setup with the [athlete’s]village [at the Commonwealth Games]. It was amazing.
NV: Did you feel happy with how you did in Melbourne?
JM: Very happy. Especially with my medley [a race where all 4 strokes are employed]. I came sixth, and I broke the open SA record.
NV: So obviously a personal best and a South African women’s medley record.
JM: My breaststroke was a bit disappointing [in another separate race]. It wasn’t my best time. I came in 7th. I’m not as good in the shorter distances like the 100[m] Breastroke. I don’t have the speed and the strength yet.

NV: How old were you compared to the other swimmers?
JM: I was the youngest swimmer there. I was fifteen at the time, I’m sixteen now.
NV: How old are most of the swimmers.
JM: Most of the girls are 15-21. The guys are much older. There are no 15 year old guys at big meets [like the Commonwealth Games]. The youngest guys are 17 but then they’re not at their best.
NV: I remember when I swam there was a stage when the girls were-
JM: Better, yeah. [she says with a grin]

NV: Did you feel overwhelmed in Melbourne?
JM: Overwhelmed?
NV: I seem to remember reading that there was concern that you might be overwhelmed [being a 15 year old at the Commonwealth Games] by the size of everything there.
JM: My brother was worried that the moment would be too big for me, but it was great walking out there with the Australian crowd screaming.
NV: So when you were standing in front of the blocks. I know this can be very nerve-racking – were you OK?
JM: The medley was my first race. I was very nervous in the morning. I was 14th on their rankings, so I wasn’t even ranked to make the final. But I went into the final ranked 6. I was nervous before they told us to go out. When I stood in front of the blocks everything [the nervousness] just went. I focused on the swimming pool, my lane in front of me. I thought of nothing except my race. I remember when they announced me: ‘Lane 6, Jean Marie Neethling.’ I looked over at my brother and he just nodded and I remembered what he’d said to me: ‘Relax. It’s just another race.’ I just went out there and gave my best. I wasn’t nervous at all.

NV: I remember seeing you on TV and you looked really focused. You didn’t wave at the camera.
JM: Well, the waving at the camera thing…I didn’t want to lose focus. I knew I wasn’t going to do much; I wasn’t one of the big shots there. I was just there to do my time.
NV: Well someone who doesn’t wave at the camera is either very nervous or very focussed.
JM: I was focused.
NV: Do you find it easy to focus?
JM: No it’s easy for me to focus.

Her mom opens the door and offers us coffee. Jean Marie says, “Asseblief” and I also nod.

JM: What was I saying? I focus easily when I just go out and train. But my mom’s [Mrs Neethling coaches swimming in Bloemfontein] swimmer’s, they’re also my friends, they’re afraid of me when I go swimming. They don’t talk to me while I swim. I’m not myself when I swim because I focus. I don’t like being interrupted when I’m training.
NV: I knew from your cap, and that you were swimming pretty fast that this is probably Jean Marie Neethling swimming next to me.
JM: [Laughs]
NV: And I thought of saying: ‘Howz Ryk’ or ‘Howzit’ or something, but I got that feeling: don’t!
JM: Oh no! [Laughs] It’s not that bad! It’s when my teammates – because they want to talk and play around – I never play around when I train.

There’s a bit of silence as this sinks in.

**NV: Are you a perfectionist?
JM: I’m a big perfectionist. I’d rather not do something if I can’t do it perfectly, or as close to perfect as possible. That’s actually one of my downfalls. I don’t want to do anything if I can’t do it perfectly. That’s why I didn’t do athletics. I’m not going to do something just to do it. It must be done right.
NV: I think that [being a perfectionist] is key to being successful, probably in anything, whether sport or business. Lance Armstrong is the ultimate perfectionist.
JM: Ja.
NV: But the other side of it is: are you a perfectionist in everyday life, and what’s that like? Because that’s sometimes difficult for other people [dealing with a perfectionist].
JM: Sure. [Laughs]
NV: Because my girlfriend is a perfectionist and she sometimes drives me crazy. So the question is, can you be a perfectionist in one area of your life, and not in another area?
JM: I am. I used to be a big perfectionist in everything. My room, my cupboard, my clothes – everything had to be in a specific place. Now I’ve sort’ve moved all my focus to just swimming, and the smaller details on what will get me better and faster.
NV: Is that a family thing?
JM: My dad is a very big perfectionist. In everything but especially in his work.
NV: He’s a lawyer.
JM: Yes. And lawyer’s have to be.

