Lara van Niekerk stunned Olympic star Tatjana Schoenmaker to claim the 100m breaststroke title at the SA Swimming Championships in Gqeberha on Saturday.
The 18-year-old speedster reached the turn first and held on in the second 50m to touch in a lifetime best of 1:05.67 with Schoenmaker second in 1:06.06.
It’s a time that sees her second fastest in the world this year and also just .45 of a second off the time that Schoenmaker swam on her way to a silver medal in the event at the Olympics last year. Schoenmaker’s best time, however, came in the heats of the Tokyo Games where she set an Olympic record of 1:04.82.
“I was expecting a 1:05 but not that quick. I was expecting a 1:05.9 so I’m super-happy. I surprised myself and I think a lot of people in the stands,” admitted an elated Van Niekerk afterwards.
“I was really nervous before, just knowing she’s an Olympic silver medallist in the 100 and she’s always very strong coming back. I always go out fast, so I knew coming back I had to go into another gear and just try my best and keep holding on so I’m really happy.”
Even though she was swimming in the lane next to her, Van Niekerk wasn’t aware of where Schoenmaker was in relation to her.
“I actually couldn’t see her at all. I just heard everyone in the stands going crazy and I knew it must be really close. I can’t remember much of the race – I think I just had so much adrenaline,” added Van Niekerk who has now achieved World Championship and Commonwealth Games qualification times in the 50 and 100m breaststroke.
In the next instalment of the Chad le Clos v Matt Sates rivalry, it was the veteran who got the better of the young gun in the 100m butterfly, but he certainly didn’t have it easy with the Maritzburg teenager challenging him all the way. Le Clos just edged ahead in the final few metres, touching in 51.88 for his second qualification time in as many days with Sates second in 52.06.
“That was great. It was brilliant. Matt is a superstar. I was happy to get the win of course because it was quite a tight race,” said a relieved Le Clos after glancing over at the rival 12 years his junior several times during the final 50m.
“I was nervous, I knew he was coming at me because he’s been finishing like a beast the last couple of races… but I’m very happy with the win and hopefully both of us can move forward with this event... Congratulations to Matt – he’s had a phenomenal weekend.”
Another teenager making his mark on the championships, Pieter Coetzé, stunned even himself in the first leg of the 4x50m freestyle relay, swimming a blistering personal best of 22.15 seconds to claim another qualification time to add to his 50m and 100m backstroke marks.
“It was great. I didn’t expect that at all – so I’m very happy to get it. I think it might be half a second off my PB,” he said after edging out both Le Clos and Sates in that swim.
Earlier in the evening, Michael Houlie achieved a qualification time in the 50m breaststroke. Having just missed the required mark of 27.33 seconds in the morning, the US-based star reached the wall in 27.22 in the final.
“I felt really good this morning and I knew that coming so close, I could get it this evening. I just focused on staying relaxed, composed and executing,” said the University of Tennessee student.
Houlie will now have to wait to see whether he’ll be included in the World Championships team with selection criteria stating that swimmers must qualify in Olympic events – the 50m breaststroke is not one and the 21-year-old missed out in the 100m event.
Meanwhile, having already secured qualification in the 200m freestyle, Aimee Canny was looking to do the same in the 100m event. She reached the wall in 54.71 ahead of Erin Gallagher (54.73) to just miss the mark by .46 of a second.
Hannah Pearse claimed the 200, backstroke title in 2:15.78 while Rebecca Meder claimed top honours in the 200m individual medley in 2:15.01.
The men’s 800 freestyle title was won by visiting Indian swimmer Aneesh Gowda in a time of 8:14.45 with Roberto Gomes second in 8:19.10.
Swimming continues at the Newton Park swimming pool on Sunday and finishing on Monday, 11 April.
Swimmers who have achieved qualification times for the Commonwealth Games and FINA World Championships so far:
Aimee Canny (200m freestyle)
Emma Chelius (50m freestyle)
Kaylene Corbett (200m breaststroke)
Tatjana Schoenmaker (50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke)
Lara van Niekerk (50m and 100m breaststroke)
Pieter Coetzé (50m and 100m backstroke, 50m freestyle)
Michael Houlie (50m breaststroke)
Chad le Clos (100m, 200m butterfly)
Matt Sates (200m freestyle)
Pictured here: Lara Van Niekerk (above) and Chad Le Clos (below).