Darian Townsend

Olympic gold medalist and world record holder

Darian Roy Townsend  was born 28 August 1984 in Pinetown. He was a member of the South African men's 4×100 metre freestyle relay team that won gold and broke the world record at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Townsend attended the University of Arizona and the University of Florida.

Natural born swimmer

24 Apr 2008

Matthew le Cordeur

American-based South African Olympic gold medallist Darian Townsend is at a crossroads in his swimming career. His second Olympic Games are a few months away and he has to prove to the world that he is a professional swimmer. It isnt an easy job. Unless youre Michael Phelps, who is the best swimmer in the world, you dont get publicity, says Townsend (23). Getting publicity means sponsorship deals, which a professional sportsperson depends on to turn a passion into a career.

We are sitting beside the pool at Townsends parents house in Montrose in which he took his first strokes as a natural born swimmer. Coming from a swimming family, I took to the water at 18 months, he says, smiling at his parents Ted and Rita. They both finished first in their age groups in this years Midmar Mile and their daughter Cheryl is on a scholarship swimming in the United States.

Townsend was born on August 28, 1984, in Pinetown and moved with his family to Pietermaritzburg shortly afterwards. He went to Northern Park Primary, Merchiston and then Maritzburg College, getting his matric certificate in 2002. Throughout his school days, though, the one thing that kept him motivated and in high spirits was swimming.

I joined my mums swimming classes in this very pool, he says. But my parents soon realised that I needed to start training professionally and so when I was seven I joined the Pietermaritzburg Seals Swimming Club as a club night swimmer. He then moved on to Wayne Riddins swim squad, beginning his career for the Seals.

In 2003, Townsend decided to take a gap year and trained with French coach Fred Vernoux. I went to France to do further training and then swam for South Africa at the 2003 Barcelona World Championships. It was the first time that the four swimmers who won gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004 [Townsend, Roeland Schoeman, Ryk Neethling and Lyndon Ferns] swam together, which was a great experience.

He returned to South Africa, where he trained under Graham Hill in Pinetown. It was a very good experience because I was able to cross train with cycling, which I really enjoyed. Hill, the coach of Terrence Parkin who won silver at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, encouraged cross training with cycling and so Townsend went about on a bicycle for 60 kilometres a day at the height of his training for Athens 2004. Thats how he found himself tackling the gruelling Amashovashova cycle race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

It only hit Townsend when he reached the final of the mens 4x100 metre freestyle relay with Schoeman, Neethling and Ferns at the Athens Olympics in August 2004 that he was about to be part of something special. It was such a happy moment for all of us, he said, his Olympic gold medal slightly worn from all the people who have oozed over it.

The Olympics came when I was 19, which is very young, he says. This had good and bad repercussions.

The good would be that you can never lose your Olympic gold from your name, he says. The bad part of it, however, is that I was still growing and having this medal puts a lot of pressure on you. Everyone who competes against you says, show me what youve got that makes you so special.

After breaking the world record and getting gold, Townsend began making a name for himself in American waters, but it didnt start off very easily.

In 2005, Townsend got a full scholarship to Florida University where he began studying sociology. Being away from his family for such a long period was not an easy transition and the first two years were tough. I didnt get on with the head coach and I didnt find his programme very helpful, which showed in races, he says. But it took me a while to realise this. At first I thought I wasnt good enough.

The coach believed in long-distance swimming training and pushed his swimmers throughout the year without a break. He used fear as a tactic, which for me just didnt work.

But although he was struggling, Townsend wasnt out of the equation yet. In March 2005 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), his Florida team won gold and broke the record in their 4x200 metre freestyle relay. That competition is actually much more difficult than the Olympics, Townsend says. One thousand two hundred universities take part and it is hard just qualifying.

But Townsend was fed up at Florida and when Arizona University head coach Frank Busch offered him a place there in 2006, he was on the first plane out of Florida. All the four relay guys from Athens were at Arizona, so you can imagine the feeling of being there, he says. We could talk and hang out with each other, which I really enjoyed.

The coaching was also a relief. They are so much more relaxed there and develop you as a person rather than a swimming machine.

Townsend said he had never really taken much interest in his diet, but Schoeman influenced him a lot. He taught me how to cook and, more importantly, how to cook leaving fatty foods out. We eat a lot of pasta and low-fat meats, he says.

In 2006 Townsend was selected for the South African team to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, but it was the following year in which he truly came into his own as a swimmer. At 22, he got gold in the 200 yard freestyle finals at the NCAA and his relay team broke the record his team at Florida had set the year before, also winning gold. This year he again got gold at the NCAA in the 200 yard individual medley race.

