On Wednesday evening, the 6th of June, my wife Vanessa, son James and I headed off to the airport – we were going to Italy! I was swimming in the World Masters Swimming Championships 2012. We flew on KLM from Cape Town to Amsterdam and then on to Milan, arriving on Thursday. We spent our first night, which was Vanessa’s birthday, in a small hotel next to the central train station in Milan. We set off early on Friday to catch a train to Riccione, feeling a little overpacked with bags, prams and carseats!
After a three hour train journey we arrived in the beautiful seaside village of Riccione, which is situated on the Adriatic or Eastern coast of Italy. We managed to catch a taxi to our hotel, where we were going to spend the next 10 days. We did not know a word of Italian which made things a little tricky to begin with. The first afternoon in Riccione was spent walking around town and trying to find the swimming pool complex. It was located about 1.5km away, and I managed to get in a loosen up swim and register for the competition. The swimming pool complex was phenomenal, the best I have ever been to. They have two, ten lane 50m pools, one indoor and one outdoor. A 25m diving well and a 30m x 25m full size water-polo pool. There were state of the art changing and shower facilities, the water was perfectly clean and clear everyday with minimal chlorine. It was fantastic!
Saturday was spent relaxing and enjoying some of the local coffee and Gelato shops. Luckily the hotel had free wifi and we were able to download an Italian phrase book. We learnt a few words of greeting, how to order and count, which made us a lot more confident, as Riccione is catered towards Italian tourists, and English is not widely spoken.
My race schedule for the week was busy. Starting with the 800m freestyle on Sunday, 200m freestyle on Monday, 100m Freestyle on Tuesday, 4x50m freestyle relay on Thursday, culminating with both the 3km open water and the 400m freestyle on Saturday.
My two main focuses for World Championships had always been on the 800m freestyle, for which I was ranked number one in the World in 2011, and the 3km open water swim, my favourite event. The other races were bonuses and I used them to get some extra time in the pool to keep my body race-ready over the long week. One of the main concerns at a competition this size, with around 7000 male and female competitors, is that you can only use the warm-up pools on the days you are entered to race. This makes training difficult as there are not many other options available. The fact that I was swimming the other races allowed me to get some good training sessions in ahead of the 3km race.
On Saturday night, before the 800m freestyle, I was extremely nervous. I knew this was my best medal chance in the pool events and did I great job of getting myself worked up. I had a terrible night sleep and woke up exhausted on Sunday. My race was scheduled for around 17h30 which allowed me the day to rest and focus on the race. I arrived at the pool with my support crew, Nes and James (aka Little Mascot), at around 16h00 giving myself time for a good warm-up. They were however running very late. We ended up only swimming at around 20h15. I was in lane 9 in the final heat of the day. I had 30 Seconds to Mars, This Is War blaring on the iPod and was raring to go.
I was off the blocks with a good start, but hit a very uncomfortable rhythm. I spent the first 400m really just trying to get going. My body just didn’t respond the way I wanted and it was a struggle. I started to feel a bit more comfortable on the second half and was starting to make back some ground that I had lost on the first 400m. I started overtaking a few guys and over the last hundred I moved up into 4th place and touched in 08m56.2s, third was 08h54.9s. It was a best time but I really felt that an 08m48 to 08h50ish was on the cards. It was quite funny, I had said exactly a year ago that I would need to go sub 08m50 to win a medal, I was spot on. Tyron Venter, the other South African in the race had a great swim to finish second in 08m48s. The winner was David Carrillo Rozo from Venezuela in 08m42s.
I was happy to have come 4th but I knew I didn’t have the best race. I knew I could do better and I had to make sure that I kept a good feel for the water and stayed well rested after the next few races. My 3km race was still a week away.
Monday afternoon was the 100m freestyle. It was extremely hot and the guys were racing indoors whilst the ladies raced outdoors. There were only four 25m lanes available indoors for warm-up for the men which made things very tricky. I went to the pool for warm-up but was not prepared to contend with over 50 guys per 25m lane, so rode my bicycle back to the hotel to attempt a warm-up in our 10m long hotel pool. One of the bonuses of Riccione is that every hotel has free bicycles for its occupants. I was making great use of the bikes, reducing my carbon footprint by not using taxi or bus transport, but they did have their drawbacks!
Once I was warmed up and ready for my 100m freestyle I headed back up to the pool. I made it 200m from the hotel when the bike’s chain broke! It was 1,5 km to the pool and I was now late! I chained the bike to the nearest lamp pole and ran with my Arena backpack to the pool. If the 10m hotel pool didn’t work for warm-up, the run definitely did in 35 degree weather!
I made it to the pool just as they were calling my heat, sweating like crazy! Adrenalin was pumping and a few minutes later I swam a great 100m freestyle. I was hoping for a 58s sprint but managed to go 57.58 seconds. I was very happy with that and finished down in 55th position. One thing that this 100m made me realise, is how valuable my 4th place 800m freestyle was the day before. These guys are quick! But this is World Champs after all.
One highlight came shortly after the 100m freestyle, when in the 100m breastroke a 96 year old man from Italy broke his age-group World Record. The crowd erupted and he received an enormous standing ovation!
After the 100m freestyle, Nes cooked us an amazing Italian pasta, everything was made from organic local produce, it was awesome! Food just tastes so much better in Italy!
