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.

The best boys’ school swimming team in South Africa 

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Westville dominate Durban and District Gala

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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…

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.