If you haven’t heard about it, you’ve already missed it. The 2015 Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo, came and went without much ado. But, if you were South African swimmer Ricky Ellis, coming back with one gold and three silver medals from the small francophone country, it was a time of his life, in the pool and out.
“Obviously, Africa [swimming] is not considered great. But, the competition wasn’t as easy as we thought. We knew the Egyptians were going to come at us. There are a couple of Egyptians who did really well at Junior World Champs and they had a big cash incentive to win. From what I can remember they were getting $8,000 for a gold and I think a bonus $2,000 for a championship record. Some were flown in from the USA,” says Ellis.
The tall backstroke swimmer is no stranger to competition. In December, he swam in the World Short Course Championships in Qatar and has plunged into the pools at the 2012 Africa Games. He is also on the cusp of Olympic glory, needing to drop 0.7 seconds on his personal best to qualify for Rio next year.
“My personal best has been 55.1 seconds last year at Nationals. It was good enough to go to the World Champs but [the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee] chose not to send me. You can never say definitely. But if you do qualify it’s pretty certain you can go to the Olympics,” says Ellis.
Brazzaville welcomed the swimmers of Africa by pulling out almost all the stops.
“In terms of the conditions, [Brazzaville was] way better than anything in South Africa. They had built a brand new pool, with new starting blocks. They had the overflow pool and it was a constant three meters deep, which is Olympic standard. But they didn’t have the backstroke ledges, which I was a little upset about. Still, you don’t get [pools like that] in South Africa.”
Away from the water it was a hair-raising experience for Ellis.
“When we arrived in Brazzaville we drove through poverty. There are huge crowds of men standing around. There are army guys everywhere with AK-47s. There were even guns strapped to the stands. Sitting in the bus, it’s quite nerve wracking to pass by soldiers who are training and have left their weapons on the floor,” he says.
“We were expecting it to be hot. The smog felt like we were in Beijing. The thing we were most scared of was the mosquitos. We were very scared of catching malaria. When we walked into the hotel room, we saw the carcasses of old mozzies on the floor. Luckily the mozzies decided they wanted to bite my roommate, Brent Szurdoki, instead of me.”
If the 28-year-old Ellis qualifies he will be a late comer to the pool. He is well over the average age of Olympic swimmers; according to USAswimming.org, in 2012 the average age for men is 25.8 years and 21.6 years for women.
“I started swimming from the age of four or five. I can remember crying a lot from the cold water in winters. But over time you get used to it. I only really started to swim well when I was about 20. That’s when I thought about moving to the States. I stuffed around at [the University of the Witwatersrand] doing a BCom General instead.”
“The youngsters push me at training every day. Most of them leave for the US. I get older and they get younger every year,” he says.
Ellis remains undeterred with his ever increasing age; after all, he’s just getting a taste for medals.