I have really enjoyed swimming for Arizona, he says. I have been able to travel all over the country and see the different cultures in the United States. But, as one of the conditions of my scholarship, I cant be part of the team next year and have to focus on completing my degree, so I will have to find another team to swim for.

In his time off, Townsend spends time with his girlfriend Ashley, who is a cheerleader for the Arizona University football team. We enjoy relaxing together, watching movies, playing pool  you know, the normal stuff, he says. But I cant sit in the house doing nothing all day. I have to get out and do something active at least once a day.

Townsend has just finished a successful competition in Durban at the South African National Championships, which were also Olympic qualifiers. Townsend qualified in the 200 metre individual medley and in so doing broke the South African record in a time of 2:01,05.

Back in the U.S., Townsend will be returning to a stringent training schedule ahead of the Chinese Olympic Games. He trains four to five hours a day, with a one-and-a-half hour workout in the pool, a dry land workout and another two hours in the pool in the afternoon. I have a couple of meets in California and Arizona before the Olympics, which will help to improve my times, he says. I am currently fifth in the six-man squad for the South African relay team and so need to up my time to make it into the four-man team  we will have a time trial just before the finals in China. Luckily, Ill be peaking at the right time again.

Townsend says he cant wait to be back at the Olympic Village set-up. Having all the great athletes from around the world in one place at one time is amazing, he says, Just walking around the food court is awesome, because you bump into people you once idolised.

But the Olympics are about more than just doing well for South Africa. Townsend needs to win gold to be recognised by sponsors. I am expecting to drop a few seconds off my time, he says. Swimming is not seen as a glamorous sport and sponsorships dont come easy.

Townsend says he will peak as a swimmer in a few years time. Give me a few years and I will be swimming the times, he says. Luckily, I have my parents in the background, who are always helping me out financially, because at the moment there is no one else.

For Townsend, the 2008 Olympics could not have come at a better time. I love being a swimmer. Some people work hard in the office and I work hard in the pool, he says. I love testing my body as a swimmer  it just makes me feel special.



Feature by Elle Meinholz, Swimming World internship

May 7, 2013

Just like many young competitive swimmers, South African Olympic Gold Medalist Darian Townsend dreamed of continuing his swimming career in college. Unlike these swimmers who grow up and move miles away from home to swim as college athletes, Townsend wound up in an entirely different country as he moved to the United States to further his education and continue pursuing his passion for the sport of swimming.

From a swimming family, Townsend started swimming at a young age. Despite encouragement from his parents to try other sports, Townsend enjoyed swimming the most, and has stuck with it.

"It was the logical and natural thing for me to do," Townsend said. "Just being in the water for me is just so much fun. When I get in to the water, it's the same every time, and I just love it. Water is where I kind of feel is the best place for me to be."

Townsend came from a club team that sent a lot of swimmers overseas to swim, particularly in the American college system. Motivated by previous South African success stories, American college swimming became a huge goal for Townsend in his early teens.

"Just seeing swimmers that went over to the U.S. and did so well at the Olympics and World Champs and in the college system was kind of my motivating factor to get myself over there and be like them," said Townsend.

Transitioning from a South African swimmer to a South African representative training in the U.S. has had its challenges for Townsend. In college, Townsend was united with his American team by group goals as an Arizona Wildcat.

"It was really nice to be a part of a group that had a single goal in mind" said Townsend.

Now training as a post-graduate as part of Tucson Ford, Townsend's goals are no longer shared by a team.

"Since I finished with college there is no longer a group goal we are all heading towards. I was training for something completely different than the college kids."

Another significant transition for Townsend was from a very sprint-oriented and technique based program to one of high volume yardage and intense dryland work.

"When I came to the U.S. my training dramatically increased in the yardage, and also in the gym. I wasn't used to doing two weight sessions a week and dryland on top of that, and like I said, more yardage."

Although the transition was tough initially, Townsend believes that the way he trained in South Africa before moving to the U.S. has allowed him to really excel in the U.S. and have a long and successful career.

"My coach was very big on good technique and that is something that I have carried throughout my career. I have been blessed to have an injury free career up to this point, and I think that has a lot to do with good technique and being taught good technique at a young age."

Being from a sprint-oriented program has also allowed Townsend to build up his volume and intensity throughout his career.

"Right now even when I am 28 years old, I am probably training more now than when I was 18, 19 years old. I think that has a lot to do with the reason why I have had such a long swimming career, because I wasn't doing high yardage as a 13, 14 year old."