NV: So what are your ambitions?
JM: At the moment I’m on the way to the world junior champs in Brazil. I hope to swim well there. I don’t like to set any specific time for myself, and I don’t expect to win. I take it as it goes. I just give my best, and I hope it goes well because I’ve trained hard for it.
Then slightly longer term: when I come back from Brazil I start training for world senior champs in Melbourne next year. And then 2008 is Beijing, with my brother. I have to qualify for that and I really hope I make it.
NV: I’m sure you will. So Jean Marie, at this point, what are you most proud of?
JM: I still really can’t believe I went to the Commonwealth Games. It’s one of the three biggest events in swimming [the Olympics and World Championships are the other two].
So I’ve achieved one, and I did well. I’m the best IM [individual medley] swimmer in South Africa.
NV: Nice feeling…
JM: Yes [smiles]. I can’t really believe it when I say that. So that’s…I’m really proud of that.
NV: And otherwise, other non-swimming achievements you’re happy about?
JM: I suppose getting an average of over 80% in the last exams. I’m barely in school so I’m happy with that.
NV: And after school?
JM: I plan to go to college in Tucson Arizona; the same place my brother went.

NV: What do you do in your free time?
JM: I don’t have much free time, but I like drawing. I’ve won a few prizes for my drawings.
NV: Such as?
JM: A R25 000 bursary to study art.

She shows me some of her paintings. They’ve vivid, bright and bursting with color.

NV: I spoke to someone who said she’s done drama with you.
JM: Who?
NV: I can’t remember her name.
JM: I actually love drama. That was actually one of my favourite things to do. The ideal job for me would be being an actress.
NV: Well, when you were on TV when you were in Melbourne. Maybe you should use those opportunities to showcase your acting talent.
JM: [Laughs] But my parents won’t really support me going for that sort of thing, unless I was sure of what I was doing, and I’d already made some money for myself [out of swimming].
NV: But that’s a whole different setup. Swimming is about discipline, whereas acting – not that it’s not about discipline, because you need discipline with everything – but there’s more of the vanity aspect involved, and that can make one disorientated. Doesn’t Ryk find that he’s very busy now with other things, I mean I’ve just heard him in a radio ad-
JM: He still has the focus on swimming. He does that very well; keeping a balance. But it does get a bit too much.

NV: Ryk said: to win you have to be the best in the history of your body. What’your mantra?
JM: Something he said to me recently: Nothing is impossible. It just takes a little longer. And: Nothing is hard if you love it.
NV: You were saying it was lonely. Don’t you find it quite wonderful that you’re like a baanbreker. When you’re in the pool, training, day to day, you’re the best person in the pool, and you’re on top of your game.
JM: I’m a bit unsure of myself. I don’t think: ‘Wow I’m great.’ Or: ‘Wow I’m on top of my game.’ Most of the time I’m thinking: ‘I can do better.’ And: ‘How can I do better?’
NV: Well to me you’re confident. You come across very determined.
JM: Yes, well inwardly I think I am.
NV: I noticed you had a funny tan. You even had it in Melbourne.
JM: Oh that’s a bikini tan. I love swimming in my bikini when I swim outside.

A few weeks later I see Jean Marie again. She’s healthy (she was sick during the interview) and recently back from Brazil. She tells me her races went ‘Okay. Under the circumstances, quite well.’ She placed seventh and improved her world ranking by one.

The sun is throwing white arrows into the water but the air still has that sharp bite of early spring. She jumps into water – cold as stone – and I see, this is her domain. I can see that she’s obviously cold, but as soon as she moves she’s comfortable. She has long fingers, and long limbs. Like everything about her, there’s a lot of talent imbedded in from fingers to toes and behind the sweep of her forehead. You can see it in the way she moves.

She floats in the water at one point, her fingers twirling a few dancing stars. There is something beautiful about her here, in her watery domain. I feel inklings of the simple power of youth when Jean Marie swords through the water. She leaves a billowing wake filled with stars.

For more on Jean-Marie Neethling, click here.

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