Renowned for his positivity, Michael Houlie of Cape Town recently represented South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics. ‘I love to race. The word ‘pressure’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary,’ he says
This article was first published in July 2021

Cape Town’s MICHAEL HOULIE loved every minute of representing his country at the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics. He didn’t reach the 100m breaststroke finals, but at 21, he has plenty of time left for competitive swimming and left the games with a very positive attitude. What drives and defines him, what does he stay away from to do well, and what turned around a low period in his life? He told THISLIFE ONLINE

Michael has just turned 21. He attended Bishops College in Cape Town, then took up a swimming scholarship at the University of Tennessee, where he’s currently studying business and finance. His father Sam works in investment management, his mother Colleen is a teacher. Michael has one sister, Amy-Joy (17), and has been back in Cape Town to lock down with his family in preparation for the Olympics since May 2021

[thb_dividers style=”style10″]
‘I’m leaving Tokyo more motivated and hungrier than before,’ said a positive Michael after the 2020 Olympics. ‘What an amazing and fun experience’

When did you discover you were good at swimming?  At school I played water polo, and swimming was in the background until I was 14. I was performing decently at club level, so entered a national event and broke the South African record by accident in the first heat! That’s when I started dreaming about competing in the Olympics

What do you love about it? Everything! I have fun and enjoy every moment!  I love to race and have a goal, I love the atmosphere and the moment when I step up onto the starting block, ready for the starter’s pistol. There’s so much room for improvement and I take joy in getting better, even though I have to spend countless hours to make a split-second improvement. I love it!

Michael recently celebrated his 21st birthday in a lockdown bubble with his family to keep himself Covid-free for the Olympics. ‘We’ll see about a party when I get back from the Olympics… if we’re not still in lockdown!’

Role of your family in your success? My family members have been my biggest supporters since my junior years

I was home for the last two months for the final stages of my preparation for the Olympics, and as well as being in a ‘training bubble’, I was in a ‘family bubble’. The safety protocols for the upcoming Olympics were strict and my family took it very seriously. Every moment was a reminder of the strength I get from family: little moments such as building a puzzle with my Pa (grandfather). I smiled all the time when I was with them

Looking back, they’ve done so much for me, scheduling their time around my training and racing. Then there’s the cost: coaching, gym fees, travelling, physio, goggles, caps, flippers, kicking boards… it’s all expensive. Racing suits alone cost more than R5000, and I kept outgrowing them! Some tours and training camps are self-funded which puts an additional financial strain on my parents. Fortunately, the big events like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics are fully funded by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC). I’m always very thankful for that

My dad made the decision that the family would go to as many of my events as possible. He says that the memories are worth more than the cost. In 2018, my whole family came to Australia to support me: it’s one of the things I’ll always remember. My dad wears a luminous green T-shirt to my races so when I walk out of the tunnel I can always find my family in the crowd. Just seeing them there is everything to me. And afterwards they’re always there with wide open arms, no matter how the race has gone

In 2019, when I became a senior swimmer, my family stopped travelling with me and watch on TV or via live streaming. The Tokyo Olympics were going to be their first time watching me live as a senior swimmer. Thanks to Covid, spectators weren’t allowed, but I knew I simply had to close my eyes to see the family cheer me on!

No wonder Michael’s a champion swimmer, he has flippers where his feet should be! From left: father Sam, Michael, sister Amy-Joy, mother Colleen  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott

How do you cope with the pressure? ‘Pressure’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary in the way that many people understand it. Pressure is part of the exhilaration of racing and I see it as a privilege, a reward for my hard work as only the best athletes get to race in the biggest races

If I have a bad race, I treat it as a learning opportunity or feedback, and move on

Michael at the University of Tennessee. ‘The level of excellence is high, going there was the best decision of my life.’ He does, however, miss the smell of a South African braai [barbeque]

Your swimming scholarship at the University of Tennessee: highs and lows? Going to the University of Tennessee has been the best decision of my life. It’s been everything that I thought it would be and more! Everything works, the coaches, the environment, my team-mates, the competitions and Knoxville is a perfect University town. The level of excellence is high: every training session is intentional and meaningful, and the coaches are attentive and observant

HIGHS: When I arrived in the US, everything felt easy. I was swimming faster than anyone expected, which helped me feel part of the team. I won a silver medal and qualified for the National Collegiate Athletic Association finals within three months of arriving in the US. I was on a high! I set the World University Record in the 50m breaststroke and won two gold medals at the All-Africa Games in Morocco, before returning to the US for the start of my sophomore (second) year

LOWS: But when I got back to the US, I struggled to find a rhythm. I was strangely deflated and distracted. My training didn’t go well and I wasn’t competing to my full potential, even though I was still winning races

I knew that something had to change. That change arrived in the form of my family! Mum didn’t know about the state of my swimming but had been praying and felt God nudging her to make a family Christmas happen. This proved to be the catalyst that brought me out of my emotional low. Having a simple reminder of our family, its values and the little things that we do gave me the energy to get myself back on track. I went back to college after Christmas with a renewed focus, and for me, everything changed from that moment on: my discipline, my eating habits, my training focus and my attitude. January 2020 was an inflection point for me. The improvement in the pool was virtually instantaneous


