OPINION: Junior swimmers are boosting SA medal hopes for Paris Games
Lara van Niekerk, Pieter Coetze and Matthew Sates - all still teenagers - are leading the charge for the next generation.
Lara van Niekerk in action at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Picture: Gallo Images
After she was pushed off the top spot of the podium at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, any alarm that may have been sounded in reaction to Tatjana Schoenmaker’s result was muted by the presence of the youngster standing next to her: compatriot Lara van Niekerk.
And, making for a nice change, Van Niekerk is just one of many talented young local swimmers who are showing promise as they begin to make their presence felt on the global senior stage.
South Africa has always been good at swimming and the sport has achieved more medals for South Africa at the Olympic Games since readmission than any other sport.
But the nation’s quality in the pool just hasn’t matched its depth, and there is always this sinking feeling that lurks when an elite swimmer retires because there’s never a guarantee that a successor will emerge.
Though she still has the ability to retain her Olympic title at the 2024 Paris Games, when she will be 27, Schoenmaker seems unsure about her future.
Fellow breaststroke specialist Van Niekerk, however, has enjoyed a spectacular breakthrough 2022 season, with the 19-year-old prospect securing 50m bronze at the World Championships, as well as 50m and 100m gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Similarly, Pieter Coetze earned three backstroke medals in Birmingham and went on to rake in five medals at the World Junior Championships in Lima this year, and the 18-year-old is making rapid progress in the build-up to the Paris Games.
Adding some real depth to the quality of junior stars, Matthew Sates will have a chance to take another step forward in his own blossoming career this weekend when the versatile 19-year-old opens his title defence at the opening leg of the Swimming World Cup in Berlin.
And just to ensure our anxiety of the unknown is put to rest, Sates will be joined by 15 other South Africans in the German capital, including nine who are under the age of 20.
We will hope, of course, that Schoenmaker sticks around until the Paris Games, but even if she doesn’t, SA swimming should be ok.
The next generation has already arrived.