Matt Sates Breaking Out as the Next South African Star

matthew-sates-SA Short course swimming championships - Image: BOOGS Photography / Andrew Mc Fadden
Matt Sates -- Photo Courtesy: BOOGS Photography/Andrew Mc Fadden/Swimming South Africa

Matt Sates Breaking Out as the Next South African Star

If you didn’t know the name Matt Sates a few days ago, no one can blame you. But suddenly, three days of racing at the FINA World Cup in Berlin has the swimming world wondering if Sates is the next bourgeoning swimming star that South African has produced.

Sates did swim at the Tokyo Olympics, and he qualified for the semifinals of the 200 IM, where he finished 14th. He was also 32nd in the 100 butterfly. In a meet as full of meaningful swims as an Olympics, a single semifinal swim can certainly go unnoticed. But a top-10 performer of all-time, in multiple events? That’s not going to slip by anyone.

Consider Sates’ performances over these three days of short course meters racing. Friday, there was a runner-up performance in the 400 free to Danas Rapsys (3:40.28) and his first international victory in the 100 IM (51.78). But then he blew the doors down Saturday when he dominated the 200 IM from start to finish, with no one finishing within 2.5 seconds. He swam a time of 1:51.45, crushing the world junior record by more than a second and breaking the South African record — a mark that was, at the time, the world record.

Darian Townsend, one of the four South African men who swam on the gold-medal-winning 400 freestyle relay squad at the 2004 Olympics, swam a 1:51.55 in the short course meters 200 IM back in 2009 to beat Ryan Lochte’s existing world record by one hundredth. The record lasted about a year before Lochte reclaimed it.

Since then, other men have swum 1:51s and 1:50s, and Lochte swam a 1:49 back in 2012, but Sates’ 1:51.45 makes him the eighth-fastest performer in history. Seven of the men ahead of him on the all-time list are Olympic medalists. The only men to eclipse that time during this year’s ISL season were Daiya Seto and Caeleb Dressel during their Match 6 showdown and Andreas Vazaios during the play-in match last week. Any way you frame it, that swim is elite.

And that was not all for Sates on the weekend. Sunday saw him comfortably win the 400 IM in 4:01.98, earning him a spot on the all-time top-25, and then he returned to the pool for the 200 freestyle. And he won that race, too, as he set another world junior record and held off Australia’s Kyle Chalmers — you know, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free, the silver medalist in Tokyo and a world-class 200 freestyler in addition to his sprint skills.

Sates led Chalmers by four tenths with 50 meters to go, and the fast-finishing Aussie was not done yet, but Sates had enough to hold him off, 1:40.65 to 1:40.82. Rapsys, an Olympic finalist in the event this year, was third in 1:41.17.

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Matthew Sates — Photo Courtesy: Swimming South Africa

And on the all-time list, Sates now slots in at sixth, trailing Paul Biedermann’s world record of 1:39.37 from the era of full-body polyurethane suits, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Yannick Agnel, two-time World Championships medalist Danila Izotov (also from the supersuit era), 2021 Olympic runner-up Duncan Scott and 2017 World Championships silver medalist Townley Haas.

To recap, that’s a group of history’s best 200 freestylers, and right behind them, a little-known 18-year-old. One incredible weekend can put a swimmer into that conversation, and Sates surely looked like the real deal as he went head-to-head with an Olympic gold medalist in the next lane over and did not back down.

Beyond his international career representing South Africa, Sates is committed to swim for the University of Georgia, and according to his bio on the Speedo South Africa website, he plans to arrive in Athens this December. So if all goes well, he could be swimming for the Bulldogs at the SEC championships in February and at the NCAA championships in March. He just showed what he can do in short course meters, so translating that success to short course yards very quickly is certainly realistic.

He could take on Carson Foster, Hugo Gonzalez and Destin Lasco in the 200-yard IM on the last Thursday in March. A showdown against U.S. Olympians Kieran Smith and Drew Kibler in the 200-yard free? Can you imagine?

Internationally, Sates could be following in some big footsteps in terms of great South African swimmers. After winning that historic relay gold medal in 2004, South Africa did not medal in swimming at the 2008 Games, but then, Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos each captured individual gold medals in 2012. Both men returned to the podium as silver medalists in 2016, and even though no South African man won an Olympic medal in swimming this year, the country got to watch Tatjana Schoenmaker win a pair of breaststroke medals and set a world record on her way to Olympic gold in the 200 breast.

And Sates is 18, an age when young male swimmers can improve rapidly and make the jump to the elite level. We have seen that happen this year in one of Sates’ main events, the 200 free, with South Korea’s Hwang Sun-woo and Romania’s David Popovici both narrowly missing Olympic medals in Tokyo after emerging from relative obscurity.

Of course, one weekend of startling success at a low-key World Cup meet is no guarantee of sustained success, but Sates is eighth-fastest and sixth-fastest all-time as a teenager. Can’t argue with statistics. And maybe this breakout will just be the beginning for Matt Sates, already an Olympic semifinalist and soon to be a Georgia Bulldog with potentially much more to come.

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