From knowing how fast to go out and what to eat to how hard to push and what to save for the finish, triathlon training can feel like tackling a 1,000-piece puzzle with a timer ticking.
But that’s the fun of life as a professional triathlete, says Natasha Van Der Merwe, a 33-year-old former professional tennis player and coach from South Africa who calls Austin home.
“There are so many pieces to put together to complete a race,” she says. “That makes the sport really fun and challenging — finding the small things you’ve done wrong. There’s always something to work on, and mixing up three sports keeps it interesting.”
Van Der Merwe, who is aiming for the Ironman World Championship in Kona in 2015, spent much of 2014 methodically testing race strategies in the grueling sport, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and 26-mile run.
At Challenge Penticton on Aug. 30, she started aggressively, going out hard in what’s been her weakest link — the swim. The plan worked well early on. She came out of the water in fourth place, just 2 minutes off the lead. She edged her way into second early in the bike leg, but things unraveled at mile 90, when three athletes zipped past. She eventually fell to seventh place, with a time of 10 hours and 11 minutes.
“Going out too hard in the beginning caught up with me,” she says. “Usually I’d never get passed on the bike.”
Still, she was happy with the result and plans to use what she learned at upcoming races. “For me it was successful in that nothing hurt,” she says. “I just got tired on the run. I didn’t blow up, but I didn’t have any extra gears.”
Van Der Merwe has eight Ironman distance triathlons under her belt. Her personal best came in Panama City, Fla., last November, when she finished in 9 hours 29 minutes. This June she placed third at Challenge Atlantic City with a 9:58.
“I want to be the best I can possibly be,” she says.
Van Der Merwe grew up in an athletic family. Her late father played on the national hockey, cricket and table tennis teams, and her mother still plays master’s tennis. Her two older sisters are athletes, too. A competitive swimmer and all-around athlete as a kid, Van Der Merwe took up tennis, playing professionally after high school. She came to the United States 12 years ago to coach tennis at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels.
At the encouragement of a friend, she entered her first triathlon in 2009, the sprint-distance Lake Pflugerville Triathlon. She won the race. Excited by her success, she cut back on coaching and entered more races, winning many of them. By the end of 2009, she was the top-ranked woman in USA Triathlon’s South Midwest Region.
She quit teaching tennis, then she and her husband, Steve White, started a gear transportation company called Tri Team Sport, helping triathletes get their bikes and other equipment to races. (They sold the company this year.) In 2010, she went pro.
During her racing career she’s faced malfunctioning electronic shifters, weather so cold her bike frosted and eyes dried out, and wayward water bottles on the course. Last month, she collided with a truck during a training ride in Austin, suffering scrapes, cuts and bruises that set back her training and forced her to nix plans to race Ironman Arizona in November.
Instead, she’s focusing on making it to the Ironman World Championship in Kona in 2015. The top 35 female triathletes in the world will be invited. To qualify, she’ll have to earn points at designated races, including Ironman Texas next May at the Woodlands.
“I would rather shoot high and go for it than not try, and I think with a well-executed race, which I am yet to do in an Ironman, and a big build once I heal, I have a shot,” she says.
Jeff Booher, who has coached Van Der Merwe for four years, says her attitude sets her apart.
“She’s not wrapped up in competing, it’s not her identity, so she’s able to give her best every day,” Booher says. “She takes victories and setbacks in a constructive way, without getting defeated. Long-term it’s really the most productive way to approach it.”
She’s disciplined and meticulously tracks her training, which takes 25 to 30 hours a week. “I think she’s just scratching the surface of her ability,” says Booher, the founder of TriDot Training System, an online training program. “From an endurance athlete standpoint, she’s just getting started.”
Faith plays a big role in Van Der Merwe’s life, too, and she races for the Tri4Him elite team.
“We use our triathlon to glorify God and be outward about our faith,” she says. “That’s a big purpose for my racing. I quit tennis too soon, but now I’m using the gifts God has given me.”
She’s sponsored by Bicycle World, a Houston-based bike shop, and the Texas Beef Council, too. She also believes in the power of coffee (especially if it’s from 7-Eleven), and loves watching football and playing poker.
When she’s not training, she coaches other athletes, in person and through TriDot. Among her clients is Austin athlete Patricia Walsh, who is blind and recently won her fourth title at the 2014 USA Paratriathlon National Championships.