It seems there are few weekends in Waco that don’t have some sort of race for athletes. While the bulk are 5K and 10K races, more people are competing in marathons and triathlons, whether it’s the Miracle Match Marathon in January or the TriWaco Triathlon, which returns this July. Coming to Waco in October is an Ironman 70.3 triathlon, a truly challenging race.
For the next six months, Waco Today is partnering with Bicycle World and Waco Running Company, leading up to the Ironman 70.3, for a series of articles and insight into these endurance sports and the people who compete in them.
We start by meeting Natasha Van der Merwe, a world-class triathlete from Austin who is the Bicycle World director of team programs. She both competes and manages a team of athletes who represent Bicycle World in triathlons.
Natasha Van der Merwe is a world-class triathlete, who first excelled athletically playing tennis in her native South Africa.
Van der Merwe became a top-ranked junior player who turned professional after high school. At 18, she relocated to Germany and traveled Europe playing on the tennis circuit until she moved to the United States at age 21.
She coached at the prestigious John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels and later began coaching tennis at River Place Country Club in Austin.
Van der Merwe became a triathete almost by accident, she said, adding that she was 27 when she competed for the first time.
“A friend who loved triathlon encouraged me to do a local sprint race, and went as far as to enter me in the race, so there was no turning back after that!” Van der Merwe said. “After doing a few more races that year, I realized I was pretty good at it and wanted to see how far I could take it.
“My husband supported my decision to tone back my job of coaching tennis so that I could spend more time and energy training for triathlons. I earned my professional license by placing Top 3 at an Ironman 70.3 event just a few months later and the rest is history.”
Indeed. From 2008 to 2015, she competed in 68 triathlons, with 17 top-five finishes. She did 30 Ironman competitions with four top-10 showings in that same period.
Van der Merwe competed at TriWaco in 2015 and 2017, finishing first among females in 2015 and second in 2017.
“Prior to 2015 the race always conflicted with another race I was signed up for out of state,” she said, “and then I missed 2016 because I was eight months pregnant. I will be back again this year hoping to try to reclaim the title.
“I honestly love the venue. I love how accessible it is for athletes to get down to the race on race morning, and how easy it is for spectators to come and support their athletes. My fondest memories are of seeing my family and the team from Bicycle World cheering loudly as I pass them through the transition area.
“The swim is great because you can see spectators on the shore and bridges as you swim. The bike is flat and fast and you can see your competitors as you have many out-and-back sections. But mostly, I love the fact that you run along the river and through Cameron Park and get to finish on the Waco Suspension Bridge.”
The strongest discipline of her triathlon is the biking, she said.
“In a professional race, I typically have to work my way through the field as I am a few minutes back from the lead pack coming out of the water,” she said. “But I enjoy swimming and I am working harder than ever to change that right now, and over the last few months my run has definitely edged up to become as strong as my bike.”
Her daughter, Nadine, is now 19 months old as Van der Merwe balances her time being a mother with training and serving as director of team programs for Bicycle World.
“I schedule my days to the minute to maximize all my time, and I get help, as there is no way I could do this alone,” she said.
“Currently, my mom is here from South Africa and living with us, to help out and spend time with her granddaughter, so every evening we discuss the next day’s training and work schedule and coordinate the time where she will watch her so that I can train and work.
“We also use the child care at the gym so that I can get my swim workouts in and she can spend time with other kiddos and get that social interaction. When my mom was not with us, and if my husband was not available due to work, I was fortunate enough that good friends of mine would watch Nadine if they were available, or I would hire a nanny, so that I could get in my key longer workouts.
“Otherwise, I would do my workouts and work before she woke up, while she had her midday nap, and then once I have put her down for the night.”
Her passion for triathlons is evident.
“I could write a book about how much triathlon has improved my purpose and quality of life,” she said.
“In my late 20s I was really struggling to find my purpose, and outside of renewing my faith, triathlon established a motto that I carry with me to this day: ‘Be better than yesterday.’ I say that also sharing that there of course are always going to be bumps along the way.
“Trying to train for three different sports, I am also trying to do the little things right, like eating right, getting enough sleep, making sure I am mentally sharp for tough workouts. There is always something that I can improve upon about myself and my day ahead of me.
“I find great purpose and joy in trying to better myself every day. Not only that, but I find when I take the time to do this for myself, I am a much better at every other area of my life.”
In November, Van der Merwe became director of team programs for Bicycle World, which involves doing marketing for the company, she said.
She manages the Bicycle World Racing Team, made up of 15 professional and elite age-group athletes out of Austin, including herself.
“We try to be as much involved in the community as possible through providing free workouts and workshops for the endurance community to join us,” she said. “Our goal of that effort is to help get triathletes connected with local coaches and other triathletes, and help prepare them for their upcoming events.”
One such event is an information workshop covering race preparation, fueling tips for training and racing, and more at the new Bicycle World Waco on May 24.
She also will be the lead coach and work with the Bicycle World marketing team to help host the inaugural Waco 70.3 Camp in September, helping prepare athletes for the Ironman 70.3 race in October.
“We hope to have many more camps and clinics available to the endurance community in the near future,” she said.
Her involvement with Bicycle World grew out of her friendship with owner Todd Behringer, an endurance enthusiast himself. He was one of the first Waco residents invited to Kona, the Ironman World Championships, in 2016.
“I met him when I owned a bike transport company and transported his bike to Boulder 70.3, while trying to race as a professional triathlete as well,” she said. “After that, he gave me the wonderful opportunity to represent Bicycle World as an athlete ambassador.
“Last year the opportunity came up to do even more for the company and I jumped at the chance. They had great ideas to provide informational workshops, workouts and camps to build up, but also give back to the community.”
Van der Merwe added that Bicycle World is a great match for her.
“I am very fortunate that Bicycle World is fully supportive of my ambition to compete at a world-class level,” she said. “It’s as important to them as it is to me that my training and racing comes first, while my role as director of team programs supports that. That is what makes Bicycle World so great to work for.
“For all of us, it’s a passion we pursue and get to share, more than a job. And it truly feels like a BW Family that I get to work with. We take care of each other so we can all compete at our best whether that’s out on the course or on the show floor or in the office.”
She hopes to compete at a high level for several years to come and loves to train and race.
“I am about to be 37 and have a 19-month-old and my dreams and aspirations are as much intact as they were when I was a teenager,” she said. “I feel like it’s never too late to chase those dreams and try to figure out how you can live your life being able to do something that you are truly passionate about.”