Tuesday evening was the 200m freestyle. It was a lot shorter and far more intense than what I have been doing over the last year. As it was one of the extra events I was doing, I was out to have fun. I was in lane 6 of the second last heat of the day. I was hoping to try and finish in the top ten, but it would be a tough ask.
I had a good start again but was a bit slower than I wanted to be over the first 100m, 59.70s, and finished in 2m03.5s. To get close to two minutes you need to go out with at least a low 58 for the first 100m. It was the fastest 200m freestyle I have done in years and as a result I was very chuffed. I finished in 17th position.
Wednesday was a rest day, for some family time and sightseeing. We planned a day trip to San Marino, an old tax free principality, situated on top of a huge hill overlooking all of the surrounding coastal area. The alarm was set for 07h00 to catch the tour bus at 08h22. But somehow the alarm didn’t go off, and we woke up at exactly 08h22… Needless to say we missed the bus, but could easily make other plans using local transport. We caught the local bus to the train station in nearby Rimini, and from there we caught another bus, which ended up being half the price and it left 2 minutes after we arrived at the station. Sleeping late ended up being a bonus! We had a fun morning in San Marino and ended it off with a great lunch and coffee overlooking the Adriatic coastline from the top of the hill. We returned to Riccione for an afternoon of shopping in the local sidewalk shops and of course, heaped helpings of gelato!
Thursday was a full day dedicated to relays. I was swimming the 4 x 50m freestyle in the 120 year to 150 year age group with three other guys from Cape Town Masters Swimming Club. The sum of all four swimmers ages needs to fall within 120 to 150. The relay team consisted of Johan Van Der Merwe, myself, Harald Kruger and Chris King, swimming in that order. We had a great relay and ended up coming in 7th place. There were one or two big names competing against us, Oleg Lisogor from the Ukraine was one of them. Oleg used to hold the Mens 50m Breastroke World Record before South African Cameron Van Der Burgh broke it a year or two ago. The Ukrainian team ended up winning the race from the lane next to us. I had a great 50 Free in a time of 25.41seconds, my fastest 50m Freestyle in years. The remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing, enjoying the good Italian coffee and getting focused ahead of the weekend.
I slept late on Friday and took the opportunity to rest as much as possible before my main focus, the 3km Open Water Race on Saturday. I headed off mid-morning to the Open Water venue at Hakuna Matata beach in Riccione. The race organisers were still busy setting up parts off the course but had already set up the course buoys. I managed to figure out the route by “chatting” to a very Italian organizer (zero English) and headed out to swim part of the course. The route consisted of a single counter-clockwise triangle of 3km. The entire course was in relatively shallow water along the coastline, with a maximum depth of around 2,5m. The water in the Adriatic was warm and crystal clear, you could see the light brown sand, along with all the crabs and small finish on the bottom. I spent most of my warm-up swim looking at the small creatures crawling on the bottom, before I knew it I was rounding the last turn and heading back towards the beach. The conditions were perfect and it was like swimming in a salty dam, not the sea. I managed to get a good idea of the markers along the route and swam into the finish chute, which could prove valuable on race day. I took Nes and James back to the beach that evening for a second swim on the course and to see the final course layout and any changes that could have been made. The conditions were completely different as the wind was up and the swim was very choppy!
Saturday arrived and the Open Water swim went very well, the pre-swims and the preparation paid off with a World Championship Silver Medal – I have dedicated a entire race report to this swim.
On Saturday afternoon, after the 3km Open Water swim, I had my last event in the pool. This also happened to be the very last race of the competition, the Men’s 400m Freestyle. I was seeded 10th and swimming in Lane 1 for the final. The top contenders were the same competitors I had swum against in the 200m freestyle, the 800m freestyle and most of them had also swum the open water race. It was going to be a tough ask but was excited and ready to give it my all. The start was good and I went out well over the first 100m but dropped back slightly to the 200m mark. I felt really good and started to push a bit harder over the 3rd 100m. Over the last 100m I still felt like I had a lot of energy and gave it my all over the last length, clocking a 30.1 second last 50m and finished in 4minutes19.60 seconds. I had gone out far too slow and left it too late to push. I had finished in 6th position, a good swim and again the best 400m freestyle I have swum since 2005.
With the racing finally over, Sunday arrived for some quality, fun family time. Riccione has one of the biggest water parks in the whole of Europe called Aquafan. We spent our last day in Riccione slipping and sliding down the super tubes and slippery slides. My son James had his very first swim at the water park, a moment my wife and I will never forget. He really took to the water on this holiday, and I am looking forward to summer to see him splashing around in the pool again. After Riccione we headed off into Tuscany for a week of family holiday and a much needed break from the swimming.
Thank you to each and every person who sent messages and wished me luck. The support was absolutely amazing and I can’t tell you just how much it meant to me.
To my sponsors, Sportsmans Warehouse, Arena South Africa, GU Energy South Africa, Vineyard Swimming Club and Team Pure Planet Racing, thank you for all your support, encouragement and for believing in me! You have set me up with the best gear and supplements giving me a much greater chance of success. I look forward to working together and reaching for even greater heights going forward.
My wife Vanessa has been a legend over the past few months, helping me achieve my goals and allowing me to train hard whilst she picked up the pieces in the background. There was always a great cooked meal waiting for me after every training session and a foot to kick me out of bed when I needed the boost to get up in the morning. She has done all this while looking after our new born son, James. I appreciate all your help Nes and love you very much. I could not have achieved any of this without you.