It took a visit from gold medal-winning Olympian Sarah Ulmer to inspire her to take up sport, but swimmer Nikita Howarth (13) is now an inspiration herself as New Zealand’s youngest ever Paralympic athlete. Nikita, who was born with a bilateral upper limb deficiency, is about to line up at the London 2012 Paralympic Olympics with swimmers more than twice her age – and the Waikato teen has cyclist Sarah to thank for it.
“She came home from school and said she wanted to get a Paralympic medal, and now we’re off,” says her proud mum Carmel from the family’s home in Cambridge. But while Sarah’s school visit ignited a spark in the then-eight-year-old, her biggest source of motivation has changed in the five years Nikita has been swimming. “Now it’s winning,” she grins.
“Winning is the best inspiration by far. I originally wanted to go to the Paralympics for cycling, but I think I’ll do three Paralympics for swimming and then switch to cycling.”
Despite her vigorous training schedule, unwavering determination and a maturity well beyond her years, Nikita is still a typical teenager – her conversation is sprinkled with an abundance of “likes”, she loves going to the mall with her friends and gets embarrassed when her mum sings her praises.
And although she’s cemented herself in the history books, Nikita, who’s currently ranked fifth in the world for the 200m individual medley, still can’t quite believe she’s a Paralympian.
“I was pretty pleased when I got the call to say I was in the team, but I’m not nervous or anything. I think I will be, but I’m not yet. I feel normal still.”
Nikita’s incredible success has come as no surprise to her family and friends. Carmel says from an early age Nikita was determined to do everything for herself. “When she was born, we expecting to be travelling the world with her swimming at age 13, but nothing has ever held her back.
“She’s no different to anyone else. She is disabled, but she’s like, ‘so what’! She can tie her own shoes – she can do anything everyone else can.”
Having no hands was never an excuse in the Howarth household. Carmel says if anything, she and her husband Steve were stricter with Nikita to make sure she could always do everything for herself. “When she was little, we didn’t do everything for her. We were actually quite hard on her to go and do it herself.
“At some points it was scary, like when she started to go down stairs, but I knew it was just her finding her way. She’s always had that huge determination and I think having limbs missing just gives you that little extra push to do everything,” says Carmel.
Nikita will have a large support crew with her in London. Her sisters Rhiannon and Astrid as well as Carmel and Steve will be sitting poolside to watch her race in the individual medley, the 50m butterfly and the 100m breaststroke – if they can all get tickets.
“We’re struggling at the moment, which is unreal when you consider the Olympic pool complex seats 17,500 people!” exclaims Carmel. With the spotlight firmly fixed on her, Nikita has found herself dealing with the odd touch of jealousy from a couple of her schoolmates.
“It is sort of annoying, one of them is really jealous. Not really in a bad way though, so it’s okay,” she says diplomatically. “We had a bit of sibling jealously early on too, but we’re all past that now,” Carmel smiles.
For now, Nikita, who is a scholarship recipient of Variety – The Children’s Charity, is focusing on her goal: winning a medal.
“We’re hoping for a medal, defi nitely,” says Carmel. “It’s within the realms of possibility, so we’re excited for that.”
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