One of South Africa’s top junior swimmers, Duné Coetzee, is on her way to the United States of America for four years when she matriculates later this year as she looks to improve her international performances.
The Youth Olympic silver medallist has decided to take her swimming career up a notch and race against some of the best swimmers in the world which she believes will help her when she represents SA in international competitions.
According to Team South Africa, Coetzee has not lost a butterfly event in the country for three years and needs tougher competition to reach her full potential.
Coetzee has been competing for nine years as a Tuks swimmer under coach Linda de Jager who has been by her side since day one.
Her proudest moment was in 2018 when she became the first South African female and only the third South African swimmer ever to win a medal at the Youth Olympics – silver medallist in the 200m butterfly.
With so much more still to achieve in her young career, Coetzee’s greatest ambition is to win gold at the Olympic Games, and she is hoping to qualify for next year’s event in Tokyo.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Coetzee chats about her swimming journey and balancing education and sport.
Duné, how has the Covid-19 lockdown impacted you and how are you managing this time?
The obvious impact is the training that we’ve all been missing out on. I’m trying to stay focused on what I want to achieve with my swimming, but I must admit it is getting kind of urgent now for us to get back to our normal training routines. We are nearly a year out from the Tokyo Olympic Games, and we need to get training now if we want to have any shot in making it there and then perform to the best of our abilities.
“I’m fortunate that I’m doing my last year of school because without having that to focus on I think I would have been much more stressed than what I am now.” – Youth Olympic silver medallist, Duné Coetzee
Swimming takes a long time to get to your best form and the longer we are delayed in getting back in the water the more our careers are impacted. I’m fortunate that I’m doing my last year of school because without having that to focus on I think I would have been much more stressed than what I am now.
When is the earliest you expect to be back in the pool?
I have no idea and it is sad. Every time we seem to get news that we may be getting back into it soon something happens like the recent announcement from the government that excluded swimming from the list to restart. We hope and pray that it is a mistake and we can get in the pool soon. I doubt it will be before July which leaves us with 12 months before Tokyo.
How have you been keeping fit?
I’m trying to do as much work as possible to stay fit. We bought some weights before the lockdown started so I do a lot of dryland work and I also currently run a lot. I try to stay in the water by tying a stretch cord to a tree and then swim against it in our pool at home. It is tough though because my stroke is not the same but at least gives me a feel for the water and it keeps my swimming muscles activated.
Please tell us about your swimming journey and where it all began for you.
When I was a little girl my parents took me to a learn to swim school just for water safety. I then started swimming competitively when I was in primary school and I loved competing against my school friends. When I was 9 years old, I moved to Tuks to swim under Linda de Jager who is still my coach 9 years later. I also started to swim age groups around this age and ever since I just loved being in the pool and racing.
“I looked at the entry sheets and saw I was lying in the top 3 to 5 for most of my events but there was this girl named Rebecca Meder who was way faster than I was. We met on the very first night in the 400m freestyle and I just decided I was going to swim with her. We both had a great race and I managed to drop a lot of time and I think she set the new age group record.” – Coetzee speaks about fellow youth swimmer, Rebecca Meder.
The first time I felt I could go somewhere with my swimming was at my first level 3 gala in PE. I looked at the entry sheets and saw I was lying in the top 3 to 5 for most of my events but there was this girl named Rebecca Meder who was way faster than I was. We met on the very first night in the 400m freestyle and I just decided I was going to swim with her. We both had a great race and I managed to drop a lot of time and I think she set the new age group record.
The second night we repeated it in the 200m free, and the results were the same. In the 100m free I just said to myself there is no way she is beating me again and we pushed each other so hard that I managed to set my very first SA age group record. Rebecca and I have had massive races against each other ever since and I think we bring the best out in each other. What is great though is that we share great respect for each other, and I personally can’t wait for the both of us to represent our country in Tokyo. It will be such an honour and so special to share it with her!
After the Level 3 battle later that year I was selected at 13 for my first junior South African team and I’ve had the opportunity to represent South Africa 8 times internationally since then.
Did you take part in any other sports growing up?
I did a lot of sport. I played hockey when I was little and ran some track in primary school. I did gymnastics and eventually had to choose between that and swimming because both took so much time. I loved playing netball for all my time in primary school and managed to represent our first team which I was very proud of. When I went to high school. I had to decide which sport I wanted to do because swimming took up a lot of my time and I could not fit something else in with academics as well. So I chose swimming and it was the best decision I made!
What have been your career highlights to date?
My proudest moment was when I became the first South African girl and only the third South African ever to win a medal at the Youth Olympics. I am the 2018 Youth Olympic silver medallist in the 200m butterfly. Being able to have represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and the World Championships in 2019 is definitely some of my biggest achievements and I have learned so much during all these events. I can’t wait to take the little experience I’ve gained to Tokyo next year!
How does it feel to have a Youth Olympic medal in your cabinet?
“I am so blessed and humbled to have that title behind my name. I worked extremely hard for that medal and I am very proud of myself.” – Coetzee on having the Youth Olympic title in her cabinet.
