The Gold Medal

By Zane Waddell

When I stood on top of that podium with a gold medal around my neck, I knew it was all worth it. All the hard work and sacrifices had paid off. The countless hours of practice, the early mornings, moving to the United States… it all came together in that very moment.

I brought home gold in the 50-meter backstroke at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, representing my home country South Africa.

This was, without a doubt, the biggest milestone of my career so far. I even managed to beat the current world record holder.

Since this happened pretty recently, it’s still very fresh for me. The immediate impact it has had on my confidence is out of this world. With our SEC and NCAA championships coming up soon, knowing that I’m capable of beating top-level competition gives me the utmost confidence in myself to be successful.

But getting there wasn’t a straight line, I can tell you that.

Learning What It Takes

My love for swimming started on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. I lived in Malta, Valletta, which is just south of Italy.

Because we were on an island, my mom forced me to take water safety classes.

Doesn’t sound overly fun for a little boy, I know, but the water was my favorite place to be. Nothing came close to the joy I felt when I was surrounded by it.

Of course, I didn’t link water safety classes to competitive swimming at that age, but still, even when I was that young, I was drawn to the water.

We soon moved to South Africa, and that’s really where I began to thrive as a swimmer.

To this day, I think what propelled my swimming career the most were the sacrifices I made for the sake of swimming.

It wasn’t always easy for a teenager to say ‘no’ to hanging out with friends to get enough rest for the tough morning workouts, or to give up on playing other sports. But, I knew I wanted to be a successful swimmer, and with that, sacrifices were inevitable.

You see, I love field hockey and rugby. And I genuinely believe that playing different sports helped my swimming career as well. But – once you reach a certain stage – you understand that you have to make a decision. Do you want to be really great at one thing or decent at multiple ones?

Well, you know what my answer was.


I brought home gold in the 50-meter backstroke at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, representing my home country South Africa. This was, without a doubt, the biggest milestone of my career so far. I even managed to beat the current world record holder.

Transitioning To A New Country

I carried that same mindset to the United States.

As a collegiate swimmer at Alabama, I have all the resources in the world to become the greatest version of myself possible. Seriously, you should see the facilities and opportunities Alabama provides to all of its student-athletes. It’s insane!

Back home, I sometimes swam outside when it was below freezing in the winter months. I had no other choice. There was no weight room, nutrition staff, or athletic trainers. I just had myself and the outside pool.

So now, maybe more than ever, it was really up to me to see what I would make out of my athletic career. And making sacrifices played a big role again.

One of those sacrifices was moving to the United States in the first place.

I’m very close with my family and friends back home in South Africa – and leaving them behind and getting used to a seven-hour time difference wasn’t the most appealing thought, to be honest.

But, I knew it had to be done.

And the transition to the US was a bit tricky, not going to lie. Especially language-wise.

I spoke English and Afrikaans pretty much all my life, but here in the US, it’s a very different dialect.

It took some time to get used to it, but eventually, I did.

Help From Alabama

In general, I have to say though that The University of Alabama really helped make the transition as smooth as possible. Sure, there were struggles, but if it wasn’t for a lot of different people and departments, that transition would have been a lot harder.

Looking back, it’s crazy to think I almost didn’t come to Alabama. I came so close to signing with another school until I heard from Jonty Skinner.

For those who don’t know, Jonty was a coach here at Alabama while I was being recruited. He was from South Africa. Once I heard about him, my mind completely shifted gears, and I knew I’d be moving to Alabama.

A little fun fact about me, I actually didn’t visit the United States until I moved into the dorms my freshman year. All I knew about the United States was what TV and movies showed, but that was about it. I mean, I looked up pictures of Alabama’s campus before coming here, but it was still kind of a shot in the dark. Once I got here though, man, I knew it was the right place for me.

The best part about Alabama are the people.

I’m a huge believer that the people around you make you who you are. Whether it’s my teammates, coaches, friends, other international students, or staff, they all are exceptional people that really make for an unforgettable experience.

Future Plans

The gold medal from the 2019 FINA World Championships was a huge blessing. Most importantly, it’s a reminder of how far I’ve come. The sacrifices I had to make, the work I needed to put in, and the huge opportunity Alabama has provided me.

Now, as a senior, my goal is to end my career on a high note, and I certainly plan on doing so.

Last year, we won a national championship with our 200 medley relay team. This was an unbelievable moment that I’ll never forget. It made me hungry for more. Both on the conference and national side of things.

After I graduate, I aim for the international swimming league, which is sort of like the NFL or NBA for swimming. And then, hopefully you’ll see me in both the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games. Ideally, with another gold medal around my neck – that’s the dream.

Until then, Roll Tide!

More Stories

© 2019 The University of Alabama

Powered by