Theo Garrun interviewed our Coach & Swimming Captain.
When St Stithians Girls College won the swimming competition and the overall winner’s trophy at the Girls' Schools Premier Interhigh gala at Ellis Park recently, it was the third time in the last four years that they did so. They missed out narrowly in 2016, but took the title in 2015 and last year, and have firmly established themselves as the top aquatic school in town.
In fact, their prowess stretches even further afield and this year they became the first school to win the swimming, diving, water polo and overall winner’s trophy at the national aquatic championships in Bloemfontein in January.
Their win there broke the stranglehold that Oranje Meisies and Durban Girls' College have had on the national festival. Oranje won it in 2016 and 2017 and before that Durban Girls College had won it 10 years in a row.
The college’s rise as a force in swimming has coincided with the tenure of Mrs Natasha Panzera as Director of Sport, and swimming coach at the school. She was appointed in 2015 and in that year Cayleigh de Sousa was in grade 9. The two of them embarked on a journey that culminated this year with Cayleigh as the captain of the most successful Saints swimming team ever, and Mr Panzera the organisational force behind it.
For Cayleigh it has taken between 10 and 15 hours a week of training, year in and year out to get to this point. “Looking back, I’m not sorry that I spent all that time and put in all that effort in the pool,” Cayligh says. “People ask swimmers why we do it, and there’s no easy answer, but it has to do with personal challenges, mental and physical, and with the rewards, which are all about constant improvement and getting to swim in the big events each year.”
Cayleigh is coached by Richard Little, resident coach at the Crusaders Club which is based at the school and, Panzera explains, most of group that represented the school at interhigh are professionally coached.“That gives us an edge, of course,” she says, “But it’s as important that the rest of the swimmers are well prepared.”
And that’s where she comes in. Panzera is a highly qualified coach and she coaches the other 25-odd swimmers who make up the squad. “We go in lean for major competitions,” she explains, “but in the regular interschool galas we enter two teams of equal strength and we want them to finish within 10 points of each other. It’s an arrangement that is popular with the girls, according to Cayleigh. “It’s amusing to see how the other schools are often confused about which are our A and B teams, but it’s also fun to race against each other, and to swim in events that we don’t usually do.”
The idea, according to Panzera, is to keep interest levels up, and to allow all the swimmers to share in the team’s success. “I think it’s part of our winning recipe,” she says. “Sure, we have the stars, but you need depth to succeed and making everyone feel important is part of that.” Her main role she says is in selection. “I manipulate the team in such a way to maximise the points that individual swimmers can earn for us. It sometimes confuses the swimmers, but it seems to be working,” she says.
Cayleigh’s sporting interest goes beyond swimming. She is an accomplished hockey player who has been in the school’s first team since she was in grade 9. “I love hockey in a different way to swimming,” she says. “As a team game, there are more laughs and interaction, and collective responsibility for the team’s performance. Swimming is an individual challenge, it’s all up to you and so the rewards when you succeed mean more.”
Panzera is a firm believer in varied sporting involvement. “There’s an argument that says divided attention prevents you from becoming a better swimmer, I believe playing another sport actually makes you better.”
It’s a philosophy that certainly works at Saints and the performance of their water polo team proves that. Panzera is part of the coaching setup there and handles the swimming technique and fitness of the players. And some of their provincial swimmers are also top water polo players.”
Cayleigh is grateful for the opportunities that the approach has provided her. “I have decided to give up swimming,” she says. “I’ll be concentrating on hockey for the school this year and next year, at varsity I’ll be playing hockey, not swimming. “I just feel that I’ve lost the passion for swimming and need to give it a break, maybe I’ll be back again one day, who knows?”
Panzera is disappointed at the decision, of course, but happy that Cayleigh is embodying the school’s philosophy of sport. “We always try to put the girl first. She must do what is best for her and we want her to become as good as she possibly can at whatever she chooses to do. Cayleigh has been a great servant of the school and a great swimming captain. If she chooses to move onto something else now, of course we support her.”
Products like Cayleigh de Sousa, with achievements over the years, and her mature take on sporting success and future challenges, shows that the philosophy is working.