Paralympic swimmer Nikita Howarth still coming to grips with gold medal success
Nikita Howarth could hear her mother's voice yelling from the grandstand as she powered home to achieve a long-held dream of a Paralympics gold medal.
Twelve years after the glitter of Sarah Ulmer's gold inspired her to reach the top in her own sport, Howarth will return to Cambridge with a matching golden glow after a marvellous performance in the pool at Rio.
After rounding out her campaign on Thursday (NZ time) with a seventh in the breaststroke SB8, the 17-year-old was still struggling to come to terms with what she had achieved at the event. After plenty of hard work over the first three lengths, Howarth was a comfortable winner, almost five seconds ahead of her nearest rival, in the 200m individual medley SM7 on Wednesday (NZ time), which followed up her bronze in the 50m butterfly S7 the day prior.
"I'm pretty stoked, eh, coming away with two medals," she said. "It all seems a bit unreal to me. I hope some time soon I'll feel like I've actually won a gold medal.
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"It still hasn't really sunk in yet, it's still so overwhelming."
Standing atop the podium, singing the New Zealand national anthem, draped in gold, was a feeling like absolutely no other.
"Definitely such a special moment," she said. "You can't trade it for anything. I had tears in my eyes. I was really proud for New Zealand, and just so stoked I had achieved my goals."
Howarth had her mum, dad and grandma over in Rio supporting her, and she said they were screaming from the sideline the whole time, with that familiar voice of her mum, Carmel, helping drive her to the finish.
"She kept yelling when I was racing," Howarth said. "Just because she's got a really loud voice and I always hear her, so just to make sure that I heard her. And I did.
"And they were crying when I got my medal, so it was a pretty emotional time for them as well."
It was at a school assembly in 2004 when a visit by Olympic cycling champion Ulmer planted the idea in Howarth's head that she too wanted to win gold.
That day, Howarth went home from school and jumped on her bike, riding for hours, messing up the front lawn as she set about becoming a top cyclist. Then someone mentioned swimming was a sport suited for the young, so she set about the pool, with the idea that cycling could be an option down the track.
Howarth was born with bilateral upper limb deficiency, meaning she has no hands. And it's something which she quickly became accustomed to. She ties her own shoelaces and has neater handwriting than some of her peers. And when she started swimming, because of her strong kick, she wasn't much slower than her mates.
At the tender age of 13, she got a very early taste of the Paralympics in London, competing in three events, including making the final and finishing sixth in the medley event that she went on to win in Rio. In between times she enjoyed gold medal success in that event at both the 2013 and 2015 world championships (held biennially), with bronze then gold in her butterfly event.
She's a mentally tough kid, Howarth. Not many teenagers could keep up with a Monday to Friday which involved a 5am rise, 6am-7.30am training, a full day of school, then a walk to the pool for 4pm-6pm training. Throw in more training on Saturday morning, homework and a social life, and it's been full on for her and a family which regularly racked up a $1600 monthly petrol bill in running three kids around.
Howarth has this year been living in Auckland on and off, finishing up at Cambridge High School in Year 12 to focus more on swimming.
And it's been all worth it.
"It's pretty cool touching first on the wall, it's nothing like any other experience I've ever had," she said.
"The likes of Sophie Pascoe and all that, it's just amazing seeing all of them get a gold medal and then I can finally as well, just join in. It just feels like I've achieved so much."
Howarth plans to spend the next few months in Cambridge and decide what's next on her agenda. The one date looming large is December 24 - her 18th birthday.
"I can't wait, it's going to be so exciting."