Delayed Olympics last year? I was on the up and feeling good, getting ready for the 2020 Olympics when Covid hit the world. Everything stopped. Within two days, I was back in South Africa. Then the SA Trials were cancelled and the Olympics were postponed with a strong possibility of cancellation. It was a lot to digest in such a short space of time. But I managed to train every single day, with a view to coming out of lockdown in my best possible shape. Every day, I did whatever I could – swimming in our home pool with a stretch cord, gym work and stationary cycling. The isolation proved a blessing: it improved my focus and allowed me to work on my weaknesses. I arrived back in Tennessee stronger, better and ready to swim fast. The 2020/21 college season was again very disrupted by Covid: student athletes were subject to very strict protocols and weekly Covid testing, with minimal interaction outside their teams. But it was my best season for Tennessee and I swam the fastest time in school history in the 100m breaststroke

In the zone: Michael in the 100m breaststroke finals at the Junior World Championships in Indianapolis, USA  |  Photo: Houlie family

How do you juggle academics, swimming, etc? All student athletes have to maintain good grades at Tennessee University so it hasn’t always been easy: there have been times when I’ve completed exams and assignments while on the team bus! But there’s great support for us from student advisors and professors are very understanding of the demands of international swimmers. It does require clear and timely communication on my part, but I’ve always managed to make deadlines and maintain my grades. I live in my own apartment, where I do all my own cooking and cleaning, so those are demands I have to manage too. My family say that I’ve grown up a lot!

Michael with his sister, Amy-Joy

What do you miss most about SA? I miss family, including my cousins and extended family. When we get together, we have a big meal and we sit around a massive table at our home, surrounded by music and laughter. I also miss close friends: the belly laughter and the banter from reliving our childhood. And I miss a braai. My grandfather is a master-braaier and the smell of a braai cannot be replicated in the US!

Turnaround time. In his second year at the University of Tennessee, Michael lost his emotional and competitive mojo. A family visit over Christmas renewed his energy and focus. He put this pic on Instagram and joked, ‘Laying under the Christmas tree to remind my family that I’m a GIFT!!’

Average number of training hours a day? Longest day: seven hours, consisting of two swim sessions (morning and afternoon) and one gym session. Shortest day: five hours

Is the training ever boring? No, because there’s always a goal

Seven hours training a day is not for us all, but for Michael it’s his happy place: ‘I love waiting for the starter’s pistol’  |  Photo: Houlie family

Tell us about your faith. It began at home. I’m fortunate to have inherited a great legacy of faith from men who love God and live their faith every day. My grandfather is a pastor, as was my late grandfather on my dad’s side, and my uncle is a pastor. It became personal for me at 13 during a youth camp where I chose to live my life with God. But I’ve felt closer to God in the last 18 months than ever before. The slowing down of activity due to Covid has amplified my awareness of God, and  has enabled me, in the huge uncertainty of recent months, to relax and hand things over to Him, realising it’s all about His plan, not mine. My relationship with Him has kept me calm and stable. I always have on my mind this verse from The Bible, Jeremiah 29:11, that goes:  For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘Plans for good and not for disaster, plans to give you a future and a hope’

Coolest thing about God? I can be myself and He’ll love me. If I make a mistake it’s okay, just as it is in my family

How do you connect with God? Mostly through prayer. Training means that I can’t always get to church but I can pray whenever I want to. Music is also a big part of how I tune in to God. My favourite artists are Tauren Wells and Danny Gokey. In my car, I play the K-Love Christian Radio station all the time. The songs and the lyrics stay in my head: for me, this is a form of worship

Michael wins gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics

Best and worst sporting moments? My two Olympic-qualifying swims were definitely my most important because they enabled me to compete in Tokyo

My best swim is my next swim because whatever happens, it will be good for me. I believe the Bible verse, Romans 8:28 which says, ‘All things work together for good

Looking back, I would say that my defining senior swim happened when I was still 17, in the 50m breaststroke final at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. I was thrilled to be racing alongside my hero, Cameron van der Burgh, and Adam Peaty, the world-record holder and reigning Olympic champion. With the brash confidence of youth, I thought they’d win gold and silver and I’d win bronze… but I came sixth!

I learned a lot from that difficult moment and it led to an even better moment. Cameron won, which I was thrilled about, it was a big deal for him and for South Africa, and after the race, his encouraging comment to me was that it would be up to me to keep the gold in South African hands! It felt like a passing of the torch in South African breaststroke, and an example of how everything works for the good

Racing is ‘exhilaration’, says Michael

Ultimate comfort food and best training food? Sushi. I’m a huge seafood fan and will eat anything that counts as seafood, no matter how strange it looks. For training, my easiest go-to food is bananas. I eat a lot of them!

What do you stay away from in life to keep you on course? Haha. That’s easy, I stay away from sugar, fizzy drinks, junk food, negative people and negativity in general, anything that does not make me swim fast and highly competitive gaming and online tournaments.  I enjoy gaming and it has the potential to suck me in and waste hours!

What defines you? Postivity and happiness! I choose to be happy and I enjoy making others happy

Share with Friend
print this page 
Welcome to Thislife Online, you lovely person



PS: Email editor@thislifeonline.co.za with any subscription issues. Gmailers, add us to your contacts so we don't get diverted to your spam :)