By Neville Smith
DURBAN, South Africa, April 17. THE second evening of the Telkom Aquatic Championships and South African Olympic Trials played out to a capacity crowd at the Kings Park Aquatic Complex in Durban on Saturday.
An air of expectation was quite evident, with some exciting racing predicted as the freestyle sprint finals got matters underway. The crowd got everything it was expecting and then some, as Ryk Neethling stroked to a continental record in the semifinals of the 200 free.
The ladies' 50-meter sprint shaped up as a showdown of the young guns and, by gum, they didn’t disappoint.
Lauren Roets (CGA) was off the blocks faster than the rest and this set her up for a convincing victory, a national age group record but unfortunately not an Olympic QT. Her time of 25.88 was 0.24 seconds off the mark of 25.64, but bodes well for the 16 year old.
Silver went to stalwart Charlene Wittstock (CGA) in a time of 26.63 while the 14-year-old Tanya Strydom (KZN) (26.73) once again put up her hand with a solid performance.
Veteran Edith Otterman (NTS) placed fifth with a time of 26.71 — just 0.05 seconds off the Masters world record in her age group — in what has so far been an excellent return to competitive swimming for the 37 year old.
Much was expected from the men’s event, which featured what was, without a doubt, the fastest local field assembled in South Africa for some time.
Crowd favorite Roland Schoeman went into the final as the top seed and didn’t disappoint. Off the blocks like a flash, with Ryk Neethling in close attendance, it was always going to be a battle for the minor placing.
At the 25m mark it was Schoeman who held a slight advantage over Neethling with the rest of the field a lottery with Lyndon Ferns coming into the picture.
The crowd was on its feet as the field came into the wall but it was Schoeman (NTS) who hammered a point home when he surged to claim the title in a fast 22.20 to post his second consecutive Olympic QT within 48 hours and must surely be looking ahead to a classic showdown with the world's best in Athens come August.
Ryk Neethling (KZN), despite a definite lunge for the wall, had to settle for the silver in a time of 22.55 just .04 off the Olympic QT of 22.51 while Ferns (NTS) claimed the bronze in a time of 22.81.
Fourth place went to stalwart Karl Thaning (WP) (22.91) edging out Nick Folker (KZN) (22.99), while both Gerhard Zandberg (NTS) (23.01) and Darian Townsend (KZN) (23.07) will go home tonight and reflect on what might have been.
The ladies 100m breastroke was a mediocre affair. Natalie Burke (WP) and Ziada Jardine (WP) went out hard with the ever-improving Tammy Laubscher (NTS) in close attendance as the swimmers went into the turn. Burke came off the wall hard and shot into a lead that she was never to relinquish in claiming her first national title in a time of 1:11.63 well off the Olympic QT of 1:09.85.
Tammy Laubscher (1:12.53) claimed the silver with an immense effort on the back 50 posting the fastest split with a 38.01 with Ronwyn Roper (KZN) doing enough to snatch bronze from pre tournament favorite Ingrid Haiden (WP) and a tiring Jardine who were credited with a 1:13.07.
Titleholder Suzaan van Biljon (NTS) was well off the pace in a time of 1:13.23.
While the fact of the matter is that South Africa will not be represented at the Athens Olympics in the ladies' breastroke event for the first time since Barcelona in 1992, on the positive side we saw the emergence of the promising Jean-Marie Neethling, sister of legend Ryk, who at the age of 13 swam in her first nationals final posting a 1:14.88.
The men’s event was altogether another issue.
Terence Parkin (KZN) was fully shaved in lane 2 while Greg Owen (CGA) looked relaxed in lane 6. Off the blocks it was Neil Versveld (KZN) and Ian Clutten (WP) who came up first and powered into an early lead, with Owen and Parkin lurking.
Owen came off the turn like a rocket and it appeared that all he had to do was finish to claim that maiden national title that had eluded him for so long.
But Parkin is a determined young man and with 10m to go it appeared that an upset could be on the cards. Owen and Parkin attacked the wall, but it was Owens day claiming victory with a 1:02.67. Parkin settled for silver in a time of 1:02.80 with a game Versveld having to settle for bronze in a time of 1:03.77.
