Van Niekerk and Coetzee qualify for Commonwealth Games
Triumph rose from heartbreak yesterday when swimmers Nathania van Niekerk and Ryan Coetzee bounced back from despairing disappointments to secure Commonwealth Games qualification times in Durban.
The pair helped push to 24 the number of swimmers who have achieved the qualifying times, set by Swimming SA (SSA) at these trials, for Gold Coast 2018, from April 4 to 15.
Chad le Clos secured qualification in his fourth event of this gala, the 100m butterfly, Erin Gallagher her third as she broke the 55-second barrier in the 100m freestyle for a career first, and Tatjana Schoenmaker her second with a second place in the 100m breaststroke.
Cameron van der Burgh won his second gold of the gala, in the 50m breaststroke, although it does not count as a qualifier because SSA does not recognise non-Olympic events.
But life is different lower down the pecking order.
Coetzee, 22, had missed every major international gala the past few years, dating back to the last Commonwealth showpiece at Glasgow 2014, and Van Niekerk, 18, failed to reach the 2016 Rio Olympics by six-tenths of a second.
“Rio was a really big disappointment, I came so close,” Van Niekerk said.
“I changed strokes and switched clubs, to rediscover the joy of the sport.”
Focusing on her matric studies this year, Van Niekerk picked up the backstroke again only eight months ago. “I’m very happy,” she said. With all the international competitions he had missed, Coetzee was SA swimming’s nearly man until yesterday, having also missed out on Rio last year.
Even this week, he had fallen short of the qualifying marks in other events, and when he did it in the 50m butterfly, it did not count because it is not an Olympic discipline.
The accounting student in Tennessee, US, was faster than Le Clos in the 100m butterfly morning heats, touching in a 52.57sec personal best.
“It’s been a tough four years. It’s been a bit of a struggle, a lot of little things needed fixing and it finally happened,” Coetzee said.
“After the 100m freestyle [on Monday night], it wasn’t too good, to come out and do my best is a relief.”
The former Pretoria pupil had flown back for this gala and will return to the US the day after Christmas.
In the final, Coetzee pushed Le Clos, a two-time world champion in this event, and finished second in 52.93.
Le Clos won in 52.43, while Daniel Ronaldson, coming back from a lengthy injury, ended third in 53.71 – and wept with joy afterwards.
“I was out for 18 months,” Ronaldson, 21, said. “I had two shoulder injuries. That was just before the Olympic trials and I was a hopeful – and that was a huge disappointment.
“I’ve only just come back, I’ve had three months of proper training.”
Gallagher and Emma Chelius also turned on the waterworks after their qualifying efforts in the 100m freestyle.
“The 100m freestyle is my main event so there’s always a lot of pressure. I’m really excited to get under 55,” Gallagher, who has also been hampered by injuries since 2015, said.
“To be faster than two years ago gives me the confidence that I can be faster.”
Le Clos, admitted he had to fight for the 100m ‘fly victory.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “Ryan had a great swim in the morning and I knew it would be tough. It was a race.”
Le Clos’s times have been poor by his standards, but a result of heavy training.
Kate Beavon, 17, who will be in matric next year, and runner-up Kristin Bellingan, 19, both dipped under the qualifying mark in the 800m freestyle.