Keeping afloat

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Photo: Simon Watts | www.bwmedia.co.nz

Cambridge teenager Nikita Howarth is just 17 years old but spends close to 20 hours a week in the pool, training. Add to this the pressures of school work, keeping fit and healthy, and gym training, and it is an intense timetable. Her parents and the team around her are credited with helping keep her afloat.

Nikita Howarth put herself and New Zealand firmly on the global swimming map when she became the youngest New Zealand paralympian to compete at the London Paralympics. Aged just 13 at the time, she finished sixth in the SM7 200 Individual Medley final against the best in the world, and swimming a class above her normal level.

She has since gone on to achieve a rainbow of accolades, winning gold, silver and bronze at the 2014 Pan Pacific Champs and breaking the world record short course S7 100m Fly  in a time of 1:20.92.
Nikita is the current world champion in the SM7 200 Individual Medley and ranked number one in the world for the IM and S7 50 Fly.

The talented and dedicated para swimmer is now focused on the New Zealand Open Champs this month (April) where she’s aiming to qualify for the 2015 Para World Swimming Champs (Glasgow) to defend her title. Long-term, she has her sights set on Olympic Gold.

Swimming is a sport where there are no shortcuts. It involves hours of time in the water, relentlessly swimming lengths, honing technique and improving fitness and stamina. It is not for the faint hearted. It also requires support from those around you.

For Nikita, her swim training is very much a family affair. Based near Cambridge, she trains at Te Awamutu pools nine times a week. Her parents and grandparents share the travel time, but there’s no escaping the amount of commitment involved to ensure Nikita gets to training. All this before she even hits the water.

“Having a high performance athlete in the family at such a young age does alter the dynamics of family life,” admits mum Carmel. “Our alarm goes off every weekday at 5.10am so we can drive Nikita to the pool.  We then drive her back out to Roto-o-Rangi to catch the bus as she eats breakfast in the car.

“Every afternoon except Monday, we drive to school and pick her up and take her to Te Awamutu again.  On gym days, we drive her to the Avantidrome.”

Every third weekend, Carmel or husband Steve drive Nikita to Auckland for weekend training, which involves rearranging their work to suit.

“We are both self-employed so this is do-able.  However as well, we also have to ensure she is keeping up at school and eating well.  I act in some ways as her manager, spending hours sorting out meetings, planning her schedule, etc so she can concentrate on training and school,” said Carmel.

Siblings Astrid and Rhiannon also play sport competitively, although Rhiannon is more independent, since recently getting her restricted driver’s licence.  Last year she made the finals at the NZAMD Scholarship weekend for Hip Hop. She does jazz, hip hop and contemporary dance and also teaches some classes for Carmen, who owns Dynamix Dance School in Cambridge.

Astrid is an accomplished footballer and plays for the Cambridge Women’s A team, the Cambridge High School 1st XI and the Waibop U15 FTC squad.

Nikita is hugely grateful for the team around her and is committed to continue achieving. She started competing in swimming when she was about six, wanting to be involved in everything her older sisters were doing.

“Mum was approached by Malcolm Humm of Paralympics New Zealand at the Taranaki Independence Games in 2009. He asked us to put in an application to become part of the Talent ID Programme called Excellerate to Excellence, and even though I was actually below the age required, I was accepted into the programme,” says Nikita.

She hasn’t looked back, continuing to impress in the water and is determined to keep improving. Steve Hay (Te Awamutu Club coach) and Jon Shaw (PNZ head coach) are just part of the wider team around her success.

Nikita was born with a bilateral upper limb deficiency (both her arms end below the elbow and she has no hands). She has an artificial limb which she uses at school so she can write.

With swimming her number one priority, Nikita takes four subjects at Cambridge High School which gives her a spare period in her timetable.

“I use this time to catch up on stuff that I’ve missed or that’s when mum schedules appointments I need.

“I’m also grateful for the support of the school principal and deputy principal, Phil McCreery and John McDonnell.”

Swimming may be an individual sport once you are in the water, but there is no denying the importance of the team on the sidelines.

“A lot of people have contributed to my success including my coaches, parents and Paralympics NZ. I have a whole support team behind me and they are Steve (coach), John (Head PNZ coach), Caleb Dobbs (gym trainer), Megan Munro (physio), Cath Fouhy (nutrionist), Rod Corban (psychologist), Karin Adelinger-Smith (athlete life advisor), Jodi Cosser (technique filming) and mum (as my manager).

“It is only through them that I can focus on swimming and achieving.”

Train hard or go home – Five minutes with nikita howarth

What was your biggest learning curve at your first ever competition representing New Zealand?
People will do whatever it takes to knock you down.

How did you feel when winning your medals?
Amazing. It was very rewarding and it makes all the sacrifices worthwhile.

Who are your sporting heroes/idols and why?
Cam Leslie – because he is humble and he wins Gold medals.

What are three of the most important things you have learned through swimming?
–    You get out what you put in
–    Really good time management skills
–    You have to make sacrifices for  your sport

What other sport would you like to pursue and why?
I would like to try cycling and become a para cyclist when I retire from the pool.  Sarah Ulmer came to Roto-o-Rangi Primary School after winning her Olympic Gold medal – which she brought to show us.  From that day onward, I wanted to ride and of course win a gold medal.

How important is the gym and what areas are you currently working on?
Building strength and power and core stability to help with the speed of the blocks and the ability to maintain a strong kick which is very important for me.

Photo Simon Watts | www.bwmedia.co.nz

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