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From the moment Nikita Howarth saw Sarah Ulmer's Olympic gold medal, she knew she wanted one for herself.
The champion Kiwi cyclist brought her 2004 goody to an assembly at then 8-year-old Nikita's school, which kick-started the youngster on the path to sporting success.
"I was really excited to see it and I thought maybe one day I could get one, and so I decided to try and achieve that," Nikita, who turned 15 on Christmas Eve, said.
That day, the youngster came home from school and immediately jumped on her bike, riding around and around for hours, as she created a dirt track on the family lawn amid her eagerness to become the world's best.
"I kind of wanted to start cycling but then someone said swimming is a young [person's] sport, so do swimming first then go into cycling, so I'm pretty sure I'm going to do that."
After becoming New Zealand's youngest ever Paralympian in 2012, Nikita then won gold and bronze at the the world swimming championships in Canada in August, making big strides towards her dream of medalling at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, while also being nominated for a Halberg Award in the Disabled Sportsperson of the Year category.
Howarth was born with bilateral upper limb deficiency, meaning she has no hands, but it's something which she quickly became accustomed to.
"It's not that hard, because everyone just takes me as a normal person and I kind of do everything myself unless I really need help and am struggling," said Nikita, who ties her own shoelaces and has neater handwriting than some of her class-mates.
When she started swimming, because of her strong kick, Howarth wasn't much slower than her mates. Now she is up there with the world's best in her classification.
At the world champs, Howarth was the fifth fastest qualifier in the women's 50m butterfly S7 but managed to place third; then, having been the fastest qualifier in the 200m individual medley SM7, she managed to back that up in the final by holding on for a win by 0.34 seconds.
"I didn't really know that I'd actually done it," Howarth recalled. "I was trying to process it, I was looking at the board and I was like 'Wow, I actually did it?' And I was like 'Oh my gosh I actually got a gold medal. Yeah!'
"It was pretty cool. When we walked through the airport everyone was cheering for us and I had two big heavy medals around my neck and I felt pretty proud, and everyone was coming to give me hugs."
Being a world champion makes all the sacrifices worthwhile.
Nikita's mum, Carmel, said watching her daughter at the medal ceremony on live stream was "the most surreal feeling you'd ever believe" and was worth the massive $1600 monthly petrol bill which the family forked out running three kids to various games and training sessions.
Nikita's daily grind sees her and a parent rise just after 5am, head from their Roto-O-Rangi house into Cambridge for a 6am-7.30am training, before Nikita goes to school (she will be year 11 this year at Cambridge High).
After school she walks to the pool for a 4pm-6pm training, before getting home, having dinner, perhaps slipping in a bit of homework before bed, to do it all again the next day. That happens Monday to Friday, with more training on Saturday morning.
Carmel said the mental toughness shown by her daughter was key to her success.
"If you haven't got the top two inches you're not going to succeed.
"The funny thing is she's always had that determination, even when she was a little kid trying to do things. If you tried to help her, she'd pull her stumps away and wouldn't let you."
Next on the agenda for Nikita is the two-day NSW Open in February, before she tries to qualify in the 200IM for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July.
But she needs to slash her time because host countries decide which classifications will be swum, and with no SM7 Howarth will have to swim up a class in SM8, against swimmers which may have one full arm.
"I'm not sure if I'll make it, but hopefully I will," she said.
"[I'm] not trying to focus on the medals too much because that'll just put me off and everyone will beat me to it, so [I'll] just focus on my own time, everything that I'm trying to achieve."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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