Hendrik van der Merwe is a mere 17 years old, but the accumulated gold in his trophy cupboard is more than most people twice his age would have collected.
Hendrik is one of South Africa’s brightest new swimming talents. Presently he lives at the TUKS High Performance Sports Centre in Pretoria. It is here that he is training for Beijing.
Born with Spina Bifida, Hendrik attended the local country school near to where his family live, and still live today. It’s an area about 60 km from Nylstroom and not far from Warm Baths. He stayed there up to grade 7 and then went to Hope School in Johannesburg.
“I started swimming in 2004 while I was attending, and boarding at, Hope School. It was really just an activity to get me out of the hostel and to keep me occupied.”
Hendrik realised after a short while that he really enjoyed the swimming and when Dea Slattery, his coach, began entering him into competitions he fell in love with the sport. To be more competitive and professional he moved to the performance centre last year.
“At Hope School we could only train once a week or so,’ says Hendrik. “Transport was often a problem, so if I wanted to compete I had to move. My parents and I made the decision that I come to the performance centre. My parents are wonderful; they support me totally. They drive me around and buy my sporting equipment.”
Being at the performance centre has certainly paid off. “I have improved so much, and gained so much distance in the pool. I also follow a diet in conjunction with my training. The facilities are naturally fantastic – both the pool and the gym,’ says Hendrik.
“I follow a strict training programme here. I start swimming everyday from 05:30 until eight. Then I attend school with all the other athletes from the centre from 09:30 to 15:00. From 15:30 till 16:45 I am in the gym and then from five to seven in the evening it is swimming training again.
“We don’t swim on Wednesday mornings as we have split sets in the afternoons. We also train on a Saturday but then it is only for one session in the morning.” He concedes, however, that in the holidays, his programme is a bit more relaxed. His main competitive swimming strokes are freestyle and backstroke. Distances for both are the 50 m and the 100 m.
“My first competition was in Boksburg and, although my time was not very good, I qualified for South African Schools later that year in Cape Town.”
Cape Town was an eye opener for Hendrik and a motivation. “I loved the competition and meeting all the other athletes. I also won a bronze and this certainly spurred me on to take my swimming to a higher level.”
By living and training at the performance centre he has certainly done that. Recently Hendrik won six gold medals and two silver medals at the World Junior Games held in Germiston together with the Nedbank South African Championships.
“I won silver in the relays and then gold for the 50 m and 100 m freestyle, the 50, 100 and 400 m breaststroke and the 50 m butterfly.” What is most important about this is that Hendrik has qualified for the 400 m breaststroke for Beijing. “I am very excited, but I am also working hard to try to qualify for the 400 freestyle.”
And he really would like to go to Beijing. “I would love to go to Beijing, not only to compete, but to see the pool. I believe it is built in a unique way so that it looks like a block of water. I also would like to be part of the atmosphere and meet all the athletes.”
Beijing will not be the first time that Hendrik gets to experience and race against international competition. He also swam in the IPC World Championships in Durban last year. It was there that he first saw what the top international swimmers were like. In Durban he qualified for the final in the 100 m breaststroke at the event and, given the level of competition, was pleased with his performance.
Hendrik’s role model is veteran Paralympic swimming champion Tadhg Slattery, a multiple gold medal winner. “He used to coach me when I was at Hope School with Dea. I am hoping he will continue to coach me after he retires.”
Because of his involvement with Tadhg, he would like to see more swimmers recognised by the public. “Take Tadhg for example. He has swum in six Olympic Games and he is going to Beijing despite the fact that he is probably a bit older than other swimmers. He is my inspiration. He is so passionate about his sport that I would like to see him recognised by the general public for the great athlete he is.”
Tadhg and Hendrik still sms each other regularly.
2008 is not only an important year for Hendrik because it is the Olympics; it is also his final year at school. Hendrik is presently in grade 11 and with only one year of school left, what plans does he have for the future?
“I am not sure about my studies, but perhaps I will study something related to the IT field. Swimming wise I definitely want to carry on swimming. I would like to try to get a bursary and go to study and swim in the United States. We recently attended a two-week training camp in Tucson, Arizona. We also competed in a gala, but just for experience. It was wonderful. The facilities are amazing. It is also very wheelchair friendly.”
But it is not all training and more training. Hendrik laughs, “I do go out with my friends. We go to movies and to Menlyn, a mall in Pretoria not too far from here. I have a good friend Donovan who is also in a wheelchair. He plays basketball. He does not live here so I go visit him as well.”
Hendrik can be seen in action in September at the next SA Short Course competition.