I am so blessed and humbled to have that title behind my name. I worked extremely hard for that medal and I am very proud of myself. I’m proud how I managed to handle the pressure on the day going in as the fastest qualifier. I came second to a much more experienced swimmer on the day but learned probably the most I’ve ever learned in any one race that day. The challenge is to bring that experience and form all together into the next big race.
What are some of the lessons you have learnt along the way in your career so far?
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt so far is to trust in the process. A lot of times I had to go through tough times whether it was in training, racing, school or my personal life. But trusting the process and focussing on what I was busy doing at that moment and doing that to the best of my ability, really helped me to push through the hard times and being better once it is over.
I also learned that I have to have patience. After the Youth Olympics I was ready to go on to bigger and faster times, but I learned that it doesn’t always work out that way, especially when you are still young it is very difficult to be consistent all the time. Last year I did a massive amount of training, raced unrested at Senior Worlds and raced well, and a month later I couldn’t hit my form at Junior Worlds. I don’t know what went wrong but I learned that even if you put in the work when you are young, you will still get moments where you are just not ready and you need to wait.
How have you been able to balance education and your sporting career?
The school I go to – Die Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool Pretoria – has supported me since I started there in 2016. The teachers are always ready to help me if I miss important work in class. They are also very understanding and support my dreams and goals in my swimming 100 percent. But it is hard to manage everything. I try to make notes of my work whenever I have free time and also try to study while I do so because I know my time to study is limited. Swimming is a very disciplined driven sport and I think that just carries over to my academics.
In an article posted by Team South Africa, it mentioned that you have decided to continue your career in the United States after next year’s Tokyo Olympics. Please tell us more about this.
It was a very calculated and well researched decision. I swim for one of the top universities in the world already. Part of my decision was that my coach Linda at Tuks is thinking of retiring soon and I thought that if I had to make a change in any case, it could be to the USA. I’ve always dreamed of going to America to pursue my swimming career and my studies because I wanted to see America. It was a very difficult decision for me because I have to leave my family, friends and teammates behind and start a new life for 4 years in the USA.
“That reduces my opportunity to qualify for Tokyo by half. So, the fact that there is more 200m butterfly competition in America has been the biggest reason for me going to the USA. This will help me because I get to train and race against some of the best swimmers in the world which will help me when I represent South Africa internationally.” – Coetzee speaks on her decision to move to USA.
For some reason, the girls in South Africa don’t like swimming the 200m butterfly which is my main event. At the Grand Prix we held this year I had to officially request to swim heats and finals because we only had 4 or 5 swimmers in the field and the rule states that it will then be swum as a final only. That reduces my opportunity to qualify for Tokyo by half. So, the fact that there is more 200m butterfly competition in America has been the biggest reason for me going to the USA. This will help me because I get to train and race against some of the best swimmers in the world which will help me when I represent South Africa internationally.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in your career so far?
As mentioned earlier swimming as a teenage girl is not always easy as it can be very unpredictable. My biggest challenge has been to stay calm and not panic when things don’t go your way. At the Youth Commonwealth Games in 2017 I will never forget how bad I performed. Rebecca even asked me at one stage whether she could pray for me and she took my hand and did. Something I will never forget in my life! Afterwards I did some blood testing and discovered that my mineral levels were severely depleted. I then started to manage it more carefully and later that year, I broke the National Age Group records in the 200m and 400m freestyles, and 200m fly to qualify for the Commonwealth Games.
So I guess my biggest challenge is to stay patient and to learn as much as I can when it doesn’t go my way. It is not easy!
Which sportswomen inspire you and why?
In South Africa, Karin Prinsloo has always been a massive inspiration for me. She mentored me for a while, and I am so grateful for the advice she gave me. Everything I described earlier around being patient was easier because she told me this was all going to happen to me. Since she stopped swimming, Tatjana Schoenmaker has taken over her role. I’m very privileged to know Tatjana personally and I get to see her train which inspires me every day. The way that she never gives up, even after failures has inspired me to push through hard times and get better. And she just knows how to deliver!
Missy Franklin has also been a huge role model for me ever since I was a little girl. Her resilience and energy in the pool when she used to swim was just incredible to me and I strive to be like her in the pool. I was so fortunate to have met her at the Junior World Championships in 2017.
What is your advice for young girls who are looking to following their sporting dreams?
Everyone says trust the process because it is true! Trust in the process and use failures as lessons to become a better swimmer, athlete and person. And also enjoy what you are doing, make sure you are having fun because if you enjoy what you do you will be able to work harder for what you want to achieve. And work hard, you are at practice in any case so you might as well give it 200 percent of your commitment!
What is your greatest sporting ambition?
I want to win a gold medal for South Africa at the Olympic Games in the 200m butterfly.
Photo 1 Caption: Duné Coetzee, who is one of South Africa’s top junior swimmers, is on her way to represent Mzansi in the United States of America for four years when she matriculates later this year. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: The Youth Olympic silver medallist has decided to take her swimming career up a notch and race against some of the best swimmers in the world which she believes will help her when she represents SA in international competitions. Photo: Supplied