Once again that Olympic QT of 1:01.92 was missed.
The ladies' 200m backstroke was keenly anticipated by the crowd with all eyes on the promising Melissa Corfe (KZN) who has been ever so close to the Olympic QT of 2:13.58 over the past few months.
Corfe took the challenge to the rest of the field and after the first lap was never challenged for position. It was quite evident that the question would be as to weather she had put it together tonight.
Going into the final lap the crowd sensed something special and rose in unison to urge Corfe to the magic time. However despite her best effort Melissa posted a 2:14.00 — a mere 0.42 off the QT — to claim her second consecutive national title.
While her mark was a new national age group record, the 18 year old will be bitterly disappointed at not making the Olympic cut.
Training partner Romina Armellini (CGA) swam a calculated race to claim silver in a time of 2:17.14 ahead of Romy Altman (WP) who went a 2:17.48.
The men’s 200m backstroke would have to have seen a new national mark for any of the swimmers to be in contention for Olympic selection. The QT of 2:00.20 was almost a full three seconds off the national mark and it was always going to be a tough task for the competitors.
In what can only be seen as a fairly even race it was George Durand (FS) who set the pace and was never really challenged as he posted a 2:03.56 ahead of Garreth McGee (CGA) (2:05.19) and Jeff Norton (KZN) (2:06.11).
While the other competitors all went under 2:06,80 a special mention should be made about the promising Rohan Jacobs from KZN who at 17 certainly looks like a bright prospect for the future. His 2:06.27 saw him place fifth in an event he uses to compliment his specialty, the 400m IM.
The ladies 200m butterfly dished up a far better performance than last night’s semis but the standard leaves a lot to be desired.
The diminutive Mandy Loots (CGA) certainly produced a better performance in reclaiming her title in a time of 2:16.42, well off the Olympic QT of 2:11.20, however the positive aspects that come from this race are evident in the minor placing.
The Lategan sisters Andrea (16) and Christy (13) from the North West made sure the podium would be a family affair when they claimed the minor placing in times of 2:18.19 and 2:18.80 respectively.
Most impressive was Christy who swam a very well calculated race. Always in contention her back 100 was the fastest of all the swimmers and as a result she wore down some of her more illustrious competitors to claim the silver ware.
The men’s event saw Hungarian Peter Hos (NTS) once again produced a world class effort when he claimed a comfortable victory in a time of 2:00.98 well ahead of the pack.
The title went to Ferdi Postma (NTS) in a time of 2:05.28 with David Rifkin (WP) claiming the silver in a time of 2:05.88.
Bronze went to Jasper Venter (NW) who established a new national age group record of 2:05.88 for the 15-year-old age group.
It seems that as always it seems that the best is always saved for the last and tonight was no exception. The men’s 200m freestyle semis was without a doubt the most pulsating event of the meet so far.
Heat one saw Ryk Neethling come up against the promising Darian Townsend (KZN) in a titanic struggle. From the gun Neethling made his intentions known as he surged into the lead. Townsend who was disappointed with his effort in the 50 free earlier realized that this was an ideal opportunity to go fast and perhaps get that elusive Olympic QT.
He hung onto Neethling going through the first 100 and made a concerted effort on the back 50 to close the gap on Neethling. There was nothing in it going into the wall but coming off Neethling produced a massive kick to increase his lead to almost a full body length with 10 m to go. Townsend dug deep and surged but it was Neethling who triumphed in a 1:47.78 to establish a new continental mark. The previous best was his effort at the 1999 Pan Pacs in Sydney, which was a 1:48.17.
Townsend’s time of 1:49.57 saw him slip under the Olympic QT of 1:49.60 and the youngster from Pietermaritzburg was overjoyed. A just reward for an individual who has without a doubt one of the brightest futures in both local and international swimming.
Third fastest was Swiss national Dominik Meichtry whose 1:51.37 augurs well for his Olympic prospects.
The 16 year old Jean Basson (CGA) goes into tomorrow night's final seeded fourth with a fine effort of 1:51.74 and could be the dark horse in this event.
The meet continues on Sunday.