A defining moment in the lives of these four men. The South African squad of Roland Schoeman (split 48:38), Lyndon Ferns (48:34), Darian Townsend (49:13) and Ryk Neethling(47:99) - clocked 3 minutes and 13.17 seconds to triumph over the Netherlands (2nd) and the US team (3rd).
Born in Pretoria on 7th March, 1980, Roland first took an interest in the sport when he was 13, and began to compete three years later. He marticulated at the Willow Ridge School. This marked the beginning of a career that would span 4 Olympic Games from Sydney 2000 - to London 2012. At the Athens Games he won gold in the relay, silver in 100m freestyle and bronze in the 50m freestyle.
He also won three gold, a silver and a bronze FINA World Championship medals, as well as four gold, three silvers and three bronzes at the Commonwealth Games. He set new South African records in the 100 m Freestyle (48.69 s), 50 m Freestyle (22.04 s), 100 m Butterfly (52.73 s) and 50 m Butterfly (23.65 s) events.
He won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens in the 4 × 100 m freestyle, a silver medal in the 100 m freestyle event and a bronze in the 50 m freestyle. Three of the Men's 100 metre Freestyle team were in the team that broke the record and won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. He also claimed golds in the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly.
Schoeman, who is asthmatic, was voted the African Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World in 2004, 2005 and 2006; and the South African Swimmer of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. He was elected South African Sports Star of the Year in 2004
In 2007, he received the South African Presidential Award Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, awarded for excellent achievements in the field of swimming.
At the 2005 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Montreal, Canada he won two gold medals [50 m Butterfly (in a world record time of 22.96 s) and Freestyle (21.69 s, the second fastest time in history at the time). He also claimed a silver in 100 m freestyle.
In December 2005, Schoeman turned down a 40 Million Rand (US$5.9 million) contract to swim for Qatar.He stated reasons of national pride for turning down the offer and that hearing the South African national anthem and sharing the joy of his victories with his fellow South Africans is what made winning gold special.
On 12 August 2006, Schoeman broke the short course world record for 50 metres freestyle and became the first man to swim the distance under 21 seconds, with a time of 20.98 seconds. Schoeman lowered the previous mark by 0.12 seconds held for the last two years by Frédérick Bousquet of France. Schoeman was swimming in a specially built 25-metre pool at an invitational meeting in a Hamburg tennis stadium.
At the 2007 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Melbourne Australia he successfully defended his 50m butterfly title. He also made the final of the 50 m and 100 m freestyle and was part of the 4×100 m freestyle relay team that finished fourth. On 6 September 2008 Roland Schoeman set a new short course meters world record of 20.64 at South African Nationals. Schoeman, lost his world record in late 2008 but regained his record. At the Short Course World Record at South Africa Championships, Schoeman swam a 20.30 seconds of the 50 meter freestyle short course (25 m pool).
In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Schoeman, aged 32, advanced to the final in the Men's 50m freestyle, clocking a 21.80 to finish .46 seconds behind the gold medal winner, Florent Manaudou.
Schoeman wanted to swim at the 2016 Olympic Games, but withdrew in April 2016. In 2017 he partnered with Athletes USA to facilitate the granting of athletic scholarships to American Universities.
Roland continues to swim. In June 2018 he competed in the 1 Mile Flowers Sea Swim at the Caymand Islands, finishing with a time of 24:05.
His biography on the 2012 Olympic Games website:
Rocket, GT, The Blade, Showman. (rolandschoeman.co.za, 15 May 2008; ileadspeakers.com, 20 Jun 2010)
Playing golf, listening to music, watching films and cycling. (rolandschoeman.co.za, 20 May 2008)
Psychology - University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Northern Tigers/ Phoenix Swim club
Coley Stickels [club] from 2011 (Swimswam.com, 19 Sep 2011)
1998 for South Africa, Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur) (iol.co.za, 12 Apr 2010)
He tore a muscle in his right arm while on holiday in South Africa in December 2011 and his recovery time was four to six weeks. (Theswimmerscircle.com, 27 Dec 2011)
He suffered a tear to his pectoral muscle in 2010. (Theswimmerscircle.com, 27 Dec 2011)
He had a back problem in 2008 in Manchester at the World Championships that year. (gulfnews.com, 25 Nov 2010)
He was troubled by shoulder tendinitis in the lead up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia. (news24.com, 14 Mar 2006; gulfnews.com, 25 Nov 2010)
He had a stress fracture in his foot in 2002 in Russia. (news24.com, 14 Mar 2006; gulfnews.com, 25 Nov 2010)
Start of sporting career
He began at age 13 while attending high school. (Sunday Times, 22 Aug 2004)
Reason for taking up this sport
He took up swimming after he was dropped from opening the bowling for his high school cricket team. He was also keen to meet a girl who was a part of the swimming team. "She was in high school with me and on the local swim team. I thought if I joined the team I'd be able to show her I was interested in her. To cut a long story short, we ended up dating for a couple of months and she moved away. That was the end of the relationship, but there was something in swimming that I could identify with." (Sunday Times, 22 Aug 2004; melbourne2006.com.au, 26 Mar 2006; sport.iafrica.com, 04 Aug 2008)
Most memorable sporting achievement
The gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Becoming the first man to swim under 23 seconds in the 50m butterfly at the Montreal World Championships in 2005, and becoming the first man to swim under 21 seconds in the 50m freestyle in Hamburg. (iol.co.za, 31 Aug 2009)
Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who he met after winning three medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. "I was in awe of the man, it was surreal. You actually feel the respect he gets." He also looks up to English rower Sir Steven Redgrave.
