Pieter Coetzé is young, but no fish out of water

The teenage swimming sensation has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics but is realistic about repeating Joan Breetzke’s gold medal success in 1952.

Pieter Coetzé is under no illusions. Had the Olympic Games gone ahead as planned last year, there’s no way he would have been part of the South African swimming team to compete in Tokyo.

That’s because he’s only just turned 17, and last year he was way off achieving the qualifying time for the Games. But afforded the extra year of training – and growing – the Pretoria swimmer has now covered two lengths of the pool in less than the required 53.85 seconds to book a spot on the Olympic team.

It was far from a smooth process, however, with Coetzé initially missing the mark in his 100m backstroke final at the national championships after he slipped at the start, and again in a specially arranged time trial a few days later where he was 0.07 seconds out. That meant his last chance to qualify at the competition was in the opening backstroke leg of the 4x100m medley relay.

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“Being so close in the time trial was very tough. I was actually so disappointed after that. I told my mom I’d rather be a second away than be that close and not make it, so it was tough,” said the talented teenager who trains at the University of Pretoria under coach Rocco Meiring.

“Rocco helped me through that. He told me I shouldn’t think about swimming at all until the afternoon when I had the relay. He told me to just do my cool-down, go to the hotel, not think about swimming at all, watch a movie, just chill. I did that and I tried my best to just switch off my mind.”

That approach seemed to do the trick, as Coetzé then blitzed to a time of 53.62 seconds in the relay to secure qualification.

It felt amazing. I didn’t actually see the time, I just heard my teammates screaming and I knew… I only saw my time when I got out the pool.”

Now that he’s had the chance to process the fact that he qualified for the Olympic Games when he was just 16, Coetzé is filled with gratitude.

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“It’s still unreal to me. I don’t know what I did to be the one to get this at this age. I’m just grateful to everyone who helped me get here, and grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to do this. I’m going to do my best over the next few months to do even better there. I believe I can go faster and I can’t wait to see what I can do in Tokyo,” added the backstroker who has quickly had to become accustomed to increasing media interest and relentless interview requests. 

He admits shyly that he’s been working on it. And he’s become remarkably adept at handling it all.

That Coetzé’s first memory of watching the Olympics was when Chad le Clos clinched gold in the 200m butterfly ahead of American Michael Phelps at London 2012 is a reminder of just how young he is. At the time, Coetzé was tagging along to his sister Jana’s galas and joining in simply because he was there. But he had no particular interest in swimming.

“I was eight years old. Ja, that was my earliest memory of the Olympics. I think that was during the time period that I was just doing the galas for fun and watching my sister, but Chad’s race sort of opened my eyes a bit. I think it was a month later I was doing proper training,” he said.

A family affair 

Coetzé enjoyed rugby, cricket and athletics, but swimming slowly took over and it was only as recently as 2019 that he began focusing on the backstroke.

“I was still swimming all the strokes, wasn’t sure what was my main stroke. Then I had a breakthrough at Nationals [SA National Championships] in the 100m backstroke, where I qualified for the Junior World Championships. So that sort of opened my eyes and told me okay, you must focus on backstroke from here on out.”

Coetzé moved from Rustenburg to train with Meiring in Pretoria in 2020 and that’s made all the difference. Having his sister as a training partner and his lift to training, his mother as his physiotherapist and a radiologist as a father helps, too.

12 April 2021: Pieter Coetzé at the SA Senior Swimming Championship. He has only just turned 17, but has qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Photograph by Anton Geyser/ Gallo Images)

Meiring is full of praise for his charge and him achieving Olympic qualification at such an impressively young age. “I am amazed. It wasn’t my plan, so I can’t take any credit for it,” said the coach. “He kept quiet about it for quite a while. He started with me last year July, so I knew of him but didn’t know him. Credit to him, he first sussed things out and then eventually dropped it on me that he would like to see if he could qualify.

“I said to him: ‘You’re close enough to give it a go. You’re far enough that it most probably won’t happen. But it’s a good experience to give it a go.’ … He really kept his nerve. By the second attempt of it still not happening I thought okay, that’s it … But he’s got a very solid head on his shoulders and then in the relay he did it, so I take my hat off to him.

“It helps that it’s his dream and not the dream of his parents or anybody else. He’s not trying to carry a whole family’s aspirations on his shoulders. His parents are more worried about his academic career than anything else, so that helps. It helps that none of us put pressure on him, so that all played a part. He’s a very determined young guy and he’s got the support behind him from his parents and us to make a career of it,” added Meiring, who also coaches one of South Africa’s top medal hopes in Tokyo, Tatjana Schoenmaker.

“I think Tatjana is an amazing role model, she’s an amazing swimmer,” said Coetzé. “I look up to her personally, not only for the way she swims but just the way she goes around and treats people. She’s very down to earth. She will never brag about what she’s done in her life, even though it’s so impressive … It’s amazing to train with all these swimmers who also want to make it big.”

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Apart from the inspiration he draws from his Tuks teammates, a deep love for the sport is what drives the eloquent young swimmer.

“I love the performance aspect. It’s not fun to get up at 4.30am in the morning, train at 5.30am, to do all of those things. But to then go to a gala and do amazing times, it’s good to see you get out what you put in.

“Also, when you’re in the pool, you don’t have stress. You don’t have any worries, you are just in the moment, trying to better yourself. So I think there are a lot of good character aspects that come with swimming, for sure. It builds character.”

Gold at 16 

Incredibly, Coetzé will not be the youngest South African swimmer to represent the country in the 100m backstroke at the Olympic Games. Joan Harrison, now Joan Breetzke, powered to gold in the same event at the Helsinki Games in 1952 at the age of 16.

Still living in East London, Breetzke was thrilled to hear of Coetzé’s accomplishment.  

“My congratulations to Pieter on qualifying for the backstroke at the Olympic Games, a wonderful achievement,” said the 85-year-old.

“My advice to Pieter is to have confidence in himself and know that he can be as good as anyone at the Olympics … My best wishes for a successful trip to the Olympic Games.”

Reminiscing about her own experience at the Games as a teenager, Breetzke added: “As I had represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland two years earlier, I did have an idea of what to expect. But on arrival in Helsinki, I was overwhelmed by what a huge event the Olympic Games is – so many competitors from all over the world.

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“I remember seeing the South Africans in the stands after my race, rushing down to the pool in excitement and feeling happy that I had won, and looking for my coach to say thank you. I couldn’t believe that I had actually won.”   

Things are a little different 69 years on, with Coetzé unlikely to stake a claim on Olympic gold just yet. But the drive and determination are certainly there. With the added weapon of experience, he’ll no doubt be in the mix at future Games.

At his age, Coetzé had unsurprisingly never heard of Harrison, but was mightily impressed to learn of her achievement.

“A gold medal at 16 is insane. I’m not going to put that goal in my head, but I’m just going to try and do my best. Anything is possible. I proved that to myself by qualifying in the first place, so I believe I can upset some more people maybe. We’ll see.”

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