2019 National Development Award: South Africa
This award is given annually to a nation that, by its own standards, had a huge year. Yes, the United States led the medals table at the 2019 World Championships, but by its own standard, the 14 gold, 8 silver, and 5 bronze medal performance was not a great result.
South Africa is running on 15 years of success in men’s swimming at the international level. That run was jump-started by Terence Parkin’s silver medal in the 200 breaststroke in Sydney, and really accelerated after the a 2004 Olympic gold medal in the men’s 400 free relay. It has since rolled on through the likes of Roland Schoeman, Cameron van der Burgh, and the GOAT-slayer Chad le Clos.
Their women, however, have seen a gap of production. Prior to 2004, it was the women who had the most recent run of success, with the likes of Penelope Heyns, Marianne Kriel, and Charlene Wittstock carrying the torch. Since then, though, the country has struggled to even qualify women for international meets. It was so bad after the country sent 11 men and 0 women to the Olympic Games that SwimSwam’s Retta Race penned an editorial about the struggle.
But in 2019, female swimmers in South Africa really turned a corner. Launched by Tatjana Schoenmaker‘s breaststroke sweep at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, South African women had big success in 2019. The women alone won 4 medals at the World University Games (Summer Universiade), to go with 2 medals for the men. Their 6 total medals is more than South Africa won at the World University Games in the rest of the 21st century combine. (Incidentally, the nation as a whole set an 8-medal all-sports target at the games, which they blew past with 18).
Besides just Schoenmaker, Tayla Lovemore swept the 50 and 100 butterflies at that meet.
Schoenmaker went on to break the African Record and eventually take silver in the women’s 200 breaststroke at the World Championships. Lovemore didn’t swim at that meet, but another young competitor, 20-year old Kaylene Corbett, made the A final of the 200 breaststroke as well.
While the South African women’s 400 free relay didn’t finish high enough to qualify for the Olympics, they did break a 5-and-a-half year old African Record in the event. That was one of 6 long course South African Record broken by the women (the men broke none, though contributed to 2 mixed relay records).
The breakthrough season came 6 years after South Africa’ launched its “Get the Girls to Gold” program to try and address the problem, though ironically the biggest breakthroughs are coming from swimmers who were, by-and-large, not part of that program. World Championship team members Erin Gallagher and Nathania van Niekerk were both funded by that program, but neither qualified for a semi-final at Worlds.
And what’s more, while the men have made a mark training largely abroad, including World Champion Zane Waddell who trains in the US, most of the South African women are training at home. Gallagher, Schoenmaker, and Schoenmaker all train in South Africa; in fact, all of the above-mentioned swimmers aside from Lovemore (Florida State) do.
The home-grown talent led by home-grown coaching should create momentum going forward for South Africa that gives them a chance of carrying this success into the future. For now, it looks like the women are coming to a peak just in time for the Olympic Games.
- Italy – It was tempting to give Italy this award for the 2nd-straight year after another banner season. Italian swimmers broke National Records in 35 events, and that’s just at the senior level. Some of those records were broken multiple times by multiple swimmers. Italy had another national-best performance, this time at the European Short Course Championships, finishing 2nd on the medals table with 20 (6 gold, 7 silver, 7 bronze). That’s just 2 total medals behind powerhouse Russia. At the World Championships, Italy finished 4th in the medals table (3 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze) even with a handful of ‘misses’ (Niccolo Martinenghi didn’t make it out of the semis in the 50 or 100 breaststroke, for example, but is an Olympic medal contender). Italy is truly not just a swimming power, but a swimming super-power. They won more medals even than China at the World Championships
- Netherlands – Not that the Dutch needed the same breakout as, say, the South African women did, but the Netherlands as a nation had a huge year that included National Records in 17 events. Kira Toussaint cracked national records in several races, Arno Kamminga broke all 3 men’s long course breaststroke National Records, and junior swimmer Luc Kroon already broke a senior National Record in the men’s 800 free. The Dutch contingent, long known for sprinting, is becoming a more well-rounded and versatile group – the kind of complete group that soon could be doing what Italy is currently doing.
- 2014 – Kazakhstan
- 2015 – Singapore
- 2016 – Canada
- 2017 – Ireland
- 2018 – Italy
- 2019 – South Africa