Swimming World Presents – Athens 2004: How the South African Men’s Team Shocked the World with a 400 Free Relay World Record

SW October 2020 -Defying All Odds - Story of the 2004 Athens Olympics mens 400 meter freestyle relay win by South America
Pictured, from left: Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns, Schoeman and Darian Townsend

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Defying All Odds

How the South African Men’s Team Shocked the World with a 400 Free Relay World Record at the 2004 Athens Olympics

By John Lohn

There is no doubt that the Summer of 2004 remains the defining moment in South African swimming history. That’s when Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling shocked the world with their Olympic gold medal and world record-setting performance in the men’s 400 meter freestyle relay in Athens.

As they walked to the blocks, there was a sense something special was about to unfold. They knew their moment was imminent, a mere three-plus minutes from coming to fruition. Never mind that a trawl through the past declared them to be an underdog. This foursome had a business appointment with history.

Prior to the 2004 Games in Athens, the 400 meter freestyle relay had been contested on eight occasions in Olympic competition. The first seven times the race was held, the United States captured the gold medal. In 2000, with the Games set in Sydney, Australia used its home-pool advantage—and a raucous crowd of 17,000 supporters—to put an end to the American streak.

As the Games neared its return to Greece for the first time since the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896—also in Athens—the United States held favorite status, with Swimming World predicting the Americans to finish ahead of Italy. The Aussies were picked to finish fourth, although a caveat noted that if certain injuries healed—notably the back and shoulder of Michael Klim—Australia would certainly factor into the medals chase.

Predicted to earn the bronze medal was South Africa. Boasting a squad powered by internationally experienced veterans Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling, South Africa certainly belonged in the medals discussion. But the leap from a lower step on the podium to the top is far from easy, and nothing could go wrong for the South Africans if they were to pull off an upset on the second night of action.

“As we got closer to Athens, we knew that if every swimmer did what they were capable of doing, then we would be close to a world record,” Neethling said. “Whoever beats us would have to be at their absolute best. We never once spoke about medals. Just focusing on the process took a lot of pressure off us at the time.”

The status of minor-medal contender might have been the prevailing prediction for South Africa in the 400 free relay in Athens. In the minds of Schoeman and Neethling, though, the gold medal was within reach. The confidence of the team’s veterans permeated to Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend. Given the pressure-filled atmosphere of every Olympiad, having the junior members of the squad envision the ultimate result—and believe in its attainability—was imperative.

The fact that South Africa remained optimistic about its hopes was a testament to the inner confidence possessed by the team’s members. At the 2003 World Championships, South Africa—using the same squad it brought to Athens—finished eighth in the final of the 400 freestyle relay! The team was more than four seconds off the pace set by Russia and finished nearly two seconds behind seventh-place Canada. It was not an effort reflective of the team’s potential, and that shortcoming percolated for the months ahead.

“It was painful and embarrassing,” Neethling said of the World Champs finish. “We knew that we had the manpower to be more competitive, but we couldn’t put it together. We had our excuses ready: no money….no sponsors…no coaches with us—the usual South African struggles. We had to put the excuses behind us.

“From Barcelona, it was all about supporting each other, knowing full well that we still had to race individually, but we believed that we could achieve a lot more as a team than as individuals. This wasn’t just lip service or feel-good mumbo jumbo. We really lived this daily, and we encouraged each other in every session. We truly became like brothers.”

 

To read the complete story of South Africa’s World Record-setting men’s 400 free relay team,
Check out the full article in Swimming World’s October 2020 issue, available now!

SW October 2020 - Lia Neal - Working For Change COVER[PHOTO CREDIT: BECCA WYANT/FINIS, INC. PHOTOGRAPHY]

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Swimming World Magazine October 2020 Issue

FEATURES

012 WORKING FOR CHANGE
by David Rieder
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, elite swimmers Lia Neal and Jacob Pebley created Swimmers for Change to promote diversity and to make swimming a more inclusive sport and a more inclusive community.

020 THE TROUBLE WITH SPRINTERS (Part 4): REVISITING THE CAREER OF GARY HALL JR.
by Bruce Wigo
As Dave Marsh and Mike Bottom explained in the previous issue, if there is a problem with sprinters, it is because, mentally, they are wired differently from other athletes. Potential trouble then seems to start when coaches and administrators are unable to understand their behavior and their needs. But while causing trouble for some, the aquatic sports world would not be where it is today without the rebellious personalities of sprinters.

026 DEFYING ALL ODDS
by John Lohn
There is no doubt that the Summer of 2004 remains the defining moment in South African swimming history. That’s when Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling shocked the world with their Olympic gold medal and world record-setting performance in the men’s 400 meter freestyle relay in Athens.

COACHING

010 PLAN B: WHEN BEST-LAID PLANS GO AWRY
by Michael J. Stott
Bolstering swimmers—in sickness and health—is part and parcel of a coach’s job. When done right, everybody wins.

038 SWIMMING TECHNIQUE CONCEPTS: DR. ANDERS ERICSSON’S CONCEPT OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE
by Rod Havriluk
Dr. Anders Ericsson left a vital legacy for athletes striving to become experts. His deliberate practice concept specifies the key components that help athletes progress to an expert level. The success of deliberate practice suggests that a coach prioritize deliberate practice strategies in team training and relegate conditioning to secondary importance.

040 SPECIAL SETS: MICHAEL PHELPS—FROM GOOD TO GREAT
by Michael J. Stott
The sets included in this article are taken from the 2001-02 short course and early long course season. They are a representative sample of Coach Bob Bowman’s early program in developing Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time.

043 Q&A WITH COACH DAN’L MURRAY
by Michael J. Stott

044 HOW THEY TRAIN EMANUEL FAVA
by Michael J. Stott

TRAINING

030 DRYSIDE TRAINING: NO SEASON, NO RACING…NOW WHAT?
by J.R. Rosania
This pandemic has shut down our competition calendar. Whether it’s a high school, college, professional or Olympic season, we need to perform exercises that will help us stay strong, fast and explosive.

JUNIOR SWIMMER

046 UP & COMERS: EMILY WAY
by Shoshanna Rutemiller

COLUMNS & SPECIAL SECTIONS

008 A VOICE FOR THE SPORT

015 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE

023 DID YOU KNOW? MARY HOERGER

031 PREP SCHOOL DIRECTORY

042 HASTY HIGH POINTERS

047 GUTTERTALK

049 PARTING SHOT
Swimming World is now partnered with the International Swimming Hall of Fame. To find out more, visit us at ishof.org

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