When the two very impressive pools in your Aquatic Centre are named after your school’s illustrious old boys, Chad le Clos and Chad Ho, one knows that good things have happened in your swimming programme, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.

When one asks the question when Westville Boys High was last beaten in a gala and no one can instantly recall the answer, there’s your second clue; the swimming programme at Westville Boys High isn’t just good, it’s exceptional.

In case you’ve been hibernating to avoid news for more than the past decade, Chad le Clos, who specialises in the butterfly, is an Olympic champion and a multiple world champion in both long course and short course swimming. He was the man who brought an end to the reign of the greatest swimmer the world has seen, Michael Phelps, in the American’s speciality, the 200m butterfly, at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Open water swimmer Chad Ho is a two-time World Championships medallist, finishing third in the 5km event in Rome in 2009, and winning gold in the 2015 World Champs over the same distance in Kazan. He’s also the record seven-time champion of the world’s largest open water swimming event, the aQuellé Midmar Mile.

Westville dominated Durban and District Gala

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The Chad le Clos Pool in the Westville Boys High School Aquatic Centre is very impressive and able to host galas and water polo matches.

So, there’s the past success. Then there’s the Aquatic Centre itself that the boys utilise at the school. It’s hugely impressive and, yes, huge too. It’s also a facility that would be the envy of most swimming clubs.

But, no matter how great a facility is, no matter how great a school’s history is, it takes good teachers to teach and motivate learners to challenge themselves to become better, and that is where Westville has led and continues to lead the way.

The foundations for Westville’s extraordinary swimming success were laid by former Deputy Headmaster Nestor Pierides, who passed away in January 2019. He had a passion for finding, developing and nurturing sportsmen and he especially promoted swimming.

It was because of Pierides that the school’s current swimming captain, Ian Brijlal, chose to attend Westville Boys’ High. Ian was a learner at Hopeville Primary School, mostly for the academics, he said, but the school also had a strong swimming tradition. When Pierides saw Ian in action at the National Championships, he approached his parents about the possibility of sending their son to Westville for his secondary schooling.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do for high school, but my parents were very moved by Mr Pierides coming to me. That made a big difference to me. I felt needed and wanted,” Ian said, sitting on one of the stands in the Aquatic Centre on Wednesday. “A lot of other swimmers that are in matric with me feel that sense of belonging, as if they need us, and that had a big impact.”

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Westville, though, is also a school with a strong academic tradition, and that was also part of the criteria Ian needed to meet. “The criteria are not only about swimming,” he said, “they’re also about academics. You need to have a good academic level. You can’t be failing and expect to get a scholarship, because you would then bring down the pass rate for matrics, and you would bring down the whole grade.”

To put the importance of academics at Westville into context, we’re not talking average, we’re talking well above average. The school has an incredible record in that sphere. In 2019, for example, 232 boys wrote the final exams, with 93 percent achieving Bachelor and Diploma passes. An astonishing 22 boys achieved seven distinctions or more.

Underlining just how well the school performed was the fact that 85 percent of the boys took core mathematics and 78 percent physical science, two subjects in which most South African schools perform abysmally. A further 33 boys wrote advanced programme mathematics.

As an athlete, Ian said he is determined to defy the stereotype that sportsman are not smart. Thus, he finds himself in one of the leading academic classes in matric. And he is not alone among the swimmers. It’s about all-round excellence and it’s about setting an example for others to follow.

Back to the pool…the big push to make Westville a powerhouse of the sport came in 2008, explained the Head of Aquatics, Jarred Appelgryn. That year, for the first time, the school won the Durban and Districts Gala, a competition comprising 4 x 50 metres relays in all strokes, in all age groups, and a ladder relay.

It’s a competition that truly focuses on the depth of swimming talent in a school. It’s also a competition that Westville has won every year since then, including 2020’s gala, which was held at the end of February, when they raced to victory in 22 out of the 26 races on the programme.

Westville swimming captain Ian Brijlal accepts the Durban and District’s winner’s trophy from DHS Headmaster Tony Pinheiro. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

More than in galas of other formats, the focus of the Durban and Districts meet is on the team and while swimming might seem to be a sport that is centred on the individual the idea of team applies very strongly at Westville.

Nowadays, most school’s top swimmers train only with clubs. In most cases, that is 100 percent the case, but at Westville it’s not.

Graham Hill, a former South African national swimming team Olympic coach, is nearby, and a bus takes boys to training with him daily at 14:00, while Petro Nortjé, like Hill a multiple South African champion in various strokes, coaches boys in the Chad Ho swimming pool at the school. The vast majority of boys train with the two former swimming stars, the outstanding South African swimmers of their day, and the quality of the coaching they provide is superb.

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“It does make a big difference that they are all club swimmers. We’re not doing the training for about 75 percent of the boys,” Appelgryn said.

“Some afternoons, the captain will call a practice for a bit of team vibe. The other 25 percent of the boys that make up the team are waterpolo players. We’re doing our ‘polo fitness while they’re swimming, and then they also have ‘polo practice.

“The big difference is that the club players bring the speed element, but then your polo players, where they tie in, is they bring the team vibe.”

The decision to also develop waterpolo at the school was an important and valuable move, Appelgryn reckoned: “We decided that we can’t just hinge on swimming success. We had to bring in the waterpolo as well.

“Westville’s waterpolo was never the greatest, but every year now we’re lifting it a notch or two to be in the top three consistently in the province. We go to tournaments knowing we’re not going to be playing for the wooden spoon,” he said in a case of classic understatement.

