Why Zane Waddell has retired at just 22

The Bloemfontein-born swimmer had the world at his feet in 2019. But just over a year later, in an Olympic year, he called it quits. He explains why he retired and what he plans to do now.

Just 12 months ago, Zane Waddell was celebrating a year in which he was the only South African to claim a gold medal at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships. This year, he’s no longer a swimmer. 

2020 dawned with the promise of a first Olympic appearance for the Bloemfontein backstroker. But in December he announced his shock retirement from the sport at the age of just 22.

When it comes to financial support, South Africa’s swimmers – who, along with their athletics teammates, traditionally rake in the most medals for the country at the Olympic Games – are pretty well at the bottom of the pile. With the national federation unable to secure significant sponsors, swimmers are left to make their own way.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s (Sascoc) Operation Excellence funds dried up in October 2019, so the country’s stars have to find other means to compete. And Waddell simply can’t afford to be a swimmer anymore. Having finished his studies at the University of Alabama in the United States, he’s taken a full-time job as a credit analyst at a bank and this leaves no time to train.

“It was certainly a tough decision to make, but I had conversations with my family and it was the right decision,” he explained. “It is tough, but it does not help being naive and getting myself into a deeper hole. This is the logical decision to make.”

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When asked what assistance he has received from Swimming South Africa or Sascoc, Waddell said: “They gave assistance to get to some competitions at which I represented them. For the 2019 World Championships, I had to pay a portion of my way there. 

“[After the championships] and being the only African male to get a gold medal, I asked for further assistance but I was not given further assistance. I have reached out to multiple corporate sponsors to no avail. Covid-19 must be making it hard,” he said.

Waddell’s cause was not helped by the fact that the 50m backstroke event in which he won the world title is not an Olympic event, so he had yet to prove himself as a medal contender in the 100m backstroke. He was looking to qualify for his first Olympics in the 100m event and was certainly in good enough shape to do so at the SA Championships in April, which were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

No funding despite Gwangju

Had there been funding available, from Sascoc or another federation, Waddell would only have received it if he’d already achieved the qualifying mark in the 100m event.

“I sent an email to Nkuli [Mngadi], our team manager at the World Championships in Gwangju, on 25 September 2019 asking about funding. She said she’ll forward my email on to people at Swimming SA, which she did. On 26 September 2019, I was let known via email that they had a call scheduled in October of 2019 to discuss funding for the upcoming Olympics.

“On 11 October 2019, I was told via email that I won’t get funding to help me train for the Olympics. The reason was as follows: ‘You won’t get funding because the 50 back [50m backstroke] is not an Olympic event, and they’re only funding athletes who are top eight in the world in Olympic events.’

“I was sad and shocked because I was the only male African athlete to get a gold at the World Championships. And to have achieved something like that and then get told I won’t get funding because it wasn’t an Olympic event kind of felt like it invalidated my achievement in Gwangju,” said Waddell.

“It is extremely frustrating, but we have to remember that I am not the first swimmer to struggle with this. I hope it changes in the future for young South African swimmers coming through the system.

“I believe many swimmers will have to make a similar decision. It is important to remember that effort in the pool does not pay the bills at the end of the month,” he added.

Compounding his frustration was the fact that Waddell was afforded the opportunity to compete in the lucrative International Swimming League (ISL), one of the few swimming events to go ahead in 2020 and one where stars like Chad le Clos could make some cash. But he was denied the chance by the US postal system.

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“The reason I couldn’t compete in the ISL was because the post office lost my passport when it was coming back after I went to the embassy to get a visa for Hungary. Therefore, I couldn’t make it over there to compete,” he explained.

Swimming SA chief executive Shaun Adriaanse expressed the organisation’s disappointment at Waddell’s decision. “Swimming South Africa received an email from Mr Zane Waddell on 11 December 2020, informing us of his intention to officially retire from the sport of swimming,” said Adriaanse. 

“We have provided Mr Waddell with the Fina retirement notification form, which must be completed by him to formalise his retirement with SSA and Fina. To date we have not yet received the completed form for verification, processing and official confirmation of his retirement.

“If Mr Waddell chose to formally retire, it would be most disappointing for us as we were hoping that he would be able to attain an Olympic qualification standard for participation in the Tokyo Olympic Games. We hope that he will stay in the sport and transfer his outstanding abilities.”

‘Part of my big plan’

National coach Graham Hill was also disappointed by the world champion’s drastic decision. “It’s just been a long, frustrating year with Covid and lockdown and everything, and I think he’s just frustrated,” said Hill.

“Obviously I’m disappointed that he’s hanging up his goggles, so to speak. The last time I spoke to him was as we went into lockdown, just to check he was okay, but I haven’t managed to reach him since his decision to retire. I had a long chat with his mom though and she was quite upset.”

Hill said Waddell was very much part of the planning process for the Tokyo Olympics after his impressive showing at the World Championships.

“Zane was part of my big plan as national coach, hoping that he’d qualify in the 100m backstroke. He was part of the puzzle we were putting together for the relays, too, especially with this new mixed medley relay.

“Chris Reid is also in the mix in the backstroke, but they were both part of the planning. Zane could have added a lot for us there considering his speed. Now we just don’t know what he could have brought to the party.

“22 is really young,” added Hill. “He hasn’t even got there yet. If you think about it, he’s a world champion but he’s never been to an Olympics. He could still have gone on to 2024 and even 2028.”

The Tokyo Games were postponed last year and are scheduled to take place from 23 July to 8 August this year, but a cloud of doubt still hangs over the event.

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“With this resurgence [of the coronavirus], I’m even starting to panic that there might not be an Olympics,” said Hill. “So, in all honesty, maybe he’s made the right call, if there’s no Olympics. Maybe we’ll get him back for the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

“By the sounds of things, a lot of people are just very frustrated at the moment. Some of my swimmers have had Covid and they’re still struggling six to eight weeks later. It’s been really tough.”

While Waddell has confirmed he has stopped training, when asked if he might be lured back into the pool should a sponsor step forward, all he would offer was: “I am doing what is right for right now.”

And so for now, with his best swimming years still in front of him and in the best shape of his life, Waddell is left to wonder what he could have achieved had he had the financial backing.

“I am confident I have the ability to be an Olympic gold medallist and a world record holder,” he said. “But it is time for me to move on and start building my life outside of swimming. I graduated magna cum laude with dual degrees, so I intend on chasing the aspirations I have in the business world and outside the pool.”

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