HE’S ONLY 17 but Cape Town schoolboy MICHAEL HOULIE is already stacking up against the senior big guns of international swimming. Currently South Africa’s senior national breaststroke champion, he came a fabulous sixth (which disappointed him) in the 50m breaststroke finals of the 2018 Commonwealth Games against men who were nearly double his age. All set to take up a swimming scholarship in America next year, he has his eyes firmly fixed on the Olympics. What drives and defines him? SHIRLEY FAIRALL was delighted to find out.
Michael lives in Rondebosch, Cape Town, and is in his final year at Bishops College. His father Sam works in investment management, his mother Colleen is a teacher. He has one sister, Amy-Joy (14)
FIRST, WATCH THIS VID : it takes serious dedication to be a national champion! Plus what do Michael’s parents consider to be way more important than swim stats?
When did you discover you were good at swimming? I was actually a water polo player and swimming was in the background until I was 14. I did very well at school swimming and performed decently at club level, but everything changed when I was 14 and entered my first ever junior national event. I broke the South African record by accident in the first heat! That was the first time I realised what I was capable of.
What do you love about it? 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.
Best and worst sporting moments? My best and worst were the same moment. It was the 50m final at the recent Commonwealth Games – my first – and I was thrilled to be racing alongside my hero, Cameron van der Burgh, and Adam Peaty, the world record holder. I thought they’d win gold and silver and I’d win bronze… but I came sixth!
Luckily, I move on from the bad moments. It helped that Cameron won and I was thrilled about that. It was a big deal for him and for South Africa. His encouraging comment to me was that in four years’ time it’s going to be up to me to keep the gold in South African hands!
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
Role of your family in your success? They’re my biggest supporters. 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 R4,000 and I keep 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 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, particularly while I am still a junior. He says that the memories are worth more than the cost. 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.
What does your swimming future hold? I’ve got some important races coming up this year, including my first and last Youth Olympics in Argentina in October. In January, I’m taking up a scholarship at the University of Tennessee. I was approached by a number of different universities, but when I visited Tennessee I was surprised to feel immediately at home.
There are many ways I can improve as a swimmer and I think the environment will bring out the best in me. I already feel part of the family and can’t wait to contribute to the team. I’ll probably study music as a minor, and finance and business as majors. It will be difficult to leave my family but I’m excited.
In the zone: Michael in the 100m breaststroke finals at the Junior World Championships in Indianapolis, USA, August 2017 | Photo: Houlie family
Hardest thing you have to do and how you cope? This year’s been quite tough because there’s been a lot going on. I’ve been competing in the Commonwealth Games, then I will be training for the Senior Africa Championships in Algeria in September, the Youth Olympics in Argentina in October and the Regional Youth Games in Botswana in December, all of which are pending selection.
On top of that I’m studying for school exams in June, matric mocks a bit later on, then matric finals ⎯ plus studying for the American SATs for admission to the University of Tennessee. Even at the Commonwealth Games my tutor messaged me daily asking for updates on my studies!
I’m now starting to think of matric finals like a race because if there’s one thing swimming has taught me, it’s discipline! Actually, I’ve learned a lot of life lessons through swimming.
Your coach? It’s been Warren Deyzel for the past year. He’s a real blessing and is so connected to how I’m doing that if I have a bad race, he apologises to me and I have to comfort him! It’s so important for swimmer and coach to be able to work together like this. He’s very open to learning, too. When I visit home from the USA, he wants me to come and share the coaching tips and techniques I’ve picked up. I’m hoping he’ll be selected as coach for the Youth Olympics, which will make it extra special for both of us.
Is repetitive swimming training ever boring? No, because there’s always a goal. I’ll never lose my love for the sport.
Then and now: close siblings | Photos: Houlie family and Nicky Elliott
Swimming goal? The Olympics! I think every athlete has the Olympic dream. I’ve had it since I was 14. It seemed obvious to me that if I kept improving and got better every year, eventually it would lead to the Olympics.
What would you do if you couldn’t swim again? The other things I love: music and soccer.
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 at a youth camp where I chose to live my life with God.
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 Him? Mostly through prayer. Training means that I can’t always get to church but I can pray whenever I want to. Before every race I pray, ‘To God be the glory’. I also connect through the songs I play. I love music, which I’m studying at school, and I play bass guitar in three different bands: rock, jazz and wind.
Mr Happy in his happy place: ‘I love waiting for the starter’s pistol’ | Photo: Houlie family
How do you cope with the pressure? That word doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. If I have a bad race, I treat it as a learning opportunity and move on.
How do you feel about being called an Olympic hopeful? It’s an honour and it’s exciting. Lots of people think I’m capable. I know I’m capable and I want it!
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. Other families do a monthly shop: my mom does a monthly shop every two weeks!
What defines you? Happiness! I choose to be happy and I enjoy making others happy.
MICHAEL: THE STATS
- African Junior Champion 2015 in the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke, championship record holder
- SA Junior National Champion (50m breaststroke)
- SA Junior National Champion (all breaststroke events)
- Treviso (Italy) Swim Cup; 3 gold medals in the breaststroke events, championship record
- Silver Medallist in Africa Senior Champs 2016 (50m and 100m breaststroke)
- Africa Under 23 Champion in 50m and 100m breaststroke
- SA Age Group record holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke (boys aged 15)
- SA Junior National Champion (200m individual medley and all breaststroke events)
- 2017 Junior Commonwealth Games gold medallist (50m and 100m breaststroke) and championship record holder
- Finalist at 2017 Junior World Championships (50m and 100m breaststroke)
- Qualification for 2018 Senior Commonwealth Games
- SA Age Group record holder in the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke (boys aged 16)
January to May 2018
- SA Junior (Elite Youth) National Champion (50m and 100m breaststroke events)
- SA Age Group record holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke (boys aged 17)
- SA Senior National Champion (50m breaststroke event)
- 2018 Senior Commonwealth Games:
- Semi-finalist in 100m breaststroke, placing joint 10th
- Finalist in the 50m breaststroke, placing 6th overall
- 3rd place (bronze medal) for the 4 x 100m medley relay