Lara van Niekerk: A closer look at SA’s newest swimming sensation

After making an explosive start at the Commonwealth Games, teenager Lara van Niekerk will be targeting gold when she lines up alongside compatriots Tatjana Schoenmaker and Kaylene Corbett in the 50m breaststroke final in Birmingham on Saturday night (8.12pm SA time).

ALSO READ: Lara van Niekerk carries record-breaking form into Games final

While she is still only 19, however, Van Niekerk is no rookie and her performances this week have hardly been surprising, following her rapid climb over the last year.

We take a closer look at the country’s latest swimming sensation.

Record setter

Van Niekerk’s record-breaking exploits did not begin this week.

Last season, she broke the African short-course 50m breaststroke record, touching the wall in 29.85 at the SA Short-Course Championships in Pietermaritzburg, and she went on to set a new long-course continental 50m mark of 29.88 at the Northern Tigers Championships in Pretoria in December.

At the national championships in Gqeberha in April, she broke her own long-course record, stopping the clock at 29.72.

Stunning upsets

Van Niekerk’s 50m and 100m gold medals at this year’s national championships were made even more impressive by the quality of the opposition she beat.

In the 50m final, she clocked 30.60 to finish 0.27 ahead of 200m breaststroke world record holder Schoenmaker, who is a longer-distance specialist but remains nippy in the sprint event.

Tatjana Schoenmaker and Lara van Niekerk
Lara van Niekerk (right) and 200m breaststroke world record holder Tatjana Schoenmaker. Picture: Getty Images

In the 100m final in Gqeberha, she again beat Schoenmaker (this time by 0.39), setting a personal best of 1:05.67.

At the Commonwealth Games, she proved this was no fluke, qualifying quicker than Schoenmaker and Olympic 200m finalist Corbett for the sprint final this weekend.

World class

The first South African woman to break 30 seconds in the 50m breaststroke, Van Niekerk’s most recent national record saw her soaring up the all-time world rankings earlier this year.

Her time of 29.72 was just 0.42 outside the world record held by Italian swimmer Benedetta Pilato, and only five women have ever gone quicker than the South African prodigy.

In Birmingham this week, she displayed her top-flight potential once again by breaking the Commonwealth Games record in the heats (29.82) and semifinals (29.80).

Chasing medals

Though she is relatively new to the senior ranks, Van Niekerk is already a proven championship performer.
She bagged five medals (including four gold) at the 2017 African Junior Championships in Cairo, at the age of 13, and the following year she secured four golds at the African Championships in Algiers, competing against senior opposition.

At the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest earlier this month, she showed her impressive BMT once again by grabbing the bronze medal in the 50m breaststroke final.

Looking good in the early stages of her Commonwealth Games campaign, she looks set to add to her international medal haul during the six-day gala in Birmingham.

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