On Aug. 8, 2008, Georgia breaststroker Neil Versfeld was over 7,000 miles away from the lanes of Gabrielsen Natatorium. One of 10 Bulldog swimmers to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, he listened from the athletes village as the opening ceremony thundered nearby.
Versfeld — now in his first year as an associate head coach for the Bulldogs — was scheduled to swim the next day. Rather than joining his fellow Olympians in the Parade of Nations, he watched the display from an impromptu screen set up in the village, about two miles from Beijing National Stadium.
On the same summer night, Georgia swimming and diving head coach Jack Bauerle was also in the Olympic Park. Selected to lead the U.S. women’s swim team at the 2008 Games, he marched with his countrymen as 90,000 onlookers roared between the woven steel walls of the Bird’s Nest.
“[That was] singularly the best thing I’ve ever experienced, walking behind our flag,” Bauerle said.
Versfeld swam under the banner of his native South Africa back in 2008.
This meant that unlike other Georgia Olympic representatives, including All-Americans Allison Schmitt, Kara Lynn Joyce and Gil Stovall, Versfeld couldn’t benefit directly from Bauerle’s familiar leadership on the world stage.
He still felt Bauerle’s support through brief conversations in the village and his presence during warmups and swims. These boosts helped Versfeld achieve a personal best and set the African record for the 200-meter breaststroke.
He missed competing in the final by .31 seconds.
A wide-eyed newcomer
Versfeld and Bauerle’s relationship began a few years prior to the Olympics, when one of Versfeld’s coaches in South Africa highly recommended Bauerle and his Bulldogs as a solid program to develop a breaststroker of his caliber.
Georgia’s reputation was made known to club coaches in South Africa after Bauerle recruited Sarah Poewe, an Olympic breaststroker from Cape Town who went on to swim at Georgia.
Pursuing the recommendation, Versfeld landed in Athens in January 2005, where he said it took him a couple months “with wide eyes” to find his footing in an SEC university setting.
Versfeld’s adjustment was tested almost immediately. In April 2005, the 20-year-old suffered the loss of his mother who, with his dad and sister, was still half a world away in Umhlanga, South Africa.
Bauerle and the rest of his coaches helped Versfeld navigate the double challenge of moving and coping with his mother’s passing.
“His transition was as smooth as any athlete I’ve had,” Bauerle said. “He grew up exponentially during that time.”
Versfeld spent a lot of time in South Africa once the 2005 spring semester ended. He didn’t participate in a college meet until January 2006.
To cap off a short season, Versfeld qualified for and swam in the 2006 NCAA championships, posting the eighth-fastest time in the 200-yard breaststroke.
At the same event in 2007, he had trimmed his time by 2.5 seconds and finished fourth.
Come fall 2007, Bauerle made the difficult decision to redshirt his breakout breaststroker in preparation for the Olympic trials, which conflicted with the NCAA Championships in March. But Versfeld brought the confidence he gained at the 2008 Games into his senior year at Georgia.
“His transition was as smooth as any athlete I’ve had. He grew up exponentially during that time.”
-Jack Bauerle, Georgia swimming and diving head coach
“The college system can be a challenge mentally coming from that kind of high,” Versfeld said. “But I was able to prepare myself for it, and it was great to come back and hit the ground running.”
That momentum rolled Versfeld to an individual victory in the 2009 NCAAs, where he shed three seconds and set a new record for the 200 breaststroke. He described the moment as equally palpable to his racing in the Beijing Games.
The Olympian returns
Since graduating in 2009, Versfeld has found his new niche in the coaching world.
After traversing the Atlanta club swimming scene, Versfeld earned a position as an assistant coach for Georgia Tech in 2014. But he was ready for his career to come full circle.
Bauerle, meanwhile, was aware of Versfeld’s move from the water to the pool deck. For the head coach, it was a question of when, rather than if, his former protégé would make his way back to Athens. The timing worked out when associate head coach Harvey Humphries retired in July 2019.
“I got real excited once Jack approached me and said this could be an opportunity,” Versfeld said. “No questions asked.”
By the end of July, Versfeld had been announced as the new associate head coach at Georgia.
From specific technique changes to mid-meet advice, Versfeld shares the perspective he gained from a career of consistent improvement and elite experiences with the current team.
“Harvey promised us we would get someone great to come in,” sophomore breaststroker Jack Dalmolin said. “We were really excited for that, especially the breaststrokers, because [Neil] was just amazing here.”
But it’s different now for Versfeld. He’s no longer the one in the pool.
Come meet time, Versfeld has to step back and hope his expertise translates into quality swims by his new pupils. It’s a nerve-wracking prospect for someone so used to getting the job done himself.
Bauerle’s Olympic squad won the most medals of any women’s swim team at the 2008 Summer Games. Versfeld may not have assisted in that triumph, but he remains immersed in the same liquid legacy.
“[Neil] has instant credibility,” Bauerle said. “He knows what it’s about to be really good. He knows the sacrifices it takes. I think he’s [going to] be a great coach.”