Westville, seen here in a 12-7 win over DHS, is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s leading waterpolo-playing schools. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

With competition so strong among the swimmers, Appelgryn said his main focus is on getting the team selection right, and at times, he explained, that means making selections based on intuition and not on times alone.

“Sometimes it is hard for boys to accept that the fourth swimmer is not the fourth best. Sometimes the boy who is fifth is five or six splits off [the fourth swimmer’s time], but he has more of a drive to win a race. There is a lot of gut feel when we sit down and pick our sides.

“It’s not simply [that we choose] our top four and the second fastest swims first, quickest swims last. Most of our fastest swimmers actually swim in third place in the relay against most of the other schools’ slowest swimmers, just to solidify a winning result, hopefully.

“At the end of the day, we try to encourage boys to remember that it is not just an individualistic sport at school. At club level, it is. You need to remember that you are swimming for your school and for the guys next to you.

“We try to base it off of the American style where the institutions there back their swimmers, so that they’re representing their teams, not themselves.”

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There is also little room for complacency in such a competitive environment, swimming captain Ian related: “Swimming times are always changing, guys are always improving. It’s talent, but mainly hard work.

“In grade eight, maybe you are the best, but you stop training as hard and swim every now and again, and think you can keep it up. You can’t.

“If someone is training hard, they can be ranked last, but two years down the line they will overtake you. That happened to me, and to many others, and it is a wake-up call. I think every athlete needs that.

“You have to always be on your game. You can’t expect to win every single thing. You have to put in hard work to win. All the athletes at this school put in the hard work.”

A dramatic start to a backstroke relay at the Durban and Districts Gala where Westville finished a convincing 45 points ahead of the second placed team. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

“It’s not as if Westville is just going to win every gala. You can’t win unless you work hard. Everyone has to step up their game, and they do.”

Being appointed the captain of the Westville Boys’ High swimming team was a huge honour, Ian continued: “It meant a lot to me because this school is undefeated. There’s a lot of pressure, but it feels important as well, and it gives a lot of meaning to my life.

“Giving speeches on behalf of Westville has meant a lot because you have a lot of responsibility. If you mess up or lose, I feel personally responsible for that too. If you win, our entire team wins.

Action from one of the 50 metres breaststroke relay events at the Durban and Districts Gala. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

“I think it is my job as captain to try and motivate everyone to try and do better, and to bring them up when they are down.”

Citing the Durban and District Gala, where DHS managed three relay wins to Westville’s two in the under-15 age group, he said: “Take the under-15s, they’re not a bad age group. They’re still under-15 and there is still a way to go to the open age group. If they have the right grounding now, and if they learn from their losses, they can work harder and maybe by the time they’re competing at under-17 or open level they will win.”

Head of Aquatics, Jarred Appelgryn, weighed in, saying that while winning is good it is not the be all and end all of matters: “Most of the time, we are one step ahead of the opposition. But it’s also nice to not always be a step ahead. It’s nice that the boys lose a race. We lost four at Durban and Districts. It’s nice because the boys, then, don’t get complacent.

“Two or three years ago, I don’t think the boys lost a race, period. But you could see that the boys became complacent, not that one can necessarily blame them. Therefore, it is good to be beaten every now and again.”

He feels some pressure to maintain the winning tradition, he admitted: “but I think when you’ve got a team like I do, including [members of staff] Brad Rowe, Andrew Stewart and Tanya Bower, there is a lot of experience.

“As much as it is my first year stepping in as Head of Aquatics, the marketing guys are with us and there are people looking out for the boys. The teachers help our swimmers academically, too. It’s a massive team effort that leads to the final performance.”

Star swimmer Luca Holtzhausen, who broke five records in the Nestor Pierides Inter-provincial gala, including a Chad le Clos butterfly mark, Head of Aquatics Jarred Appelgryn, and swimming captain Ian Brijlal show off the silverware awarded to the winning school in the Alan Burt Gala, the Nestor Pierides Inter-provincial gala, the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Schools Top 10 Gala and the Durban and Districts Gala. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

A look at four of the trophies currently in Westville’s possession tell an incredible story of excellence: champions of the Durban and Districts Gala, the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Schools’ Top 10 Gala, the Alan Burt Gala, and, most importantly to the school itself, the winners of the Nestor Pierides Inter-Provincial Gala every year since 2008.

At times, people lose the love of the sport they participate in, because of the pressure that comes with winning and the expectation that that success should continue. But, if Westville swimming captain Ian Brijlal is any example of the general feeling among the Griffins’ swimmers, the enjoyment of competition has not been lost.

“I love racing. I love the closeness of the gala. For example, the Nestor Pareidis Gala was amazing. Grey College, Saint David’s, Affies and Saint Benedict’s were really close. It was crazy.

“I enjoy close races. Winning all the time is not as much fun. There is no point in winning all the time, otherwise you lose purpose. We lost a few races and it kept people on their toes.”

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Appelgryn echoed Ian’s sentiments: “There is performance pressure when it comes to galas, especially like the Affies Gala, which we were losing by about 17 points halfway through the gala, and then I was wondering was I going to be that guy [who oversaw the end of the winning streak].

But, at no point is someone watching my back, saying don’t mess this up, which is nice. It actually makes my job quite easy in terms of dealing with the kids and the way I can deal with them. I am not putting that onto them to secure my job. That’s make a big difference for them as well.”

It is said that success breeds success and that is true, but to continue to succeed one needs to strive to achieve ever higher goals, lest the challengers catch up.

At Westville, each and every swimmer strives to better himself, for his benefit and for the benefit of the team, and, inevitably it seems, Westville wins again.