By Phillip Whitten
PRETORIA, South Africa, December 30. THE swimming world was rocked earlier this month when unheralded Lyndon Ferns of South Africa, a sophomore at the University of Arizona, swam a blazing 48.99 for the 100 meters freestyle at the Texas Invitational. The swim vaulted the 19 year-old into the top echelon of the world's sprinters and broke both the South African national record (49.29) and the African continental record (49.00).
The marks did not last long. Only days later, on December 12, former NCAA champion Roland Schoeman, another University of Arizona product, swam an amazing 48.69 during the Northern Tigers Provincial Championships in Pretoria. The time sliced three-tenths of a second off Ferns' still-dripping mark.
"I was not expecting a time like this after going 51.00 in the morning heats," commented Schoeman after the swim, "but I decided to just go out there and swim the way I am used to, not realizing that I had turned in around 22.8 seconds. I did tighten up a little on the final 10 meters as usual and could not believe it when I saw the scoreboard."
Schoeman is back with his University of Arizona coach, Rick Demont, in Tucson, who clearly is doing something right. Not only has he produced Africa's first two sub-49 second 100 meter freestylers, he also has Ryk Neethling, who has a 49.29 (twice) to his credit.
The South African and African records have undergone a battering these last two years after remaining untouched for a quarter of a century. In 1976, just two weeks after the USA's Jim Montgomery first cracked the 50-second barrier with his 49.99 at the Montreal Olympics, South Africa's Jonty Skinner shattered that mark with a 49.44 swum at the US Nationals at the slow, Kelley pool in Philadelphia. (Skinner was unable to compete in Montreal as South Africa was banned from the Olympics due to its policy of racial domination, known as apartheid.)
That time remained the world record for five years, until Rowdy Gaines lowered it to 49.36 in 1981. But it held up as the African standard until 2001, when Algeria's Salim Iles clocked 49.40. The following year, the Algerian took that mark down to 49.00, while Ryk Neethling lowered the South African record to 49.29, a time he equaled this year. There things stood until earlier this month, when first Ferns and now Schoeman swam their sub-49s.
We caught up with Schoeman last night in Tucson. "I was very excited about the time," he told SwimInfo. It was rather unexpected but very welcome.
"The pain of the defeat I felt after World Champs in Barcelona was rather huge and weighed heavily on me. I knew that when I got back to Arizona I needed to make some serious changes, and with the help of (University of Arizona Head Coach) Frank (Busch), (Sprint Coach) Rick (Demont) and the weight staff, I did just that. I guess the rest is history."
South Africa now has to be rated an Olympic medal contender in the 4×100 meter free in Athens, along with the USA, Russia, Australia and the Netherlands. Schoeman ranks third in the world for 2003 with his 48.69, trailing only Pieter van den Hoogenband (48.39) and Alex Popov (48.42) and just ahead of Ian Thorpe (48.71) and Jason Lezak (48.78). Ferns' 48.99 places him seventh, while Neethling, who went 49.29 earlier this year, is twelfth. Now other country has three men that fast.
The obvious question is: Who will be the fourth man on the Springbok relay?
There are several candidates but Schoeman favors 19 year-old Darian Townsend. "With guys coming through like young Darian, we should be able to challenge the rest of the world."
Townsend, who will be attending the University of Florida next fall, swam 50.37 earlier this year. Before 2003 he had never broken 53 seconds.
"We really need someone to step up and he seems to be the most likely person," said Schoeman. "He has indicated he would like to train in South Africa up until the Olympics. Ryk and I feel, however, that this is not the best, either for him or the South African relay. We were hoping he could start training with Florida immediately or in Arizona."
Townsend, however, has no lock on that fourth spot. Nick Folker swam 50.20 in 2001 and definitely has sub-50 second potential.