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Rachel Smith in the pink after Midmar sprint

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When the top 10 women swimmers in the 14 to 30 age category crossed the finish line at the Midmar Mile in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this month, the race’s commentators were doffing their hats to Rachel Smith.

The King David High School Linksfield (KDHSL) matric student was the lone orange-capped swimmer among nine pink-capped swimmers who were the favourites for the top 10. The commentators expressed surprise that a swimmer from the nearly 1 000 swimmers with slower seeding times was going stroke-to-stroke with the likes of Michelle Weber, who competed at the 2016 Olympics. “The commentators had no idea who Rachel was,” her dad, Alan, says. “It got her noticed by a lot of people because it was sort of an anomaly.”

Rachel came into the race seeded 11th in her category and should actually have been wearing a pink cap allocated to those ranked in the top 20. However, she unfortunately didn’t receive an SMS sent to the top-20 ranked swimmers telling them to go to the VIP [very important persons] tent and wait there for the race.

The 20 pink-capped swimmers have a massive advantage, Alan says. Rachel and her sister, Gabriella, started the race in the dam in a crowd of nearly 1 000 swimmers, but the pink-capped swimmers were able to dive off a raised platform with clear water in front of them. “The 20 pink caps get to swim on the fastest part of the lake because it’s a straight swim to the finish,” Alan says. “Historically, that’s where your top 10 comes from.”

However, Rachel had never worn a pink cap before, and the orange cap made the day more special for her, says her dad. “It didn’t deter her. It motivated her.”

Rachel says it felt good to finish tied for fifth place, with a time of just more than 23 minutes for the 1.6km race. “I didn’t expect it because I swam with an orange cap,” she says.

Gabriella, in Grade 10 at KDHSL, finished 50th in the 14 to 30 age group with a time of just less than 27 minutes. Last week, she and Rachel were selected for the Central Gauteng Aquatics team after meeting the qualifying times for the South African Nationals. “I qualified for the 3km and 1.5km swim,” Rachel says. “Gabby qualified for the 1.5km swim.” They will be representing Gauteng at the South African National Open Water Championships in Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape in March.

Alan’s youngest daughter, 12-year-old Romy, in Grade 7 at King David Sandton, came 18th overall in the 13 and under category at Midmar.

The sisters train under the tutelage of Dean Price, who has coached the likes of 13-time Paralympic gold medallist Natalie du Toit. “I swim about five days a week,” says Rachel, who also swims for her school. “Sometimes I go to morning training, and then I’ll leave out the afternoon to study, but I find swimming is where I’m free and it takes away the stress from all the work.”

When the sisters go to gym, their parents come and swim with them. “My wife and I were never major swimmers, we just sort of had it as a lifestyle,” Alan says. “We liked open water and swimming in general. Rachel started as a baby. She loved it from Moms and Tots. She started competitive swimming aged nine. Because Rachel was there, the other two were there as well. Romy started around age eight.

“People ask, ‘How do you get time for all this?’ But it’s better than sitting on TikTok and this and that. The people they’ve met from different communities outside of their normal school are lifelong friends who have gone through ups and downs with them. Swimming is a lifestyle, a healthy one. It definitely adds to discipline. They’re all straight-A students too.”

In addition to being selected for Central Gauteng Aquatics, Rachel was selected for the South African National Junior Championships, which was held a week later in Durban, but this time in the pool.

“I just want to carry on swimming and see how it goes. Maybe do a scholarship,” Rachel says.

For now, the Smiths are taking pride in her Midmar swim. “Rachel came into the race seeded 11th because she’s been doing extremely well over the past year,” Alan says. “Last year, she finished as the 23rd female in her age category. In the past six months, she’s won quite a few open water seeding events or has come in the top three.”

Rachel’s aim was just to swim across the dam and do the best she could. She says the water was choppy, but she had practiced in that kind of water.

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