Epic Swims: The South African Quartet Who Shocked the 2004 Olympics

Heading into the 2004 Olympics, the men’s 4×100 free relay was a hot commodity.

The United States had swept the event at seven straight Olympics when Australia handed the U.S. it’s first-ever Olympic loss in the event in 2000. That was in front of a raucous Sydney crowd, and not only did Australia win gold, they also smashed a five-year-old world record set by the Americans in 1995. Australia crushed that mark by a second and a half.

Australia rode high on that win through a 2001 world title, but watched Russia upset the field for 2003 Worlds gold behind a 47.7 split from Alexander Popov.

By the 2004 Athens Olympics, it was a mess of storylines. Australia was looking for redemption behind star freestyler Ian ThorpeThe American team was seeking to reclaim its Olympic throne with their powerhouse, a rising star named Michael PhelpsThe Russians were hoping to back up their 2003 title behind defending world 100 free champ Popov. Even the Dutch were in the mix as outsiders, with world record-holder Pieter van den Hoogenband.

The team no one was watching was South Africa, who returned the 8th-placer from 2003 Worlds in Ryk NeethlingTo that point, the 26-year-old Neethling had won minor medals at Pan Pacs, but no world-level medals of any kind. South Africa also had 24-year-old super-sprinter Roland Schoemana sheer speedster who had won Commonwealth Games in the 50 free, but had no major 100 free medals.

20-year-old Lyndon Ferns and 19-year-old Darian Townsend rounded out the relay, which wasn’t exactly a top contender after taking 8th at Worlds the year prior. But when South Africa came within two tenths of the world record out of prelims, heads started turning. But with no ability to use alternates in the morning, would South Africa still have the energy to hold off the field in the final?

Schoeman shocked the field with a 48.1 leadoff – bear in mind that the world record at that point was 47.8, and had stood for four years. Ferns split 48.1 – more than two full seconds faster than his split the year before – and Townsend hit for 48.9. Neethling hit the water with a lead and split a 47.9, easily holding off charges from van den Hoogenband and Jason Lezakand South Africa won Olympic gold and smashed the world record in 3:13.17.

That was the first Olympic gold ever by a male South African swimmer, and the nation’s first Olympic swimming gold since 1996. It was an era-starter for the South African men, who have won two more golds and 8 more overall swimming medals since that race – including 50 and 100 free medals from Schoeman later in those 2004 Olympics.

You can watch the race below:

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ERVINFORTHEWIN
2 years ago

Crocker , the bummer first leg for Usa …….such an appaling start (50 Flat 😓) . I was really angry watching it back in 2004 .

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  ERVINFORTHEWIN
2 years ago

thankfully Neil Walker came back so so well

ERVINFORTHEWIN
2 years ago

One of the best 400 free relay Team ever with the 2008 ( Usa & France that is ) & 2009 ones .

torchbearer
2 years ago

For a country’s relays to win the Olympics you usually need depth in your team – you cant just rely on your 4 best swimmers to peak on the same day. This one however was the exception when the planets aligned! Great race.

DLSwim
2 years ago

And I still can’t get over the fact that Ryk Neethling, who was a distance swimmer in college (in the US), turned into such a good sprinter. Is there any other world-class swimmer that has done that? I’m not talking about someone that swam distance only as an age grouper (there’s plenty of those), but someone who swam distance well into their twenties, and then switched.

ooo
Reply to  DLSwim
2 years ago

Rick DeMont was one

Dee
Reply to  DLSwim
2 years ago

Nikita Lobintsev was European Junior 1500 champion in 2006. Competed 400/1500 at the 2008 Olympics (3.43 in the 400). Moved to sprinting in 2010, ended his career with PBs of 22.1/48.1 and some huge relay legs (best of 47.39 in 2012) for Russia.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Dee
2 years ago

Lobintsev is a Legend behind Popov in Russia

frug
Reply to  DLSwim
2 years ago

At the 2001 WC, Ian Thorpe took gold and set the WR in the 800 free. 2 years later won bronze in the 100 fr and then repeated that performance in Athens.

(Admittedly, Thorpe was more of a mid distance guy who happened to have the versatility it swim both the 100 and 800, but he was the first person that came to mind.)

mds
Reply to  DLSwim
2 years ago

My favorite was Larry Farrar at Uof New Mexico who scored in both the 50 Free and the 1650 free at the same NCAA Championships.

Mr Brett Redelinghuys
2 years ago

You forget to mention the 5th member of that team, that because the coach decided not to use him in the semis etc ended up not getting a medal. However he was 0.1 off the pace in the swim off and trained and worked with the team right to the end. Karl Thaning, we have n SA remember your efforts as part of this team. Well done all 5 SA team members.

Xman
Reply to  Mr Brett Redelinghuys
2 years ago

Wait what?

mds
Reply to  Mr Brett Redelinghuys
2 years ago

Thaning just needed to move to Arizona. At UofAriz Neethling won 9 individual NCAA titles, (3 x 200, 500, 1650 Free), Schoeman one (2002 50 Free), Ferns one (2006 100 Fly) and Townsend two (2006 200 Free, 2008 200 IM). After Athens, Townsend started his college career at UofFla (4 SEC titles – 3 relay and 200 Free individual; part of NCAA winning 4×200 relay in NCAA/US Open record time) before moving to Tucson and getting even better. After long success in Tucson both Schoeman and Townsend moved to the Phoenix area and just kept on. Townsend became a naturalized American and at age 30 earned his way onto the US Pan American Games team. Last I knew Darian was… Read more »

Ryk
2 years ago

Hey, a silver medal in the 1500m at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 ahead of legendary Kieren Perkins should count for something 🙂

Also 9 NCAA individual titles 😉

Skoorbnagol
Reply to  Ryk
2 years ago

All these achievements are nothing compared to what happened in jan 2005!
Every 1500 swimmers dream..: to break the 100IM world record 3 times in 21 days … 52.11 / 52.01 / 51.52
1500 Olympic final to 100IM WR holder in 5 years!
Now that’s versatility 😉
What a legend

Dee
2 years ago

2004 is the first Olympics I remember watching properly, and this is the earliest race I remember watching. Still go and watch this back regularly; Legendary race.

Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

Just a note that nearly 20 years later, Townsend (in masters) and Schoeman are still swimming very fast.

Frank
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

How is 16 years nearly 20 years (and of course schoeman is)

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Frank
2 years ago

lollll OL’Longhorn drank too much Texas tap water ….

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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