Gold medalist South Africa’s Zane Waddell poses with his medal following the men’s 50m backstroke final at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP

Zane Waddell moved to the US some years ago, but it’s evident that he still holds South Africa very close to his heart. Literally.Because on his chest and just underneath his heart, Waddell has the word “Ubuntu” tattooed.

The 21-year-old swimming sensation says the tattoo is a constant reminder of where he comes from.

“It was the first of three tattoos I have. All my tattoos are symbolic. The Ubuntu tattoo is symbolic of my South African spirit and heritage. That is also why I got it on my ribs close to my heart.”

So even though Alabama, in the US, has become Waddell’s new home, he says he never forgets which flag he swims for.

Waddell’s South African spirit was evident recently when he pulled off a massive upset at the Fina World Championships on the final day of competition in Gwangju, South Korea, claiming gold in the 50m backstroke.

Waddell stopped the clock at 24.43 seconds to finish ahead of the Russian duo of Evgeny Rilov and world record holder Kliment Kolesnikov.

He touched first in a tightly contested race where just 0.32seconds separated the victorious South African from the last-placed competitor.

It is the first time in 12 years that a South African won the event, something Waddell was unaware of. Gerhard Zandberg was the last local swimmer to top the podium, in Melbourne, in 2007.

“Wow, I never knew it was 12 years. It is obviously amazing to have broken the spell. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

The Bloemfontein-born swimmer joined Chad le Clos and Tatjana Schoenmaker as the only other South African swimmers to have won a medal at the World Champs in South Korea.

Le Clos claimed bronze in the 100m butterfly to add to his bronze in the 200m fly, and Schoenmaker made history earlier in the week, becoming the first South African female swimmer to win a medal at the World Champs.

As a medal haul, this ranks as the couontry’s fourth-best of the 10 world long-course championships since sprint king Roland Schoeman landed the nation’s first in Japan in 2001.

Waddell says while his gold medal win came as a surprise to most people, he was always confident.

“I would definitely say it was an upset. I have massive respect for everyone in that race but I was confident I could win the gold medal. It is an amazing feeling to be able to bring gold back to South Africa.”

Aside from the pure ecstasy of winning the race, Waddell says it was an incredible feeling to sing the South African national anthem on the podium.

“I was so proud to be singing the national anthem, but I was even prouder to hear it being sung by the whole South African swimming contingent in the stands.”

After claiming his gold medal, Waddell says he rushed back to the Olympic Village to call his mom.

“I called my mom and we just spoke about the race and how incredible it was to have won it. She was crying, obviously I believe a lot of people were that night.”

He’s had to work hard and sacrifice over the years to get ready for the world stage in swimming, he says.

One of the sacrifices that Waddell made, was to move abroad to improve his swimming. He is based at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“I have been in the US since August 2015 and it was the best move I could have ever made for my swimming. I have access to world class facilities and an amazing support system.”

At the tender age of 21, Waddell says there is still plenty to come from him.

“I will carry on working hard and I will see what the future has to hold. I would like to leave my legacy in swimming.”

For now, though, Waddell has travelled back home to South Africa to enjoy his gold medal win with his family.

“I will be in South Africa until August 17. It is amazing to be back and to have a real braai at last.”

Sameer Naik | IOL