“Every swimmer secretly wishes they could swim at USA Olympic Trials”, read a recent tweet by South African Olympic champion Cameron Van der Burgh. His words were speaking to the giant spectacle produced by USA Swimming once every 4 years where the American roster is determined.
Ironically, one of Van der Burgh’s former countrymen was able to transition from being a spectator to actually competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials this year, as former South African Darian Townsend became a U.S. citizen in 2014 and chose to transition his sporting citizenship as well.
Townsend, now 31 years old, represented his native country of South Africa at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games, earning gold in Athens as part of his nation’s 400 freestyle relay. However, having competed as a student athlete at both the University of Florida and the University of Arizona impacted Townsend on a significant level, enough to seriously consider his future as an American.
“In South Africa”, says Townsend, “swimming is an individual sport. I wanted to be part of a team. I was actually very jealous of all of the Americans rooting for one another. The NCAA had a huge role in my wanting to be a citizen, although it took me 2 ½ years of swimming in college in America to finally figure out that swimming is a team sport.”
However, Townsend points out that his decision to become a U.S. citizen wasn’t for athletics. “I did this because I’m proud to be an American. I believe I’m part of the American society, not just the swimming society.”
Since becoming a citizen Townsend has represented his newfound stars n’ stripes home at the 2014 Short Course World Championships, the 2015 Aquatic Super Series, as well as at the 2015 Pan American Games. However, 2016 marked his first U.S. Olympic Trials meet as a competitor. In Omaha, the former Arizona Wildcat finished 123rd in the men’s 50m freestyle (23.55) and 38th in both the 100m freestyle and 200m freestyle, clocking times of 50.28 and 1:50.61, respectively.
Comparing his past experiences at South African Olympic Trials to the enormous 8-day affair in Omaha, Townsend described the different between the two quadrennial events as ‘huge.’
“I grew up competing in the South African Trials pool. To me, South African Trials felt like any other swim meet.” But, says Townsend, “U.S. Trials added something….there was more tension, more pressure. Everyone was on-edge, even though we put the most pressure on ourselves.”
Although Townsend was primarily an IM swimmer during his college career and beyond, the YMCA Westside Silverfins swimmer recognized that his best shot of making the U.S. Olympic team statistically rested in the men’s 100m and 200m freestyle events.
“You have to take your opportunity where your best chance is,” was the description Townsend gave. He also commented on how the NCAA Championships occur every year, so one has essentially 4 shots of claiming a title, whereas Olympic Trials are just every 4. “You have to be on form on your very first swim, as you have just 1 shot to get in the top 16.”
Despite the intense level of anxiety and excitement that surrounds the Trials, Townsend made a point to appreciate his surroundings. “It was a special feeling behind the blocks. You’re in this huge arena, with a general murmur throughout the crowd. I made sure I looked around and took in where I was.”
And where would Townsend have landed within the South African Trials had he maintained his citizenship and competed for the nation once again? “I didn’t look at what South African swimmers did. I didn’t even watch the Trials, my focus is here [U.S.].” Townsend’s 200m freestyle prelim swim would have resulted in 3rd overall in the South African final, for an example.
Of the action in CenturyLink, Townsend says that U.S. Trials was ‘the most difficult meet I’ve ever been at.’ He states candidly that, “If you can get past Trials, the Olympics will actually be easier.” As a case-in-point, he was in the warm-up area during the initial heats of the 200m freestyle, where someone registered a 1:49-point time from the first heat. “I couldn’t believe the depth. Someone going 1:49 in the very first heat? That’s fast.”
Although he will be watching the Olympics with his fiancée at home in Arizona, it doesn’t mean the South African-turned-American’s swimming career is over. “Deep down, I feel like I can get faster. I feel great”, says Townsend, who will turn 32 years of age in August. He’ll continue to train and race under the direction of Silverfins Head Coach Matt Benedict through at least 2017’s World Trials.
But, he does indeed have a stopping point in mind, giving his career until the fall of 2017, barring any extraordinary performance or unforeseen reason to keep going. Once retired from competitive swimming, Townsend plans on keeping fit in the water, with a career goal of landing a coaching job within the NCAA system of his new home country.