ShapeShifter

How Ryk Neethling became a businessman (and turned down R50m along the way)

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“My father’s name is also ‘Ryk’. We’re a bunch of optimists,” jokes Olympic gold medallist turned property developer Ryk Neethling.

Ryk Neethling wasn’t always “ryk” (literally meaning “rich” in Afrikaans). “It was never my ambition to become a professional swimmer. All I ever wanted was to go to the Olympics and, when I went to my first one, I wanted to win a medal. I dreamt of swimming and studying in America.”

All that changed in 2004. Ryk was soon to become very, very “ryk” indeed.

Neethling’s soul not for sale

“It was going to be my last Olympics. I quit once already and 2004 was going to be my last shot.” Then, in three minutes and 13 seconds, he smashed the world record and everything changed. There was to be no quitting for Neethling.

“I had nothing before that,” says Neethling. “I received $250 a month from four businessmen – that was the only support I had – so I had $1000 a month. I did it purely for the love of it and for myself. I put it all on the line and did it to the best of ability.”

His best was more than enough. Agents and sponsors burst from the woodwork, yet Neethling was not dazzled by dollar signs. In 2005 he was offered R50-million to swim for Qatar, an offer he turned down.

“I was at my peak and the South African flag on my swimsuit and on my cap made the difference between where I used to be and where I was,” says the patriotic Neethling. “I was never going to give that up.”

Property in Neethling’s blood

Property has always been in Neethling’s blood. He did a realtor certificate in Arizona and nowadays he’s a director and major shareholder at Valde Vie Estate, a big polo lifestyle estate just outside of Paarl in the Western Cape.

“It’s going really well at Val de Vie. Last year we had 130 sales and we’re pretty much sold out.”

Neethling is also bottling his own wine under the Val de Vie label and recently did a huge export deal to China. “The wine business in South Africa is tough – there are so many big players – but it’s a very good wine and so far it’s worked for us.”

In addition to real estate and wine Neethling also owns four swimming academies. “It’s a nice little business and it feels really good to give back. But, for me, it’s more about seeing a kid swimming a length for the first time than seeing one of my swimmers win a gold medal.”

Neethling is Cameron van der Burgh’s commercial manager. “I get him sponsorships and I mentor him. I’ve been through it all, so I give him advice on how to act and where to go and what not to do. He makes me very nervous when he does things like face Dale Steyn at the Wanderers, but it’s mostly a pleasure to be his manager.”

Western Cape increasingly attractive to upcountry buyers

“You should see some of the homes that are selling here in Cape Town!” exclaims Neethling. “It’s astonishing. Our market can easily shake off rising interest rates, so we’re looking to develop quite a bit more land. Everything is working for us.

“Here in the Western Cape we don’t have potholes and people are coming down here in droves. More than half our buyers come from Gauteng and we don’t foresee this changing.

“It’s looking very good in the Western Cape; things work. It’s a recipe of good schools, it’s safe and in about four hours you can be in Sandton and you can do your business. I am very excited about our future.”

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