Lotkin beats tattooed hardliners to win World Top 10 medal
“All nine of my opponents in the holding area [before the swimmers get called to take their starting blocks in the 400m medley race] had the five Olympic rings tattooed somewhere on their shoulders,” he said. “I’m pretty nervous at the best of times, but that made me very, very nervous, I can tell you.”
Never having been to an Olympics, Lotkin was already anxious about the early-August championships to begin with. He wasn’t sure he deserved to be there, and carried an extremely well-developed case of imposter’s syndrome with him in his luggage.
Although he’s 60, this was his first mega international swimming event, with 30 000 participants and 144 competing countries.
Here was a global sporting event on a scale to make your head spin.
Luckily Lotkin had prepared well for four events in South Korea, going so far as to solicit the help of a spiritual advisor and the attention of sports psychologist and coach Peter Williams, a former Olympian and the world-record holder in the 50m freestyle.
But here was competition of a whole different order. Did he deserve to be in such esteemed company? And how was he going to handle such brazen intimidation as he found in the holding area?
Ranked 20th in the over-60 Master’s category going into the championships, Lotkin went out in the 400m medley and did the only thing he knew how to – swim as fast as he could. At the end of 400 painful metres, he finished 10th, which qualified him for a medal for being in the world top 10.
He was thrilled, but there was more to come. Later, he carried the South African flag at the championship’s closing ceremony. “I’m an extremely proud South African. It was incredibly emotional,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I cried like a baby.”
Swimming always came naturally to Lotkin. “I didn’t need swimming lessons like my brothers and sisters, who were a bit more academic than I was,” he said. “I watched the other kids’ swim and copied them. That’s how I learned. I had no fear of water.”
His ability in the water held him in good stead at King David Victory Park, where he matriculated in the late 1970s. As a long-suffering loose-head prop (“I used to get donnered by the older boys from other schools”), he played six years of first XV rugby. And, towards the end of his school career in 1977, found himself holding five South African swimming records as the then Transvaal swimming captain.
“I was the first South African kid to get a full Maccabi scholarship for swimming,” he said. “It would have taken me to Israel, but I never took it up.”
Instead, he went into the army and found himself on the Angolan border, where his reputation for being a talented swimmer ended up being a rare disadvantage. “They asked me to swim across the Zambezi River [to look at SWAPO positions] but I refused,” he said. “So they put me in solitary confinement for three weeks. When I got out they asked me again. This time I swam across. I was in no mood to argue.”
After post-military spells in California and with his family in New South Wales, Australia, where he never felt quite at home, Lotkin returned to South Africa. Since his return in 1990, he’s swum in 17 South African national championships. In the last two, he’s won gold in what has become his preferred event, the 3 000m Open-Water swim.
As a result of his recent gold medals, it was suggested by a local official that he aim higher because his times in the 60-and-over category easily qualified him for international events such as the one he competed in for the first time earlier in August.
“The open swim was in the sea, on the border of the Yellow and Chinese Sea,” he said. “You have no idea what the humidity is like. Durban can be humid, but not like this. I still had jet lag, I had just stepped off the plane the day before, and I didn’t swim my best race in finishing 12th.”
Luckily he had a couple of days after that to acclimatise, with the 400m individual medley taking place far enough into the competition for his jet lag to subside. In spite of the Olympic rings on show, he swam well. It was, he says, his best achievement of the championships.
Having tasted an over-sized international event, Lotkin has the bug. He says he wants to compete in the World Pan-Pacific Masters’ Games in Rio de Janeiro in a year’s time, seeing if he can improve on his 10th and 12th places.
“Having experienced South Korea, I’m better prepared,” he says. “I’m mentally stronger and more self-confident. That medal has done wonders for my self-esteem after being eyeballed by those guys in the holding area.”