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31 July 2019

Nathania van Niekerk
F-Teamer Nathania pulls off two massive events back to back: World Champs and World Uni Games.

Coming off a stellar performance at South African Nationals in April, Pretoria-based F-Teamer Nathania van Niekerk just swam in two of the biggest competitions of her career - back to back. A backstroke specialist, she was one of a few elite swimmers to compete at both the World University Games in Naples, Italy (4-10 July) and the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea (21-28 July).

"I was definitely super nervous," van Niekerk said about taking on both meets within a span of 3 weeks. "I had no idea what to expect."

Her approach was to train through World Uni Games in order to peak at World Championships. In Naples, this played out reasonably well: she was 0.58 off her personal best in the 50m backstroke (30.10, placed 25th) and only 0.17 off her best in the 100m backstroke (1:02.27, placed 15th).

In her specialty event, the 200m backstroke, she placed 6th in the heats with a time of 2:12.77, and 12th in the semifinal with a 2:13.81. Though slightly off her personal best of 2:11.37 from Nationals, her 100m split of 1:04.52 was 2 tenths of a second under her pace from that meet. Such opening speed is impressive considering she was not fully rested.

Nathania van Niekerk
After putting herself through the paces, Nathania's now focusing on qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

At Worlds, van Niekerk placed 26th with a time of 2:13.37. She was out even faster to the 100 - 1:04.46 - but was unable to hold on, closing in 34.89. "Even though I wasn't happy with my end time, I was still really happy about how I went into the race and how I did it mentally," she explained. "I was really proud of that."

In the bigger picture, a 2:13 is still a solid performance for van Niekerk. To begin with, the turnaround between competitions was grueling. "Unfortunately because of all the traveling and racing my body didn't react well to the taper we had planned after Italy," she said. "It took me about a week to fully adjust to the time difference."

Moreover, van Niekerk's performances in the past few months cap off a powerful story of resilience and self-belief. In 2016, she missed the Olympic qualifying standard in the 200 back by less than a second, posting a 2:11.53 at just 17 years old. Two years later, she was nearly 5 seconds slower, missing the 2018 Commonwealth Games semi-final after a disappointing heats time of 2:16.07. This year, she achieved personal bests in all three backstroke events at Nationals, and she was not far from those times in Naples and Gwangju.

"My world champs qualification came as such a surprise this year," van Niekerk said. "The fact that I am so close to that Olympic qualifying time now has really pushed me in the right direction." The Olympic A qualifying standard in the 200m backstroke is now a 2:10.39, only 0.98 below her best. This puts her in excellent position going into 2020, especially considering the world-class racing experience she has recently accrued.

"I've definitely learnt a lot about my body and how it reacts to such pressure over a long period of time. I know that there is so much I can still improve on, and I'm super excited to get back into training and work as hard as I can until next year."

South Africa's Olympic trials will take place at the National Championships next April.

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