South Africa’s Lara van Niekerk Named Swimming World Female African Swimmer of the Year

Lara van Niekerk

South Africa’s Lara van Niekerk Named Swimming World Female African Swimmer of the Year

A year ago, South Africa’s Lara van Niekerk watched as compatriot Tatjana Schoenmaker became an Olympic champion and world-record holder. A fellow breaststroker, van Niekerk—six years younger than Schoenmaker—was inspired to continue her country’s breaststroke tradition on the global level.

In 2017, she displayed her talent as a 14-year-old by winning four gold medals and a silver at the African Junior Championships. A year later at the African Championships, she won gold in all three of her breaststroke races, plus the medley relay.

She got her first taste of international competition at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Budapest, Hungary, placing fourth, 20th and 30th in her three individual events.

The 2022 season, however, turned out to be her breakout year.

It started with a win over Schoenmaker in the 50 breast at the South Africa National Championships in April, followed by another gold medal in the 100 breast. Then, after turning 19 in May, she had stellar performances at the World Championships in June and Commonwealth Games at the end of July and beginning of August, which led to her being named Swimming World’s 2022 Female African Swimmer of the Year.

She won the bronze medal in the 50 breaststroke at Worlds (29.90) and was the gold medalist in the 50 and 100 breaststroke (29.73, 1:05.47) at the Commonwealth Games, finishing the year with the world’s No. 3 ranking in both events and a Commonwealth Games record in the 50 breast.

Winning a medal at Worlds was something she didn’t expect, especially after having her appendix removed.

“A medal means so much more to me after everything I’ve been through in the past two months,” van Niekerk posted on Instagram. “I unfortunately had to have my appendix removed after contracting acute appendicitis nine weeks ago…and then contracting a lung infection shortly after that has definitely challenged me physically and mentally—more than I had thought it did. But I have the best support system, and that kept me going. Thank you to everyone who supported me and showed me so much love.”

Her signature race came in the Commonwealth Games where she defeated Schoenmaker head-to-head in the 100 breaststroke to claim gold. It was a spectacular finish for South Africa and a race where van Niekerk proved she could beat the best in the world. When she touched the wall and saw she had won, van Niekerk tilted her head back and looked up in astonishment: “Double Commonwealth champion…and I couldn’t be happier!”

In addition to her long course accomplishments, she also turned in an impressive showing at the South Africa Short Course Championships in August. She swept the breaststroke races (29.62, 1:04.89, 2:22.75) to qualify in all three events for the 2022 World Short Course Swimming Championships. In Melbourne, van Niekerk was the silver medalist in the 50 breast and placed fifth in the 100 breast.

Long course and short course—and in all three breaststroke distances—van Niekerk has proven that she can thrive on the world’s stage…and possibly even join Schoenmaker on the highest stage of the sport—the Olympic podium.

1. LARA VAN NIEKERK, South Africa (10) 53
2. Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa 44
3. Farida Osman, Egypt (1) 28
4. Kaylene Corbett, South Africa 24
5. Erin Gallagher, South Africa 16
(First-place votes in parentheses)

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