Commentary

South African swimmers Townsend, Basson go for the gold

Updated: August 5, 2008, 12:56 PM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | Special to ESPN.com

Darian Townsend, who grew up in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, was a member of the 4x100 freestyle relay team that shocked the world (and Michael Phelps) when they captured gold and set a new world record at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Since then, Townsend has joined the University of Florida and now University of Arizona swim teams, following a growing trend of South Africans training in the United States.

Townsend and his Arizona teammate, fellow countryman Jean Basson recently qualified in several events for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

I talked to the two South Africans about what it's like to train alongside their U.S. competition and what they hope to accomplish in Beijing. Here, in their own words, are their stories. First up is Townsend:


My mom is a swimming teacher. Both my parents swam competitively when they were young so it was natural for me to go into the water. I started when I was two.

[+] EnlargeDarian Townsend
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDarian Townsend will be competing in the 200m free against Michael Phelps in Beijing.

I joined my first competitive club at age 7. Through high school I played water polo and swam. With South African swimmers, if they have high school talent and want to keep going, they come to the states. South African universities don't offer swimming scholarships.

After high school, I took a year off and trained. I made my first Olympic team in 2004. We won the gold medal and broke the world record in the 400m free relay. We were very much the underdogs, so it was a huge shock.

As soon as I was done with Athens, I flew to Florida to start school. In choosing a university, I didn't call Arizona because I felt like I wanted to start my own tradition in the states as opposed to coming to a university like Arizona with a rich tradition of South African swimmers.

I spent two years at Florida. My first year, we won an NCAA relay championship (with Ryan Lochte). My second year was pretty horrible. I didn't get along with the coach and I didn't enjoy it, so I transferred.

I won my first individual NCAA championship in the 200m free in 2007. That was a huge thing because it was straight off of transferring. This year, I had good form again throughout the season and the team won the national championship [Townsend took the individual title in the 200 IM]. It was a great year.

I had to fly straight to the [Olympic] trials from the NCAAs and I missed my first flight, so I literally arrived the night before they started. Even after a 17-hour flight and a nine-hour time change, the high of winning the national championship carried me through the trials.

I qualified for Beijing in the 200 IM, 200 free, 800 free relay and possibly the 400 relay [an Aug. 3 time trial will decide that]. We arrive in the Olympic Village on Aug. 4.

I'm definitely a much better relay swimmer. You're not swimming for yourself, but for your country with three others. All my relay times this year were almost a second and a half faster than my individual times.

[+] EnlargeFrank Busch
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenArizona's Frank Busch will be one of the assistant coaches on the USA men's team.

Freestyle has always been my strongest stroke The 100M and 50M are the glory events in swimming, pure sprinter's events. Everyone wants to be known as the fastest guy in the world.

I'll swim the 200m in Beijing, competing against Michael Phelps. Really, it's about who has it on that day. Everyone is the same once you dive in that pool. I have my whole family coming to watch.

Of the South African Olympic team, five guys are at the University of Arizona. We're all great friends who hang out, and it's great having teammates as friends.

I'm toying with the thought of taking a semester off in the fall and staying in South Africa to train because I definitely want to swim through 2012. Whether that'll be in the states or in South Africa, I'm not sure.

When it's race day and I'm behind the block, I take in the crowd, look around and see everyone cheering. It gets me really motivated. I concentrate on myself and don't watch the other swimmers. Right before the start, I mouth to myself, "Just have fun."


The 20-year-old Basson, a rising junior with the Wildcats, grew up in Johannesburg. He is a first-time Olympian.

My mom sent me to swim lessons when I was 2 or 3, and I hated it. It was the worst part of the day. I'd be holding onto the car seats, kicking and screaming.

I was swimming in gym class in primary school, and that's where I started to like it. Since then I've loved swimming. I love racing and seeing how fast I can go.

I made my first South African junior team at 14 or 15. I did pretty well, winning a couple of medals. In 2006, at 17, I made the Commonwealth Games. I made the final in the 400M free. From there, I knew I wanted to make the 2008 Olympic team. The summer after that, I came to the University of Arizona and that's where I really started improving.

Freestyle wasn't my best stroke. I was more of an IM [individual medley] swimmer until I was 15. But I changed coaches and my new coach was the world record holder in the 1500m free. He took the kinks out of my freestyle and emphasized technique.

During the 2004 Olympics, I was on vacation without a TV. I was so anxious to get home and hear what had happened so on my way, my parents called and told me. I was so happy for [the South Africans].

Jean Basson
Icon SMIArizona's Jean Basson is looking forward to Beijing as a first-time Olympian.

My coach in South Africa went to America and told me that if I wanted to be really good, he didn't have the means to get me where I wanted to be and that I should come to the U.S. I was looking at places like Berkeley and Florida, but because of how well the South African guys had done at UA in the past, I knew this was the place for me. Once I met [head coach] Frank Busch, I knew this was it. Coach Busch is one of the most amazing people I've ever met. From talking to him for 10 minutes I knew he was the coach for me.

The University of Arizona has always had a reputation as a good swimming school. But this year it went from a good school to a great school, especially after we won our first national championship. We have such pride in what has been achieved and what we can achieve.

We had the South African trials two days after the NCAA championships. Leading up to NCAAs, my parents were thinking that I should redshirt the year and just do the Olympic trials. But I knew how good our Arizona team would be and that I'd want to be a part of that.

I ended up competing and then leaving immediately afterwards. I didn't even get to watch the finals or celebrate with the team. I got home as soon as possible and the trials went phenomenally well. It was mind over matter, forgetting that you'd just swam one of the hardest meets of your life and flown halfway across the world.

I qualified for the Olympics in the 400m free, 200m free, and the 4x200 free relay. I'm competing against Darian in the 200. Over the past two years, we've roomed together at the big meets and are really good friends. I like swimming against him because I know he's going to be really fast, and he's unbelievably talented. I like to see how close I can get to him.

I think after what the relay team did in 2004, swimming gained some popularity in South Africa. But if the public knew how good the swimming team was and how hard they've worked, it'd be different. All our best swimmers have trained in America at some point. Any world record holder that we've had has trained in America.

I'm feeling good now. I think my preparation couldn't have gone any better. I've been swimming faster than I ever have before. I've been training better, eating better, and I feel like I'm going to be a lot more rested. My goal is just to make the finals in both events.

Anna K. Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.