By Ashley Lauretta
As a junior, Natasha Van Der Merwe was the top-ranked junior tennis player in South Africa and ranked as high as top 50 in the world before becoming a pro. Her tennis career brought her from South Africa to Texas, where she started coaching at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in New Braunfels. From there, she transitioned to the River Place Country Club where she was the head tennis coach for 8 years and eventually, discovered triathlon.
Though it may seem like an odd transition, Van Der Merwe was a natural, and won her first sprint triathlon at Lake Pflugerville in Texas. She didn’t pursue the sport more until after she met her husband—Austin-based film industry vet Steve White—who encouraged her to see where triathlon could go. Her first year as an age grouper she completed 25 races—many of which she won—so the next step was to go pro. She earned her pro card 4-5 years ago at Ironman 70.3 Kansas, and immediately immersed herself in the life of a professional triathlete.
After splitting her time running a bike transport company with her husband and racing, Natasha made the jump to training and racing full-time. That is, until she was sidelined last year after Challenge Penticton after she was hit by a car while out on a training ride in September.
With the hope of returning to racing this year in Melbourne, Van Der Merwe began swimming at the Austin Aquatic and Sports Academy (AASA) to prepare. As her coach, Aquatics General Manager—and Olympic champion—Brendan Hansen brought her on-board to work part-time at the Academy, as they wanted to give her enough time to train but couldn’t pass up having her join their staff and develop a triathlon program.
After a DNF in Melbourne and later at Ironman 70.3 Texas due to a flare-up of an old back injury from her days in tennis, Van Der Merwe is focusing her attention on rebuilding her body and growing the triathlon program at the AASA. after being drawn to the potential of what the facility could offer athletes.
The AASA is the only facility in Austin where triathletes can do all of their swim, bike and run training on-site, all in one place. Their state-of-the-art facility is complete with a 50-meter Myrtha pool, 5,500+ sq foot indoor training facility including cycling with power bikes, outdoor training spaces and an onsite running loop. With customized training based on individual athlete’s needs, workouts are very quality-driven and purposeful.
When an athlete comes to train with AASA, Van Der Merwe is sure to build out their weekly schedule so that it fits their goals and life. She wants to make sure athletes aren’t neglecting their family and careers so they can build up a consistent training plan that becomes part of the daily lifestyle. AASA works with the TriDot to build out their custom training plans, so every four weeks athletes do a benchmark fitness test to track their current fitness levels, monitor improvements and adjust their training according to athletes as individuals.
With over 35 athletes, Van Der Merwe has noticed her passion has changed from racing and personal goals to helping others reach their personal goals. Though she plans to race the 70.3 distance again in the future, it is on hold for now as she builds up the AASA program and is fully healthy again.
Since she has taken a step back from racing, what does a typical day look like for Van Der Merwe? In the summer, she is at AASA by 5:45 a.m. to coach a run or bike and sometimes do it with the athletes. At 7 a.m., she meets with athletes, gets in a workout of her own or prepares for their junior camp, which starts at 9 a.m. At 11 a.m., after coaching junior camp, she prepares for a Master’s swim workout coached by Brendan or assistant coach Nate O’Brien, which lasts until 1 p.m. Her afternoon is spent preparing workouts for the week, providing feedback and communicating with her athletes about upcoming goals and races. At 4 p.m. she will try to do a bike or run workout, if she isn’t too tired, and sometimes she will coach an evening workout from 5:45 p.m.-7 p.m. and a swim clinic from 7 p.m.-8 p.m. Weekends consist of a Saturday group bike and Sunday group run workout, or she will be out at local races cheering on athletes and spreading the word about their program at AASA.
With the support of her sponsors, including Bicycle World, Tri4Him and the Texas Beef Council, Van Der Merwe may not have made the transition from tennis to triathlon as smoothly. With faith a big part of her life, she recognizes that coaching is her calling and purpose. Van Der Merwe acknowledges that everything she has done in triathlon and racing has helped her become a better coach and relate to her athletes. Those experiences have helped shape her vision, to develop an elite atmosphere for any athlete, where they can getting focused attention from a coach in what feels like an Olympic training facility.