Now a sponsored athlete by A3 Performance, Townsend enjoys his life in Tucson.

"I get to train with some of the best swimmers in the world here at the U of A. We have a good, healthy post-grad group as well as a phenomenal college team."

In addition to training, Townsend is also coaching at Tucson Ford.

"I will finish my practice with U of A and then jump out of the water and straight on to the deck for two hours of Ford Practice."

As Townsend has progressed in his swimming career, his level of responsibility has definitely grown.

"There is a responsibility with it, but it's a huge honor," said Townsend. "I'm just grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, and you know it's not easy, especially as a swimmer, to get a sponsor. It's not a sport where you get a lot of face time on television. For a company to want to sponsor an athlete like that, it really says something about that athlete, and, like I said, it's a huge honor."

Still improving in the pool, Townsend recently won the 200 IM at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa ahead of Ryan Lochte. What can we expect from Townsend moving forward?

"I definitely think Rio 2016 is in the cards. That's the long term goal" said Townsend. "Short term goals, I plan to race in the World Cup series, and race the 200 free more, shooting for that short course world record."

Rio 2016 would be Townsend's fourth Olympic Games. In a sport like swimming, there are bound to be disappointments and frustrations. The reason why Townsend has made it this far is the mindset of "hard work and never give up. Every season has ups and downs. It's learning to persevere through those ups and downs. It's learning to swim when the odds are not really in your favor."

Townsend has been active and extremely competitive in the sport for a long time now. In a sport so demanding, one may wonder how a swimmer stays so motivated and determined, but for Townsend, it's easy.

"I love swimming, I love training, and I love racing people, so I will do that for as long as I can. You only have one swimming career and you are only young once. I am going to try to do it for as long as I can and if I am still successful at it, I am going to keep doing it."

The 2012 Olympic website has this information about Darian:


Supporting Manchester United. (twitter.com, 04 Mar 2012)


Athlete, Coach


Sociology - Univeristy of Arizona, United States

Language(s) spoken


Club name

Tucson Ford Dealers Aquatics , Pietermaritzburg, RSA


Johno Fergusson (Twitter, 05 Mar 2012)

Position and style

Freestyle (sports.yahoo.com, 27 Jul 2010)

Sporting relatives

He has also played water polo in South Africa at a provincial level. (The Star, 25 Sep 2002)

Other sports

His sister Cheryl is a swimmer. (arizonawildcats.com, 27 2010)

Additional information

Start of sporting career
"I started swimming at home at about two years old, and then joined Seals Swimming Club at seven years old." (NOCSA, 01 Jul 2004; sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

Reason for taking up this sport
His mother Rita was a swimming teacher. (suntimes.co.za, 23 Aug 2010)

Swims up to 6,000 yards [approx 5.5km] per session. He trains twice a day and attends the gym three times a week. (sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

Most memorable sporting achievement
Receiving the MVP award for the U19 South African swimming team which toured Australia. (sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

Alex Popov because he has won so many Olympic medals and is the ultimate swimmer. (NOCSA, 01 Jul 2004)

Sporting philosophy / motto
"My desire to win. Each time I raced and got beaten, it made me more determined to train harder and become faster. Every time I won, it made me want to win more and break records." (sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

He was Pietermaritzburg's Homegrown Sportsperson of the Year for 2009. (witness.co.za, 10 Dec 2009)

He believes that the opportunity of attaining a scholarship in the USA can be beneficial for every swimmer. "For swimmers going over the United States, they are given scholarships and the opportunity to race almost every weekend. And at the end of their four years, they come out with a good degree. Until South African universities are able to offer scholarships to swimmers, I believe swimmers are better suited training in the US." (sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

He admits he thought about retiring after competing at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
"The moment I really didn't want to swim any more was after Commonwealth Games in 2006, where I swam really poorly. I then had to go swim the NCAA championships. I again swam very badly, but what made it worse was my coach told me I wasn't trying and basically that I sucked. To have someone tell you that is the worst thing an athlete can hear." (sealskzn.co.za, 27 Jul 2010)

He is a supporter and proponent of swimsuits. "My opinion on the suits is that they should be allowed to stay. I think FINA needs to regulate new advancements in technology a little better from now on. But for FINA to say at the end of the year we are going to go back to fully 'woven' suits, is a major step back for swimming. Yes the new suits have wiped out what many previous great swimmers have done, that is, their records. But the suits haven't taken away their medals or placings at major competitions. They are all still national heroes in their respective countries and idols to many of us."

Previous Olympics

Beijing 2008, Athens 2004

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