While returning veteran Roland Schoeman put in an admirable performance in his comeback, it was Chad le Clos, Erin Gallagher and Lara van Niekerk who stole the show on the fourth night of swimming at the SA National Aquatic Championships in Gqeberha, which also featured numerous other standout performances on Saturday.
Following his victories in the 200m butterfly and 100m freestyle, Le Clos continued to impress in the 100m butterfly, powering to an Olympic qualifying time of 51.37 and outgunning young Matt Sates to the title.
Second-placed Sates nevertheless achieved an A qualifying time for the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan this July, finishing in a speedy 51.91.
“I’m really happy with the week. I was a little nervous… for some reason, Matt and I have these ding-dong battles in the final 10 metres and it’s always super-close but I’m delighted with the time and the result and now we try and win this race next year at the Olympic Games. Now I’m confident I can win,” said Le Clos afterwards.
“Tonight I was finessed, I was controlled, hit my strokes, hit the turn well and I thought he was coming so I just put my head down so I’m over the moon. But now we push on to the Olympics – they’ve got a lot of trouble coming their way. That’s what I can promise you.”
GALLAGHER AND VAN NIEKERK IMPRESS
Gallagher was elated to dip below the 58-second mark in the 100m butterfly for the first time since 2019. The 24-year-old stopped the clock on 57.84 seconds to secure qualification for both the World Championships and Olympic Games.
“It’s amazing to know that I’m on track. It’s quite emotional – I’m surprised I’m not crying right now,” said Gallagher. As for achieving the Olympic qualifying time, she added: “It was something that I was trying to go for. My coach said it was time to now swim a qualifying time so just to know that I’ve done it is such a weight lifted off my shoulders and I’m so, so grateful.”
Teen breaststroke sensation Van Niekerk had earlier swum the fastest time in the world this year in the 50m breaststroke heats (29.83) and went even quicker in the evening final, taking the title in 29.78 ahead of Tatajana Schoenmaker, who also achieved the A qualifying time in 30.71.
“I really like swimming the 50m breaststroke in this pool. I can always hear the crowd going wild. I think they love watching me swim the 50m breaststroke and I think it’s just confidence knowing that I broke the African record here so every time I get here and swim the 50m I’m like – this is my pool,” said Van Niekerk, who said finishing second behind Schoenmaker in the 100m breaststroke earlier in the week had spurred her on to a speedy time.
“It wasn’t an issue but I think it made me want to swim this time even more to show that I am still a very good swimmer even though I came second,” she said. “But I’m really happy for Tatjana coming first and I think once I’m rested I’ll do much better in the 100 again.”
Michael Houlie ensured he was not to be outdone in the men’s 50m breaststroke, recording A qualifying times in both the heats (27.29) and final (27.31).
“It’s good. So far this season it’s had a lot of ups and a lot of downs and this is definitely more on the up for me. I’m so grateful and blessed to have this opportunity to race here. But I just want to swim it again because I think I’ve got so much more left in me and I can’t wait to get back to work and see how fast I can go in the future,” he said.
There was a surprise A-qualification time for Duné Coetzee in the 800m freestyle. The US-based swimmer powered to victory in a time of 8:33.46.
“It’s a very big surprise. I think this is the second time I’ve properly raced the 800 so I’m super surprised and so happy,” she said. “I’m learning to fall in love with the distance races.
'GOLDEN OLDIE' SCHOEMAN FINISHES SECOND
Earlier in the evening, it wasn’t quite the dream comeback Roland Schoeman had envisaged, beaten to the 50m freestyle title by a man 24 years his junior, but the 42-year-old nevertheless defied his years to finish second in 22.89 to Pieter Coetzé’s 22.30.
Like he’d done in the morning, Schoeman’s time saw him setting a new masters world record for swimmers aged 40-44.
“It was a lot of fun and definitely some nerves before, just seeing him there so it was such an honour and I really had a lot of fun,” said Coetzé. “The time wasn’t great but it was just about trying to get the win tonight so I’m very happy,” added the teen star.
Speaking about being back at the national championships, Schoeman added: “It is special. The time is not quite where I want it to be but having been off for so long it was hard to know where I was going to be. It was faster than this morning, but I don’t think I was as smooth and relaxed as this morning. I think the more I race, the better it’s going to be.”
DISABLED SWIMMERS AT IT AGAIN
Meanwhile, Minke Janse van Rensburg was once again in record-breaking form, leading the way for the swimmers with a disability.
The 18-year-old powered to another world record for swimmers with Down syndrome in the 100m freestyle, bettering her own mark with a time of 1:17.61.
Kat Swanepoel swam almost a full 10 seconds under the A qualifying time for the Para Swimming World Championships in Manchester in the heats of the S4 50m backstroke, finishing in an impressive time of 50.93 seconds.
Nineteen-year-old Amkele Qamarana also achieved another A qualifier – this time in the S15 100m freestyle in a time of 1:03.51.
One more day of competition remains, with the SA National Aquatic Championships coming to an end on Sunday, 16 April.