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Tuesday, 15 February 2011 20:49

Swimming's Big Mac - Murray McDougall

In a time where school sport is viewed as a matter of life and death, it is refreshing to meet a young man who realizes that we face greater challenges than bettering our time or being selected for a representative team; Murray_McDougalla young man who won't be shaped by his sport, but could very easily shape the sport itself. Murray Stewart McDougall is such a man.

Currently finishing his grade twelve year, this colossus of the pool has represented South Africa at the Junior Olympics, held his own on the rugby field and will be the Kearsney College Head Boy of 2011.

Placing positional responsibilities ahead of personal aspirations, Murray will ensure that he's not an absent head of school (so often the case when sportsmen of an international level are given such a position). "I plan to tone down my swimming a bit next year. I have duties being head boy, plus I feel I'd be missing out on something if I didn't give rugby a full go for my matric year". McDougall was impressive on the rugby field at under sixteen level, but excessive travel and hours in the pool meant there was only time for one physical vocation. At 1,92m tall and sporting a size thirteen boot, he is sure to hold his own, physically.


Many a world-class swimmer tells of near-drowning experiences as toddlers being the reason for their proverbial push into the pool, but for Murray, it was a far more relaxed affair. "I began swimming in Grade 0 at St. David's in Joburg and pretty much didn't take it that seriously until last year when I realized that I had something to work with".


Despite his calming outlook on the sport, Murray has given himself a fighting chance by enlisting the services of one of the best in the business, Graham Hill of the Seagulls Swimming Club. "You know you're going to get better with Graham as your coach. He knows everything there is to know about swimming and he was Springbok swimmer and lifesaver. He still doesn't like the idea of me playing rugby next year" Murray says with a laugh. Despite his sabbatical, Murray will still spend countless hours in the pool next year, albeit in the guise of the first team waterpolo squad, further cementing his desire to have the full high school experience, free from regret.


So how is it that a boy from Johannesburg finds himself boarding at the peak of Botha's Hill?

"When I finished primary school at St. David's, my dad also happened to be transferred to Tanzania and I needed to find a boarding school. The plan was originally for me to go to St. Andrews in Grahamstown, but my parents mentioned Kearsney and I had a look at the campus and obviously liked what I saw.

I had an interview with Mr. van den Aardweg, our headmaster and here I am today. My family has now moved back from Tanzania to Hillcrest, so it's all worked out quite nicely".


South African sporting pundits are notoriously obsessive over a sportsman's lineage and Murray McDougall's is more impressive than most. "My family is quite sporting; my dad was a decent rugby player at Peterhouse in Zimbabwe and represented SA Varsities at cricket. I also have an older sister who's a talented swimmer at UCT". With the family connection, would it be safe to assume that Murray's future lies in Cape Town? "I'm actually split to be honest; I'm really keen to go to either UCT or Stellenbosch. It's something that I try not to think about, I've still got to get through matric. I'm leaning towards studying a BComm, but until I'm certain of what I want to pursue, then it's hard to say which university would suit me best. The advantage that Stellenbosh does have is the Maties Swimming Club, which is very impressive".


From this discussion, it is clear that Murray McDougall has chosen not to follow the path of so many swimmers before him and pack his bags for the American collegiate system. "No, I haven't even given America much thought, to be honest. "A lot of guys like (Kearsney old boy) Troy Prinsloo have done really well over there. He's won state championships with Georgia and really excelled, but personally the travel would be too much. I want to go further with my swimming, but all I can do is give my all and see where that gets me".


A prevalent feature when interviewing athletes from individual sports is that they always have a far more mature approach to the state of their activity than that of team sportsmen. McDougall is all too happy to engage with the challenges facing swimming today. The first port of call for any outsider is a question of the degree of assistance that the recently banned bodysuits gave swimmers over their opponents. "The bodysuits are illegal now and that's a good thing. What they do is basically help you float on the surface of the water and that used to be the one advantage that naturally smaller swimmers had over the more powerful guys. When that advantage was taken away, many top swimmers just fell off the map completely. Besides that, they're also uncomfortable and took about half an hour to put on. I made the mistake of wearing one without gloves (which you should always wear) and I ended up with my hands full of blood. I still have the scars today".


Murray's defining moment when people began to sit up and take serious notice was at the Junior Olympics in Singapore this year. Achieving fifth place in the 100m individual backstroke and a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle, he picked up on the approaching aquatic superpower. "We came third behind Russia and China and the Chinese stood out through the Games. They're dominating junior swimming and that's a very recent thing. It used to be all America and Australia with South Africa getting a few medals, but China will take over swimming for the next ten years at least. They just don't stop when others do; they have no concept of lactate".


As for the assistance that local swimmers receive, McDougall is increasingly impressed. "More could be done in South Africa to bring attention to the sport, but we are getting some decent funding in certain areas now. We (the SA Junior squad) went overseas with the seniors for a four-week training camp earlier this year and that shows real professionalism, but guys like Cameron van den Berg and Chad le Clos deserve more exposure than they've got after coming back from the Commonwealth Games".


At a schoolboy level, one of the highlights of the KZN sporting calendar is the D&D (Durban & Districts) Gala at King's Park. McDougall conceded that Westville Boys' High are the top swimming school in South Africa, but is proud of the fact that Kearsney often occupies the silver position in the province and puts team points ahead of personal ambition. "Unless it involves qualifying, I prefer to target a position, rather than a time. I'd rather win than look at a clock".


Despite this Johannesburg native taking kindly to the laidback Durban lifestyle, his casual demeanor should not be misinterpreted as a blaze attitude towards his craft. A typical week in season consists of two early morning session and six daily afternoon practices at Lahee Park in Pinetown. Considering that the average school day begins at 7:30am, one could hardly fault the dedication of the athlete who wakes up to the darkness of the wee hours of the morning. "It is difficult sometimes with those early mornings, but it's good to have that coach that will push you and you're only going to reach your potential if he's on your back." Ever a student, this future school leader has the humility to realize that he still has much to learn in the pool. "I was a really big follower of Ryk Neethling during his best years; not just his results but for his stroke and his whole style in the pool. Every swimmer should watch Michael Phelps though; he's something very special."


Neethling's falling off the pace at the relatively premature age of thirty-one (when he failed to make an impact at the 2008 Beijing Olympics) is not altogether alarming in the swimming world, as McDougall explains. "In team sports, you can prolong your career because you're sharing the workload with others; in an individual sport like swimming, you're doing all the work yourself and taking all the strain. That's the reason why most top-level swimmers will peak at twenty-six and retire by the time they're thirty. After thirty, it's unlikely that you'll be able to cope with the rest of the pool". Suddenly it becomes clear why Kearsney College have selected Murray McDougall as their next Head Boy: The instinctual maturity of putting studies before sporting ambition, selflessness in placing school before self and the realization that there will be more to life than athletic talent.




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