South Africa’s Olympic star Ryk Neethling on life beyond the swimming pool, his plans for the future and his love for the platteland.
Words Julienne du Toit Pictures Chris Marais and supplied
The first time we met Ryk Neethling, he had just lost a competition to a woman, but was extremely gracious about it all.
This was back in the stinging winter of 2009 in the Eastern Cape town of Lady Grey, where they stage the Royal MacNab Challenge every year.
Contestants had to successfully hunt a wild buck and a game bird, and fish a trout from a wild stream – all in the space of one day. Ryk, participating as the guest of honour, missed out on the trout, but no matter.
At the raucous presentation that night, with all the guys carousing in traditional Scottish garb, a group of local farm girls excitedly planned how they might MacKidnap this buff gold-winning Olympic swimmer and whisk him off into the Witteberg mountains. And would he be wearing his kilt?
But he escaped unharmed, bearing his newly-acquired kilt under his arm. He may also have dodged the ceremonial eating of the haggis but, by then, the Caledonian Society Pipe Band had whipped everyone up into a Highland fervour with bagpipes and drums, and things grew a little blurry from that moment.
Nearly a decade later, we meet up at Val de Vie Estate’s Pearl Valley golf course near Paarl. Ryk, who has not aged an atom since those days, has just returned from another flyfishing trip – this time to Iceland.
In case you’ve been out of comms with the world for the past 25 years, here’s a quick lowdown on Ryk Neethling, still one of South Africa’s national treasures. For starters, he still looks as fit, trim, buff and beautiful as when he broke a world record winning the freestyle relay in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. He represented his country in four Olympics, the first South African to do so.
Born and schooled in Bloemfontein, he still has that quietly spoken, polite, country-boy way about him, with a soft American burr he picked up in his years’ studying and swimming at the University of Arizona.
Over coffee at the elegant estate clubhouse, Ryk readily admits to being a dedicated introvert. So what is he doing as a marketing frontman of a very sought-after property estate under the Simonsberg mountains outside Paarl?
“Eight years ago when I was living in Johannesburg, the Val de Vie magazine editor invited me here for a photo shoot.When
I got here I just fell in love with the place and kept coming back for visits. I suppose I just became a bit of an unofficial ambassador as
I kept telling people about it – I’d worked a little bit in property in the States after my business degree.” Ryk soon moved to Val de Vie and became editor-in-chief of the magazine that had brought him to the estate.
He is also very fond of the town of Paarl. “The teenagers in this town are really plat op die aarde – down to earth. You see them in the streets, barefoot and walking in shorts. They’re country children, unattached to gadgets and phones.
“There are great schools here, like Paarl Boys High, Girls High, Paarl Gimnasium, La Rochelle, and some people send their kids to the Bridge House School outside Franschhoek. And I like the people of Paarl, and enjoy speaking Afrikaans.”
Ryk Neethling’s other hat is CEO of the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation South Africa, which focuses on safety in
“I nearly drowned when I was five years old, so I share her passion for water safety,” he says. “We have been friends and teammates for 25 years and both of us have represented South Africa at international swimming competitions. It is an incredible honour for me to be leading her foundation here in our country. It literally saves lives.” The foundation has been very successful and, since its inception in 2012, more than 300 000 children worldwide have been taught water safety skills.
Having made a successful transition from sportsman to businessman, Ryk also coaches others to do the same. “I peaked when I was 28, and as soon as I started to get slower, I gave it up. But it’s not always easy to leverage sport success into the rest of your life. There are many who have, like South Africa’s World Cup Rugby legend Francois Pienaar. Some go into coaching or commentating. Some go completely off the rails. They miss the life, because it’s tied up to feelings of self-worth.”
He works with athletes, including swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, setting them up for life after competitive sport. “A lot of people ask for advice but few actually listen and are willing to do the work required. Transitioning from sport to business, or whatever the next chapter is, can be the most challenging period in any athlete’s life,” says Ryk, who is a great believer in persistence and sheer hard work. “People think that success falls into your lap. But it doesn’t. You have to work your backside off.”
Another exciting Ryk Neethling business venture is taking stressed corporate executives on experiential adventure trips to places where they are in unfamiliar environments and have to plunge into activities like axe-throwing, volcano climbing, flyfishing, ascending waterfalls and horse-riding. That’s why he was in Iceland.
“The adventures were amazing,” he says. “But they also gave me an insight into food as medicine. Sometimes we ate salad that had been picked only metres away from us. Now I’m learning about the healing powers of foods like turmeric.”
Last year he decided to avoid sugar, despite his self-confessed sweet tooth. “I couldn’t believe how easily I lost weight around my waist as a result.” Ryk says he also is intrigued by “how people’s neural pathways are changed by learning, movement and detoxing from the digital world”.
After charging about the world on aquatic safety missions, mentoring soon-to-retire sports stars and teaching corporate types the value of a Boy’s Own adventure, he loves to return to his happy place at Val de Vie.
His home is unfussy, modern, subtly masculine, and reveals a love for books, mostly history and biographies. We expected to see his Olympian medals, but alas, they were stolen while he was still living in Pretoria. On one of the walls is a landscape painted by one of his swimming coaches at the University of Arizona.
“My home is where I recharge. I wake up to birdsong. I live a quiet life, and I relish it. I can’t ask for more. It’s my beautiful bubble.”
One of his favourite times of day is going for a run around the estate. Occasionally he cannot resist stopping to take a photograph or video to post on Instagram. “I love seeing Simonsberg’s sleeping face lit up by the sun in the morning.”
He also swims three times a week and trains in the gym, but is looking forward to the building of an outdoor swimming pool. “I’m solar activated. I love to feel the sun on my back when I’m swimming.”
We head off to the winery, where Rhone varietals like Cinsault and Grenache are quietly turning to magic in French oak barrels. Someone managed to alert the Chinese to the fact that red wine is good for your health. Now they can’t export it fast enough. Between Val de Vie, La Motte and the Ruperts, they’re sending over three million bottles a year.
At the indoor swimming pool, we realise that this is Ryk Neethling’s real home. While he’s busy changing into his swimming costume, Chris and I discuss pictures. We devise all manner of plans for the shoot but, while he’s doing super-swift butterfly laps in the pool, we realise that swimming photography is something best left to professionals.
I ask him if people still bug him for selfies and autographs. “Actually, it’s incredible how many people still recognise me. It’s been
a while since I won those medals.”
I suggest he grows a beard and starts eating chocolate with every meal. But he just laughs and swims another lap.