On the starting blocks to the future

Kevin Paul. While you might not have heard this name before, get ready because you are going to be hearing it a lot over the next few years. In fact, in all likelihood, it is a name that is going to be as famous as one of South Africa’s best known swimming personalities, Natalie du Toit.

At age 14, Kevin Paul has a string of world records under his belt, his most recent being the 800m freestyle, in which he broke the world record for seniors in the S10 category by 2.3 seconds. Amazingly, that was his second world record in two weeks. His second world record was at the recently held Eastern Province Championships in the 200 m breastroke. He also came within split seconds of the present 100 m breastroke world record at the championships, nearly making it three in two weeks!

And the word is already out on the super fast 14-year-old from the Eastern Cape. Kevin was recently featured in Die Burger’s youth supplement, Yip and on Telkom Splash on SABC 2. It all started for Kevin when a doctor suggested he take up swimming to combat his acute asthma by building his lung capacity and teaching him to control his breathing. Born with Poland Syndrome, the swimming would also assist in building up the muscle on the left side of his body. Poland Syndrome is a unique pattern of one-sided malformations that are present at birth. It is characterised by a defect of the chest (pectoralis) muscle on one side of the body and webbing of the fingers (cutaneous syndactyly) of the hand on the same side (ipsilateral hand).

Although it is more common for the right side of the body to be affected, with Kevin it has affected the left side of his body, with his left arm being shorter and his left hand smaller than his right. He also has no pectoralis muscle on this side of his body. Kevin swam in his first gala when he was six. He says he does not really recall it, but it is the day that changed his life. “Since then swimming has been my life, it is what I do and enjoy. I cannot imagine just coming home and not doing anything. It is the only thing for me.”

However, Kevin is such a talented athlete he can really pick and choose his sport. Last year he played for Gray High’s under 14A’s in both the rugby and water-polo sides. He was included in both for the 15A team line-up for 2006, but had to withdraw due to the swimming commitments. He also surfs and water skis. He also does well academically. His favourite stroke is breaststroke, but he is entered in the 50 m and 100 m freestyle in the 2006 Commonwealth Games that is being held in Melbourne, Australia and he is ranked amongst the top five in the freestyle events. 

But while Kevin is obviously very talented, he still works very hard to achieve these outstanding results, training 10 to 11 times a week. “I train in the mornings from 5:15am till about 7am when I have to go to school. After school I normally play water polo and then go to swimming training from about 3:30pm. I get home at about 5:30pm but at the moment we are training for the Commonwealth Games so it is later”.
An exhausting schedule for anyone, never mind a 14-year-old… but Kevin is no ordinary 14-year-old. As his coach Andrew Dean will testify. Kevin started training with Andrew Dean about two years ago and the two share a close bond, which was squarely cemented last year when Andrew was diagnosed with cancer and ended up in hospital. Kevin’s father, Mervin, explains, “Andrew was ill nearly all of last year, but this did not stop him. He would be on the phone talking and edging on, not just Kevin, but all his swimmers at the competitions from his hospital bed.” Since then Andrew’s treatment has been successful and this year he is back at the side of the pool where he belongs.

Kevin laughingly says Dean motivates him by making him cross, which he then takes out on his swimming. “It makes me go faster.” Someone else who motivates Kevin is Natalie du Toit. “I met Natalie in Cape Town and now we chat via email regularly. It is great because I get to ask her questions about swimming which is really useful.” Kevin, like Natalie, wants to compete in both able bodied and disabled swimming events at the Olympics.

“My goal is Beijing in 2008. I am working very hard for that as I would like to enter eight events and bring home gold in seven of these.”  Not the idle boasting of a teenager as Kevin is deadly serious and prepared to work to achieve his goal. It is one he has had since his first gala. “It is a fantastic feeling when you win your event. I really enjoy that.” And in his pursuit of this goal, his family and friends support him 100%. Swimming is in the family and his mother runs a very successful swimming school in Port Elizabeth. Kevin’s sister, who is 11, has accumulated her share of swimming medals and records and is also tipped as a favourite for Beijing.

Dad Mervin is very proud of him. “I am very happy for him. He was only eight when he went to his first national championships and came second in the able bodied by a few split seconds. Three years later he was ranked first in the 50m, 100m, and 200m breastroke.” Then he tells me that when Kevinwent for his classification Dea Slattery, who has been involved with swimming for many years, said to him, “I can tell you one thing; your son is going cream it in 2008. He is 14 and faster than the 24 year olds

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