(rolandschoeman.co.za, 20 Jun 2005)
Most influential person in career
His father. "He made me realise that I could do anything if I believed in myself and my ability." (Athlete, 13 Aug 1999)
Sporting philosophy / motto
"To win is to be the best in the history of your body," [Rick De Mont]. (rolandschoeman.co.za, 20 Jun 2005)
He won the 2009 Times Newspaper South African Athlete of the Decade award.
He won the 2009 University of Pretoria Sportsman of the Year.
He was inducted into the 2007 Arizona Hall of Fame.
In September 2007 he was awarded the Presidential Order of Ikhamanga in silver for his achievements in swimming. The Order is awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism, and sport.
He was inducted into the University of Pretoria Hall of Fame for three consecutive years from 2005-2007.
He won the Swimming South Africa Athlete of the Year for four consecutive years from 2004-2007.
He was named Swimming World Magazine's African Swimmer of the Year from 2004 to 2007.
He became the first South African to win three medals at an Olympic Games in Athens 2004.
(melbourne2006.com.au, 26 Mar 2009; timedfinals.com 24 Sep 2007; rolandschoeman.co.za, 04 Dec 2007; thepresidency.gov.za, 20 May 2008; info.gov.za 08 May 2008; swimmingworldmagazine.com 20 May 2008; vrp.co.za, 14 Oct 2010)
He has been a vocal campaigner for better pay for South Africa's swimmers and has had difficulties receiving payments from sponsors. "I have been funding Roland's swimming by literally cashing in my retirement annuities," said his mother Geraldine. In 2005 he turned down a lucrative offer, reportedly ZAR20,000,000 [approx USD$2,900,000], to represent the Gulf state of Qatar. He said he seriously and thoroughly considered the offer and even turned down a second higher offer. "I am an African and more specifically a South African. While I am significantly poorer today than I could have been, I feel tremendously blessed that it is Nkosi Sikeleli iAfrika [South Africa national anthem] which will be played if I win a gold medal." (Health24.com, 11 Jun 2009; timeslive.co.za, 11 Aug 2011; Hindustantimes.com, 02 Oct 2010; news24.com, 09 Oct 2010)
His father was killed in a car accident while he was in his early teens. The following day he competed in his father's honour at the Transvaal Open Championships and qualified for the senior nationals. He continues to use his father's memory as a motivation source. (Health24.com, 11 Jun 2009; timeslive.co.za, 11 Aug 2011; Hindustantimes.com, 02 Oct 2010; news24.com, 09 Oct 2010)
He has suffered from asthma from his childhood and he used swimming as a means to strengthen his lungs. He had a lung test at the 2004 Olympic Games, which revealed the limitations of his lungs due to the illness. "The worst is I'd already got so used to living with asthma; I didn't even realise how bad it really was. Asthma tends to run in families but it doesn't mean the end of your dreams," he said. His sister also suffers from asthma.
Last Friday was the 10th anniversary of the 4x100m freestyle relay team’s win in the Athens Olympic pool, one of the more remarkable achievements in the history of South African sport. For Ryk Neethling, the day passed largely uneventfully but, at about 8pm, finding himself alone in his Franschoek home, memories began to flood the room.
After an hour of meditation and goose bumps, reliving that balmy Sunday night in Greece, he texted Roland Schoeman. It was at exactly this time 10 years ago that the men had stormed not only to the gold medal but also the world record, beating the Netherlands and the United States into second and third place respectively. His text said simply: “Jy’s ‘n yster nou en was een in die verlede – Ryk,”which, roughly translated, means: “You’re the man now and you were the man back then.”
It is one of the open secrets of South African sport that Neethling and Schoeman were never bosom buddies. They didn’t see eye to eye on Dirk Lange, the martinet German swimming coach and Schoeman’s mentor, and, if there was a disagreement to be had, Neethling and Schoeman would unerringly find it.
With time there has been a general softening. Neethling sought out Schoeman in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games recently and the cold war has transformed itself into something closer to a careful truce. There are moments of unease for both parties but listening to Neethling, a man who is far more emotional than one suspects he likes to appear, suggests he’s happy just to be heard.
It says much for the two that they were able to put aside their itch all those years ago and hunt for gold. At the World Championships in Barcelona in 2003, the same South African team finished eighth in the same event. They swam then in a different order but the experience in Catalonia confirmed that the team had reached the proverbial bend in the river.
‘No more complaining’
“We were the only team other than the winners to go into a huddle after that race,” said Neethling this week. “We said after that that there was to be no more complaining. No complaining about Swimming SA, about our swimsuits, about whatever we could find to complain about. And there were to be no excuses, no excuses about anything.”
In the months preceding Athens, Neethling was kept afloat by $250 a month from four generous Tucson benefactors. He was studying at the University of Arizona and to say that there was no small change in his wallet is an understatement. His teammates were in similar positions of hardship, but they continued to train, to plot, to scheme; they would wake each other up with middle-of-the-night text messages from halfway across the world. There was a feeling of camaraderie, brotherhood and the tightening of expectation.
They were inadvertently helped three days before the final when the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee threatened to send the uppity four home. If their collective anger towards the authorities had blunted since Barcelona, it was now as sharp as ever. “We sort of said, ‘Let’s use this to fuel us’; we talked about it. That kind of mind-set isn’t sustainable, we knew that. In the short term, it powered us,” said Neethling.
When it came to the final, Schoeman swam the first leg in the fourth fastest time ever recorded. Despite Michael Phelps swimming for the USA and Pieter van den Hoogenband swimming for the Netherlands, Schoeman’s trailblazing opening set the South Africans up nicely. They led from start to finish and the victory defined their lives.
Best of all, after going their respective ways, there are signs afoot that the “Awesome Foursome” are coming back together, quietly testing the water in ways that would have been inconceivable five years ago.