American superstar Ryan Lochte and Samantha Labuschagne.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
Shelly Beach swimming sensation Samantha Labuschagne enhanced her reputation at the Barcelona and Monaco legs of the Mare Nostrum Series recently.
A tour of firsts materialised into an unforgettable experience and the ultimate learning curve for the teenage Blue Ocean Aquatics swimmer.
The prospect of competing against world champions and Olympic gold medallists in your maiden Mare Nostrum Series is the dream of many swimmers around the world.
For Labuschagne, that dream came true as the only South Coast swimmer in the KwaZulu-Natal elite team and coincided with her 16th birthday.
A fortnight on foreign soil (for the first time) saw “Super Sam” as she’s affectionately known swim in her first major international final, meet superstars and even rub shoulders with Prince Albert and Princess Charlene.
“I found the traveling to be very difficult and strenuous and very tiring, especially having to wait 11 hours for a connecting flight.
“Coming into Barcelona, I was very overwhelmed. I wasn’t used to traveling such a far distance and racing the next day,” she said.
Jetlag wasn’t the only challenge staring the teenager in the face once she touched down in Barcelona.
The format of the Mare Nostrum Series sees fast heats being held in the morning and slow heats in the afternoon, the opposite to the majority of meets in South Africa.
“It was well structured but also very different. Luckily, all my races were put in the fast heats,” she said.
The series also uses the latest high-performance equipment – equipment completely foreign (literally and figuratively) to Labuschagne.
“They had different starting blocks and for backstroke, they had an extra support bar that was attached to the starting block, which was very new to me.
“It was my first race and the first time using the backstroke bar, so in that respect it took a while for me to get used to the new equipment, but to actually swim in the Mare Nostrum Series was surreal.”
The 16-year-old placed 38th overall in the 100m backstroke and 58th overall in the 50m freestyle on Day One and followed it up with a 28th place overall in the 50m backstroke and 57th overall in the 100m freestyle on Day Two.
It was a solid debut all-round, but Labuschagne felt she could’ve performed better.
“The competition was very stiff and I was very nervous going into the last leg because the first meet didn’t go as I would’ve liked it to go.”
The added sense of urgency served her well in Monaco, where she had to adapt her approach again.
“They didn’t swim the 50s as a ‘real’ event; they were all swum after the morning session and then went into different rounds called ‘dash for cash,’” she explained.
Here, she lived up to her “Super Sam” moniker, swimming brilliantly in each of her 200m backstroke heats to qualify for the B Final, where she finished 16th overall.
“Making the B Final was definitely the highlight of the trip,” she said.
“I was very excited to be able to compete against the top 16 in the world. It was very exciting and an absolute privilege to swim with the likes of Kirsty Coventry and Katinka Hosszú.”
She capped her maiden series with a 26th place overall in both the 50m and 100m backstroke and 34th place overall in both the 50m and 100m freestyle.
“My performance was much better than in Barcelona, but I still feel that I have a long way to go,” she said.
“The experience I gained and being able to compete with the top swimmers in the world at such a high level was phenomenal.
“Probably the greatest lesson I learned on this trip was that in order to beat the best, you need to train as if you’re the best.
“I fully understand how much more I need to do in order to achieve my end goal of being a successful world-class swimmer and to make sure my technique is 100 percent perfect because the technical work of the swimmers at that level is faultless.”
In addition to competing against some of the biggest names in women’s swimming, Labuschagne also had the opportunity to meet a number of men’s stars including 11-time Olympic medallist Ryan Lochte and ended the tour on a royal note.
“It was awesome to meet the top swimmers. They were all very supportive, very welcoming and very friendly.
“We had the princess’s ball on the last evening of the event, which was very exciting too because the Prince and Princess attended the ball as well as all the famous Olympians.”
Labuschagne concluded by thanking her parents, her long-time coach at Blue Ocean Aquatics, Mandy Koegelenberg, and the Carthew family for their support.