South Africa’s top swimmers have warned their opponents that they will write them off at their own peril, as defending champions Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh prepare to lead the charge in the first week of competition at the Rio Olympics.
Le Clos, who won gold in the 200m final and silver in the 100m race in his specialist butterfly stroke at the 2012 London Games, might be considered the underdog in a rematch against resurgent American legend Michael Phelps, with Hungarian star Laszlo Cseh also sticking up his hand among the favourites after beating the South African to the 200m title at last year’s Fina World Championships in Kazan.
Le Clos, however, insisted he was in the best form of his career.
“I’m just excited to race. Last year was a really good wake-up call and I’m happy it happened. I’ve trained a lot harder than I ever have,” Le Clos said.
“I have always swum my personal bests at big meets, so I’ve always thrived on that big competition.
“I haven’t seen Phelps in four years, and this will be the first time we’ve raced since London, so let’s see what happens.
“I’m not saying I’m the favourite, by any means, but whoever is in front, I’ll give them a really good run for their money.”
After spending more than two months with the national squad at camps in Europe and the United States, the 24-year-old Durbanite believed he was ready to shine once again.
He also received a boost this week when his parents, both fighting battles with cancer, arrived in Rio to support him, along with other family members and friends.
“From my side everything is good and the team looks good,” Le Clos said.
“We just need to put it together over the next few days.”
Like his compatriot, Van der Burgh was not ranked among the top three in the world this year in any discipline, but he remained confident after securing the 100m breaststroke silver medal at last season’s global championships behind British star Adam Peaty.
“We’re in the best shape of our lives and we hope everyone else is in their best shape,” said Van der Burgh, who was set to compete in the heats on Saturday’s opening day of competition in the pool.
“We want to win medals when everyone’s at their best, and we’re all looking forward to the challenge.”
While both SA swimmers, the nation’s best medal hopes in individual events in the pool, would focus on the events in which they reached the podium four years ago, both were also scheduled to compete in other races, with Le Clos turning out in the 200m freestyle, as well as the 4x100m medley and 4x200m freestyle relays, and Van der Burgh racing the 200m breaststroke and the medley relay.
Though he was not considered a real medal contender in the 200m race, Van der Burgh felt he could put up a fight for a podium place.
“Nobody comes to the Olympic Games just to participate. Everybody wants a medal, or even two or three if possible, so I’m very serious about it,” he said.
“Obviously the 100m is the priority, and we’re not doing anything to jeopardise that, but the 200m is also going to play a big role.”
After the men’s and women’s football teams kicked off the nation’s campaign with their opening matches during the week, with the Under-23 men holding hosts Brazil to a goalless draw and Banyana Banyana going down 1-0 to Sweden, the Games were scheduled to officially start with the opening ceremony at 1am (SA time) on Saturday morning.
Other South Africans in action on the opening day of competition, starting on Saturday afternoon, include the men’s rowing pair of Shaun Keeling and Lawrence Brittain, road cyclists Daryl Impey and Louis Meintjes, golfers Jaco van Zyl and Brandon Stone, swimmers Sebastien Rousseau, Michael Meyer and Myles Brown, and gymnast Ryan Patterson.
The women’s football team will play their second Group E match against China at 1am on Sunday morning.