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 Thorpe. The American team was seeking to reclaim its Olympic throne with their powerhouse, a rising star named Michael Phelps. The 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 Neethling. To 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 Schoeman, a 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 Lezak, and 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: