Swimming isn’t for sissies. Waking at ungodly hours, training rigorously and following a restrictive diet is all in a day’s work for SA’s young Olympic hopefuls.
Kamcilla Pillay and Busiswe Mpofana spoke to some of the athletes at the SA National Aquatic Championships Olympic trials at the Kings Park Aquatic Centre on Wednesday.
Suzaan van Biljon, 23, of Pretoria, has been swimming for 12 years, more than half her life.
“I specialise in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, and usually we swim from 5.30am to 7.30am, and then from 4pm to 6pm. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we usually only do our morning session, and we have Sundays off,” she said.
To top this gruelling regime, Van Biljon said she trained at the gym for two hours, three days a week.
“During the week we try to cook and eat at home, but if we do get takeaways, they are usually Chinese, Thai or Japanese (sushi) cuisine,” she said, explaining that these were healthier alternatives.
In terms of mental preparation, she said she tried to approach every meet in the same way – she tried not to get too nervous, because it affected her performance.
Tezna Abrahams, 16, who goes to school in the Western Cape, is attending Olympic trials for the first time.
She specialises in breaststroke, freestyle and butterfly.
“We also typically train for six days, and have to have gym training as well – but we don’t lift weights,” she said.
She said she had given up foods she was especially fond of, such as dairy products, particularly ice cream and yoghurt, as well as spicy foods.
“I find that these foods hamper my performance because they are heavy and difficult to digest,” she said.
Pasta, however, was allowed in large quantities – and happened to be her favourite.
Beijing Paralympics 2008 gold medallist Charl Bouwer remains passionate about swimming after 14 years of competing in the sport.
“I train for 10 sessions a week (7km to 8km at a time), usually in the mornings and afternoons,” said the partially sighted 22-year-old.
He said that unlike most swimmers, who eat something before their 5.30am training, he preferred something light, such as a banana.
“Afterwards, I usually scramble about seven eggs, toast four slices of bread and eat five bricks of Weetbix with milk,” he said.
He also admitted to having a weakness for pancakes and waffles.
Music, he said, was absolutely key in preparing himself mentally for competitions.
“For the 50m events, I usually play music with a faster beat to psych myself up, and for the 400m, I’ll choose something slightly slower. Before bed, to get myself relaxed, I’ll usually play some rustig (calming) music to help me sleep,” he said.
Moses Malatjie, a disabled swimmer who has celebral palsy, said he started swimming when he was 14 years old.
The Adelaide Tambo Elson school student said he loved swimming.
Malatjie, who hails from Tembisa in Gauteng, said few black people participated in swimming, but this was something he and his swimming club were trying to change.
He said: “People never do realise (I’m disabled) until I explain it to them. Then they can actually see it.”
He trains twice a week, but follows no special dietary regime.
“Well, I have always been someone who eats well, so I don’t really have an eating plan or anything like that,” he said.
Kelleigh Nelson, a Grade 10 pupil at Alexander Road High in Port Elizabeth, has been swimming her whole life.
The 16-year-old eats what she likes.
“But when it’s time for me to get ready for swimming tournaments, I change my diet completely, eating only vegetables.”
Nelson also plays hockey for her school’s under 16 team.
“Between swimming, school work and hockey, I don’t really find time to go out with my friends.” But that was not a problem, she said, because she swam with friends.
Grade 11 pupil Jessica Liss, from Port Elizabeth, trains three to four hours a day, swims with a club and has her own coach.
“Swimming is my passion and I’ve been swimming for 12 years.”
Swimming was the only sport she did because she absolutely loved it and it kept her body in shape, she said.