Heading for Gold

South Africa’s swimming talent is coming to the fore on the eve of the Paralympics in Beijing with young swimmers rising through the ranks such as Charl Bouwer.

A swimmer since he was a little boy growing up on the family farm, Charl was prompted into swimming competitively when his mother, previously a swimmer, saw his talent. Explains Helonie, Charl’s mother: “Charl would swim in the rivers and dams on the farm. I taught him doggy paddle and then how to swim properly. Then I took him for lessons to learn proper stroke style.”

At this stage Charl had not developed what is known as Stargardt, a loss of the central vision which only affects one in 1 000 people. While attending primary school in Kimberley, at the age of 10, his teachers recommended his parents have his sight tested.

“We went to five optometrists and none of them could find anything wrong with his eyes. Then we went to an eye specialist in Bloemfontein and he realised what Charl had.”

With Stargardt’s the macula and surrounding retina are affected. The macula is the very centre of our retina. The images we see are focused on the retina like the film in the camera. Unlike camera film where every part of the film is equally sensitive, our retina concentrates the most sensitive vision in the very centre.

Additionally, our best colour vision resides in the macula. Thus, damage to the macula results in loss of visual acuity or sharpness of vision, decreased colour vision and small blind spots.

Charl had been swimming in galas since he was six and had earned his provincial colours then as well, so while he had to adjust to his vision being impaired in terms of swimming nothing changed.

Says Charl: “I always loved swimming and at first I did it partly to be with my friends. It was fun to hang out together at the galas. Swimming also suits me as I enjoy individual sports. “When my vision became impaired my life changed. I changed schools and attended the Elizabeth Conradie School instead of the government school. But in terms of swimming nothing changed. I still swam.”

Charl, in fact, did very well with his swimming. In his first Nedbank Championships at the age of 12 he won six gold medals.

That was in 2002 and since then he has won numerous events and medals. In 2004 he was the youngest ever member of the South African squad to attend and participate at a Paralympics.

“The Athens Paralympics was fantastic. I was very young, but Scott Field and Ebert Philippus Kleyhans helped me. They prepared me by telling me what to expect and how everything worked. That helped a lot. I really loved being at the Paralympics, competing and also mixing with athletes from all around the world.

“It is one of the reasons I would like to go to Beijing if I get chosen. I look forward to seeing the friends I have made from all over the world. The village is really a big part of the whole experience.” And the other very important reason Charl would love to go to Beijing is of course to bring back the gold. “My main event is the 400m freestyle. Recently I competed in a gala and as a result of that swim I am now ranked number one in the world in this event. I would be so excited to go to Beijing to compete in this event. Also Beijing, it is said, will be the best Olympics and Paralympics ever. I would love to be part of that with a gold medal.”

Charl trains very hard to make this a reality. He trains for five hours and one hour gym extra a day. His school has allowed him to do grade 11 over two years to allow him to concentrate on his swimming. “My school is great that way, very understanding. In a way I guess I am doing it all the wrong way around – instead of school, swimming is my main priority.”

His school is not his only support. Charl’s coach is Ebert, who was with him at the Athens Paralympics and who competed in the Sydney Paralympics in 2003, inning gold in the 50 and 100m freestyle events as well as setting the world record in the 50m. Ebert has the same visual condition as Charl. “This is very helpful because he understands my pressures and can allay them.”

But Charl’s discipline is also what has helped him to be such a great swimmer. “I attribute my discipline to my parents and to the voice that edges me on to compete overseas. I think it is such an honour to be able to represent your country and compete for medals in its colours. So I tell myself to practice and practice harder because the harder I work the better I will do. “After school I would like to go study law somewhere like Stellenbosch. I was there recently for a training camp and it looks like a great university. I will of course continue swimming. I would like to compete in at least another two Paralympics – maybe even more, in fact, as many as I possibly can.”

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