20 May 2020 – When Chad le Clos blazed his way to multiple swimming records in his time at Westville Boys’ High it was reasonable to expect that they would last many decades. Yet, only a decade later, incredibly, many of his records are falling to grade 10 learner Luca Holtzhausen, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.

A chat with Luca at the school, just before it closed due to Covid-19, suggested that there could be significantly more to come from the 16-year-old standout when, while discussing the demands of training, he admitted: “I will say that towards the end of last year I told myself that this is what I want to do and nothing else. Now that I have matured a bit, I have put my head down and said this is the time to really graft and really do well one day, maybe win at the Olympics.”

A young man who is bettering an Olympic champion’s records might have a long way to go to climb onto the top step of the Olympic podium, but he is on the right path.

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Luca attended Kloof Junior Primary and it was during that time that Candice Crafford, a former Olympic swimmer, saw him in action and recognised his potential. She approached Luca and his family and asked if he would like to try training with her.

“I eventually trained with her my whole junior primary career until grade three,” Luca said. “She then told me to move from her ‘Learn to Swim’ programme to a club in Pinetown [Seagulls], which is my current club now.

At Seagulls, he showed further improvement, and during that time he also made the move from Kloof Junior Primary to Westville Senior Primary. He trained under a few coaches at Seagulls as he climbed the ladder before landing with Delon Dannhauser. When Delon made a move to Malta at the end of 2018, Luca joined Olympic swimming coach Graham Hill.

“With Graham, as soon as I joined the club and got to know all the different coaches, he was always a person that I wanted to impress,” Luca said. “When I was training with Delon, Graham didn’t take me. But as soon as Graham arrived at training, I would push that little bit harder so that he would notice me. He has always driven me to be the best I can be. I feel like I can train really well if he is pushing me.”

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Recalling his rise through the ranks, Luca said: “The first squad I was in was not that competitive, but when I moved up to Delon he saw some talent and wanted me to push myself, and he really helped me. Then, along the way I met some good swimmers, like Chad le Clos and Myles Brown, while they were swimming in the bigger squads. I was just below them with a few of my peers and age group. Just seeing them swim really fast pushed me to want to get to where they are, and to be in the squad they were in. Now, eventually, I am at that level.”

During his primary school days, Luca’s talent was regularly on show at galas and it didn’t go unnoticed by high schools. He received a number of offers from those schools, but his choice was always going to be Westville, which his brother had attended before him.

“I was in grade seven when he was in matric, so when I got here he left. But I think from grade five, six, a few high schools offered me places, but my parents and I knew I was going to go to Westville, even if I wasn’t a swimmer. Having Westville as one of the top swimming schools in the country, made it a given to go to the school, and also because of my brother having been here. We did look at offers from other schools, but it just didn’t make sense not to go to Westville, and they offered a scholarship,” he said.

In every way, Westville was the logical choice, Luca added: “I think this school has always been good at sport, all sports, and the academic standard is very high, and it’s required of sportsmen, too. Westville does it really well, and all sports are equally embraced.”

Westville Boys’ High’s swimming team has been unbeaten for 13 years. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

Swimming has opened his eyes to opportunities and possibilities, he said. When Luca was 13, he participated in international competition for the first time, travelling to Egypt. Last year, it was the Junior World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, which he attended at 15 years of age. It made a big impression on him.

“It was an amazing experience. Just to see the pools they have there. I remember swimming my first race. I knew it would be stressful, but not as stressful as it was. When I was getting ready for the race and was on the blocks, it blew my mind. You think it’s simple, but everything that happens is completely different. It’s important to travel at a young age, so you get used to that and the competition.”

Luca also tasted senior competition against some of the world’s best swimmers in the Mare Nostrum Series, in Monaco and Cannes. Unfortunately, while he was in Monaco, Princess Charlene, a former South African OIympic swimmer and big supporter of South African swimming was in New York, but Luca did get to visit the castle.

Being at Westville, a powerhouse of school swimming in South Africa, has helped stir his competitive spirit and challenge him to be improve, Luca said.

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“In grade eight, I remember breaking one of Chad le Clos’ records. I didn’t even know it existed, but then I broke it and people were congratulating me. I made a goal for myself that I have been breaking his records since. I challenged myself to get all the records, not only his, but all or most of the others.”

Being an all-round competitor, has helped him chase them down. “I’ve always done all the strokes,” he said, “which has made me a good individual medley [IM] swimmer, but now in the last two years I have really picked up on my freestyle swimming, so I have been doing pretty well in freestyle and IM. Just been concentrating on those, I guess. But, from time to time, it is always good to swim in other events that aren’t your main events.”

At present, his favourite distance is 200 metres. “I used to do everything, and it wasn’t too bad. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the 400s, but it gets tough sometimes. Sometimes it hurts. I still train it,” he said.

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So what does a typical day look like? Luca explained: “I have training at a quarter-past-five in the morning. I wake up at half-past-four. My dad will make me a Future Life. Luckily he still makes it for me. I’ll drink that and slowly get ready. I stay only 15 minutes away from the pool, so we’ll get there about five o’clock and stretch a bit. Then, we start at a quarter-past-five, and we finish at around a quarter-to-seven, so it’s about an-hour-and-a-half.

“After that, the school bus takes four or five of us to school. Then, training starts again at twenty-past-two, until about four, ten-past-four.

“I swim twice a day on Monday and Wednesday. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I have gym. Every day of the week I am up at half-past-four, getting ready to do some sort of training. Every afternoon I train, except for Friday, when I have the afternoon off.”

“By Friday afternoon, my body is absolutely shattered, so I don’t have any guilt about resting.”

While swimming tends to focus on the individual, school competition and being part of a team helps bring the best out of him, Luca explained: “Even for me, I sometimes swim faster than I would in an individual race in the relay, just because you have this team around you. It is a little less serious because you are racing with people. But, at the same time, you can swim really hard and have a good time.”

Luca Holtzhausen, Westville Boys’ High Head of Aquatics Jarred Appelgryn, and swimming captain Ian Brijlal with the winner’s trophies from 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)

Inevitably, the questions turned to the swimmers who inspire him and he mentioned three men: Michael Phelps, the man many regard at the greatest swimmer of all time; Adam Peattie, Olympic 100m breaststroke champion and world record holder; and Chad le Clos, who has blazed a trail for South African swimmers competing on the world stage.

“There is something about Adam Peaty. I follow him on Instagram and I just see a lot of hard work goes into what he does, and his results are crazy. Just seeing all the things he does motivates me, and shows me where one can get to one day.

“Chad, because he beat Michael Phelps in one of his prestige races [the 200m butterfly]. And he didn’t come out of one of the best facilities. But he beat him and changed his life.

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“My coach was talking to me about it the other day. I am lined up to do the same as Chad did, but in terms of Junior Worlds last year, World Short Course at the end of this year, next year is the Youth Olympics. All of these events, Chad did, and I can now follow exactly in his footsteps, and hopefully even do better.”

If they take place, Luca is hoping to make the South African team for the Fina Short Course World Swimming Championships, scheduled for 15 – 20 December in Abu Dhabi. It would his first selection for the South African senior team.

With two more years at Westville still ahead of him, it’s just a guess to think about the heights his swimming career is headed towards. But the trajectory is very promising. And the path has been laid out by a former Westville Boys’ High swimmer, a man whose records Luca has been dismantling…