Note this article was commissioned by SA Sports Illustrated.
How do you swim breaststroke? What’s the secret?
Breaststroke is the most technical of all the strokes. You need good timing, control and rhythm. If you get too excited, or try too hard, your hands and legs start to work against each other. The tall guys struggle, because in breaststroke you need a high stroke rate, and to do that you need to be able close your legs at the end of each kick quickly. It’s also about having a good feel for the water.
Are you the captain of the South African swimming team?
I’ve sort’ve been assigned to mentor some of the up and coming swimmers with a focus on 2016. My focus is 2012. So I’m more of a big brother and I try to share some of the tricks of the trade with guys like Chad le Clos and Charl van Zyl. You learn from experience that small things at our level can make a big difference in the end.
Walking in slops. At the Commonwealth Games you walk around a lot. If you wear slops it tires your calves out, and by the fourth or fifth day you really start feeling it.
And how is Ryk involved?
Ryk is my agent. He manages my media; he gets sponsors for me. He has got a lot of contacts, he knows how to sell and he’s done well in terms of sponsors. My main sponsors are Investec and Tag.
I started swimming when I was four, and was burned out by the time I was twelve. But you got a very late start didn’t you?
I’ve been swimming since the age of 11 which is a lot later than a lot of people. It started at an Interhouse competition at school. I hadn’t really swum before and I won. In 1998 I swam for Northern Transvaal B, the following year for the A team, and in 2000 I made the South African team for the first time. I was 20 years old when I swam my first Olympics in 2008.
How did you do?
Mixture. I went into the Olympics ranked 16th. I did well in my heats; I was ranked fourth going into the semi final. I was so ecstatic I couldn’t sleep. But then we had the finals in the morning in Beijing. Television channels in the States paid a lot to switch around the times, because we usually swim the finals in the evening. I slept about two hours and then missed the final by something like 0.02 seconds. So it messed us all around. I’m better now at controlling my emotions. It comes down to that experience thing.
So what have been some of your career highlights?
I’ve broken 11 world records. In 2009 I got gold at world championships. In Delhi I beat the reigning 100 metre world champion, Brenton Rickard. I’m currently the world record holder in the 50 metre breaststroke [26.27 seconds] and in the short course [25m pool] in the 50 metre and 100 metre breaststroke [25.25 seconds and 55.61 seconds respectively].
What was India like? Did you have any problems with the crowd?
I didn’t think it was that bad. The first two days it wasn’t that crowded. A lot of tourists didn’t make the trip because of the threat. In the last three days they cut the admission prices and from then on the stadium was packed.
I’ve seen your physique. I don’t think I’ve seen a swimmer with a bigger chest than you. Is it genes, gym or graft?
I’m a sprinter so it’s all about power. If you lose your power you lose your rhythm and you start going nowhere really fast. You just die. Training hard when your body is developing, you know from a young age, definitely translates to big shoulders. Even the girls experience that. And breaststroke is such a power stroke. To do well in breast you have to be shorter, stockier and stronger. LJ van Zyl [400m hurdler] laughs at me when I run, because I have stubby legs and big torso. Physique comes with the training. I swim 11-12km per day, 30% of that is breaststroke. If we do more we start to hurt the knees. And we do a fair amount of gym work. Lots of pull-ups [he can do 75 continuously] benchpress, clean and jerk...
What’s your poison?
I really love coffee. I’m a real coffee addict. Tomorrow we’re shooting for Top Billing and they’re going to teach me how to brew the beans, what temperature to heat the milk. I enjoy Vida e’s Cappuccinos. In Pretoria we don’t have that many though.
You seem really relaxed. Aren’t you strict about diet?
I listen to my body. But if I’m craving a chocolate or a cup of coffee I’ll have one. I can afford to eat a bit of junk food because we just burn it all off. One day it will be a lot more difficult because as you get older you put on weight easier.
What about goals?
I’ve already achieved most of my goals. [Broken a world record, world champion and Commonwealth champion]. All I’ve got left is to become the Olympic champion. Thanks to funding from Sascoc and sponsors, and my coach Dirk Lange, I’m on track.
You look a lot like Graeme Smith.
[Chuckles] I get that a lot. Everyone in the world has a lookalike. I know some of the cricketers and it’s not an insult to me. I’d really like to meet him.